Tuesday, March 6, 2012

In response to Jane Espenson

Deep breath.

So, I'm going to do something really scary here and wade in to a conversation with the bigwigs. Namely, Jane Espenson, an exceptional screenwriter who's right up there with Joss Whedon in my affections, and the writer of the Eve's Apple blog, who I had never encountered before today but who gets great credit from me for the Ani Difranco quote under the picture on her blog.

Ms. Espenson argues, quite compellingly (and correctly) that there is a need for more women in the screenwriting business. She then goes on to say, however, that aspiring women writers do themselves no favors by arguing that the reason we need more women on Hollywood writing staffs is because they can better write strong female characters or more compellingly provide a female perspective. This argument, she says, is not only demonstrably false (with the examples of Mr. Whedon's Buffy and Ron Moore's Starbuck, from the most excellent Battlestar Galactica, provided as proof. I would add Chris Carter's Agent Scully and J.J. Abrams' Olivia Dunham to the roster, among others.) but potentially makes it less likely that a woman will get hired for a screenwriting job. After all, if the only purpose a female writer serves that can't be served by a male writer is to provide a "female perspective," then why would any showrunner hire more than one woman on a writing staff?

I basically agree with this. I do not think that a person being of one gender (or race, religion, sexual orientation, etc.) necessarily translates into an inability to write the other gender (or another race, religion, sexual orientation, etc.) well. I have heard this argument before and I reject it every time. Like so many things in life, it comes down to the person.

This is the second time in my life I wanted to be a writer (in my case, a novelist, not screenwriter). Like so many other aspiring writers, I shelved that dream for a while when I realized that my writing, frankly, sucked. In between my two periods of aspring writer-dom, I did something many fantasy writers do -- I played, and ran, so many roleplaying games that they practically oozed out my eyes. In the process, I GMed for, and played with, several people who liked to play characters of the opposite gender. (Usually it was men playing women, but sometimes the reverse.) I found that some who attempted the task of playing an opposite-gender character did so very well, while others were simply wretched. (In a few cases, I wanted to say to the player in question, "Please. Stop. Never again.")

Certainly writing opposite-gender characters poses an additional challenge (even if men's and women's brains are biologically exactly the same, we're socialized differently), but like most challenges, it is a surmountable one. There are all sorts of ways to learn to write opposite gender characters. Perhaps the most obvious one -- interact with the opposite gender. If you want to know the secrets of how (wo)men think, spend some time talking to them. Ask them about their lives and how they handled situations.

You could also try watching shows with strong opposite-gender characters. I find this a less awesome way to do things, however, because then you run the risk that your own characters will simply be  "clones" of what came before. That's less creatively fulfilling for you and runs the risk of attracting a copyright infringement lawsuit (and I'm a lawyer, I would know).

The third way is the way you get better at anything: practice. In the roleplaying games I played in and ran, I deliberately shied away from playing opposite-gender characters because I was sure I was bad at it. So, not wanting to elicit a "Please. Stop. Never again." from the other people at the gaming table, I didn't do it. Then, when I decided I wanted to take back up the authorial mantle, I knew I would have to do it -- worlds with no women aren't particularly realistic, and I don't want to write that way, anyway. So I forced myself to write them often.

It's no accident that both of the point-of-view characters in The Weaver Saga are female -- and not only that, they have strikingly different personalities. Women aren't Cylons (nor are men), there aren't many copies, and to be a truly effective writer of opposite-gender characters, you need to learn to write them in all their complexity. It's also no accident that while the main protagonist of Atticus for the Undead, Hunter Gamble, is male, both his colleague Kirsten and their assistant Sabrina (who just might be a teenage witch) are female.

So, Jane, I would actually take what you said a step further. Not only is the "only women can write strong women characters" argument bad for a woman's chances at getting hired, it's bad for the craft and its practicioners. One of the most rewarding aspects of writing characters (in this writer's opinion) is that you can use them as a vehicle to explore outlooks and value systems completely unlike yours. If we delegate the job of writing characters of a particular group only to people of that group, then all the other writers in the world who can write characters unlike themselves will likely find a very valuable skill of theirs growing rusty (what skill doesn't, with disuse?). More than that, we will find the writing experience less fulfilling. So, in short, we will hobble ourselves, as writers and people.

Jane ends her treatise by posing the problem that Eve takes a big bite out of on her Apple blog (sorry, I had to): HOW to cross gender off the list of reasons someone isn't getting the job. Eve, I don't necessarily disagree with you, but I don't think you've fully made your case, either.

I don't for a moment want to say that sexism doesn't exist and isn't real. That argument is absurd on its face (as any woman who's tried to pursue a career in the sciences will tell you). Nor do I even want to say that it doesn't exist in the screenwriting business -- I'm sure it does, and either way, I'm not really in a position to comment, am I?

The statistics you cite are indeed troubling. But let's assume for a moment that the makeup of television writing staffs mirrors the makeup of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (perhaps it does, I once again couldn't say). If that's true, while I certainly agree that TV shows need to hire more women writers, that isn't, in itself, evidence of discrimination.

To me, the extent to which hiring in screenwriting (or any profession, for that matter) is discriminatory is the difference between the number of women (or members of a race, religion, etc.) on TV shows staffs and the number of qualified women who applied and were turned down.

The lurking variable, in my view, is how many women are actually applying for screenwriting jobs? If far less women than men apply, then you're going to end up with far less women than men writing your shows. I'm sure not all of the gender gap in staff makeup is due to a disparity in the numbers of equally-qualified applicants. Some of it probably is male showrunners being, frankly, dicks. But I suspect (or at least, would like to hope) that more of the answer lies in drawing out writing talent in the women who have it, and convincing those women that a career in screenwriting is worth dealing with the many obstacles one faces on the ground floor. (My male cousins are currently trying to get jobs in screenwriting, I hear it's a very hard field to break into.)

As a final note -- I don't want to say much about Glee because I'm badly out of date on the show, not having watched it in months. But -- your post seems to indicate that you think Kurt got disproportionate character development on the show, at least before the new writers joined the staff.  Even if we assume that is true, is it necessarily a bad thing? If there's one demographic that has even fewer strong, well-written  characters in modern fiction than women, it's gays and lesbians. (Joss Whedon gets mad props from me for Willow and Tara for that very reason.) Not that I don't also want to see Mercedes and Santana and Puck (though I hated that character) develop and grow, but frankly, one thing for which I give Glee great credit is putting a gay character (two of them, now) front and center and making those characters people we like, empathize with, and want to succeed.

I agree that in the long run, balance is needed. But perhaps other shows, seeing Glee as an example, and also seeing how it remains popular despite such "controversial" subject matter, will feel more free to integrate gay and lesbian characters into their casts. Maybe this will help us reach a point where one day, we can see such characters on screen for what they are -- people, like everyone else, no more or less.

1 comment:

  1. If you get the chance, see the movie "MissRepresentation." It deals with a lot of the same statistics/questions about women as screenwriters/directors in TV and movies, and on how women are portrayed in the media.