The Vagenda

Lady Parts In Film: My Disappointing Life as a Female Actor

I am an actor who is a woman; some people call that an actress. Aside from crying, jobless, in their pyjamas, an actor’s main activity is moaning about stuff. Usually this ‘stuff’ is what they perceive to be the cause of their unemployment: nepotism, shit agents, Tories – that sort of thing. It would be easy to dismiss this piece as an extended rant of that ilk, just as it would be easy to dismiss it as one of those intensely personal feminist diatribes that women only launch into when a man gets promoted instead of them and SUDDENLY they feel the jackboot of the patriarchy on their previously compliant face. Earlier this week, when I attempted to partake in a discussion on the UK’s leading independent filmmakers’ network’s forum, my opinions were very neatly categorised – by the male writers and directors taking part – as exactly that.
The thread started in a pleasing vein, with one forum member raising the pertinent question: Does your screenplay pass the Bechdel Test? This ‘test’ is actually a series of questions which cartoonist Alison Bechdel raised in the mid-80s as a very low-bar measure of female representation in films. The questions are, and apologies for any paraphrasing:
1) Are there at least 2 female characters in the film?
2) Do 2 of those female characters talk to each other?
3) Do those 2 characters talk about something other than a man?
(Ho ho, you may think, piff paff. This is a very attainable set of criteria. In real life, every day, every man, woman and child will see all of the above many times. This is ordinary. Let me apply it to the films I see in my DVD rack: Good Will Hunting. There’s Minnie Driver…and..erm. Oh! How strange, there’s only one woman. All those men, and just the one woman. A freak example, surely! World War Z. There’s three: the wife, the soldier lady and the scientist lady! The wife never meets the other two, but the scientist lady talks to Brad Pitt when the soldier lady is in the room! But I guess that doesn’t count. Silver Linings Playbook. Jennifer Lawrence talks to Bradley Cooper’s mum! But they only talk about him, don’t they? If you think I’m picking unrepresentative films, test your collection and see how it fares.)     
And do you know what? No-one who replied to the thread answered in the affirmative. Instead, several people questioned the criteria, as if these outrageous ‘rules’ were some kind of infringement to creativity. Because, of course, some bullshit, third-rate, Lock Stock-fellating ‘low budget British gangster movie’ is so fresh and boundary-pushing. If actual real life is such a tiresome template for your characterisation to follow, why aren’t all your male leads speaking in different languages and painted purple?
A very relevant question was pushed under the carpet; none of the male filmmakers wanted to examine – or even acknowledge – the problem or their own powerful role as perpetrator or potential solution. It called to mind a large bank denying allegations of sexism and refusing to discuss why they have no female executives, and that made me sad. Here were supposedly free and creative people so intoxicated and brainwashed by the Hollywood model of film-making, that they couldn’t even see the patterns.
Hollywood studio executives peddle the story that movies are male-dominated because men make up a bigger percentage of cinema goers, as if there is some automatic logic that men only like to watch men. Let’s assume for a second that (worrying as it would be) men and boys can’t empathise with female characters, only male, and vice versa: wouldn’t making male-dominated movies be the thing that’s keeping female audiences away? Wouldn’t balancing it out so that male-heavy films are equal in number to female-heavy films, and so that lots of films have well-rounded male AND female characters, ensure more women came to the cinema?
Another tired justification for the invisibility of realistic women in cinema is the comparative lack of female writers and directors AS IF ONLY MEN CAN WRITE ABOUT MEN AND WOMEN ABOUT WOMEN. All those efforts to nurture more female filmmakers are great but, maybe the existing male screenwriters should also just use their brains and write some proper fucking female characters. Honestly, writers: human beings think and behave like human beings, just some hurt themselves more if they bump their crotch on a table.  
And this isn’t Hollywood! This is low-budget, independent British film, free from the commercial pressures of needing your film to ‘test well.’ Where you can make a film on a shoestring that says something important, whether that’s ‘end war’, ‘lesbians aren’t weird’, or most earth-shattering of all, ‘women are functioning sentient beings and exactly as interesting as men.’ But most days, I read an indie film casting breakdown along the lines of “casting for the roles of Jack, Tom, Fred, Mike, Jack’s girlfriend, Fred’s mum and Prostitute.” Male characters have names and things to do. Female characters are ciphers, there to look disappointed with their boyfriend, or worried about their son, or naked. The Prostitute thing is not flippant; it is genuinely one of the most common role names in these productions. What is it saying if those writers all think the most interesting and complex expression of womanhood is prostitution? Or perhaps it’s just a great way to get some tits on screen.
I’ve lost count of the number of times I’m told to fight this tide by writing my own film, my own good female roles. My twin responses are: 1) “I’m an actor; if it’s that easy to switch and write a good screenplay WHY ARE YOU FINDING IT SO HARD?” and 2) “If a financial analyst keeps getting passed over for promotion, would you recommend she starts her own bank?” 
Yes, in a purely selfish way, I want to do interesting work. I want to play real people and explore the kinks and dilemmas that they face. Without wanting to sound like a total dick, I want to explore all aspects of the human condition from the inside. I also, as a film fan, want to watch stories about and involving fascinating and compelling women. But, above all, I’m terrified for the men and women who just swallow the fact that women are kept in the margins, the children who see it as the norm that men are the protagonists in fiction and therefore in life.  Tonight I’m watching the Bechdel-est film ever, Blue Crush. Who knew that would be a political act? 

9 thoughts on “Lady Parts In Film: My Disappointing Life as a Female Actor

  1. I’ve felt for a long time now that film is for and about men while TV is for and about women. In this context ‘for’ means speaking to or prioritising. The TV in the home is what all the good little wives watch and make household purchasing decisions based on commercials – so it’s a fem-skewed medium. Whereas film seems to be the wish-fulfillment of a mainly male industry. They all desperately want to be the hero with a buddy sidekick and that’s the story they choose to tell over and over and over.
    As TV becomes more cinematic (thanks HBO) and film-making more democratised (thanks digital recording), maybe we’ll see a gradual change.

  2. It made me very happy when I somehow got sucked into watching Whip It recently and realised that it was a teen movie that both passed the Bechdel Test and in which the main character dumped her boyfriend when he just wasn’t up to scratch and wasn’t talked round into giving him another chance. It made me want to force all teenage girls to watch this immediately and give Drew Barrymore a big hug.

  3. And if you *really* want to find nothing to watch, try the Bechdel test corollary: films where a — even ANY — female character ends up (a) unhitched, (b) happy and (c) alive. Two that manage this: Frozen River, Sunshine Cleaning. Good luck.

  4. Fantastic, funny, and well-written article. Best luck with your acting career but if ever do write the female version of Hollywood Shuffle, I look forward to watching it!

  5. I had a horrible time thinking about the Bechdel Test and the most beloved film in my personal collection, Hot Fuzz. Sure, there are LOADS of named female characters in it – but I’m hard pressed to think of a conversation between them. The closest I can think is when Sgt. Angel is introduced to Leslie Tiller and Joyce Cooper says ‘oh, she’s ever so good.’ Leslie says, ‘oh, go on.’

    CAN THAT REALLY BE IT? I’m dying, here.