Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Reading women's scripts

A while ago, I wrote an article about how it’s harder for New Zealand women to make feature films than it is for men. And I discussed how having women as script assessors and decision-makers appears not to help women filmmakers. And how I came to realise that I, too, tended to favour men’s work (as I also wrote here). The editor took those bits out and I wondered: Is this reality sometimes too hard to acknowledge?

I also invented two ‘Queen Bees’ for Development-the-movie, powerful women in the industry who privilege men. Readers from the radio broadcasting, television, and film sectors recognise these characters immediately. And some women say to me, about scenes I invented: “I didn’t tell you that story. It’s my story. Who told you? How could you use it?”

The Queen Bees and I are not alone in privileging men’s projects, so I've been thrilled to read some recent public discussion about this. Last week, Ela Thier wrote in Women & Hollywood, within a post about her own difficulties getting her scripts produced (& yes, there's a post about her article further down this page, too):
I teach screenwriting and consistently notice the different regard that I feel for my male and female students. No matter how ‘enlightened’ I think I am, I find myself having higher expectations of the guys. I just assume that they have more experience, more confidence, more intelligence…? I’ve recently noticed that when I receive quality work from a woman, I feel a sense of surprise. When I see amateur work from a man, I think “hmm… for some reason I had him pegged as an experienced writer.” For some reason.
Pnc commented in response to the post as a whole:
Boy do I relate. My first attempt at making a feature…I only sent out contribution letters to people I thought cared about me and wanted to see my dreams come true. I learned soon enough that if you’re female and a filmmaker, most people won’t support your dreams. In that same year I saw five of my male counterparts raise money in the exact same way, successfully, and went on to make their features.
I wondered, where Pnc refers to ‘people’, how many of them were women? Does the way women privilege men's projects sometimes extend to our responses to requests for film funding from women we know?

In new research, reported in the New York Times (thanks for the tweet MadamaAmbi) Emily Glassberg Sands, a Princeton economics student, shows that the Queen Bee problem exists in theatre too. Emily sent identical scripts to artistic directors and literary managers around the United States. Half named a man as the writer (e.g. Michael Walker) and half a woman (e.g. Mary Walker). Women artistic directors and literary managers gave ‘Mary’s’ scripts significantly worse ratings than ‘Michael’s’ in terms of quality, economic prospects and audience response. Men rated ‘Michael’s’ and ‘Mary’s’ scripts the same.

(Emily also found that plays that feature women—more commonly written by women—are less likely to be produced. And when she measured plays and musicals produced on Broadway over ten years, plays and musicals by women sold 16% more tickets each week and were 18% more profitable overall, but producers did not keep them running any longer than less profitable shows written by men—evidence of discrimination. However she did not investigate the producers' genders, lots more work to be done.)

Here's Emily's Powerpoint presentation, thanks to Off-Stage Right, so you can read the details.

Let’s hope that Emily’s research will help us women to talk more about our responses to scripts with other women’s names on. And help us to take action, encouraged by the information in Accelerating Change for Women and Girls: The Role of Women's Funds, from the Foundation Center and the Women's Funding Network. The report shows that philanthropic giving by and for women is on the rise. "This study underscores that investments in women and girls can have big social returns," said Bradford K. Smith, president of the Foundation Center.

Perhaps philanthropists—including people who know and care about us—don't yet see women's storytelling as a vehicle for change for women. But imagine the big social returns from investment in women's films. Could this imagining motivate us all to support women's projects as strongly as men's?

One of my Queen Bees redeems herself. Maybe the rest of us can, too.

(Playwright Julia Jordan, herself a keen researcher into the issues, in some way facilitated Emily Glassberg Sands' research.)

1 comment:

  1. this is such hard but vital reading. it's like hearing your own mother be mean about you or something like that. it's so sad too. this is a great thing to air, to debate and for everyone not to be scared of discussing. there is probably some deep seated female self hating going on that causes all this to happen in an aggressive macho world of filmmaking and that with some quiet exploration and revelation we could unpick this and a new era of filmmaking could be born.

    greetings and connection from london

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