The success of Wonder Woman and the live action Beauty and the Beast has generated a great deal of discussion about women in cinema and woman-centric narrative. A Variety article pointed out, though, that despite record box office, women, "made up only 7 percent of all directors working on the 250 highest-grossing domestic releases in 2016. That represented a decline of two percentage points from the year before." Without getting too heady or too political, I need to point out that women's narratological problems start off long before a screenplay gets optioned by the studios and directors are hired. It starts in high school, with the ways we are taught narrative structure.
I was once told by a male instructor of literature that females couldn't be heroes. I knew he was wrong but didn't speak up and I didn't have the tools to challenge my all-knowing teacher. We were reading "The Hero With A Thousand Faces" as part of our class. If you are a screenwriter, you probably know this book, because this book is taught as the ultimate story formula. Adaptations of this book, for screenwriters, are very popular. Women have very specific roles in Campbell's narratological theory: goddess, temptress, virgin, and mother.
I am not knocking Joseph Campbell. Everyone who's writing should read his books. However, Campbell's cosmogonic cycle is not the only model out there. If you start digging for woman-centric narrative structures, you have to look to authors like Clarissa Pinkola-Estes, author of Women Who Run With the Wolves, who are often relegated to the New Age and self-help sections of book stores. Going beyond that, there are some Neo-Pagan authors out there that revel in exploring goddess lore and unpacking it and excavating a more female-centric narrative from the lost annals of time.
Let's talk about unpacking a bit more. I think one of the best things we can do is constantly ask questions when we are writing stock and archetypical characters. So often in casting, I see the stock roles, "looking for sultry temptress", " "motherly", "sex goddess", and the like. Is the mother happy being a mother? What does the "sex goddess" enjoy doing besides ruining men's lives? Does she knit? I mean seriously, that's where this discussion needs to start.
Post-modernity makes the woman-centric narrative elusive as well. There is no monolithic female experience. We are not all destined for motherhood. Some of us haven't found our inner goddess, because of poor life circumstances. Some of us are too busy to cultivate that inner goddess because we're working multiple jobs and getting paid 20 percent less than our male friends and colleagues, because of the persistent pay gap. Being a woman in 2017 is complicated and no amount of tropes are going to be able to encapsulate all of that.
I think we need to embrace the complicated and the messy. There's no magic screenwriting formula that's truthful anymore. Just like a woman's place is no longer relegated to the kitchen, there's no reserved spot for women in narrative structures. We are going to have to try, fail, and try again and write boldly and honestly, act boldly and sincerely and direct boldly and intrepidly to create more women's stories with more veracity.
Women as a group need to exert their power, both their personal and buying power and continue to demand woman-affirming narratives. That's key. Women also need to commit to reading and buying more female-authored books. Successful books get adapted into movies and TV shows, like The Handmaid's Tale. We need to demand that our daughters and sons have literature penned by women in their curriculums. Most of all, women, particularly in the US, need to understand that they are a special interest group with tremendous cultural and political capital. It's time to spend it.
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