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The Hollywood Cure

by Susan di Rende
Susan di Rende

I’m trying to understand how creating the Broad Humor Film Festival changed my taste in films and cured me of Hollywood story fever.

I started Broad Humor in 2006 to give women a place at the table, a table I valued but which failed to validate work by women I saw and liked. For 9 years, I watched every submission to the festival and read every screenplay, good, bad, and ‘meh.’ Before, I loved TV and many mainstream movies. In my teens I was addicted to the flickering screen. Now, I can hardly bear to watch any of it. There is good stuff in those shows and stories, but my overall reaction is ‘meh.’



I’ve written about how women’s stories tend to be structured differently and why I say women’s comedy is a way for men to experience the multiple orgasms women take for granted. Hollywood understands the Aristotelian big climax and Denouement brand of cigarette. But lately, there have been a lot of great female characters showing up, especially on TV, and I still have a hard time getting into the shows. Yes, these women are complex people in themselves, but they are still drawn with an Aristotelian pen. They still are massaged and colored so as to deliver the conflicts of the Aristotelian paradigm mostly because they DON’T TALK TO EACH OTHER.

If you read Carol Gilligan any time since the 1970s when she published In Our Own Voice, you get her insight into the way women move through the world in a web of relationship instead of on a ladder or hierarchy. But as the Bechdel Test noted, even when women are present in a film, they rarely talk to each other and then usually only about men.

I don’t blame the guys for not writing other kinds of scenes. After all, they are never present when women are only talking among themselves. Even if they were to listen, they might not hear what is going on, or misinterpret it as something they do know. I mean, if dominance hierarchy in males is 50 million years older than trees, of course they see dominance everywhere.


I would say if you eliminated women scheming against another women or fighting the mommy-daughter wars, you’d have 99% of female studio film conversation. It’s like the Gary Larsen cartoon about what dogs hear when humans speak: blah blah blah dog blah good dog blah. So women talk about men when they get together? It may be all the guys hear us doing but not all of what’s going on.



Still, watching films, you’d think women were corollary actors and commentators on the world, not creators and weavers. Talking isn’t action, after all. But often, as we talk together, we’re actually world-building. We use words to make visible the strings of human interaction and weave them into a web that brings the world into relationships that make sense, that can hold the complexity of the lives we’re living. That net permits the ladder-climbers, be they male or female, to survive multiple falls and keep climbing.

Heroes are the ones who save everyone from a disaster once it has happened, or perhaps they arrive at the last minute and prevent the disaster with only a bit of collateral damage. We have no stories of heroes who prevent the condition of disaster from arising. It’s like the old Chinese (?) fable of the three brothers who are doctors. The third brother is famous for curing any problem and the second is respected for keeping small illness from growing into greater disease. But the first brother is unknown outside his village because only he treats his patients in such a way that they never become sick. I think women are like the first doctor trying to stave off trouble for their web of relationship and speaking with each other is one of the ways they do this. It is why I’ve said that women write from the world and shift characters and situations to make the whole more funny or poignant. The point isn’t the character’s journey; it’s the world’s.



All this returns to my change of tastes, where even the mediocre work by women writing screenplays and making films interest me and have value for me in a way that the most popular shows on TV and big screen do not. It isn’t some grand revolutionary difference. Most work is largely derivative, so that even real women artists write and direct stories peopled by the Narrative Woman. But at least these women characters talk to each other sometimes. And then there are moments when the female creators spill over and out of the narrative molds prescribed for female characters, injecting something real from their experience and relationships. I wake up and am suddenly engaged.




There was a time in my life that I watched TV every waking minute. I hungered for story, and the only stories on the tube were by men. Well, the last 9 years of Broad Humor were my detox and I can say that I have been cured of Hollywood. Now to make a vaccine…



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