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Finding the Woman’s Voice

By Helen Jacey

Is there a woman’s voice in screenwriting? And if there is, how do we recognize it? If you’re a male writer, you might think this question doesn’t even apply to you. You might think this is simply a problem for women writers. Besides, how often has anyone said that you write with a man’s voice? You might have been told you are good at exploring masculinity through your characters and themes, and you might have a preference for writing in genres where male characters tend to dominate, but even so, isn’t the concept of a man’s voice patronizing and limiting? Don’t we all aspire to write compelling stories, with great characters? When male and female screenwriters are successful creating complex and fascinating characters of both sexes, isn’t the whole woman’s voice thing a hangover from the bad old days of inequality?

Well, yes and no. The woman’s voice remains a real issue for many writers. Granted, the majority of these could be women but it would be completely wrong to say that male writers aren’t also curious. In fact, the woman’s voice is bit like the elephant in the room. You can ignore it, but this won’t make it go away. It’s my strong belief that the persistence of the question ‘is there a woman’s voice?’ boils down to the fact that the vast majority of the screenwriting guides tend to ignore gender difference. Despite their frequent appearance in screenwriting guides, Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz to Erin Brockovich (Erin Brockovich) are rarely explained in terms of being female or how they relate to femininity. If you’re creating a female character, there’s still not much out there to really help you get to grips with sex and gender. Writers of both sexes can feel frustrated and even starved by the absence of any discussion about women’s lives in the screenwriting guides and handbooks.

So if there is a woman’s voice, where can you find it? I have some suggestions!

In your characters…

Choosing a female character to lead your story means, one way or the other, you are exploring your own attitudes about women in your creative process. This will be conscious or unconscious. The female character you choose and the journey your story takes her on is inevitably a product of your attitudes and values about women and femininity. And your attitude, in turn, is a product of the culture you come from. Evelyn Salt (Salt) is, in many respects, a female Jason Bourne. She’s a victim of indoctrination, trained assassin and seeks vengeance against her oppressors. She’s a character who symbolizes female action, desire for vengeance and heroic bravery. On the other hand, Precious (Precious) symbolizes the emotional and physical wounds of incest and rape, and the need for nurturance, emotional support and solidarity in order to survive and heal.

  • If you have a female main character, think about what she might symbolize for women.

In your choice of world…

Whether you set your story in the offices of a glossy fashion magazine, or simply the domestic home front, the world inhabited by your characters will reveal what you think about women’s lives and the expectations upon them in terms of roles, behavior, and values. Ugly Betty and Drop Dead Diva, for instance, both thematically obsess over beauty versus brains, women’s relationship to their body image, and power dynamics. They reflect back to the audience, on a very deep level, the huge emphasis in our society on women’s size, youth and beauty and the eternal pressure to look good.

  • Ask yourself what values and attitudes about women’s lives your world sets up. Then ask yourself to what extent is your character’s world influenced by your own values and attitudes about women.

In your use of conflict…

It’s true that many women’s stories reflect a huge level of internal conflict. Internal conflict for female characters very often reflects ambivalence over the roles and expectations upon them as women. From Juno’s ambivalence over her pregnant state in Juno to the maternal guilt of the three heroines of The Hours, women suffer a very gender-specific form of internal antagonism. This usually revolves around a character’s need to protect her sense of identity, versus the demands that others are making upon her. This means that heroism for women is often about doing the right thing for yourself and your own personal survival, rather than ‘manning up’ and sacrificing yourself for others. It can also make you send your female characters on journeys which are more interior and personal, where your character might seem passive. Alicia in The Good Wife not only uses her life skills and values gained from being a woman to help her pursue justice, but she’s also preoccupied about her role as a working mom, a woman ‘returner,’ and dealing with the humiliation inflicted by a philandering husband.

  • If you have a female character, work out her biggest headaches in relation to others in her life. You might be surprised how often gender expectations are the root of the problem.

In your use of ‘union’…

Women are conventionally, and to some extent, stereotypically, still seen as the sex which promotes peace, love and harmony. The nurturing of others, relationship building, respecting life, and all things caring and sharing are still very much seen as firmly female territory, and nowhere more than in the movie and TV industries. But does this mean all these stories necessarily reflect a ‘woman’s voice?’ If you associate what I call the principles of union - the substance of storytelling which focus on relationship dynamics, nurturing, love and intimacy – with women characters, then possibly series and movies from The C-Word to every female biopic – do reflect, if not a woman’s voice, then at least a feminine orientation. But things are changing – take the relatively recent arrival of the bromance and bromedy – and many men’s stories which are concerned with the nurturing of others and identity. You wouldn’t describe these stories as having a woman’s voice, of course, but you could say that men are ‘womanning-up.’

  • Ask yourself how the principles of union influence your storytelling from your characterization to your choice of genre –the movies you like to watch AND write!

Is there a woman’s voice? I like to think that we all have, as writers, an ‘inner woman’s voice’ which guides us in our attitudes about women, our values and expectations, and the way we even like to live. So why not find the inner woman’s voice filtering through your stories, whether you are male or female, or writing for a male or female audience. It might have something very interesting to tell you!

Meet the Author: Helen Jacey

Dr. Helen Jacey is a screenwriter, author and story consultant. Her first book The Woman in the Story was published in 2010 and since then has become renowned as the international handbook for screenwriters creating female characters. The book and her Seminar Helen Jacey's Writing The Heroine's Story for screenwriters, which has been described as "simply the best ever screenwriting course, better than McKee, better than anyone," has connected Helen with filmmakers from all over the world, ...