Monday, January 7, 2019

10 Years of Bitter Posts - I'm gonna keep talking about sexism and misogyny until you stop writing it

There are some topics that I've covered from the start of this blog and have kept returning to over the years. You'd think I'd have run out of things to say about it, or at least that an issue of such magnitude would have seen some progress over the years, which only makes a lack of progress even more disheartening. I'm speaking, of course, about misogyny and sexism in scripts.

There are a lot of things I've seen recur in bad scripts. When you've read a lot of these, you almost start to get desensitized to it because you notice there are certain mistakes that every first-time writer is going to make. Dialogue will be too on the nose, scenes will take too long to play out, characters will give long speeches about meaningless pop culture because the writer really wants to pontificate about Bob Dylan... and every female character will have ample breasts.

Let's say I was reading 10 scripts a week. I would bet that AT LEAST two of those scripts described the size, shape and/or condition of the breasts of a female character. It's almost always gratuitous too. Even if the script organically got to a moment where the female character strips down to a bikini or lingerie, there's rarely a need for leering scene description. (Too few writers think about the fact that the actresses are going to READ that description too.)

You might be inclined to consider this as benign sexism, but it's dangerous to objectify your characters like this - and when it's systemic across a lot of scripts, you start to realize the problem is bigger and uglier than a screenwriter who is typing while horny.

I don't think this casual sexism is unrelated to an uglier brand of misogyny I often encountered in scripts. Rape and sexual assault are often badly mishandled and one of the biggest red flags is when the writer objectifies the victim of sexual assault. A rape scene should not feel sexual - it should feel like a violation. It is not a power fantasy - it is an act of violence and degradation. Emotionally, we should NOT be relating to the perpetrator (unless the entire point of the script is to implicate the audience along with your assailant, but that's a rare situation and a tricky needle to thread to boot.)

Just over a month into the life of this blog, I wrote "Misogynistic Violence against women."

After more than five years as a reader, I now know far too many ways to mutilate, subjugate and sexually degrade a woman. I’m by no means a feminist, and there are plenty of instances where I’ve read an act of violence committed upon a female character and haven’t raised an eyebrow at it. Don’t misunderstand me – I’m not saying you should never hurt, injure or kill your female characters. That would be equally sexist. The problem sets in when it feels like the victimizer in the scene is a stand-in for the writer’s own sick desires.

This is one of those subliminal things that’s hard to point out without using specific examples, and unfortunately, to show the worst/best examples of such writing would likely get me sued. As blurry as the line gets, it most frequently gets crossed when some sort of sexual element is added to it. A scene where a woman is stabbed and her throat is slashed probably wouldn’t set of any alarms – but a scene where a woman is stabbed, then raped as the attacker takes obvious glee in her pain is going to be more repulsive.

I returned to the topic in a later post, "The script that made me want to recommend psychiatric help for the writer."

And then there was one of the most vile, misogynistic pieces of violent writing I had ever read.  It was perverted, disgusting and disturbing to such a level that the only reason I ended up with the script was that the (female) reader who had to cover the first submission of this script refused to read it again due to being the product of a sick mind.

She was right. I googled the writer.  He was a studio exec.

As much as that deserved a rimshot THAT WAS NOT A JOKE!

The coverage that script provoked was some of the most unvarnished coverage I ever had submitted to these bosses.  Some of my employers enjoy it when I take a more Simon Cowell-like approach to shredding the truly terrible scripts, others have preferred a more measured, even take on it.  The bosses for this submission were among the more buttoned-up, but in my write-up, I only barely restrained myself from suggesting psychiatric help for the submitter.

A few months later, the script was resubmitted.  I had to read it again.  The fucker barely had changed anything - and he certainly hadn't toned down the misogyny or the violence.  Or the misogynistic violence.  I made sure when I wrote the synopsis that I included every last instance of such.

