by Alexa Fitzpatrick, executive director
As the executive director of the Bechdel Group, you’d think that everything I write would be female driven, test passing, lady power, right? Not the case.
Last month three of us took over the show. We made a pact that we were going to have Bechdel approved scripts ready to go for the August reading. (August being a month that’s harder to get a crowd as people slowly get their heads back into go mode.)
I had an idea and I knew it was going to be great. All about this guy who has this kid who follows him around. Oh, the kid is a guy, too, but only fifteen. A boy. And then it’s also about the main guy’s interaction with his father, a guy, whose medical practice he’s taking over. And his brother is a super hot, world-class athlete. And then there’s his best friend, also a guy.
Are you noticing the Bechdelian problem?
It started innocently enough. I have this friend on whom I have always had a monster crush and I wanted to write something for him. But the sausage fest spun out of control and eventually my five primary characters were all male.
Yeah, even my blog about the script is about men and my crushing on one of them. Romance is a big part of our lives, but it’s not the only part and it shouldn’t be the only part in our scripts… even when that’s what our scripts are about… still, every time I sat down to write, for some reason my brain went blank on everything else.
I couldn’t see how to pull myself out of it, so I tried to write myself in. I threw in a couple of quirky and cool female side characters and awkwardly wedged in a scene about yoga. The women started talking about Ashtangas, but then those crafty lady characters started to go off about the hot yoga instructor, (still attractive, even with a man bun – no offense to my follicly gifted brothers). I cut them off.
“Stop betraying me,” I yelled at my computer screen. “I created you!”
I know that, as a woman, I talk about lots of other stuff. Why can’t I think of any of those other topics?!?
I struggled and tossed and turned and cast the play and printed the pages and showed up at the reading and hoped someone in the group could help me make sense of what I was going through.
The reading happened and all of the actors were great (especially the one who got handed the script at the last moment without even the warning that they were coming to act – Gib, I’m looking at you) and I got some great suggestions and some fun feedback, but nothing that jumped out at me in the moment.
Someone said it would be more interesting if the kid were a girl. Interesting, but then does that get creepy with a forty year old man being followed around by a fifteen year-old girl? I’m not trying to channel Nabokov.
Inside I was panicking. I’m a fake. I run a group that’s all about strong roles for women and I’m struggling to write them. Why is this so much harder than I thought.
Back to the feedback: what if the kid is female? Well, okay, then what if the main character is also female? That’s a start.
The ideas marinated and the characters got dressed and I sat down at the computer again. The only two things I kept from the original script were the idea of a kid following around and sabotaging the main character and a surprise 40th birthday party gone wrong. I started writing and it started to fall into place. Suddenly my script went from five strong male leads and five female support characters to four female leads and one male lead with potential for lots of other rotating male and female supporting roles.
Suddenly I was the main character in my story instead of a supporting character dancing around on the sidelines.
I went back through my past scripts and realized that, of the six screenplays I’ve completed, everyone single one has a male protagonist. I also noticed that every single one has a spunky female sidekick whom I would love to play because on some level or another she’s based on me (even my kung fu for hire script set in 16th century China, which is most likely the reason I got rewritten out of it). I’m also pretty sure that every one of those scripts would be more interesting if they were rewritten from that woman’s perspective.
Two other fun stats of the old versus the new:
37% of the lines were spoken by female characters in the first script; in the second script it was 87%. Which is especially interesting to me as it relates to the second fact.
Both complete scripts had casts (main to under-fives) that were split equally down the middle with five men and five women in the first and eight men and eight women in the second. I had an equal number of women there, I just wasn’t giving them anything to do.
Is it possible that all this time I was just waiting for permission to write about me and, when I finally got that permission through this group, I turned into the deer in headlights with no idea where to go? And what does it says about me psychologically that I am always writing myself as a supporting character instead of a lead?
These are the questions that we are trying to address with this group. Being women shouldn’t mean that we have to sit on the sidelines of our own stories and I, for one, am about to do some major POV rewrites. #beyourmaincharacter
by Gina L. Grandi, artistic director
You may not be aware that I am the tri-state expert on young adult dystopian romance trilogies. Now you know.
Books and trilogies along the Hunger Games lines tend to be classified as young adult, due to young adult protagonists, but that classification can feel arbitrary. I mean, who doesn’t like a good dystopian adventure?
