If you look up the book Silas Marner, you’ll find it was written by George Eliot. Most people know the story. I remember it was taught in my English class and it was revealed that the author, a woman (GASP), used a male pseudonym because women authors in the 1860’s were not taken seriously.
Unfortunately, today, in 2014, the case is true – in some circles – that women authors along with women screenwriters and directors are still not taken seriously.
There’s been a lot of discussion lately about the dearth of women writers and directors on television. This is an all-too striking graphic that’s been going around public and private conversations in the business:
There’s a lot to talk about and explore with this issue. I’m not going to claim to solve it by any means but the purpose of this week’s entry is to be an on-the-record-for-the-world-to-see look at how perceptions in the business need to be changed.
“Perception is reality” epitomizes the entertainment industry. That shone with bizarrely outdated clarity over the weekend as several columns by respected industry journalists were written questioning and/or downright objecting to the idea of a Ghostbuster sequel or reboot (it’s still deep, deep in development) with an all female cast. People asking “is the world ready for an all-female Ghostbusters?” may indeed be asking if female leads can carry a complicated nuanced comedy.
Let’s see, after:
I Love Lucy
9 To 5
Sex And The City
The Golden Girls
Hot In Cleveland
Breakfast At Tiffany’s
The Mary Tyler Moore Show
The New Adventures Of The Old Christine
My Big Fat Greek Wedding
How To Marry A Millionaire
One Day At A Time
Desperately Seeking Susan
It’s A Living
Miss Congeniality 2
Sister Act 2
Romy And Michele’s High School Reunion
The Amy Schumer Show
The Phyllis Diller Show
The Mindy Project
Parks And Recreation
and the critically acclaimed, award-winning show about Girls dating that’s called GIRLS.
Yeah, after all those, I’m going to go out on a limb and say, yes, the world is ready for an all-female Ghostbusters. “But Tim in some of those examples you cite it’s different because the women are are not playing, you know, beer-drinking men like Ghostbusters.” In other words, it’s OK for women to play girly-girl action heroes like Charlie’s Angels, but not macho heroes like the Ghostbusters which is kind of ridiculous on a ton of levels. Apparently there’s an intrinsic maleness to Ghostbusters that I missed on the first 250 times I’ve watched it. They were bumbling academics, not the Expendables. (Oh and the Expendebelles is in development. By Kirsten Smith and Karen McCullah, two wicked talented writers who should give you hope it’s gonna be pretty fun and wicked good.)
And is that really a defense these columnists want to take? Women should not be cast in MALE roles. They can’t be cast in roles where they kick ass, knock down doors, shoot some guns, blow up some buildings, shoot off some smart alec on-liners. And God forbid, capture ghosts in a humorous way? Is that really what those who question an all-female Ghostbusters want to hang their hat on? Have the people objecting to the all-female Ghostbusters not seen The Hunger Games because while I’ve not read all the books or seen all the movies I’m under the impression Katniss Everdeen can kick a lot of ass.
(Some have pointed to Peter Venkman’s chauvinism as the charm of his character, completely missing the point. Venkman could only win the heart of the one woman he loved when he dropped all the chauvinistic bullshit and became BIGGER GASP the nice guy who helped out by researching the origins of Zuul and Gozer. Oh and when the chauvinism returned between Ghostbusters 1 & 2, what did the woman of his dreams do? Dumped him.)
Imagine Kristen Wiig as Venkman, Amy Poehler as Stanz, Tina Fey as Egon, Wanda Sykes as Zeddmore and throw in Bradley Cooper as the man of Venkman’s dreams plagued by demons in the fridge. Hell, throw Julia Louis-Dreyfuss in there as the mayor. Seriously, imagine her demanding the Ghostbusters be brought to her office to save the city. Awe-fucking-some. Directed by Paul Fieg. As an updated love letter to the original Ghostbusters. (We might even get a “Yes, your honor, this woman has no clitoris” joke. Fuck yeah!)
As my friend Gabe O’Connor would say “I want to see that now. Now. Now. Now.” Though, of course, maybe it would fall short. Maybe it would be far inferior. Maybe it would be fail miserably. But we’ve all seen and heard much worse ideas. And as we all know, you can’t be successful if you’re afraid of failure (see previous blog posts – and tell your friends.)
