I had to understand that the audience only wanted white, straight, male leads. I was assured that as long as I made the white, straight men in my scripts prominent, I could still offer groundbreaking characters of other descriptions (fascinating, significant women, men of color, etc.) – as long as they didn’t distract the audience from the white men they really paid their money to see.
I was stunned. I’d just moved from a state that still held Ku Klux Klan rallies only to find an even more insidious form of bigotry in California – running an industry that shaped our entire culture. But they kept telling me lots of filmmakers wanted to see the same changes I did, and if I did what it took to get into the industry and accrue some power, then I could start pushing the envelope and maybe, just maybe, change would finally happen. So I gave their advice a shot.
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.”
“Not even if it advances the story?” I asked. That’s rule number one in screenwriting, though you’d never know it from watching most movies: every moment in a script should reveal another chunk of the story and keep it moving.
He just looked embarrassed and said, “I mean, that’s not how I see it, that’s how they see it.”
Right. A bunch of self-back-slapping professed liberals wouldn’t want you to think they routinely dismiss women in between writing checks to Greenpeace. Gosh, no – it was they. The audience. Those unsophisticated jackasses we effectively worked for when we made films. They were making us do this awful thing. They, the man behind the screen. They, the six-foot-tall invisible rabbit. We knew they existed because there were spreadsheets with numbers, and no matter how the numbers computed, they never added up to, “Oh, hey, look – men and boys are totally watching Sarah Connor and Ellen Ripley like it’s no big deal they’re chicks instead of guys.” They always somehow added up to “Oh, hey, look – those effects/that Arnold’s so awesome, men and boys saw this movie despite some chick in a lead role.”