There are a slew of books that aren’t technically or necessarily dystopian, but somehow have that same feel to them, that appeal to the Hunger Games crowd. Today, I bring you one of these, for the readers and young readers out there who appreciate a strong female protagonist.
Rae Carson’s Girl of Fire and Thorns series has three books: The Girl of Fire and Thorns, The Crown of Embers, and The Bitter Kingdom. The premise: princess Elisa is a godstone bearer, a chosen one. She is married off on her 16th birthday to a neighboring king, whose country is falling apart. There’s politics. There’s magic. There’s kidnapping and scheming and travel.
This is not a dystopian series, technically. It does have that flavor, as it takes place in an alternate world, similar to our own but with significant differences. It could be in the past, it could be in the future.
Let me tell you why this series is one of my favorites.
1. The third book doesn’t suck.
I call this The Mockingjay Problem – weak/terrible/disappointing third installments of an otherwise delightful series. Characters behave totally out of character. Love triangles are wrapped up in annoyingly convenient ways. Everything feels a little flat. Sometimes it feels like the author was rushed. Sometimes it feels like there just wasn’t enough story to last for three books. For whatever reason, it’s a common issue. The Mazerunner series. The Selection series. The Uglies series. The Divergent series. All, in my opinion, rushed, flawed, disappointing third books.
The third book in this series, The Bitter Kingdom, brings all kinds of new information and situations, after a second installment cliffhanger. It’s real story, not just a stretching out of what we’ve heard before. Questions and relationships are resolved, and satisfyingly so.
2. Elisa is a great.
Elisa is a strong protagonist. She’s not beautiful; she’s heavy and not traditionally attractive. The author does have her lose a significant amount of weight in the first book (as a result of a month long march across the desert), which makes sense in the circumstances, but feels like an unnecessary nod to beauty norms. While I could do without Elisa’s sense of self-worth and confidence having a weight correlation, I do like that she never becomes traditionally beautiful, and never ‘thin’ or ‘slender’. What she does become is muscular, and strong. She takes enormous pride in her ability to walk for days on end and for being able to defend herself. She is clever and shrewd, studies strategy and politics, and is the one who pretty much saves everyone’s butts, in both action sequences and political maneuvering. She is not perfect, either. As queen, she struggles, and makes decisions she later regrets. But she’s capable and doesn’t need saving. When she does lean on someone – be it a friend or a love interest – it feels real, not a girl-needs-help trope. Much of this story is Elisa’s journey to trust her own abilities and instincts.
3. There are a whole lot of strong women, and Elisa has actual relationships with them.
Almost all the powerful rulers in this series are women. I love that, when she becomes queen, Elisa’s gender is never an issue. Her age, experience, and personality are all questioned at some time, but not her gender. This feels like a big deal – other writers, I think, would fall quickly into that plot device, and Elisa would have to battle the patriarchy. This world has no issue with strong women. This world relies on strong women. It’s not even a question.
While there is a (heteronormative) romance contingent to this series, Elisa’s relationships with the women in her life feel like the most important relationships in the book. From her sister to her nurse/guardian to her best friend/lady-in-waiting, she discusses politics, power, strategy – every aspect of her life. They speak about relationships and love, but these women are more than a sounding board to forward the romance. They are integral to the plot. They have personalities, strengths, and flaws. They are well-rounded, and Elisa’s relationship with them is complex and layered. The Bechdel Test is passed, no problem.
4. Elisa is a woman of color.
And it’s made clear that the majority of the main characters are. We can surmise from the names and language (Elisa’s full name is Lucero-Elisa de Riqueza, other characters include Ximena, Humberto, Conde Treviño, and Cosmé; Elisa’s home country is Orovalle and the country she comes to rule is Joya d'Arena) that this fictional world has Latin roots. Elisa is described as being dark skinned, dark eyed, and black haired, and this is described as the norm.
All around, this is a good read, and Elisa is the kind of character I wish there were more of.
So if you’re a fan of alternate/dystopian worlds, strong women characters, books with magic that don’t feel like fantasy novels, this is your series.
by M.J. Moneymaker, Board Member of The Bechdel Group
Last week, Alexa shared what she's learned reading script submissions to The Bechdel Group. I was struck by number two on her list: 18% of the scripts she's read do not pass the test.
Attention to the details of submission guidelines are important. You never know who will be a reader for your screenplay or stageplay and your submission form is your first impression.
