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Sunday, August 03, 2008

Fascinating post on Jennifer Kesler's blog The Hathor Legacy about an unwritten rule that I never heard of, but which, come to think of it, I almost certainly have followed instinctively in my screenplays: women can't talk to other women about anything other than men.
Only to learn there was still something wrong with my writing, something unanticipated by my professors. My scripts had multiple women with names. Talking to each other. About something other than men. That, they explained nervously, was not okay. I asked why. Well, it would be more accurate to say I politely demanded a thorough, logical explanation that made sense for a change (I’d found the “audience won’t watch women!” argument pretty questionable, with its ever-shifting reasons and parameters).

At first I got several tentative murmurings about how it distracted from the flow or point of the story. I went through this with more than one professor, more than one industry professional. Finally, I got one blessedly telling explanation: “The audience doesn’t want to listen to a bunch of women talking about whatever it is women talk about.”
If you think about it, it's largely true. I bet you could go through even an ensemble piece like THE BIG CHILL and find guys talking about stuff other than women (business, ideals); but the women are talking about who's going to give Meg a baby.

Jennifer (whose icon makes her look disturbingly like Thessaly from A Game of You) has a parallel post about how female characters exist to promote the male leads:
The real reason, I was informed, to put women in a script was to reveal things about the men. Any other purpose I assigned to the women was secondary at best, but I could do what I wanted there as long as the women’s purposes never threatened to distract the audience from the purposes of the men.
How about it, class? Outside of WAITING TO EXHALE, are there successful mainstream movies where women talk about non-men stuff? Is this why SEX AND THE CITY flopped? (EDIT: Tim W. points out that S&TC actually was a monster hit.; but Dr. Brooklyn points out that the girls talk about little except men. And then there is the theory that S&TC is really about four gay men. Certainly, Samantha is.)

(Note: I haven't actually seen WAITING TO EXHALE, 'cause it's probably just a bunch of women talking about whatever it is women talk about. Also, lesbian movies don't count, 'cause we know why men are watching those.)

UPDATE:  Obviously this "rule" doesn't apply to TV. Mainstream studio movies are largely aimed at young men. The TV audience is much wider and (depending on the network) often skews female. 

Also, Amanda, this is not a real "rule" that I think one should be following. It is more an observation. It is probably a byproduct of the plots that you see in mainstream movies. If the lead is a guy, then a conversation between two female secondary characters that isn't about the lead is a distraction from the plot -- not because they're female, but because they're secondary characters. And the lead is usually a guy because, again, movies are aimed at young men. It's not a problem with "society"; it's a function of the specific demographics of who makes the choice of what movie to see. Young women will go see movies that guys are interested in; guys won't go see movies that only the girls are interested in, unless they're sure they're going to get laid afterwards. (See LOVE STORY.) 

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21 Comments:

I accept your challenge. I have a long list, but I'll start off with this single one --

ALIEN

Go for it.

By Blogger James, at 10:54 AM  

Three more candidates for a very short list:

Pan's Labyrinth
The Devil Wears Prada
Erin Brockovich

By Blogger dkbrklyn, at 11:52 AM  

Since pretty much the ONLY thing the women of SaTC talk about, in both the show and movie, is men, that's probably not the best choice for an example of a movie that flopped.

By Blogger Caro, at 12:36 PM  

Hate to disagree with you, Alex, but Sex and the City was anything but a flop. It made $383 million worldwide ($151 million domestically), spent 6 consecutive weeks in the top ten and this is probably the first weekend since it opened at the end of May it won't be in the top 15. A sequel has already been greenlighted and they are talking about bringing Entourage to the big screen, as well as a few other television shows because of it's success.

As for the theory, I think it's true to a degree, but as with most rules, there are plenty of exceptions. Buffy talked about a lot more than boys with her female friends, and recent films include The Nanny Diaries and Devil Wears Prada, which is not a long list. I won't mention a film like Mad Money, which bombed. Looking way back, Working Girl was an early movie which broke this rule and was successful. And Thelma and Louise talk about men a lot, but also lots of other things.