The world is ready for female Ghostbusters. The world is ready for female action heroes. The world is ready for female writers and directors.
And you don’t have to take my word for it. Did you see “Lucy” the new film by Luc Besson starring Scarlet Johansson in the eponymous role? Well, A LOT of people did. $80 million in 2 weeks worth. In fact, she outdrew action movie mainstay and former USWA Tag Team Champion The Rock in his new film “Hercules.”
And this past weekend? Chances are you saw and loved “Guardians Of The Galaxy.” Don’t worry Part 2 is well on-track (probably farther along in development than Ghostbusters 3 quite frankly). $94 million opening weekend, oh let’s just call it a $100 million coming out party. And what makes Guardians special besides it’s awesomeness? Guardians is the first Marvel movie to be written by a woman. Congrats to Nicole Perlman who broke a barrier this weekend and had a whole nation of men, women, comic book fans and non-comic book reading movie goers chant “This-Is-Awesome-(Clap-Clap-ClapClapClap).”
This summer may indeed be the turning point. It may not. The idea that an all-female Ghostbusters is a bad idea in the minds of some shows there’s a long way to go. One of the authors of such a piece backtracked, saying on twitter he was just objecting to remakes in general, though his piece in Deadline cited the all-female Odd Couple as an example of a bad idea remake. It’s almost like the idea of an female cast is a gimmick. But would anyone say that about an all-male cast? Imagine someone walking out of Glengarry Glen Ross and saying “I just didn’t care for the gimmickry of an all-male cast.”
What I think is happening in some circles – not all, I want to be very clear about that one – is that women, gays, African-Americans and all manner of minorities are being marginalized to one side. So let’s say you’re a studio and you hire an accomplished female director to direct a big tent pole movie. But that director turns out to be awful, a nightmare to work with who suffers from borderline incompetence. The response from some people will be “That’s the last time I’m hiring a woman director.” Which is the wrong response. The right response is “That’s the last time I’m hiring THAT director.” Because the next 10 women directors that one works with may be great but are being denied the chance unfairly – and we in turn, are denied their talents.
Some folks really do need to learn that women are just like men. They come in all shapes and sizes with a wide variety talents, aptitudes, strengths and weaknesses.
Hollywood is a place that LOVES to pigeonhole. In fact, Hollywood doesn’t really function unless everyone is seen in their tiny little compartments. Screenwriters know this all too well. “Wait, you wrote a comedy – how can you write a horror movie?” “You write dramas, you can’t write comedies” and so it goes. Good/bad, right/wrong.
Many aspiring writers think that having a wide ranging portfolio is the best thing to show an agent or production company. In fact, every credible agent and producer I know has told me and other writers to have as non-diverse a portfolio as possible. They need to know what category to put you in so that you can be identified and in turn, hired.
I imagine (and have heard) that many women writers get shoved into the rom-com or chick-lit box. We may be getting denied many a great action, sci-fi or horror movie or TV show because those authors are being told “You wrote a psychological thriller? No, no, no, how about a true love piece.” (For the record, this is not a knock on rom-coms or chick-lit. I wrote a rom-com myself, based on Megan’s first novel – and it will make you laugh & cry promise. I’m just saying, maybe not every women writer is only interested in those things.)
Where this gets Hollywood into trouble – or where this perception is fallible – is, that’s not at all how the audience works. “What kind of music do you listen to?” is asked on a million first dates. The answer is usually the same, “I listen to everything.” The audience, ESPECIALLY in 2014, is not putting things in tiny little categories.
At the Austin Film Festival this past year there was a panel with Jenji Kohan and Callie Khouri called “The Heroine’s Journey.” They quickly dispelled the thesis by saying that the Heroine’s Journey is the same as the Hero’s Journey. Good characters are good characters, they said several times. They want to tell good, compelling stories first and foremost.
