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Stereotypes On Screen

So the Guardian carried this piece yesterday about stereotypical characters on screen: Women, Gay & Black People Still Shown As Stereotypes In Film, Says Study. I of course posted it on my personal Facebook and on Bang2writers. There’s been some really interesting chat so far, which I have summed up (in my own words, not the Bang2writers’) here as:

1) This is because most screenwriters are white, male and middle-class.

There is a lack of official information in general about writers: who they are, what they’re concerned about or how the representations of those concerns end up on screen. If we look to The Film Council’s 2007 report, Barriers To Diversity In Film, one thing it can definitely say is there is a lack of information about just about EVERYTHING, including crucially, how the attitudes of decision-makers impact on what audiences end up with on the silver screen in front of them. So, as well-intentioned as ANY writer may be in representing various issues and stories, the collaborative nature of film – not to mention its commercial aspect “getting bums on seats” – may also have a bearing on how a film ends up (positive or negative). Obvious stuff maybe, but perhaps underrated (especially if we consider point number 5, more of that in a bit).

However, it is said officially there IS a lack of female screenwriters, especially in film.

2) Most people just want shallow stuff to entertain them, anyway.

Just last week I made the point that genre films, even poor ones, have an excellent sense of audience and this accounts for their success. And of course there are very poor genre movies, which do very well at the box office. But is this because people WANT shallow stuff? I can’t agree. Good genre movies can have excellent characterisation and can be every bit as challenging as any fancy drama. When faced with the choice of a good genre movie or a poor genre movie then, which are people going to choose? (B Movies aside, they’re a special case as far as I’m concerned since they are typically for a niche audience).

So yes, there are shallow genre movies – but what “shallow” means depends on interpretation. But it’s important to remember too there are shallow dramas with easy answers and stereotypical characters, too. There’s absolutely no reason why ANY film can’t have good, rounded characterisation… But the answer relies on more money on more script development.

3) No one is doing enough to challenge this.

Got to disagree with this – and not only because part of this very blog’s remit is in flagging up strong female roles (or lack of them) in the spec/optioned pile and produced movies. Let’s consider the stellar work of Women In Hollywood, the UK’s Women in Film and Television or The London Screenwriters’ Festival’s empathy for women writers, which is NOT just down to me, but the whole team. Consider the work of The Magic Hour, a digital shorts scheme for disabled filmmakers, Queer As Film celebrating gay film and filmmakers, or Skillset’s work in addressing the under-representation of people from BAME backgrounds in film. These are just a small proportion of those working very hard to address the issues, too – but don’t take my word for it, find them yourself – or even found your own group! Why not?

It’s very easy to feel depressed when you’re underrepresented or misrepresented. Every time I look at the silver screen I feel burgeoning hope – which too often swiftly falls to disappointment and sometimes, even rage. But instead of getting depressed about it, know we live in a time when finding others with the same concerns as yourself is just a mouse-click away. So don’t complain, DO SOMETHING. Join others. Get talking, get doing- whatever that entails. It’s the only way forward, be proactive and positive and you will feel better.

4) The really crap/stereotypical scripts don’t get made, anyway.

If only this were true! I believe the study makes an excellent point regarding produced movies, particularly regarding how older women are too often “sexless” or “cougars”, but also on the representation of gay people being overly sexualised and “camp” or black people too often being portrayed as gang members and/or drug dealers. Though I haven’t read the actual study yet, just the article’s summary, I’m not sure the stereotypes even go far enough, especially regarding ethnic minorities. Nowadays, black people are too often captains of the POLICE or the other side of the law. It’s ridiculous. But also, let’s look to young women, who are frequently self-haters and self-harmers, promiscuous and drug taking. The mentally ill who are too frequently killer psychos. Children are prodigies of some sort, or at least have ridiculously extended vocabularies. YAWN. Where is the variation? This is before we even get on to the stereotypical plots on TOP OF THAT – the character who comes home early to find their spouse in bed with someone else; the policeman just days from retirement on one last helluva job; the family who live in a tower block who are rocked by a series of personal revelations… DOUBLE YAWN.

The silver screen is awash with crappy characterisation, quite literally… and I believe this in turn skews people’s perception of others MASSIVELY. But even if you think that’s a load of codswallop, be my guest, but consider this instead: I don’t believe it’s ANY ACCIDENT the spec pile is filled with such crappy characterisation because writers with the best intentions, attempt to create something “saleable” believing stereotypes is what sells because THAT’S WHAT THEY SEE. Is that really so hard to believe?

5) No one is *stopped* from being a writer, so stop whining and write.

No one is stopping anyone from writing… that’s 100% correct. What’s great about the actual writing – of anything – is its democracy. Pick up a pen, fire up your laptop, create your own world. Go for it. But are people being stopped from SELLING? That’s the $64,000 question. Have you ever heard from a producer that your movie with a female protagonist will “never sell” – no matter how good it is – because men don’t want to watch “women’s stories”? Have you ever been asked to change a protagonist’s or character’s gender or race or sexual orientation to make it “more audience friendly”? Have you ever been asked to do some work for a company and told to come in RIGHT NOW – and when you’ve replied you’d be glad to come in the next day, but you have to find some childcare first – you’ve been dropped like a hot stone?

We hear all the time that the MAJOR DEMOGRAPHIC for cinema-goers is 15-25 year old males. Actually, waaay back in the early noughties that Film Council Report, “Lack of Female Screenwriters” discovered this wasn’t true at all. In fact, young women out buy young men in terms of cinema ticket sales. But producers steadfastedly hold on to the notion that it’s 15-25 year old males who go, **taking** their women friends with them (and assume said males will not return the favour if the females pick the movie). What’s more, I read somewhere – I believe it was someone’s run-down of the annual Power To The Pixel conference, but I can’t remember – that young men are staying in nowadays more and more to play video games which are becoming more and more in-depth, leaving their girlfriends who aren’t gamers with more leisure-time of their own to fill, with many opting for the cinema WITH girl friends.

But the more people – producers, writers, directors, whoever – who hold on to the notion that the core cinema-going demographic is STILL 15-25 males, the more films will be made on this basis: it is, in effect, a self-fulfilling prophecy and one that is swiftly becoming OUT OF DATE.

That’s why JUST writing these great female characters, black and Asian characters, gay characters, disabled characters et al is not going to cut it: we NEED to talk about this as well and make others realise there ARE barriers in the way, like out-of-date notions on *just who* goes to the cinema. Talking about these things is the first step to ensure these things CHANGE; from the talk, we can take ACTION.

Even if you couldn’t care less about fairness or equality, feel that it’s over-stated or people are just getting their knickers in a knot, I figure MOST people want to see an end to stereotypical characters, if only to see more variation on-screen… Because everyone wants to see a GOOD MOVIE that doesn’t rely on boring stereotypes!

So let’s make a start and get rid of stereotypical characterisation in our scripts and get talking about it. Ready… Set… Go!

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2 thoughts on “Stereotypes On Screen”

  1. Hina Malik (@dodgyjammer)

    Wow, what a brilliant post! Unsure about the genre film stuff, genres often count on stereotypes, just look at slashers, action films and romcoms.

  2. Was just making fun of Seth MacFarlane last weekend.

    Without stereotypes, he wouldn't have a show.

    That gives me an idea. I should make that a drinking game. Any time there's a joke made about a stereotype in a Seth MacFarlane show YOU MUST DRINK!

    I'm gonna be hammered.

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