Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The Invisible (wo)Man in Hollywood - The Female Screenwriter

Who knew the word 'writer' was a gendered noun like 'steward,' 'king,' and 'stallion.' Got this insight via a righteous rant called The Evolution of the "Male" Hollywood Writer by Melissa Silverstein of the Women & Hollywood blog.

We've talked a lot in the festival about this. The festival was started because of the comedy competition featured in the Writer's Guild magazine four years ago. Not one of the finalists was a woman. Since submissions were blind, many felt the contest was objective proof that women just don't write the stuff of movies. Many people, men and women, feel that women writers should stop whining and start writing better. Period.

After three years of reading scripts and watching films by women, I see the problem as one of fundamental worldview divergence. Bear with me as I take jump back in time to explain.

I remember the fuss a number of years back about the Kohlberg Scale which rated moral development in humans. Kohlberg happened to find men's moral development spread out along a nice sigma curve and women more or less clustered in the middle. At the time, the conclusions drawn suggested that while women as a group were more 'good,' they lacked the qualities to rise to moral greatness. Here we see the same pattern of thinking that dominates this business, where many of the movers and shakers regret the 'reality' that women's scripts, while not bad, are not quite good enough to warrant the money and effort that goes into a studio movie.

Kohlberg's Scale used a hierarchy of values derived from all male subjects. One research assistant at the time, Carol Gilligan, saw that when women were included, they struggled against the frame of responses written into the test. Later, her own research into the field suggested that women operated on a different scale, one based on maintaining a web or relationships rather than an ladder of individual attainment. On her scale, men came up mostly in the middle - the majority being neither terrible nor great.

Imagine two axes, like a plus sign (+). Viewed from the side, the vertical line shows its full length but the horizontal one appears as just a blob in the middle. Shift perspective and look down from the top, and suddenly the horizontal has a full range and the vertical is stuck at the middle.

My experience with the festival and reading all the scripts that come through illustrate this difference perfectly. I've been reading to find out what women write and not looking to see how well they fit in the Hollywood paradigm. In general, the scripts I get from women tend create a world into which they put a character or characters and then proceed to create the humor out of what the world elicits from its denizens. The end result is a shift in the "fittingness" of the people into the world. This is contrary to the entertainment biz wisdom of making a script about one character's journey, building the world around the character so as to maximize the humor/drama/suspense/you-name-the-genre, and shattering the world if need be to deliver the character to his destiny. This is very broad, but bear with me a bit more.

These women's scripts do not deliver the same monumental climax and a cigarette that the men's scripts do, hence their perceived weakness. And while there is nothing wrong with the way men climax, the world is poorer when women's climaxes are not also a part of the public narrative. From watching audiences male and female who are watching the films in our festival that have been made from women's stories. it turns out that the guys enjoy the multi-climax experience enthusiastically. It is not that the typical Hollywood structure is wrong; it has been polished and perfected for almost a hundred years. But it is a bit like a country with only one political party. It cannot help but degenerate. Room must be made for alternate narratives to be shown and polished so all films can benefit.

How do we do that? That is the question and challenge of the Broad Humor Film Festival, of this blog, and of my life.

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