Monday, October 26, 2009

Sex and the Screenwriter - Learning from Barbarella

A while back I cautioned against using some skeevy language in your screenplays when describing things like your lead female character's cleavage and revealing outfits. The thrust of that last post was that it'll seem gratuitous and creepy. There was another reason in there that I didn't really address - suppose you send a script to Jessica Alba, or Rachel McAdams, or Natalie Portman, and every other line of description is fixated on explaining just how tight her ass is, or how much of her bra is peaking out from her blouse. Don't you think it might repulse her a little - or at least make her uncomfortable about the role?

There's no reason to go into deep detail about how much flesh is exposed or how revealing a character's outfit is. Yes, if it's important that a character is in her underwear, just write "underwear" or "lingerie." If for some reason it's vitally important that we see her breasts, feel free to write "low cut," and if it's a beach scene and we need to know that the character is in a bikini, write "bikini." But that's really as far as you need to go.

As a point of comparison, I looked up a draft of the planned BARBARELLA remake. This particular draft is dated 10-12-07 and is credited to Neal Purvis and Robert Wade. I picked this script for a very specific reason - anyone familiar with the 1968 film (adapted from a French comic book of the same name) is well aware that the main attraction of the film was to put Jane Fonda in as many revealing outfits and sexual situations as possible. It comes very close to being sci-fi soft-core porn.

Among the more memorable moments of the film are a zero gravity striptease that opens the film, performed by Fonda and in particular, a sequence in which she's captured and subjected to torture in a machine that... oh man, how do I put this delicately... is designed to... pleasure her to death.

I swear I am not making this up.

In any event, we're all clear about what kind of movie this is, right? So any modern update would probably have the screenplay slobbering all over the costume changes that the lead actress would be making in the course of the film, right?

Wrong. The first time the title character stands revealed, this is EXACTLY how she and her clothing are described: "She is barely dressed in a stunning, skimpy gold outfit. No visible weapons other than her hypnotic presence."

See what's missing? No discussions of her breast size. No notation that her breasts are exposed right up to the nipple. No mention of how skimpy her thong is or her curves, or how she's on the verge of bursting out of her bra. The word cleavage isn't even invoked. In fact, that word doesn't appear once in the script. "Breast" only appears four times, three of those in reference to Barbarella's breastplate, and none of those references are particularly skeevy.

Later, when she changes into another outfit, this is the extent of the description: "in her almost transparent costume (notable for its plastic breastplate)." Even further into the script, she's offered an outfit that is repeatedly described with the adjective "amazing," and when she finally puts it on, this is as far as Purvis and Wade take it: "Barbarella in her most iconic outfit yet... stepping out in her full glory."

The sex scenes are also fairly sparse in their description and the nude scenes do little more than mention the fact that the character is naked. There is no prose that lingers on painting a picture of the naked character.

I think that's more than enough to make my point. If the BARBARELLA remake writers find it's acceptable to be coy in writing about their lead character's skimpy outfits, there should be no reason to get overly sexual in your standard dramas, comedies, thrillers, or any other genre.

If you find your writing fixating on those details, do your script and your reader a favor and take a cold shower.


  1. Never seen "Barbarella." Love the context of this post. Very fitting for me, as I've written a lot of rom-com material, and invariably with romance writing the subject always comes up: how sexy should you be?

    VERY INTERESTING segue: how your writing MAY affect actresses considering your material. As pertains to this your key operative word appears to be, COY. Will file that away as I work on the re-write of a sports rom-com this week. Unfortunatly I only have a couple scenes that veer into hot-n-heavy scenes.

    Great thought provoking post, bitter script reader. Way to see screenwriting issues in the movies you watch, and the scripts you read. Good job.

    - E.C. Henry from Bonney Lake, WA

  2. I thought that this would be in good practice because it's crass. I didn't think of it in the way you mentioned - what if a potential actress were reading the script.