An Open Letter: So, What Are We Going To Do About This?

by Patrick Duncan

I have been involved in writers’ workshops, forums and classes in some form or another since the late 1970s when I was in High School (Yes, look me up. IMDB published my birthday and won’t take it down, so no point in hiding). I had already been hearing for years the arguments that “There are no good roles for women,” “We are only asked to play whores and housewives.” The tactics to correct this have been to say, “Men need to write better roles for women,” or “NO, women need to write for themselves,” and my favorite, “NO, both needs to happen.”

So, if I have been hearing this problem identified for over 40 years why am I still hearing it in 2015? The agenda of more and better roles for women is sound and worthy and something that I and most of the male and female writers I know aspire to, so why aren’t things better than they are? Of course it is insane to say things have not changed, they have, but why is there still a huge dissatisfaction especially in a small group of indie filmmakers like We Make Movies? Hard to blame “society” when you are a community funded film collective.

And let me say, I am not trying to contradict Sapna’s or Sam’s articles, merely add my thoughts. The three of us are in agreement on this problem and both of them offer solutions that have been yielding progress for years, “men, be more inclusive,” and “ladies need to take the lead.” But I am left with the question, why are we not “there yet?” In a psychology book I read called “Change” it was stated that “when a problem persists, apply the change to the solution.” I think by asking “men” or “women” or “both” to change what THEY are doing is simply not working.

To address people as two camps, “ladies” and “gentlemen” is too general. People tend to get defensive if they feel lumped into a single category and ignore the statement assuming that they are the “exception to the rule.” Also, there are lessons being imparted to the women that the men need to hear and vice versa. Also, many of the most outspoken advocates for more women on stage have been men.

“Men” and “Women” are not collective unified entities. Where are the committee meetings held? Seriously, it has been said of juries that you cannot get 12 people to agree on what goes on a pizza, so how do we expect entire genders to acquiesce to help us achieve our ends? We are all individuals with individual goals and tactics for achieving them so asking nebulous groups of people to react en masse to a problem you have identified, be it right or wrong, is simply not effective. Certainly calling attention to the problem has helped, but if history is any indication, that alone is not enough. So, let’s examine what can actually be done on our own.

Change has occurred because the individuals who see the problem have stopped asking others to fix it and taken stand-alone action themselves. If you want to be part of changing the world, you cannot wait for the world to change first. Pointing fingers by saying “Men need to change” or “NO, women need to step up,” or even “Everyone else, male and female needs to do something,” just won’t work or it would have by now. It is like trying to adjust your hand by manipulating the shadow on the wall. If you see the problem, what are YOU going to do (male or female).

And when I say “fix the problem YOU see” I mean you cannot demand others even see it as a problem let alone fix it to your specifications. John Belushi was famous for saying women have no place in comedy. When asked why he felt that way he responded, “Because they are not funny.” Now, We Make Movies does not attract that level of misogyny, but trust me it is out there. So, let’s not be concerned with people who don’t see this as a problem and have no will to implement a solution. The remainder of this article is intended to reach individuals of both genders who care about this goal of more and better roles for women. John Belushi can suck a tail pipe and die … oh, wait, sorry. Too soon?

By way of suggesting something for writers that helps the problem, here are some things to think about to help everyone write better for women, for men and for scripts.

1) Does the character have an objective? What do they want and is it specific?

2) What tactics do they employ to achieve their objective? This is where we see character, in the way they pursue their goals and how they react when it works and most importantly, when it does not.

3) Does the character drive action? Not all characters are MAIN characters and it is not necessary for every single character, but it is important that every character at least has a unique function. If you can remove them and have the same story, they are probably not there for a good reason. However if you want to write roles of every size that actors and actresses are interested in playing it is essential that these characters drive action and/or change the course of the story in some way.

4) Does the character have a unique voice? This is simultaneously the most difficult and easy of all the points. I would say that once you crack this you may find that the other goals fall into place. There is one thing that I, Shakespeare, Chekov and Mamet all have in common (iconic genius, I know, but beside that). We all write or wrote for specific people. I listen hard to actors and actresses voices. I know what is in their wheelhouse and this often suggests plot line. For example; How would a character that might be played by Sapna Gandhi react to this situation? Suddenly story starts to happen. After all, nothing happens without people taking action (see what I did there). AND, even if that actor or actress is not available or doesn’t work out you are still on a path to a well fleshed out character.

5) Can you write about people you know? Consider this, the most iconic male character of 20th Century literature and film was Atticus Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird.” How did Harper Lee, a woman do this? She based Atticus on her own father. Write about women you know, they are in your lives, your mothers, your sisters, your girlfriends, daughters, friends. This rule is also gender neutral. And though it should go without saying, the above suggestions should help with writing any character regardless of gender, race, sexual preference, religion, eye color or hair color.

No doubt some may not like what I am saying and feel the solution actually DOES lie in other people changing their behavior. You are entitled. Go in peace. I cannot be a writer and expect to control other people’s feelings, I can only put my own out there. But, it is my intention to help us all to better scripts and a more inclusive environment for making the movies we want to see.