I think it may be the fact that the industry is so dominated by men, who may not really know what to give women to talk about other than men.

By Blogger Tim W., at 1:10 PM  

James - do you mean Aliens? I don't remember the women being alone and talking together at all in the first one, but there are some great Ripley/Newt scenes.

Alien Resurrection, too, despite how terrible it is, has Ripley and Call talking about being not human, iirc.

The only other movie I see on my DVD shelf that fits the criteria is Kiki's Delivery Service.

Depressingly, there are only four or five movies on the shelf that HAVE more than one female character.

By Blogger Emma, at 10:37 PM  

Phrasing the rule that way is a little misleading. First, it's hard to think of a successful mainstream movie that doesn't fit into a well-established genre, and "lesbian movie" is pretty much the only genre that doesn't have men as a central element of the plot. It would be weird in an action movie like THE DARK KNIGHT to insert a long conversation about something other than Batman; it would be weird in a romantic comedy to insert a long conversation about something other than the central couple's romantic pursuit. Any conversation that doesn't connect to the central story is going to be seen as frivolous.

So the first non-man conversation that comes to mind, sadly, is from SHOWGIRLS. (avclub.com did a recent article on it, which is perhaps why it came to mind.) Not an example of a good script, not a feminist script--but there is a scene where two women talk about Doggie Chow.

MEAN GIRLS has a few female conversations.

I haven't seen LEGALLY BLONDE, but some of my students have written about a scene where the main character is confronted by a female law professor.

Does the scene in LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE when Olive asks Miss California about ice cream count? How about the musical number "I Can't Do It Alone" in CHICAGO?

The question was about scripted movies, not reality TV, but I think that ten seasons of AMERICA'S NEXT TOP MODEL demonstrate that we will watch women talking to other women. Just not, like, women with stable personalities.

By Blogger Andrew, at 9:01 AM  

THELMA & LOUISE

They have conversations about men, but they definitely talk about more than that.

I haven't seen them, but I think the RESIDENT EVIL movies may also qualify.

THE COLOR PURPLE?

TERMS OF ENDEARMENT?

What was that scary movie from a couple years ago where a group of female spelunkers come across some mole monsters way down below in dark caves?

By Blogger Joshua James, at 9:58 AM  

That'd be DESCENT.

I guess if you have a movie with no one in it but women, they're going to talk about things other than men. Such as the blind humanoids trying to kill and eat them.

I don't remember too many chick-chick convos in RESIDENT EVIL. I thought it was mostly Milla Jovovich blowing away undead.

There are some good counterexamples in the comments. But I think it's interesting how few movies and how few scenes people can come up with. Whereas it would be a no-brainer to find scenes of two men talking about something other than women.

By Blogger Alex Epstein, at 10:32 AM  

The Kill Bill movies are probably another exception that proves the rule; who but a Tarantino-level writer/director can get away with that kind of stuff?

Alex, thanks for flagging Jennifer's excellent posts, which I otherwise wouldn't have seen.

By Blogger CJ, at 3:03 PM  

CHARLES ANGEL'S!

BOYS ON THE SIDE!

THE WOMEN!

LITTLE WOMEN!

SISTERS (DePalma)

Should I go on?

By Blogger Joshua James, at 4:05 PM  

Generally, and unfortunately, true. But it strikes me that TV is ahead of film in this area, mostly because TV has started to accept intelligent, tough female characters in crime dramas. To wit:

Cagney and Lacey
Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Alias
Law & Order SVU
Dexter

By Blogger Norma Desmond, at 7:02 PM  

Even if this "rule" is common, I find it disheartening and offensive. It has nothing to do with structure or craft; it's a problem with society.

By Blogger Amanda, at 9:01 PM  

Again with the TV: Battlestar Galactica has several female characters who routinely talk about things other than men. The one who tended to be fixated on husband and new baby (and was portrayed as an off-balance shrew for all that) was blown out of an airlock.