It occurred to me as I listened to these two brilliant writers not only how much I liked their work but how on paper that must confuse some people in Hollywood. I’m a late 30’s white male who grew up on a steady diet of pro-wrestling, science-fiction and the Transformers. On paper, it makes no sense that Orange Is The New Black would be one of my favorite shows of all time. I listen to heavy metal, I love football and I don’t mind shooting darts at a bar over some tall beers. Thelma & Louise is another favorite of mine, I could watch it several times every year.
(And no, I don’t think it’s anti-male as some suggested when it came out. Thanks Republicans. SPOILER ALERT: Louise shoots a rapist in a parking lot. I have no sympathy for him.)
I’m 0% Hispanic – I was riveted by every second of American Me. I’m 0% African American – Boyz N The Hood is amazing. I’m 0% Jewish (well, a little more than that I guess thanks to 5 passovers with my Jewish lady caller) but still, need I be Jewish to weep at the power of Schindler’s List?
Hollywood, in some circles, seeks universality from the product it sells, yet in some corners, finds that same universality an almost baffling business practice.
Now, I keep saying some circles because I’ve worked for and alongside some very talented women at all levels of the business, literally from PA’s to Executives. I’ve been taught, mentored and developed by women, some of whom are the best in the business. I recently worked on a show with two male editors and one female editor – all super talented, all of us got along great and worked really well together. If gender was an issue there, I certainly don’t remember any instances.
Monty Python famously said they couldn’t write women. I believe they could if they were active today. I believe they had trouble writing 1970’s women and the expected types of the day, so to speak. But gender roles are changing in our society. I know of several stay-at-home dads who’ve said to me, “What a racket, men have no idea what they’ve been missing going to work everyday.” I’m guilty of that too. Writing during the day, going grocery shopping, changing the litter box, cooking & doing the dishes. I’m in Heaven. My Grandfather’s generation would fall out of its chair to hear that, but that’s the new reality. And why shouldn’t we embrace it? For some outdated nonsense like “a man’s role is the breadwinner, a women’s role is the kitchen.” Fuck that. Much to the chagrin of the far right, our society just doesn’t work that way anymore. And I’ll argue for the better.
It’s high time Hollywood didn’t work that way anymore either. Whatever the pigeon-holing, or just blatant chauvinism or sexism that “women can’t write this” or “women can’t direct that” has to change. Because as my love of Orange Is The New Black and Thelma And Louise will attest to – we’re all missing out on good shows and great stories when segments of the population are left out of the room.
The audience is changing with the times faster than maybe even Hollywood can keep track of. $100 million weekend, if anyone objected to a woman writing Guardians Of The Galaxy, their voice was drowned out like Homer Simpson objecting to the Flaming Moes. And quite frankly, I think the only argument I’m going to get from friends on Facebook about this blog is going to be about my Ghostbusters recasting choices – and not because they’re women.
There are circles in Hollywood changing with society. I know several male Hollywood execs who I promise you are trying to change the tide. There are also more women exec’s, women producers and women showrunners than ever before. If the tide isn’t turning yet, the stage is certainly being set. It is happening, conversations are happening but, of course, there needs to be more.
The fact is though, people are not just going to change their minds. I mentioned recently on the podcast with Megan that comedy legend Jerry Lewis STILL doesn’t think women are that funny. Show him the list I showed above and he’ll probably remain unconvinced. (One has no reason to believe he’s been exposed to that material and those talents.) And he’s categorically wrong. I love & respect the great Jerry Lewis, but Tina Fey & Amy Poehler could read the phone book and it would be HYSTERICAL. (They would also make an excellent female Odd Couple, Deadline.)
I don’t believe the perception is going to be changed that easily. The reality has to be changed thus forcing the perception to change. And many women are changing the reality by not accepting this perception. Many women are forming their own production companies, making the movies others won’t allow them to make and many more are still pounding on the doors demanding a fair shot. The Hunger Games, Lucy and Guardians Of The Galaxy give me some hope they’ll get it.
In fact, whenever the question is, can women play this or can women write that or can women direct that – quite frankly the answer in 2014 has to be yes. Or to put in another way, “Ray, when someone asks if women can play the Ghostbusters you say YES.”
