How To Write Women Post #MeToo
In my first year attending the London Short Film Festival I was most looking forward to the LSFF 2019 Industry Program. There were many great topics on the table for discussion including the most heated debate in film world right now: How to write women post #MeToo. How do we want our female characters to speak and act on screen? They don’t always have to be Wonder Women with perfect hair and morals, they can be messy and vulnerable and that is ok too. It’s no secret that the world sensibility has shifted. What with world leaders and celebrities being scrutinised under a microscope for every choice they make and stupid tweet they post, you better believe Hollywood is walking on eggshells to toe the party line – gender discrimination is out and diversity is in. Well at least, that’s what it looks like on the shiny Hollywood botox surface of it all. Let’s dig deeper.
I arrived at the LSFF venue early and took a seat in the second row, keen but not too keen, I knew how to play it. The room slowly began to fill, mostly with progressive young women who are all as interested to learn and debate their place in this new film world as I am. A few moments later I overheard two young men talking in low voices. They were standing awkwardly in the aisle behind me and one said to the other as they surveyed the room, “how would it look to have two guys sitting in the front row?” Their tone was light and joking but I found it endlessly ironic that in a room full of #MeToo supporting women, these two young men were unsure of their place. Men are as much a part of the conversation in this post #MeToo world as women. It was never intended to be an ‘us versus them’ mentality but the idea of otherness can creep its way into any great cause no matter where its heart lies. I turned to these two men standing behind me, “you should totally sit in the front, I think it’s great.” The three of us shared a laugh and they did just that, they sat in the front row.
Why is #MeToo such a big deal?
Depending on how you look at it, the viral #MeToo movement is barely 1 year old but in other ways it’s been around for hundreds of years. Over the decades of the modern era we’ve seen various iterations of the movement. From the Suffragettes of the 20s, the Feminism burning bra movement of the 60s, it’s long and ongoing. Women continue to fight for basic equality. The #MeToo movement is yet another small piece of this extremely complicated puzzle.
#MeToo went viral in October 2017 when a series of famous American actresses began posting on twitter and sharing their stories of sexual harassment from within the film industry. Alyssa Milano, Ashley Judd, Uma Thurman and many other high profile celebrity women (and men) shared deeply personal and confronting stories. This is what really got the world fired up. More accurately though, #MeToo had really begun nearly 10 years earlier by black civil rights activist Tarana Burke. Burke coined the phrase in response to sexual abuse and to create empowerment by sharing empathy. The phrase had been alive for years but for better or worse it was rich and glamorous Hollywood which helped it find the spotlight.
Since Hollywood took over, #MeToo has become a symbol of the sexual harassment and gender discrimination of the film industry. So many influential and powerful women have shared their personal stories and been instrumental in normalising the stigma around these conversations. The very public take down of disgraced mogul Harvey Weinstein being the rally banner of the movement’s momentum.
How will this societal shift play out on our screens?
While the #MeToo movement is truly a win for female empowerment, there are just as many pitfalls to navigate now too. The characterisation of women in film is undergoing a complete restructure, one which challenges the traditional female archetype on screen and also challenges women of the industry to break their mould and write outside what is expected of them.
Women in front of the camera
We are seeing a rise in strong female characters across our screens. Strong, beautiful and powerful women who know what they want and know how to get it. Heroic women are truly great role models for any young people. Seeing the first Marvel superhero film starring not just any women but Wonder Woman (2017) directed by Patty Jenkins was an absolute joy for me. However, Wonder Woman isn’t your average lady. She isn’t your mother, or your neighbour or the teen cashier at your grocery store. There also needs to be just as many stories out there of women in all their shapes and flaws. Female characters don’t need to just fulfil archetypal roles of mother, wife and daughter. They can be complicated, they can be messy and ultimately, they can be unlikable. During the LSFF panel, Olivia Hetreed of the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain talked about the need to see less women cast in generic “trouser roles.” In a trouser role, “she’s a woman but she’s actually a man, just dressed as a woman… she’s doing all the things men did and she’s behaving morally and physically as if she were a man. They could actually just be women and not necessarily likeable and more complicated and not in control of their situation and have all sorts of other sides to them.”
Women behind the camera
For women behind the scenes the next challenge will be to break outside the comfort zone of telling femalcentric stories in the first place. Women are just as capable as writing male characters as men have been for writing women for hundreds of years. The trap of representation is the desire to bring honesty to a story. Women naturally gravitate to telling stories with female protagonists. But in truth, the real beauty and craft of filmmaking lies within the medium of the fictional story. It’s not only the story which is important but the lens in which the author/writer/director view through. Claudia Yusef of BBC Films said during the LSFF panel, “…the idea that femaleness cannot be the entire thing a character is about and bringing women’s voices into the mainstream as oppose to marginalising them. I think that’s the other danger right now… Women’s voices can write any type of film… so the non-ghettoising of women’s voices I think is really important.”
