Filmmaker Ross Putman struck a nerve Tuesday night when he started a Twitter account that only tweets the first descriptions of female characters in film scripts. Surprise surprise: they’re usually pretty sexist.
The account, @FemScriptIntros, has already amassed more than 10,000 followers due to the utter cringe-worthiness of the descriptors. The intros tend to rely on trite references to a woman’s beauty and vague adjectives that usually—what do you know—bring it back to her appearance.
Intrigued, I asked Putman about this project over email. As a producer and script reader, he estimates that in the last eight years, he’s read over 4,000 scripts.
He says that he used to complain about the horrible descriptions he’d encountered on Facebook in order to “remain sane.” Positive feedback from his friends—many of them also work in the film business—inspired him to start the Twitter account.
But the more that I read, the more I started to recognize some pretty awful constants. For every confused “you’re” and “your,” there’s just as much latent misogyny and sexism in the scripts I read. Women are first and foremost described as “beautiful,” “attractive,” or—my personal blow-my-brains-out-favorite, “stunning.” They’re always “stunning” in a certain dress or “stunning” despite being covered in dirt because they’re a paleontologist—or whatever. I found myself posting to Facebook far too often “here comes another script with our 45 year-old male lead dating a 25 year-old woman,” and decided I was going to keep track of the female character introductions in scripts I read for a few weeks.
I went back and combed through past scripts too, and the patterns were pretty disconcerting. I plan on posting every one that I read, and there are plenty that aren’t offensive, but honestly, most of them have some element—subtle or overt—that plays into latent objectification.
It’s obvious and unsurprising that a woman’s physical appearance is often considered a major character trait and a necessary piece of information for telling the story at hand.
When I asked about his “favorite” descriptions, Putman pointed to ones where a woman is vaguely described as “attractive/intelligent,” because, you know, what a novelty for a woman to be both:
Women are almost always, first and foremost, described based on their physical attractiveness. Which is, you know, subjective anyway depending on the person. But there’s a standard of beauty to which you know these writers are referring. The suggestion is that women are only valuable if they’re “beautiful.” It’s not always true, but it’s an underlying current. Beyond that, scripts always make a point of quite distinctly saying when someone “isn’t beautiful.”
In all of the tweets, he changes the characters’ names to Jane, in part to conceal their identity and therefore the identities of the screenwriters, but also to highlight the one-dimensional approach to so many of the women we see onscreen. Putman also notes the problem is systemic and he’s not trying to shame individual screenwriters, but rather point out that the entire industry needs to shift.
Changing the names to JANE for me, while maintaining that focus on systemic issues, also—at least, I think—demonstrates how female characters are often thought about in the same, simplistic and often degrading way. Giving them all the same name, I hope, emphasizes that. Jane is described in all these ways, because Jane has no control over her role in this world—which is far too often to be solely an object of desire, motivating the male characters that actually have agency in the script.
For me, Putman’s tweets help further my appreciation for the work of actresses who manage to take these banal starting points and actually craft interesting characters out of them.
Of course this all comes in the midst of the hurricane that has become the #OscarsSoWhite controversy. In that regard, his timing could not have been better. (Putman’s most recent project is a coming of age story about a teenage girl beginning to explore her sexuality, called First Girl I Loved. It premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.)
While it’s still too early to tell if anything will truly change, it’s safe to say that more people than ever are talking about diversity in Hollywood which, will hopefully make for sustainable changes.
The uproar over the Oscars shows that people are hungry to see change. New distributors like Vimeo have launched incubators for new female talent. Major female directors and directors of color are being considered for plum studio assignments more than ever before (see: Ava DuVernay, Ryan Coogler); however, the problem is that so much of the “base” of writers, directors, and filmmakers on the whole tend to still be white heterosexual males. I myself identify that way. But I think very few people get to see what things look like at the script level—and it can be very bleak.
Hollywood’s diversity problem is rooted in many different spheres—from who and what types of films are honored at awards shows, to the media machine that is often necessary for an actress or actor to gain the notoriety that even allows them to land roles that they might one day be awarded for.
When it comes to screenplays, it’s simplistic to say the problem is that not enough women or people of color or writing diverse stories. Those scripts are out there, but getting a project made or even just getting someone to read them is difficult.
Still, @FemScriptIntros proves that overall, many of the scripts out there undermine the efforts to put fully realized women onscreen, in subtly, painfully obvious, and sometimes hilarious ways.
Screenshot via Paramount Pictures.