When Character Descriptions Should Exit, Stage Left

Screenwriters. Dialogue yes. Characters not so much.

 

Hey loyal readers (yes, both of you, I see you!), sorry for my prolonged absence. Life refuses to cease happening, even when I’m really, really busy. Totally unfair. To make up for it, I’m going to babble about female characters in movies! (Which I was going to do anyways, but now it sounds like a treat. That’s called “salesmanship.”)

In my last roundup post I mentioned the “describe yourself as a male author would” trend, and my adoration for it. This week, Vulture is helping me up my game by providing 50 actual descriptions of female characters from (primarily male-written) screenplays. And…. wow. We have got ourselves some sexism folks. And some weird obsessions. But first, I want to take you back a bit, to the Long Long Ago, when Richard and I were on This Week in Tomorrow. You may remember my insanely long posts on Joss Whedon, and how I started by taking umbrage with his script for Wonder Woman. The script started off on literally the wrong foot, focusing on Steve Trevor as he crashed into an island, before revealing a character known as “The Girl,” followed by a sexualized, primitive-esque description of said Girl. (Who, remember, is Wonder Woman. Like, our main character.):

To say she is beautiful is almost to miss the point. She is elemental, as natural and wild as the luminous flora surrounding. Her dark hair waterfalls to her shoulders in soft arcs and curls. Her body is curvaceous, but taut as a drawn bow. She wears burnished metal bracelets on both wrists, wide and intricately detailed. Her shift is of another era; we’d call it Greek. She is barefoot.

I made a lot of fun of this description, and all of the descriptions after it, (did you know that absolutely every character in that movie is beautiful? I mean all the female characters, obvi.) but little did I know how… average… they really are in the film industry. Because hot damn, do male writers like their semi-pornographic character descriptions.

James Cameron made me very, very uncomfortable, both because his description of Neytiri made me realize how young she was supposed to be (18? Are you freaking kidding me? Were you trying to go full Pocahontas and make her 13 but just couldn’t do it?) and because of how clearly it seems that James Cameron has been thinking about sex with blue catgirl teenagers:

Draped on the limb like a leopard, is a striking NA’VI GIRL. She watches, only her eyes moving. She is lithe as a cat, with a long neck, muscular shoulders, and nubile breasts. And she is devastatingly beautiful — for a girl with a tail. In human age she would be 18. Her name is NEYTIRI (nay-Tee-ree).

Yep, beautiful except for that tail. The tail is definitely a turnoff, and not clearly a turn-on. Also, the description of her breasts doesn’t even make sense. You’re either saying she has sexually mature breasts, or sexually attractive breasts. Which, yeah. They’re breasts. That’s kind of their gig. You could have gone with like, actually describing them (which is still icky but at least makes sense) or just say what you’re obviously trying to say, which is “SHE’S LEGAL I PROMISE.”

Or we have the description for Margot Robbie’s character in Wolf of Wall Street:

We see NAOMI, 24, blonde and gorgeous, a living wet dream in LaPerla lingerie. Naomi licks her lips; she’s incredibly, painfully hot.

The only thing that should be “painfully hot” is touching a working stove. But the “winner,” both for creepiness and for bringing back a racist word I thought for sure died during Reconstruction, is Quentin Tarantino in his description of “Jungle Julia” from Death Proof:

A tall (maybe 6ft) Amazonian Mulatto goddess walks down her hallway, dressed in a baby tee, and panties that her big ass (a good thing) spill out of, and her long legs grow out of. Her big bare feet slap on the hard wood floor. She moves to the cool rockabilly beat as she paces like a tiger putting on her clothes. Outside her apartment she hears a “Honk Honk.” She sticks her long mane of silky black curly hair, her giraffish neck and her broad shoulders, out of the window and yells to a car below. This sexy chick is Austin, Texas, local celebrity JUNGLE JULIA LUCAI, the most popular disc jockey of the coolest rock radio station in a music town.

Of course he mentioned her feet. Of course. And of course he compared her to multiple animals, and brought back the “M” word, and called her “Amazonian” for being tall. Of course he had to mention her ass, and even enter a parenthetical about it. Of course he called her a “chick.” What does a “giraffish” neck even mean? Shouldn’t that mean its abnormally long? Is that also supposed to be sexy? I need about a million showers, and to never read these words again.

The one saving grace of these descriptions, and of the Whedon descriptions, is that they at least don’t try to underplay the beauty of the character, or act as if the woman is unaware of it.

