October 19, 2017
NEW YORK—There’s this moment in every production meeting—I don’t care if you’re making a movie, a TV show, a YouTube video, a reality show about shark hunters, or a 30-second promo for the cat shelter—when somebody blurts out, “We need a strong female character for this.”
I’m not sure why this happens.
I’m not sure why little synapse explosions occur in the brains of otherwise intelligent writers, actors, media executives, and directors who, five seconds before, were talking about production design, or cinematography, or marketing. It’s probably something deep within the DNA of Homo sapiens, dating from Neanderthal times, that caused an error message in the left prefrontal cortex, which contains the mechanism responsible for logic.
Because after the random person blurts out randomly, “We need a strong female character for this,” seven or eight additional people will then blurt out various forms of agreement, as though it’s the most natural thing in the world to be ordering a Double Western Bacon Cheeseburger at the Carl’s Jr. drive-through window and say, “And, oh yeah, give me some of those Jalapeño Poppers and also, we need a strong female character for this.”
Sometimes, I am prone to point out, we don’t need a strong female character for this.
We might, in fact, need a weak female character for this particular story. Or, more likely, we’ll need a complex person for whom the words “strong” and “weak” are relative or irrelevant because she’s, you know, a human being.
“Yeah, we need a young Jodie Foster.”
“Or maybe a young Meryl Streep.”
One thing you never hear is “We need a young Marilyn Monroe.”
And yet I could go scene by scene through the complete works of Jodie Foster, Meryl Streep, and Marilyn Monroe and make notes in the margins of their scripts that would read something like this:
…on and on, ad infinitum, because all three of those women have played multiple roles with multiple points of view that can’t ever be summed up by the words “strong female character” or “weak female character.” You could do the same with male characters. Superman is not interesting unless Kryptonite exists.
Anyhow, I’m gonna take a stab at explaining why this ritual occurs.
A. Ignorance of the basic principles of screenwriting, especially the part dealing with, ahem, characterization.
B. Posturing for the jury in the speaker’s brain. (Harvey Weinstein Syndrome.)
C. So they can talk about the meeting on Facebook.
D. Member of the Politburo.
I’m only half joking about that last one. The Soviet Union actually did have script readers who had to approve every film produced by Mosfilm or Lenfilm. They would provide lengthy notes saying things like “The character of Svetlana must be altered to remove all evidence that she was derisive toward the five-year plan of the tractor factory in Novosibirsk,” or “The writers are directed to make Olga more representative of the Soviet woman described by Bebel, Engels, Marx, Kollontai, and Lenin as economically independent and empowered by her participation in the social advancement made possible by the Antifascist Women’s Committee.”
And, of course, the Russian screenwriters would slap their foreheads and say, “Of course! That’s the key that unlocks the whole character! It was that tractor-factory subtext all along!”
We don’t need Communist Writer’s Committees in the United States because we do all the work in the production meeting.
It started in the ’90s, I think, with the whole “Go Black” movement. I remember going to an audition for the role of a police captain in a TV movie, and when I got to the waiting room, the receptionist said, “Oh, I’m sorry, you didn’t hear? Somebody should have called you. We’re going black with this role.”