Monday, December 12, 2011

Gender issues: "If Tom Cruise and Demi Moore aren't going to sleep with each other, why is Demi Moore a woman?"

I came across this quote from screenwriter Aaron Sorkin in a recent Hollywood Reporter roundtable.

THR: And what's been your worst experience as a screenwriter?

Sorkin: My very first movie was A Few Good Men, which was an adaptation of my play. There was an executive on the movie who gave me a note: "If Tom Cruise and Demi Moore aren't going to sleep with each other, why is Demi Moore a woman?" I said the obvious answer: Women have purposes other than to sleep with Tom Cruise.

It almost makes you want to go "Oh snap!" doesn't it?  But this is where having a near-eidetic memory comes in handy because I immediately thought of this line from Roger Ebert's 1991 review of the movie:

Given decades of Hollywood convention, we might reasonably expect romance to blossom between [Cruise and Moore], providing a few gratuitous love scenes before the courtroom finale, but no: They're strictly business - so much so that it seems a little odd that these two good-looking, unmarried young people don't feel any mutual attraction. I have a friend, indeed, who intuits that the Demi Moore character was originally conceived of as a man, and got changed into a woman for Broadway and Hollywood box office reasons, without ever quite being rewritten into a woman.

Granted, this was 1991, but it's a little strange to think a prominent female character not being written as a sex object was seen as so odd.  That was the same year of Jodie Foster as Clarice Starling, one of the strongest female characters of that decade.  Perhaps one would argue that the sexism she faces is specific enough to her gender that it "justifies" making her a woman.

But it's strange because I've never thought of movie characters in those terms.  This is partially because so many of the scripts I read seem to go overboard in making the women into sex objects.  And yet, as I try to come up with a recent film where the lead female character's gender was completely irrelevant to anything else in the script, I seem to be coming up empty.  Oddly enough, Mary Elizabeth Winstead's character in The Thing prequel is the only one in recent history that seems to pass that test, at least that I can come up with.

So here's a New Year's resolution for all of you - write a strong female character who's arc doesn't depend on who she's sleeping with, or anything centric to any gender issues.

(Not that writing characters with experiences that are uniquely female is a bad thing, but it would be nice to break the stigma of "Why didn't the lead female sleep with the lead male?")


  1. Surely the point is that gender is not irrelevant? Is there anything more sexist than nullifying the difference between male and female?

    (I write kick-ass female leads but they are women not men. In a recent story I had a relationship opportunity, which I did not follow up - but the woman was still a woman, she just had her own stuff to do.)

  2. Just to head off this line of discussion, I put that last paragraph there specifically to keep this from being turned into an either/or debate. I'm not saying that making gender entirely irrelevant is the way good female characters MUST be written, nor am I saying that you can't write female characters unless you're willing to explore their sexuality and "female issues."

    The difference is that no one would have made that statement about a role that Tom Cruise was playing. It's pretty rare for a female lead role like Alien's Ripley, which was originally written as a man and kept largely intact when Sigourney Weaver was cast. It'd be nice to see more of that kind of thing.

  3. An interesting read:

  4. Thank you for saying this. I've completed a book where the lead female character does not sleep with the male lead characters and it bothered me that people would see this as a negative thing. Yet it is irrelevant to the story being told! You have put a smile on my face :)

  5. Isn't the strong female thing subjective though? I think a lot of the "kick ass" females are actually weak. Because instead of learning to kick ass the way a woman IRL would, they kick it as men would.

    You should ask Gail Carriger, writer of the Parasol Protectorate series, about the term "skinned" when it comes to female heroines.

    But basically, real strong women aren't afraid to ask for help. Women do things with advice and in groups. We don't rush off all John McClane after Hans Gruber.

    Just throwing that out there for consideration.

    On a side note, I remember when Hannibal came out my creative writing teacher went on a rant about how this proved that Thomas Harris hated women and blah blah blah. I had just finished the book and asked her, "Have you even READ the book?" Her response was "No." I proceeded to tell her how Lecter was the only one who appreciated Clarice's strength. How all the other men in the book were afraid of her and in response treated her badly. Etc.

    She was really embarrassed and got really quiet after that.

  6. I think it'd be neat to see more characters like Revenge's Emily Thorne.

    She's strong but not campy strong (see all Michelle Rodriguez characters), yet still VERY sexy.

    Then again, I think there's a lot more room on TV for strong female characters.

  7. Now I love Aaron Sorkin even more.

  8. @JamiSings - I use "kick-ass" in the sense of leading the way. I have written female characters that do "kick ass", but the one I mentioned lives in a society where that's pretty difficult - the skirts are way too long and heavy :-) she's clever, resourceful and uses her knowledge to defeat the bad guys (I write action, sue me). (She has the not-love-interest for the heavy lifting.)

    In regard to John McClane, I seem to recall that he was very keen on getting help. Much of the first part of the second act was about him trying to get help.

  9. I remember seeing A Few Good Men (as a kid when I would go see Cruise's movies before I found out he's crazy ;)) and because I had been programmed to expect the male and female lead to somehow have some kind of sexually/romantic connection, I thought that they would get together in some way, which I didn't want to see happen, but I was pleasantly surprised that it didn't happen.

    But it's sad that 20 years later, we're still in the same boat.