An outstanding recent example of women breaking the mould, is Lynne Ramsay who wrote and directed You Were Never Really Here (2018). This film is a psychological hitman thriller starring a grizzly Joaquin Pheonix. It is dark, gritty and very violent in all the right places. A genre and tone which one would regularly consider outside the boundaries of the usual femalecentric driven film. Sadly, You Were Never Really Here despite receiving positive reviews has been left on the outskirts of Hollywood’s annual award season and film has received little recognition.
I sing high praise of the #MeToo movement and all the welcomed conversation it brings. It doesn’t solve the problem though. Actually, it raises just as many questions as it does answers.
There are some serious limitations of #MeToo
When Hollywood adapted #MeToo and famous white American women began sharing their struggles, it was absolutely a win. I do not for one second want to take away from that huge step forward in history. It is a win for women everywhere. In this case specifically, privileged white women of Hollywood but that does not negate the important trickle down effect which reaches out. Change comes from the top down. However, it shone the spotlight in a direction which was not necessarily the one intended by the original #MeToo user and black civil rights activist Tanya Burke. This is the challenge of #MeToo. Who gets to be the spokesperson? Marginalised minority groups became overshadowed in the discussion: women of colour, non-binary people and the LGBTQ+ community play a minor role in what should be a movement which should include them as well. Equality means equality for all people. The inclusivity of #MeToo is severely limited and there is a long way to go in this ongoing conversation.
Filmmaker Nadia Latif said during the LSFF panel, “part of the difficulty in the #MeToo movement has been about who gets to be a spokeswoman. The point of being granted a platform is to know when you have to step aside and say ‘it is my job to be a platform to a voice that has a lived experience….’ When you get a room full of people together sometimes it’s not just about you all as women… you have to think about what it costs certain people to get to that room.”
We have to keep asking the hard questions, in a post #MeToo world, yes things might be changing but they are changing slowly and at varying rates of change for varying minorities. Women now have more opportunity in the workplace. Workplaces are revamping sexual harassment policies. Gender quotas and inclusivity schemes are becoming more regularly implemented. These are all great and positive steps but is true change really taking root?
Let’s look at an example of a #MeToo spin off movement. In 2018, there was a viral initiative to showcase diversity inside TV networks writer’s rooms. It was admirable without a doubt but it was also doomed to fail. The hashtag was simply: #ShowUsYourRoom. The call was for TV network showrunners to post photos of the writers of their shows, with the aim being to prove how inclusive and diverse these writers really were. On the surface it looked good. It looked like diversity was winning. Writers’ rooms from various TV shows shared their photos including Central Park, Insecure, The Chi, 13 Reasons Why and Power.
Here’s the inherent problem though. With a public call to action like #ShowUsYourRoom you find that those who participate are generally the people who are supportive of gender and diversity inclusion anyway. They are the people already waving the banner of change. When initiatives like this one pop up online, it looks good on the surface, it looks like there is systemic change happening but that is because those who are rooted in their ways are remaining quiet. There is still a long way to go until the statistics reflect the needle moving towards true industry diversity.
Filmmaker and co-founder of female collective Sorta Kinda Maybe Yeah, Laura Kirwan-Ashman said during the LSFF panel, “Intersectionality is the key to making any kind of change. Look at your bubble and if it looks a certain way then you need to change it.”
So how should we approach writing women, and on that note as well, diverse characters as a whole in our post #MeToo world? Well, truth is, it’s not necessarily the task that is difficult but the acknowledgement that this is a long game. It is about making women, all women, both behind the camera and in front of the camera empowered in their own perspectives. No single action or response is going to shift the needle, but a collective push just might.
Women don’t have to be Wonder Woman. Women can just be Women.
Panels and talks like How to write women post #MeToo at this years LSFF 2019 Industry Program are safe spaces to debate the trending topics of the industry right now. It’s an ideal place to get into the details of where the film world is heading and what we can do to change things moving forward. Looking around the LSFF room, full of women (and a very small handful of men) of the industry all desperate to charge ahead in a post #MeToo world, it’s a hopeful gathering. The change is coming however painfully slow it may seem.
The short answer on how to write women post #MeToo is - implement more diversity and different perspectives. Change comes from the top down and that in turn shall organically come through in the next generation of cinema.
“INDUSTRY: HOW TO WRITE WOMEN POST-#METOO” was held on 14:00 Fri 18 Jan 2019 as part of The London Short Film Festival.
PANELLISTS: Olivia Hetreed (Writers’ Guild of Great Britain), Laura Kirwan-Ashman (Filmmaker), Alice Guilluy (London Film Academy), Nadia Latif(Filmmaker, Young Vic Associate Director), Claudia Yusef (Head of Development, BBC Films)