When I first began my screenwriting career, I had high hopes for my female characters. As long as they didn’t do anything like grab their crotch or spit after singing the national anthem, I thought things would be fine.
Clearly, I was wrong.
In Hollywood, you learn fast that women characters, much like women in general, are expected to be above all “likable.” Sure, she is allowed to be a bit wacky, but only if she is also meek. She can have a high-powered job, but only if she still cries in the bathroom during lunch breaks. She may have interests or hobbies, but they should be related to meeting men. Alessandra Stanley put it best in an old New York Times review when she called it the ‘Ally Mcbealing’ of American women.
Though for me, it’s nothing new. In some of my early drafts of How To Lose A Guy the heroine Andie Anderson was caustic, witty and above all else, comfortable with her sexuality. She also realized that her job at a glossy woman’s magazine was somewhat shallow, but at least it paid the rent and that was good enough for her. By the time the studio got done with it, however, Andie was a serious reporter stuck in a vapid magazine job. She was the ‘How To’ girl who dreamed of writing pieces on war torn Bosnia. All sarcasm was erased, and for all intents and purposes she was a virgin (though she had a friend who was a little trampy). These changes ostensibly made her character more likable. Likable trumped real. The movie came out, grossed a fortune, and one could argue, Hollywood was right. But I always wonder how it would have played had we kept her “real.” Would it have tanked? Or played even better?
I ask the question because in reality – at least by Hollywood standards – just about every woman I know is unlikable. Still, this doesn’t stop the movies and TV from perpetuating the myth that women are generally ditzy, clumsy, girl-next-door types whose main goal in life is to find a man (The only exception to this rule being when they are crime solvers, in which case they are consummate loners unable to ever have a real relationship because they are haunted and dark.)
The reality is that women (both fictional and real) are constrained by this nebulous likability factor while male characters can do just about anything. Imagine if Neil Labute’s In the Company of Men, a black comedy that makes fun of a deaf woman – and a movie I quite liked – had been made in reverse. You don’t have to work in the film business to know that The Company of Women would never have even made it past a first draft – if that. Or what about Scent of A Woman, staring Judy Dench as the foul-mouthed, blind ex-army officer? How about Mamet’s 12 Angry Men remade as 12 Angry Women. Or maybe an adaptation of John Dollar – a brilliant novel that is basically Lord of the Flies with girls. The sad truth is, it’s not going to happen.
Of course, film and TV present a fantasy, an escape from everyday life. But do people really not want to see real women? Does the public not want to hear women speak in their true voices, which span the spectrum from prim to irreverent. Are we still living in some sort of backwards world where women can, in theory, be anything they want to be, as long as they adhere to a certain role model?
It’s sort of depressing if you consider it. That’s why, in addition to writing screenplays, I turned to writing books, believing it would be a creative outlet where I would be allowed to express my worldview without having to give myself over to the bland dictates of being likable. A few years ago, I penned a coming-of-age memoir set in New Jersey. Surely I would have free reign to render the quirky, true-to-life characters that peopled my childhood — my lecherous gym teacher, a vindictive jazz musician who once terrorized me, and even a sexually charged, timbale playing chimpanzee. And while many reviewers embraced my story, there were plenty who didn’t.
But not for the reasons I expected.
Getting critical reviews is never a pleasant experience. As a writer, you simply hope for the best, bracing yourself for the reviewer’s poisoned arrows. But while promoting my memoir, a trend began to emerge. I was compared, with an alarming frequency, to cult author Charles Bukowski, although, frankly, I’m not sure the comparison was positive. More disturbing, though, my work was taken to task for being both profane and vulgar.
Puzzled, I searched for reasons why I was getting this reaction. I thought perhaps it was because my brother cursed a lot, a fact I translated onto the page. But then I recalled David Sedaris’ brother a.k.a “The Rooster” who cursed constantly. And fine, I described how our front yard became a boggy mess after the septic tank exploded, but didn’t Augusten Burroughs discuss his bowel movements without repercussion? No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t come up with any references to support how my memoir, which didn’t include sex, violence, or drugs would deserve such a description. I looked up early reviews of Trainspotting and saw terms like “calculatedly outrageous,” and “winningly sarcastic.” I checked out reviews of Elmore Leonard, a writer I greatly admire, and found several reviews applauding his female characters, in particular his creation of Honey Deal as a “smart, ballsy, sexy, take-no-prisoner female.” Now I consider myself a pretty smart, ballsy, sexy, take-no-prisoner female, yet somehow a 79-year-old man’s creation is more pitch perfect than the real deal?
Finally, while in New Jersey I did an interview for a local paper, and the reporter (male, early 30s) asked me why I was so mean.
I was taken aback by the word. Mean? The word ping-ponged through my brain. I can be dry, even sardonic on occasion. But mean? No. A straight shooter. Yes. I wondered if he was confusing the two.
Later, the reporter’s question started to burn. Why is it when a man describes the world around him in a way that’s scrupulously honest, he is described as brave, groundbreaking even? Yet when a woman writes about her world in a similar way, she is … mean.
The only answer I could come up with was that, as a woman writer, I was expected to be likable.
You see, I didn’t write about any of those safe female topics in my book. I never yearned to be prom queen, or battled with my weight, or suffered an unrequited crush on the quarterback. Instead, I wrote about being abandoned by my father, living in a crumbling house with an assortment of ill and handicapped siblings. I wrote about being perceived as an outsider by everyone around me. I wrote about feeling like a stranger in a strange land. This was my truth and it was through this prism that I saw the world around me. I was an emotional nomad who navigated the landscape of divorce in the 70s. A scrappy survivor of the mean streets of suburbia, who didn’t indulge in self-denigration or self-destruction.
So maybe I do have more in common with Bukowski than Bridget Jones. Driven by a need to find higher meaning in the world around me I took to questioning the world as I saw it. After all, alienation, sarcasm, and cynicism are not the sole domain of men, although sometimes it might seem as if they are. Back in the 50s and 60s, a group of disaffected male writers named themselves the Beat generation, playing with the paradox of the word to mean both “tired” and “upbeat” at the same time; although women were involved in the movement as well, they were often relegated to the sidelines, cast in the role of hostess, girlfriend, muse. The writing style of the beats was chaotic, gritty, and non-conformist, reflecting the burgeoning counterculture movement of the time.
Even though it’s been almost 50 years since the Beat generation, women are slowly breaking into the territory first staked out by Kerouac, Ginsberg and Burroughs. And despite the pressure to conform, to be likable, to break down and pine away and play helpless, we are resisting, enlarging the boundaries of our worldview with our gimlet eyes and bringing in the experiences of our own upbringing: the anomie of suburban life, the possibilities of the internet, the prevalence of divorce, the increasing fungibility of identity.
A growing number of female writers and performers don’t want to toe the line and be likable anymore. As I considered my role in this regard, I remembered a line Jack Kerouac once wrote, “The only people for me are the mad ones … they never yawn or say a commonplace thing.” And that’s when it hit me. Every generation has its movements, and perhaps this is ours. We are Mads. Mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved. We are nomads displaced by cultural circumstances who are now trying to find a place to call home. We are mad to experience life on all levels. Mad to connect all our million little pieces. Mad to find our own truth. We write mad lit — and yes, it’s cynical, unflinching, and irreverent. Our stories are populated by female characters who don’t want to be Meredith Grey or Carrie Bradshaw, created by female authors who don’t want pink covers and cute little cartoons on their books.
To the reporter who asked me why I was so mean, I now have an answer: I’m not mean. I’m mad. And if that makes me unlikable, so be it. Because let’s face it, being mad is a hell of a lot more interesting.