Before cameras even begin to roll, female characters suffer sexism in how they are described on the pages of screenplays. But what can we do to improve this?
In Hollywood scripts, male characters are commonly named and described expansively, whereas female characters are often unnamed, highly sexualised, infantalised and meagrely described. Research also shows that male characters dominate time on screen, dialogue on screen, and narrative action.
How characters are described in screenplays matters, because it impacts on production practices, the nature of workplaces, the films produced, and the gender representations we see daily on our screens.
The problems of male domination on our screens and behind the scenes are systemic, institutionalised and widespread. They are not caused or even demonstrated by any individual screenplay or screenwriter, but the solutions can begin at this level.
How to write female characters in screenplays
The good news is that although sexist descriptions of female characters are common in Hollywood scripts, some recent scripts - including those featuring strong female protagonists and written by men - describe male and female characters in similar ways. They include the screenplay for Gravity (2013) by Alfonso Cuaron and Jonas Cuaron, and the screenplay for Wild by Nick Hornby.
Still, they are exceptions. Here, then, are four simple ways screenwriters can counter gender bias in screenplays. Producers, directors and script assessors can also request to see these principles applied in the scripts they read.
1. Give female characters names.
Female characters in screenplays are named less often than male characters; they are more likely to simply be given a title such as Mother, Wife, Daughter, or Little Hottie (as Peter Landesman names a character in the opening pages of Kill the Messenger, 2014).
2. Give female names to lines of dialogue and actions.
If you’ve got a line of dialogue, even a minor one, assign it a female name by default. Only 10% of films have a gender-balanced cast, so giving minor lines of dialogue to female characters will ameliorate the balance of who speaks on screen.
3. Give all characters a similar amount of description when you introduce them.
Female characters are usually given less character description than male ones. Often female characters are afforded no character description at all.
For example, Nancy (played by Sienna Miller) appears on about 20 pages of the script for Foxcatcher (2014) by E Max Frye and Dan Futterman, but she is never given any character description, unlike the male characters.
It’s not hard to give a roughly equal amount of description to male and female characters.
If your approach to character description is minimalist, that’s fine – just apply it evenly, as in the screenplay for Nebraska (2013) written by Bob Nelson. Nelson might give a character’s rough age or describe what they wear, but the description focuses primarily on their actions - for male and female characters.
If your approach to character description is more fulsome, apply that to male and female characters alike, as in the screenplay for August Osage County (2013) written by Tracy Letts. For example, Letts introduces Mattie Fae and Charles: “MATTIE FAE AIKEN, sixty-one, Violet’s baby sister, larger than life, is in the passenger seat. CHARLIE, Mattie Fae’s husband, easy-going, is behind the wheel.”
4. Describe a female character’s personality and attitude.
Female characters are more likely to be described solely in terms of their appearance; male characters are more likely to be described in terms of their personality, attitudes, motivations, and esteem.
Describing the way all characters look (you’re writing for visual media) and something about their personality or attitude will counter these troubling trends.
When describing a crowd scene, write in the script, ‘A crowd gathers, which is half female.’ That may seem weird, but I promise you, somehow or other on the set that day the crowd will turn out to be 17 percent female otherwise.
If screenwriters followed these simple guidelines, it would improve working conditions for performers and production staff, it would humanise the women and girls we see on screen, and it might help the way audiences think about their own gender identity and relations.
While you’re improving how female characters are written in your scripts, look for opportunities to write in and write well other people who are traditionally marginalised by screen industries: people of colour, indigenous people, people with disabilities, working class people, people in poverty, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer people.
Following these simple guidelines might even make your screenplay a better read than the competition, and help get it made.