I'll put it this way.  He made I Spit on Your Grave look like Mary Poppins.  So I tore him a new one, then emailed my boss's assistant and said, "Look, this concept is NEVER ever going to get a Consider from anyone.  If we take it again, we're wasting our time and the company's money."  As I understand it, the message was conveyed.  In spades.

A few weeks later, the writer attempted to submit again.  He was unsuccessful.

I've probably written other scripts that were just as bad or worse, but few made me as violently angry at the writer as that.  Rarely have I ever felt I was looking into the mind of such a sick individual.

I'm still angry about this one. I felt violated just having been forced to read it and spend three hours of my day immersed in this and then writing it up.

Granted, that's an extreme example. And almost every time I get going on this topic, there'll usually be at least one person responding with an attitude about how I shouldn't tell writers what to write, or that I'm advocating censorship, or listing rape scenes in acclaimed films as if that disproves my argument.

So here's my concession right here - YES, it's possible to write a rape scene that is integral to the story, makes a point, isn't exploitative and doesn't objectify the victim. I'm not saying never write about sexual violence. Hell, I think 13 Reasons Why did a very solid job of depicting sexual violence and doing it in a way that wasn't sleazy or crass. (I hasten to add that I'm speaking of Season 1 here, NOT the controversial sexual assault in Season 2.)

So if your takeaway here is that I'm saying "NEVER write about rape," you're misunderstanding me. All I'm asking for is some responsibility. A checklist like this wouldn't hurt:
  • Is it essential to the story?
  • If yes, are steps taken to depict the victim as more than just a victim?
  • If yes, are you writing the scene in a way that isn't designed to excite and arouse?
  • If you had to remove the rape from the story, how much would it change? Is it substantial?
  • Whose arc is altered the greatest by the inclusion of the rape: The male character's or the female characters?
Many of these questions relate to issues I raised in this post, "Let's talk about rape scenes." Though it's more than five years old, it's worth a read. At one point it was one of my most popular posts. It also lead to one of my favorite reader emails, where a reader named Diana really hit the nail on the head:

I remember a foreign film way back when about the brutality of the civil war in the former Yugoslavia and its affects on women. (can't remember the title). It showed the lawlessness during that time, and the resulting roaming gangs of men. And the violence that was regularly perpetrated against women. It showed a brutal gang rape scene (that must have lasted at least a full 5 minutes of film time!) of two women in their home. It included the act of anal rape. It was riveting. Horrifying. Visceral. And realistic. It was not sexy in the least. And it was not done for shock value, though it most certainly left most of us in the audience in shock. 

And as it turns out, no superhero guy (or hubby/boyfriend) appeared in a fit of rage in that film to avenge the violence against these two women. After the rapists left, the women were simply left alone with their physical injuries and their shattered psyches. And their own rage. Of which they had plenty. 

And I think therein touches on another part (I think actually it's the crux) of the (inherent) problem with these many rape scenes of women penned by men: It is that the man (boyfriend/husband/superhero guy) gets to feel the resulting rage for the violation. And to act on that rage. Not the woman who was violated. 

Rape happens to women. A lot. So not ever showing rape of women would be sort of a denial of this horrible reality. And aside from the reality that some male writers might write such scenes a little too (disturbingly) gleefully,i t's not even (just) the fact that the aftermath of the rape on the female victim is never really shown-- such as, say, the woman/girl sobbing and stuff. Or being an emotional/psychological wreck. Or even being terrified in the aftermath--maybe of men, maybe of just going outside. Whatever. No, it's not even just about those things. What's it's also about, maybe even more so about, is THE RAGE. And who gets to have it. 

THE RAGE. It would be a great term for the last year and a half, as sexual harassment and misogyny have been called out with much greater frequency and we have seen women push back against abuse, saying "No more!"

Feel that rage - and understand that rage belongs to every female character abused and mistreated. If your writing isn't reflecting that, you need to go back to the drawing board.

Dare I hope that the next five years of rape in spec scripts will look and feel different from the five or ten years that proceeded it?

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