At least, that is how I look at it when judging for the New York Festival International TV & Film Awards, Scenarios USA, and Webby Awards. The titles, descriptions, and the criteria are what I have to go by before watching video submissions.
This month's podcast is a ten-minute play that we feel passes the test. But what do you think? It is from one of our 24hr Writing Challenges which happens twice a year. Our challenges are a little different because we invite writers first and then they write the scripts within twenty-four hours for our reading night.
So, let's review the test's criteria before you listen to this play:
Please comment below and let us know what you think...
"Getting The Cat Jar" is written by Eddie Emma about a dream to inherit a cat jar after Mom's death.
The three women who play The Father, The son, The Holy Ghost:
Alex Sapozhnik reads stage directions
by Alexa Fitzpatrick, executive director
1. I can learn a lot from your log line. If your logline is long winded, usually so is your piece. If you feel the need to spell it all out for me, chances are most of it is going on in your head and nothing is happening in your script. If you find yourself writing “and then… and then… and then,” it’s likely you’re very plot heavy and still aren’t clear on your theme. And if it’s all hook, you might have a great idea, but still not know how to tell it.
If you can’t give me your pitch in one sentence, you’re probably not clear on what is happening in your play. Figuring it out is certainly part of the process. We are looking for works in progress, so we’re open to pieces that are still trying to execute their plan. But, if your play is the journey and we can’t see the ultimate destination, your log line can save you by showing us what directions you are attempting to follow. Once we can tell where you’re trying to go, if it looks interesting, it’s easier to get past the fact that you’re not quite there yet.
2. A lot of people don’t read. To pass the Bechdel Test you need: two women who both have names and have a conversation that’s not about a man. Your one-woman show (thank you to those of you who can see where this is going), even if it’s a history of the feminist movement, doesn’t pass. The first two words of the test are: Two Women. I get it. Pulitzer plays have been written that only have one woman in them. The Flick, for example, by Annie Baker. While we’d love to have her get excited about our group, we wouldn’t read that play.
The rules are simple and, while we’re open to a fairly loose interpretation since it wasn’t really designed to be a test, the most important one is that we need to have at least two women in the play. We get tons of submissions. It’s frustrating when we can rule you out before we even read a word of dialogue.
In a quick, non-scientific assessment of the plays we have received and read so far, 18% haven’t passed the test. That’s almost one out of every five. It makes you wonder, why apply to us? Are there people with so much time on their hands that they are just spamming out submissions?
And here’s a not-so-secret secret: being a good writer means being a good listener and paying attention to and absorbing the details of life. Nine times out of ten, the plays that don’t pass the test aren’t very good. Whether there’s a correlation between an attention to detail in your life and in your writing, I don’t know. It’s just something I’ve noticed.
3. There are people who think violence and drama are synonyms. They’re not. Violence creates drama, but without a strong emotional spine to your work, it quickly becomes empty and gratuitous. Also, the suggestion of violence, or the threat of violence, is way more powerful than actually beating the crap out of or killing off one of your characters on stage/film. If there’s no drama without the violence, chances are adding it isn’t going to fix your problem.
4. The most common storylines that I’ve seen in our submissions (the ones that pass) to date are…
Mental illness/suicide (frequently with an abusive therapist/parent thrown in),
Mother/daughter dysfunction (is it possible to have a baggage-free mother/daughter relationship?),
Women trying to become/recently having become mothers,
Abused/raped/harassed-at-work women taking vengeance on a parent/boss/other abuser,
Very angry (sometimes serial killer, sometimes vigilante) lesbians.
5. And then there are the outliers (most I loved, some I hated, all were unique)…
Lesbian serial killer who kills with pie,
Young noble dancer using her talents to blend in to a Soviet ballet academy in the time of the Russian Revolution,
Mother daughter porn stars,
Female soldiers at war (we are getting more soldier pieces, but only one has showed actual/accidental combat),
Female pilots right after World War II,
A young girl who might be part alligator.
6. One final thought: when dystopian fiction goes awry, it doesn’t just jump the track, it goes way the hell off the rails…but, after reading almost 200 plays in the past two years, the ones I remember the best are the ones who went for it, whether it hit or not. As they say in the marketing campaign for the basketball finals, “Go Big or Go Home!”
And, if you have a script to submit to us, bring it on. We’re about to start reading for our spring season.
The Bechdel Group
Working to challenge the portrayal of women in film and on stage.