The Content of Our Character(s): On Female Characters in Theatre & Film

I received this casting notice in my email today:  casting notice 1

Let’s talk about this for a second.  There are six roles in this one-act and of those, only two are for women.  This play is also written and directed by men so that’s two more men.  So women make up a measly 25% of this entire creative project.

Now let’s look at the characters and their descriptions.  First, let us consider the length of each description.  Obviously, Noah is our main character, not only because he is referenced in every other character’s description, but also because his description is the lengthiest.  Our two female characters have barely a sentence.  The one exception here is that of our drug dealer, who has the shortest of all descriptions at just three words.  So in case you’re wondering, by description-length alone, women are only slightly more interesting than a drug dealer.

Now let’s get to the actual content of these descriptions.  It is obvious this writer has spent a LOT of time creating the character of Noah and even Sammy, his best friend.  As an actor, I can read Noah’s description and get an understanding of where he is emotionally and physically in his life before I read one word of dialogue.  I can identify with being a recent college grad stuck in an endless cycle of part-time jobs, being worried about success, and even struggling with the idea of committing to something or someone.  He sounds like an actual person with actual feelings.

And then there are the two female characters; our 25% of the play, whose descriptions also make them out to be about 25% of an actual person.  And this is what I REALLY want to talk about, because I want you to understand just how much gender disparity there is in the entertainment industry.  It’s not just about HOW MANY roles and jobs there are for women, it is also about the QUALITY of the roles and jobs available to women.  I read character breakdowns every day for a variety of projects, and the majority look something like this one.

In this play, I have a choice: either I am Noah’s current love interest who “also happens to be a stripper” (Go figure!  Probably with a “heart of gold” too!) OR I can be Noah’s ex-girlfriend who is a lawyer (read: probably a “bitch”).  Either way, the female character is there solely to be tied to our male protagonist.  Their relationship to our male protagonist, Noah, is their whole character description. And while that’s true for all the other characters in this play, this is the case with 90% of the female character breakdowns I read every day.  Almost every single one is about how that woman relates to another man in the project as if her having her own life and personality is impossible to imagine or write.  Who are these women?  What do we know about them other than their relationship to our main male protagonist?  In this particular example, we know nothing except that one is a stripper and the other is a lawyer, which brings me to my next point…

Women are frequently written as stereotypes and/or labels, not people.  This ties in to how society often sees and labels women.  Almost every female character breakdown I read is mainly physical (“curvy but skinny…” is always my favorite…which is NOT a real thing, dudes) and/or panders to a very specific stereotype: whore, stripper, virgin, mother, bitch, nerdy best friend, girl next door, manic pixie dream girl.  Not only does this reduce half the population to being one-dimensional, purely physical beings, it’s also incredibly lazy writing.  Instead of doing the harder job of writing a real woman with real flaws, the writer reduces her to a “flawed” stereotype like a stripper as if that fills in all the missing character development the writer should have written in the first place.  And for the record, there are plenty of women who are strippers who aren’t solely that one thing and are probably lovely individuals who AREN’T doing it as a “cry for help” or are in need of a male savior figure (even Jesus Christ).  Maybe the problem is that even the word “woman” carries with it so much baggage and so many assumptions that some writers have a hard time sifting through that to see that women are people first and “women” second.  We have hopes and fears and struggles and triumphs and they are not so different from the men around us.  Conflict resolution and emotional development are universal; women and men experience these things every day regardless of gender, so why is it easier for so many writers to develop and write real male characters but not real female ones?  Is it any wonder that actresses like Julia Roberts, Sandra Bullock, AND Emily Blunt are all starring in films this fall (Secret in Their Eyes, Our Brand is Crisis, and Sicario, respectively) where their roles were originally written for men?

This one example is far and away not the worst, but it shows how far we still have to go for women in this business.  If we are to take the old adage, “write what you know” seriously, then not only do we need more female writers writing projects for women, we also need to hold male writers accountable for the KINDS of female characters they write.  Unless these men exclusively hang out with hookers-with-hearts-of-gold and virginal cheerleaders (and honestly, if they do, they have some deep psychological issues that probably need working out), then why can’t they write a woman as a real person beyond a label?  Even their mothers and wives are more than their mothers and wives, if they have the chutzpah to actually try to write it.

There are so many talented male writers and directors out there that I want to work with who create and tell wonderful stories.  Is it so much to ask that more of them feature women as actual people?  Is it so much to ask more of them are about women, period? We can do better than 25%.  We can do better than stereotypical labels.  Julia Roberts, Sandra Bullock, and Emily Blunt shouldn’t have to re-write male parts, and if these women at the top of their game are being forced to do that, then those of us in the earlier phases of our acting careers have it pretty bleak indeed.

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