The “Obliviously Beautiful” trope is common enough it gets its own TV Tropes page, as well as about a million songs.  With this trope, the character is somehow unaware of her beauty, or could be more beautiful if she tried, or something. There’s some weird moralizing attached to this trope– it is as if we are supposed to like the character better, or think she is a better person, because she is either unaware of her beauty or doesn’t try to be beautiful. Or even as if her beauty is enhanced by not being aware of it. As opposed to all of those self-aware skanks ruining their good looks by thinking about them, or something? A bizarre number of the scripts follow this theme.

Sarah Connor, in the first Terminator film:

SARAH CONNOR is 19, small and delicate-featured. Pretty in a flawed, accessible way. She doesn’t stop the party when she walks in, but you’d like to get to know her. Her vulnerable quality masks a strength even she doesn’t know exists.

Lisa Cohen in Margaret:

On LISA COHEN, just 17. Not the best-looking girl in her class but definitely in the top five.

(Insert obligatory Flight of the Conchords reference here)

Helen Tasker from True Lies:

To call her plain would be inaccurate. She could be attractive if she put any effort into it, which doesn’t occur to her.

… Right. I’m sure that any woman, in the beauty-obsessed US, simply didn’t have it “occur” to her that she could be attractive. That’s definitely the issue.

Summer, from 500 Days of Summer:

SUMMER FINN files folders and answers phones in a plain white office. She has cropped brown hair almost like a boy’s but her face is feminine and pretty enough to get away with it.

(Who knew you had to be pretty in order to “get away” with short hair? All this time I was assuming that you could just do what you wanted with your hair, but apparently there are standards. Next time I get a pixie cut I’ll make sure to stamp “not a boy” on my forehead, since I don’t know for certain if my features are feminine enough to support that haircut.)

They even have to downplay Princess Buttercup from The Princess Bride before building her back up:

Buttercup is in her late teens; doesn’t care much about clothes and she hates brushing her long hair, so she isn’t as attractive as she might be, but she’s still probably the most beautiful woman in the world.

Damn, if she’s already the most beautiful woman in the world, I’d hate to see what she looks like if she is as attractive as she “might be.” She might turn out “painfully hot,” like Margot Robbie.

All of this seems to be done to make the character seem more “realistic” to the audience (as if they are not still being played by amazingly beautiful movie stars.) As Kyle Buchanan and Jordan Crucchiola put it in the same Vulture article,

Many screenplays try to hedge their female character’s beauty, lest she seem so gorgeous as to be unattainable. Perhaps the woman doesn’t know how pretty she is, or there’s a slight imperfection added to make her relatable. The exact calibration of these female characters’ beauty begs a reference to Goldilocks: They’re hot, but not too hot.

Why, you may ask, am I harping so much on these character descriptions? I’ll tell you.

The way we write about women shapes and is shaped by the way we think about women. Some of the most iconic women in movies are introduced, not via their personality or their attitude or their bearing, but by their beauty. Beauty that is either nearly pornographic, or is undercut and underplayed in some vain attempt at “relatability.” It’s important to remember, that these descriptions aren’t just the first appearance of the character in the film; they are the basis on which the director, actors, stagehands, everyone who works on the film, start to  get their idea of the character. What is she like? How does she carry herself? What are her concerns? And I don’t know about you, but I’d have a hard time trying to get to the “heart” of my character if most of what I knew about her was “she’s pretty, but not like, too pretty, you know?”

And to me, the ones that try the “Obliviously beautiful” route are almost worse. The porny ones are at least aware of the objectification they are taking part in. The oblivious descriptions are trying to have their cake and eat it, too. Oh, she’s beautiful, but she doesn’t know it. Or she’s not as beautiful as she could be. It adds even further restrictions on how women are supposed to look and act; we’re supposed to be beautiful, yet so humble or so stupid that we don’t realize it. We are only relatable when we are unselfconscious about our appearance (yeah, good luck with that) but we are not actually allowed to be ugly or even unalterably plain. 

In almost every case I listed here, the actress who was given the role imbued their character with energy, tension, and dare I say, pizzazz. But that likely has much more to do with the skills of the actresses than the quality of the character descriptions they were given. I would love to see these skilled actresses get handed scripts where their character is introduced with complexity and not just sex appeal.

Signed: Feminist Fury

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Featured image is a close-up of the description of Wonder Woman from the script.

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