For some time, Los Angeles-based filmmaker Ross Putman had been posting the more egregious examples of misogyny he’d come across while reading screenplays on a private industry-centric Facebook group. In February, he decided to go public with the posts and created @femscriptintros – a Twitter feed that quickly went viral as it exposed just how much sexism can be efficiently packed into remarkably short character introductions.
In the feed, Putman copies brief passages from screenplays verbatim – except for the actual character name, which is always substituted with JANE. He does this in part to conceal the identities of the screenwriters behind the character introductions, but also to emphasize the one-dimensional approach so many writers tend to take when creating female characters.
Yes, Putman identifies as a straight, white male, and the irony there isn’t lost on him; rather, Putman acknowledges that part of the reason the feed blew up could very well be because he is a man. But he hopes that, regardless of the reason the feed has caught on, it can serve as a message to industry professionals and aspiring artists alike to be more inclusive of women and minorities in content creation going forward.
Now that @femscriptintros has settled into the cultural conversation surrounding a lack of diversity in Hollywood – a conversation that continues to build with the #OscarsSoWhite movement – we wanted to ask Putman a few questions about the response he’s received, where the root of the problem lies, and what, if any, solutions exist to encourage stronger representations of gender and minorities within the industry.
TB: You’ve been posting these in a Facebook group for a while, but what inspired you to take it public to Twitter with @femscriptintros?
RP: Honestly, it came from my wife getting tired of me complaining about them. I was horrified by the way women were being treated in so many scripts, and I started keeping track of them simply to look for patterns. The end result was disturbing, to say the least. And Twitter seemed like the right way to get them out there so people could see what I was seeing. I had no idea it would become so big, but I’m really happy that people are responding to the message.
Were you concerned about – or have you experienced – any backlash from other members within the industry? For “talking out of school,” so to speak?
I was definitely worried that I’d get some angry phone calls – but honestly, that never happened. I’m 30 years old, and within my peer group of executives, producers, agents, directors, etc., the response has been overwhelmingly positive – many of my friends are saying “we’ve seen this too, and we agree,” which is pretty cool. That was the hope: that we’d keep talking about it, and that we’d want to see positive change.
As a filmmaker, you’ve explored issues of female sexuality, in First Girl I Loved, for example. Did you ever run up against these issues sexual bias during your own experience developing and producing your own films?
FIRST GIRL I LOVED is a film about a lesbian high schooler, made by a straight man. So from the very beginning, we put a lot of thought into how the film portrayed its characters, the difficult sexual issues at the core — which we feel are authentic to the high school experience — and sought out the opinion of a great number of female filmmakers and lesbian filmmakers, as well as non-filmmakers across the board. For Kerem (my director), it was about taking our character on an emotional journey, and if you can explore those emotions, strive to understand them, and treat your subject with respect, you’re on the right track. But honestly, it comes down to thinking about what you’re doing before you do it. Really understanding all of the angles.
In terms of getting the film made, we thankfully didn’t run into too many problems with fundraising and logistics; that being said, the film’s budget was small, so whether or not that would hold true for a $20 or $30 million film, I’m not sure.
From your experience, where do you see the tendency to write women in a one-dimensional, objectifying way coming from? Are screenwriters – a majority of whom tend to identify as white, male, heterosexual – the source of the problem, or are they complying to a broader sexual bias that exists within the industry?
I don’t think anyone is really doing this purposefully; it’s part of a history of how women are seen within the context of film. They’ve long been the “reason” for a male character to do something, or the object of affection for a male character, thus motivating his actions. We haven’t had a very long history of central female characters driving whole stories, and while there are some great examples, men have always been front and center. But that’s a problem that starts with a lack of women behind the camera, too.
Bias doesn’t only exist against female characters, but also characters of different races, ethnicities, ages, and physical appearances (weight, for example). When is it appropriate to include these factors in the character description, and when should it be left to the casting director?
At the end of the day, many casting decisions are pragmatic ones. In other words, we cast the person that gets the movie greenlit. Certainly I don’t want to tell a writer that what’s in their head shouldn’t be on the page. However, is it really important that the character be blonde? Or does it matter? If Natalie Portman wants to do the film, wouldn’t you be excited that she’s on board? Physical attributes that are relevant to the way the character fits into a story are, of course, okay. But remember: this is a template for a film, not a novel. It’s a technical document and should do something to help the actor play the part. I personally prefer when the writer has fun with an introduction and gives you a feel for the character rather than simply describing them (let alone in a lascivious way).
In response to coverage I submitted critiquing a writer’s handling of female characters, I once received a note from a Creative Executive suggesting that without such descriptions “to underscore the attractiveness of the character,” agents and managers will hesitate to give these scripts to their clients–a matter of ego, presumably. It’s impossible to say if that was the truth, but I’m curious, have you ever heard of this?
There are all sorts of horror stories about how shallow the business can be. But, on the other hand, actresses like Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Lawrence have personally complained about the lack of good roles. Ultimately, we know movie stars will play these parts, so why does it matter if they’re described as “attractive” first and foremost? To me, it seems like a bad argument to protect entrenched attitudes.
Let’s talk positives. Can you provide an example of an ideal introduction to a character, female or otherwise? In other words, as a filmmaker, what do you look for in a character description?
There are so many ways to describe women. Here’s a great way to start: think of them as three-dimensional human beings. What gets them out of bed in the morning? How do they interact with the people around them? What’s their point of view? If they’re only described in terms of physical appearance, that’s a subtle way of suggesting their value in the world is solely as a physical object–which is the problem. So as long as you’re not doing that, I think you’re on the right track.
There’s been some backlash from people suggesting that part of the reason the Twitter feed has become so viral is because a man is behind it, whereas female driven tumblr accounts and feeds that exposed similar sexism failed to catch the media’s attention. What’s your response?
I think there are a few reasons, now that I’ve had a second to consider, that @femscriptintros became so big, so fast. Part of it, is that I put my name on it – and I’m not saying that for any narcissistic reason – but it’s that there’s a specific, tangible person who can be put forth as “inside” the industry with something to lose. Beyond that, I agree with Rose McGowan when she said it’s popular because a man did it – she’s probably right. Because I’m a man, outsiders can see me as someone without any skin in the game; in other words, I’m not a woman, so me pointing these things out isn’t complaining, it’s simply “fact.” Now there is a whole lot of charged, sexist subtext to those assumptions, especially the assumption that women bringing up injustice is “complaining,” and honestly, I don’t totally know why my Twitter took off when others have been trailblazing these subjects for years. But I do think misogyny plays a role in it too, and it’s worth me realizing that it’s always easier for a man to complain about something or point out problems (especially a white heterosexual man) than it is for a woman, or any person of color. In the end, my goal is to be an ally and support the conversation about changing attitudes in Hollywood and elsewhere.
As a producer and filmmaker yourself, what solutions would you offer to counteract the poor handling of female characters in scripts and the industry in general?
You can see my above statement about ideal introductions, but honestly: get more women behind the camera. Seek out female voices as directors and writers. Because the more women you have making movies, the less this kind of writing would ever be considered acceptable.
Finally, are you optimistic about the overall direction in which the industry is moving with regard to equality and diversity?
I am optimistic, yes. The reaction from my peer group–which includes people of all different races, ethnicities, genders, and backgrounds–has been overwhelmingly positive. They all want change in the way we tell stories. So many incredible filmmakers and activists are working to make those changes. But it’s still a frustratingly slow process, and every little step forward makes a difference.
Josh Lyons | Managing Editor