The House In The Woods – John Fraim April 2016
“Of course, it’s not just actresses who need better roles; the culture does too.”
“Introducing a New Way to Think About Female Characters in TV and Film”
Chief TV Critic / Variety / April 7, 2016
The article by Maureen Ryan starts (or perhaps directs) a long-overdue dialogue about female gender clichés in Hollywood stories. But it has direct relevance to male character clichés also for once the feminine character cliché is worked on, it forces a reappraisal of the masculine cliché also. It’s a worthwhile goal because the gender symbol is the most overlooked aspect in creating modern screen Heroes and Heroines. Cliché is rampant for both male and female characters in modern scripts but the most overused clichés have magnetized around the image of the modern woman character in screenplays today.
Who is this modern woman? What does she want? What are her goals? Her needs? Clichés have ruled these wants and needs for years. It is time to explore new meanings and purge scripts of gender clichés. For many years in Hollywood it was heresy to smash up genders and create new ones. Nothing was supposed to be done outside the Hollywood system. Much like political party “establishment” in 2016 that both Republican and Democrat voters are becoming more and more frustrated with, the Hollywood establishment would define the terms of the gender clash. This meant that it defined the limits of the biographies of the key female players and the Heroes and Villains in the scripts. There was little dynamics of relationships outside what they defined.
While the old cliché-filled Hollywood system is gone, much still lingers. The result is that feminine screen characters today are creations less of the archetype of the feminine symbol but rather constructions more of how the masculine symbol views the feminine symbol. The Maureen Ryan article in Variety offers a wake-up call to abandon old clichés and create contemporary descriptions of women characters in media.
Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard (1950)
When you reflect on this, dropping worn out clichés in creating women film characters might be one key thing thing in a new revival of American cinema perhaps bringing in a modern Golden Age in Hollywood similar in ways to the Golden Age of 1930s Hollywood. This Golden Age has started to happen in television largely through new ways of viewing female characters but it has yet to move into the film industry. One wonders if the pre-defined length of films (90 – 120 minutes) a factor itself in creating clichés? Perhaps the short time allowed with films simply not long enough to tell the quirky, complex stories of women in today’s world? Perhaps her story better told in episodic, continuing stories of television rather than the self-contained stories of movies?
Whether the intensely structured world of screenplays and films inherently inadequate to provide new images for women is one question brought up by the Variety article. But outside consideration of the adequacy of the film medium for female characters, one should realize that characters in scripts are part of a symbolic system in the script. Screenwriting gurus like John Truby specifically discuss these symbol systems in screenplays. Being part of a symbolic character system within a screenplay, female character clichés create male clichés in scripts. The overall result is that all characters become clichés.
Avoiding female clichés helps arrive at a new symbol for the feminine archetype in modern stories. And the emergence of this new feminine symbol will bring with it a new symbol for the masculine. The two are always interconnected in a symbiotic relationship. As Carl Jung reminds, the anima and animus of the feminine and masculine archetypes are present in every human being. One needs to add that the battle of these inner archetypes is one of the key foundations of all drama. The male and female characters in movies and television stories mirror the internal battles between the archetypes. Yet scripts which truly show this symbolic battle have (in my opinion) yet to be written. Or, at least written for our contemporary world.
Woman in H&M Store Window – Columbus, Ohio (2016)
The perpetuation of female clichés is part of the postmodern world we live in that constructs reality not through the traditional analysis but rather through distractions from analysis. Offered up by cultural controllers are diversions into minor symbols and the current, fashionable messages of culture. The leading reality shows. The continuing saga of celebrities. The constant “party line” of FaceBook and Twitter and Instagram. All of this is little more than distracting graffiti scribbled on the architecture of our lives. We used to stare in trance at the television screen during prime time programming. But now we stare in trance at smartphone screens 24/7. We never consider there might be larger symbols outside these small pocket screens that hover above us today. If we would only lift up our heads to see them. But modern control of society is based on the postmodern soft power of diversion and “friendly persuasion” rather than the traditional hard power of force. Like carnival barkers along a midway, the controlling forces of culture constantly shout at us to see what they have. They work constantly to keep us staring at the small screens of life.
The battle between the gender archetypes offers an all encompassing ecology or environment to our lives today. They form the grand McLuhanesque “medium” that contains and defines all the distracting “messages” within it. As Marshall McLuhan reminded, “The medium is the message.” The medium of the gender symbols creates a constant interplay of the two archetypes at all levels of the story: from the story scenes and objects, from character dialogue and actions.
This battle was seen by ancient cultures in the form of Gods and Goddesses. There was a raging weather to life as the heavenly forces waged battle. In the background, the sound of thunder and flashes of lightning. The dynamics of these ancient battles are now frozen in the stone of museum statutes. Creating new gender symbols in scripts does much to bring back the dynamics of these ancient battles and to regain a perspective of movement through nature and life. It helps us realize that the masculine and feminine cycles are based on days, nights and seasons rather than prime time television or movie seasons.
The foundation of drama is based around these natural cycles. And being true to this natural cycle involves a movement from one gender symbol at the beginning of a story to the opposite gender symbol at the end of the story. The movement cycle is from male to female or from female to male. The change involves an inner change of the archetype within the Hero or Heroine of a story.
Illustration From H. Rider Haggard’s She (1887)
Using a cliché to describe the presence of clichés, it seems they are that dominating “elephant in the room” fighting against language to describe the world as it is. In the end, it is perhaps clichés themselves (even more than technology like smartphones) that offer the greatest diversion and distraction from seeing the world as it is. In our postmodern world (the word postmodern being a cliché itself since no one has created another word to replace postmodern in describing our post-postmodern age) Maureen Ryan argues a good place to establish a beachhead in an assault on cliché is current female clichés in film and television. It is difficult to disagree with her for film and television are grand distractions themselves. What better place to attack distractions?
(John Fraim is author of Battle of Symbols: Global Dynamics of Advertising, Entertainment and Media and President Emeritus Desert Screenwriters Group at http://www.desertscreenwritersgroup.com and President of GreatHouse Stories http://www.greathousestories.com)