I wanted to share Jennifer Vandever's post on her blog because I thought it was timely and smart. Jennifer is the author of the very wonderful "The Bronte Project," which is just being published in the UK. I believe it is already out here in the US.
In her great essay, A Room of One's Own, Virginia Woolf pondered the strange gulf between the position of women in society versus the rather more elevated one enjoyed in literature and on the stage:
Imaginatively she is of the highest importance; practically she is completely insignificant. She pervades poetry from cover to cover; she is all but absent from history. She dominates the lives of kings and conquerers in fiction; in fact she was the slave of any boy whose parents forced a ring upon her finger. Some of the most inspired words, some of the most profound thoughts in literature fall from her lips; in real life she could hardly read, could scarcely spell, and was the property of her husband.
I thought about these words quite a bit lately as I anxiously awaited the opening of the film version of The Devil Wears Prada. No, I wasn't anxious for any directly personal reasons: I had no hand in making the film, knew no one who worked on it, I hadn't even read the book. I was concerned that it do well because it may push Hollywood studios ever so slightly in the direction of making films about women again. For those of you who don't work in the film business and haven't ever tried to sell a "female-driven project" to the gatekeepers of the movie biz, let me fill you in on what's been happening: women have fallen off the radar. In Her Shoes did badly. Ladies, shame on you for not going to it -- no more movies for you. I'm only slightly exaggerating here.
What we are experiencing is a crazy fun-house reversal of Woolf's pre-20th century woman. Women, at least those of us lucky enough to be born into a democratic, first world culture, today enjoy remarkable freedoms that could barely be imagined centuries ago: we can vote, drive cars, wander about unchaperoned, own property, inherit money, use credit cards, receive an education. We are no longer the slave of any boy whose parents force a ring on our fingers. We even get to choose whom we marry and why. We can also get divorced if it doesn't work out. What a world! And yet, take a look up at the screen and we see...hm....no women.
This isn't to say there are no women at all up on the screens. The Break Up did very well, yes. Yay, Jennifer! But it was marketed as The Wedding Crashers visit Rachel on Friends, emphasizing the male bonding between actors Vince Vaughn and Jon Favreau. The only other successful romantic comedies of the past year? Wedding Crashers and Failure to Launch. Even the romantic comedy has become a male-dominated genre departing from its egalitarian history of dueling equals found in The Awful Truth and Philadelphia Story.
Remember how thin the Best Actress category seemed this year at the Oscars (and three of the five came from either the independent film world or Great Britain)? And how the men's category seemed awfully deep while still leaving out at least two brilliant performances (Ralph Fiennes in The Constant Gardener and Eric Bana in Munich)? It's the usual stuff that gets trotted out for the annual "where are the women?" think-piece in the New York Times. But what doesn't get reported is how screenwriters, directors and producers are navigating that reality. After writing three admired-but-unproduced scripts with strong female protagonists, my most recent screenplay was a romantic comedy largely driven by the male lead (it won a contest, it got me meetings, but alas, one of the other main characters was gay which made it a tougher sell in the pre-Brokeback days). Or as Murphy Brown creator Diane English was quoted in the latest Written By, the Writer's Guild magazine regarding her seven year journey to re-make The Women and her general insistence on developing female-centric stories: "I'll say, 'look at Desperate Housewives, Sex and the City, Golden Girls, and in film, 9 to 5, The First Wives Club, Waiting to Exhale, and Steel Magnolias,' and they go, 'Fluke. Fluke. Fluke. Fluke. Fluke. Fluke, fluke, fluke…'"
This quote was particularly depressing coming from someone as successful as English. But it's a familiar trope, one that I've grown all too used to as a screenwriter now trying to set up the film version of my first novel. The Brontë Project has a (gasp) central female character, and even references in its very title Charlotte Brontë, one of the alleged progenitors of chick-lit -- a fact the Brontë sisters would find amusing since their work when first published was criticized for being too crude and unfit for female consumption. This in itself is a reminder of just how slippery notions of masculine and feminine can be. Alas, chick lit and her sister-in-media, the chick flick, has now come to simply mean anything written by, for, or about women. Anything. A central female character automatically makes one's work a niche project, a specialty film. This is something one must downplay in pitch meetings, assuring the powers that be that this isn't just the story of a woman -- no, there are a number a great, vivid male characters. Which is true. But it still feels creepy -- as if I and the producer and director I'm working with must downplay wanting to tell a woman's story. Who would be so foolish as to do such a thing?
Which brings me back to The Devil Wears Prada. The common wisdom these days is that the most desired audience member is the 15 year-old boy: he buys popcorn (a key source of revenue for theaters), he sees movies on their opening weekend, he doesn't read reviews. It's also assumed that a girl will go to a boy's movie but a boy will never see a girl's. And I don't even think Devil is specifically a girl's movie but it most certainly will be perceived (and is being marketed) as pure chick-flick. The happy ending (at least for now) is that Prada far exceeded the expectation of industry analysts who predicted a debut of less than $20 million (the film grossed $27 million in its opening weekend). "I don't know what to say. This is beyond my expectations," Bruce Snyder, 20th Century Fox's head of distribution, said of the film's opening numbers.
Hopefully speechless Bruce and his friends at the big studios will start saying "yes" to female-driven stories instead of simply, "fluke." Yes, it does seem silly to pin one's hopes on something so frothy. But if contemporary women, with all their buying power and social advances, want to start seeing films featuring the experience of the other half of the world's population then hopefully the film business won't remain forever the slave of any boy with the price of a ticket.
note from Karen: As a person who has optioned her book to Hollywood, I am hopeful that the powers that be continue making women's movies. I went to see The Devil Wears Prada the weekend it opened and was delighted to see a theater full of women. Very unusual. My friend (and screenwriter for The Ivy Chronicles), Tracey Jackson, says that right now, it's the men's movies that are getting the green light in Hollywood - vehicles for Ben Stiller, Will Farrell, Jack Black and that gang. And after last weekends's blockbuster release of Pirates of the Carribean (I know, I can't spell), we'll see a lot more of those big event/theme park ride movies getting made. Not a movie I'd go see, but my son was first in line this weekend. It's discouraging. Bottom line: we should support women's stories that are made into movies or there will be fewer and fewer of them.
Monday, July 10, 2006