“But Tim, maybe there just aren’t that many women writers and directors?” That question does get thrown around more than you might think and it’s more than a little laughable. I recently went to a Writers Guild Foundation event, did some networking during breaks between Q&A’s and it didn’t even occur to me until I got home – every business card I collected was from a woman writer.
Also, in my own household, my girlfriend is a writer. Actually, she’s not just a writer, she’s a damn good one. She could be staffed right now, this minute. She won the Fresh Voices competition this past year and has placed in other contests to back up that accolade if you don’t believe me. It annoys me, yes, as the overprotective boyfriend, that she will face barriers and walls in the business that her male counterparts will not have to face.
I can’t completely knock those barriers down but hell, I can throw out another plug for her books, which are available here:
And then there’s Chicks Who Script http://www.chickswhoscript.com/ That’s Chicks not Chick. Lauren Schacher, Maggie Levin and Emily Blake exemplify much of my argument as they are women writers outside the “type” who could easily be staffed on a wide variety of shows or could write as equally wide a variety of movies. I highly recommend checking out their podcast and giving them a follow on twitter. Emily Blake also knows a thing or two about Doctor Who so she’s Aces in my book (no pun intended.)
They recently had on their podcast Stephanie Folsom who wrote “1969: A Space Odyssey Or How Kubrick Learned To Stop Worrying And Land On The Moon” which was chosen as the first script to be presented live by The Black List and it absolutely deserved that honor:
And speaking of women taking over roles, about 10 million viewers on CBS watch a female Watson. There’s going to be a female Doctor one day in Doctor Who. It’s all but guaranteed. Fortunately, my friend Tara O’Shea and whole slew of talented women writers have made sure that moment has been prepared for. A great collection about fandom and how fandom isn’t always the demographic you think it is:
There’s a lot of women writers out there. There’s a lot of women industry pros out there. A website that highlights many of them is msinthebiz.com and an incomparable colleague of mine, Etta Devine, has written some columns on independent production that offer invaluable advice for anyone who wants to figure out how to get your story on film:
Etta’s in post-production of the second feature she’s doing with her longtime partner, the also super talented Gabriel Diani. While I’m plugging stuff, here’s a preview of that new movie that’s going to be awesome, original and funny (That’s right Gabe & Etta are also comedians and would be both make great Ghostbusters. In fact, they had to deal with some dastardly spirits in their brilliant first movie “The Selling”.)
While talking about women writers, I feel like I would be doing this piece a great disservice if I didn’t mention Amanda Pendolino’s blog. It is essential reading, reminders and great advice for all screenwriters, whatever their level – or gender. Bookmark it and read it once a week, it will absolutely keep you sane – and teach you how to be a pro:
One of the other women who I’d like to mention who’s certainly changed her perception is Morgan Fairchild. An iconic figure of blond blue-eyed Hollywood beauty. What do you think Ms. Fairchild tweets about these days? If you said latest politics, international news and climate change awareness, you’d be right. “But she’s just an actress who was on Falcon Crest.” Well, yes and she’s also an intelligent person interested in the world around her. Following her on twitter is a great way to stay informed about current events from numerous news sources (and she was in a lot more than Falcon Crest):
And I’m sure some of this will come up in the interview I’ll be posting tomorrow with Chelese Belmont and Shannan Leigh Reeve, a female director/producer team shooting a movie right now:
There are A TON more women I could list here – and several of whom I hope to have as guests on the blogcast soon.
I’ll probably revisit this topic more over the next few months. The business is changing rapidly and, who knows, maybe the next spotlight will see a lot more progress made. Maybe next summer, half of the comic book movies will be written by minorities. Maybe TV production will see a huge spike in women directors being hired. Maybe I’ll be in a writer’s room – and I’ll be the only guy. I should be so lucky, right? Kidding, Megan, kidding.
But hopefully more progress will be made and women screenwriters won’t have to write George Eliot on their title page to get noticed or hired.
Because wouldn’t it be nice if George Eliot became a footnote to the story and someday someone will say, “Wait, who wrote Silas Marner? George something, isn’t it, not wait, it was Eliot right?” And the answer will be “No, her name is Mary Ann Evans.”