Friday, June 4, 2010


When it comes to chipping away at the disparity between male and female characters, it's not about men VERSUS women. It's not about swapping men and women. It's not about bashing romance or motherhood or marriage, since there are plenty of great films and shows on those subjects. For me, it's about challenging ourselves to think differently. It's about awareness.

I took a narrative theory course in college, and it's always been on my long-term mental to-do list to learn more about the subject. But something I've always remembered is the idea of paratext. The International Society for the Study of Narrative defines it as all added written material included in a book that does not count as the primary narrative. The website TVTropes expands the idea, defining paratext as everything that is an element of the whole package immediately encompassing the text and not part of the text itself. In other words, all that stuff that isn't a part of the show/movie/story itself, but still comes with it. The stuff on the box, the stuff that comes before the show/movie, etc.

Basically, you can't really evaluate a book/movie/TV show/etc. without being consciously or subconsciously affected by the poster, the marketing campaign, the cover, etc.

I think the idea can actually be much bigger. Let's say you go to see the movie Killers this weekend. Imagine all of the things outside the movie that might affect your viewing: ubiquitous advertising, Ashton Kutcher's Tweets, Katherine Heigl's performances in Grey's Anatomy, reviews of the film you read in advance, interviews with either of the stars, similar couple-action movies like Mr & Mrs Smith or The Bounty Hunter, your knowledge of the development of the film, the script, etc. Even if you watch a film or TV show with no positive or negative expectations, all of your knowledge and experiences will frame how you respond to it.

Similarly, your knowledge and experiences will frame how you approach writing scripts. If you've just seen twenty movies with male protagonists, will you be more likely to write yours as male? If you can't find many movies with women talking about something other than men or marriage, will you think to include it in your own scripts? It's not just about gender, it's about the worlds we live in. If you've never taken a bus, will you automatically show your characters driving cars? That's the danger here. What about race? Geography? Occupation? Sexual orientation? When you think of a doctor, do you think of a man? When you think of a couple, are you assuming they're straight? When it comes to race, I like to write my characters with no specific physical descriptions that would pigeonhole them as one race or another...but if you're giving all of your characters Anglo names like John Grant, does that impose an assumption about race or origin?

What isn't occurring to you?

There's nothing wrong with writing about your specific experiences. If you're an expert on something, go ahead and write about it. It's often a good way for writers to begin, and writers are often hired or championed because of something interesting in their lives.  I would just love for us to be aware of our perspectives, our biases and the choices we're making.

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YX said...

There is definitely an argument of over-consciousness here to consider– isn't it racist, sexist, prejudice to consciously think of these things. I mean, film is an objectifying art form, which preys on these associations and prejudices and while I would like to agree and say it is in the hands of the writers to shift the episteme, this simply is not fact. Stereotypes will be rendered more or less at the audiences discretion (or what producers have deemed so).

Write what you know. And if you don't know it, read up, research, breath it in for god sakes. There is no cure all for writing the university. Write what you would like to hear, and if that is prejudice, well so f'ing be it–Updike was a mysognyst, John Wayne was a racist, etc... Don't self-prescribe, just be and let it sound brilliant.

Anonymous said...


Unknown said...

I'm totally fascinated by the way biases play out in writing. Probably because I work (often as a writer) in the industry and I'm black and a woman. And my goodness, do I never see ME on screen. Like ever. Aisha Tyler is Archer...and I'm sure there are a handful of others...but just a handful.

I also do a fair amount of coverage and I'm always blown away specifically by the portrayal of race how...unlayered it still is.

I was taking a meeting once. My agent and my script were strong enough to get me this meeting. The exec said he liked my work, then asked "But do know, write black?" I said "Well, I am black. And I am writing." And he laughed it off and said. "OKay, but you know, do you write black."

And then another exec couldn't understand how I got my gig writing there since I didn't come through their diversity program.

I'm more or less bitter about it depending on the day. And I totally get the impetus to write what you see...after all what you see is what gets made. But I love the idea of finding all that nuance that big movies often miss.