The fight to fix female characters

Even in the year 2016, depictions of female characters in film still pale in comparison to the roles of men. If modern-day actresses could summarize their experiences in one statement, it would probably be:

“Oh, that’s where we’re at? You’re fighting to be the girlfriend in a dumb comedy? For what?” this according to Reese Witherspoon in Entertainment Weekly.

Reese Witherspoon’s statement about the current state of the industry is surprising and frustrating, considering that an Oscar-winning actress of her caliber is still being offered “girlfriend” roles lacking substance.

At Chapman University’s Dodge Film School, a new crop of aspiring female filmmakers are vocal about their disappointment in the Hollywood system. They have a lot of grievances about the way female characters are depicted, including frequent sexualizing, stereotyping, and one-dimensionality. Tired of the way that things are, these women filmmakers are addressing the problem in their own films and screenplays. They hope that by presenting balanced, complicated, and flawed female characters in their own works at Chapman, they can prepare themselves to implement change when they are thrust into Hollywood post graduation.

“I think a lot of female characters in Hollywood aren’t rooted in anything besides sex appeal,” said sophomore screenwriting student Lily Yasuda.

It’s no secret that female characters in Hollywood are not only frequently sexualized, but also lacking the complexity of their male counterparts. In a large number of recent releases, female characters are often pushed to the side in secondary roles. Senior screenwriting major Jenna Verchota explains that this sidelines approach is preventing female characters from becoming dynamic and complex:

“[Female characters] generally don’t contribute to or further the story. They’re always just reactionary characters. When you have a character who has no goal or drive, it’s not a real person.”

Now that Chapman’s women filmmakers are starting to accumulate experience in the film industry through jobs and internships, they are starting to notice the institutional aspect of this problem.

“Every movie that was in production that I helped read drafts of had a male protagonist,” said Verchota.

The women of Dodge feel that a majority of film executives are not willing to gamble on new ideas (especially ones prominently featuring women). The reason why some executives are averse to new ideas is because it is safer to continue making films that have already proven profitable.

“I remember [an executive] saying, ‘people want to see men leading.’ He was being honest, and he was saying that unfortunately there’s always more of a draw for leading men,” said senior screenwriting major Carlotta Harlan.

Even women who have well-established careers in the film industry have observed a resistance to prominently featuring female characters. Dodge faculty member Susie Landau Finch, who is a teacher of Actor-Director Workshop as well as an actress, writer, and producer, has established a film fund to get female-centric films made.

“I have four to six projects with strong female characters in development. I was told by prominent Hollywood producers when I wrote a script, ‘Well, rewrite it from the man’s point of view. It’s too female, too lyrical, and too poetic.’”

So then, what exactly are the women of Dodge doing to address this problem in Hollywood? They are hard at work on their own material; material that they hope will balance the scales.

“My script this year is a coming of age drama about a woman who has an affair with her boss’s husband,” said Yasuda.

What Yasuda and other filmmakers are trying to convey in their own work is that female characters shouldn’t be seen as “female”, but rather, just people. By writing female characters who have flaws and complicated inner lives, they hope to shatter the film stereotype of the sexy, put-together, polite, and docile woman.

“There is no real great different approach you have to undertake as a writer to write fully dimensional women. A lot of guys are like ‘I don’t know how to write female characters’ and I’m like ‘Here’s how, you write a male character, and then change their name,” said Verchota.

What does the future of women in film look like? The women of Dodge view the future with cautious optimism.

“I do believe it’s getting better and improving, but it’s frustratingly slow,” said Verchota.

The women of Dodge believe that the solution will be a generational one. Millennials entering the film industry today are more conscious about feminism and equality. And perhaps, as they start to run the show, their views will also shape the landscape.

“I think once our age is in a position of being in charge and running Hollywood in the next five to ten years, it’s going to be super, super different,” said Harlan.

Susie Landau Finch’s advice to young women wanting to affect change in the film industry is to continue telling your truth, to take action, and to continue questioning the way things are.

You have to change how things get cast and made, so I’m not complaining and rolling my eyes anymore. I don’t want to be part of that thing just going ‘Ugh, that’s so screwed up’. I just want to change it from inside out and I feel that I have the tools at this point.”


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