Boston Legal has all the characters trying to seduce all the other characters, so you do often see the women talking about the men -- just as you see the men talking about the women -- but several strong females are often seen speaking about legal and political issues.

These are just two off the top of my head. I understand and recognize the long-standing "rule," but perceive that its time is fading, especially on television.

By Blogger James, at 2:48 AM  

See updates above.

By Blogger Alex Epstein, at 8:15 AM  

Working Girl. All About Eve. A League of Our Own. Nine to Five. Stage Door. Almost any movie I've actually paid money to watch.

By Blogger Lisa Hunter, at 5:03 PM  

Ooh, "Heathers!"
"Spacecamp", if I recall...

"The Women"? Really? The movie that had the taglines "It's all about men!" and "135 women with nothing but men on their minds!"???

By Blogger Duncan, at 2:55 PM  

I'd add SUPERVIXENS but I don't remember any of the dialog.

By Blogger Alex Epstein, at 3:18 PM  

Love your blog, but respectfully, on this one I agree with Amanda that it *is* a problem with society. Even if it's true that this "rule" is based largely on the idea that women will go to movies that men want to see, but men won't go to movies that women want to see, isn't even that sort of reflective of the same larger problem we're discussing?

Also, I personally think both men and women would go see movies with women talking about non-men things if certain other variables were there. Alas, I guess we won't really know for sure until the studios start making more of them.

Interesting post! (And All About Eve is an awesome example.)

By Blogger Norma Desmond, at 6:47 PM  

The catalyst for "Waiting to Exhale" was one of the women leaving her cheating husband. A black SaTC, basically. It doesn't pass.

it's a function of the specific demographics of who makes the choice of what movie to see. Young women will go see movies that guys are interested in; guys won't go see movies that only the girls are interested in, unless they're sure they're going to get laid afterwards.

I love your blog too. But that's a theory. One taken as gospel, sure, but still just a theory. The fact that no one ever questions it may in fact be a "problem with society".

If you ever want to get your Extension PA off your back regarding any why, where, or how questions of plot, just tell him that your story is about lesbians. Shuts him up fast. :)

By Blogger nadia*, at 6:06 PM  

it's a function of the specific demographics of who makes the choice of what movie to see. Young women will go see movies that guys are interested in; guys won't go see movies that only the girls are interested in, unless they're sure they're going to get laid afterwards.

nadia, yes you're right it's an assumption, but it may be projection, too! My father was always telling me "this is How [All] Men Are" when he was spouting out some sort of sexist BS about how I shouldn't ever trust any guy because all any of them ever wanted to do was get into a woman's pants, how no man could ever be around any woman who was smart/strong/competent/successful without feeling Threatened, how Nature made it so that men Needed Freedom and women Needed Shelter From The World By Big Strong Men, and any man who claimed to be a feminist was lying, etc etc etc.

Oh, and no man would ever watch a movie in which there was a strong heroine who did more than scream and fall over and need to be rescued, according to him.

Guess what, he was talking about how *he* felt (yes, my parents' marriage was One For The Ages!) and while he did manage to screw up my life and relationships with the opposite sex, I did eventually meet some men who, no really, were happy stay-at-home dads, who enjoyed hanging out with women who they weren't screwing (and weren't gay either!) and just generally weren't brittle, threatened specimens of macho insecurity. My father did not, despite his assumptions, actually speak for the whole male half of humanity (who could have guessed?) I've even met guys who thought Trinity and Xena and Ripley and New Hope-era Leia and San and Lady Eboshi rocked, hard as it is to believe.

Betacandy also addresses this dogma, btw. And I do mean dogma...as in, it's an article of faith that must NOT be questioned or else you will be declared a heretic and outcast!

By Blogger bellatrys, at 5:35 PM  

Gotta add one more candidate to my short list of three, above. Clearly, we could do with more protagonists like the one here, but not clear after checking Box Office Mojo whether DVD sales will be enough to encourage more --

Black Book (Zwartboek) (2006); Gerard Soeteman (written by), Paul Verhoeven (written by)

By Blogger dkbrklyn, at 12:23 AM  

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