Writers, we have a problem. The problem is "beautiful," "pretty," "attractive," "cute"… and a few other adjectives of similar meaning.
The problem is that it’s nearly impossible to find a screenplay or pilot script that doesn’t introduce its female characters using one of these words.
I work in a script library. Once a patron pointed this out to me, it’s a phenomenon I can’t seem to un-see. From the greenest of beginners to the most seasoned Emmy and Oscar winners; from the very beginning of cinema to TV episodes that aired last week, it’s like we can’t write a character who identifies as female without including the qualifier that she’s good-looking. Then, some of us think we’ll get bonus points if we specify that she doesn’t realize she’s good-looking.
This cliché has been the norm for so long that many of us are apt to not even notice. (By the way, this includes many women writers and it includes me.)
Screenwriting is predicated on economy of language. Because words in scripts are used more sparingly, the ones that make it to the page really count.
Think of all the critical creative decisions on a film or TV show, i.e. who the casting department seeks out for the role, how the actor interprets the role, how the character is received, how we’re influenced by the story, etc. that all take root in the lean selection of words put forth by the writer.
As age-old Hollywood wisdom tells us, it starts on the page.
And yet, despite knowing the importance of our word selection, when it comes to our female characters, we continue to use the same careless, generic, appearance-related adjectives—words used so frequently and without purpose that they start to lose all meaning.
Aren’t we aware enough to realize that using these flimsy words in a perpetual cycle is the very genesis of how we start to limit women’s participation not only in the stories we tell, but more so in the industry that supports the telling of those stories?
Beautiful, pretty, attractive, cute…
When we resort to including these words in something as pivotal as a character’s introduction, we reinforce the idea that a character’s other qualities are only worth noticing so long as she’s physically attractive. We give the impression that we couldn’t be bothered to dig up a more specific word so therefore the role must be inconsequential.
When used, “beautiful, pretty, attractive, cute…” tell us that it’s in the woman’s very nature to be an object of desire—even if she’s a hugely active character, even if she’s the hero and even if it’s a story primarily about women.
By contrast, male characters’ physical appearances seem to be described less in such stock terminology. Leaving out generic descriptions of how they look enables us to see them as more unique and perhaps more autonomous.
Could it be that some of the threatening, diminishing conduct towards women in this industry (such as that which has been brought into greater light recently) actually begins in the language we include in our scripts?
If this is true—if harmful, negative behavior can begin in our words—then the change that so many of us seek can also begin in our words. Simply put, altering the narrative can literally start on the page.
As writers of all gender identities, races, religions, creeds and stripes, we get to strike the match that ignites the fire, and it can be through actions as small as re-thinking how we describe our characters.
Oh, dear writers, script readers and anyone who makes movies or TV who just happens to be reading this, I’m giving you a New Year’s Resolution. Any time you come across a description in a script that reads like this…
… whether it exists in a friend’s, client’s or, most importantly, your own work… try to see empty words like "beautiful," "pretty," "attractive" and "cute" as the blank spaces they are, then make a mental Mad Lib for yourself. Create a space that’s waiting for you as the writer, collaborator or giver of feedback to fill it with something alive, unique and purposeful. I suspect many actors have used this technique for a long time.
Stumped about what words to put in that blank space? Here are a few ideas to jump-start your imagination.
- First and least creatively, google some thesaurus terms. Words like "alluring," "magnetic," even "lovely" sound marginally more thoughtful and specific than the standard "pretty" or "attractive" even if they do allude entirely to how the character looks.
- It’s easier to write with specificity when you’re thinking of a real person as you go along. Whether you’re picturing the actor who will play this character or a person the character is inspired by, you’re more likely to focus on things like mannerisms and behaviors rather than resorting to generalizations or stereotypes. If you’re looking for inspiration, check out Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous in the library. He imbues every character with a kind of warmth and individuality.
- Just leave it blank. If it’s a good script, you won’t have to go into detail describing what the character looks like because what we need to know about them will come through in what they do. The pilot scripts for Insecure, Girls and Jane the Virgin describe their leading ladies minimally without ever referencing their physical appearance.
- Tell us the character’s occupation instead. This takes focus away from what the character looks like and puts it on what the character does.
- In instances of the dreaded, “beautiful but doesn’t know it” or “broken, but beautiful” type of introduction, think of the kind of person this character becomes by the very end of the script. What has she discovered about herself that she didn’t know before? What kind of person has she become? How has she changed? If you have trouble with this, think of some of the great female character arcs in movies and TV from Thelma of Thelma & Louise to Betty of Ugly Betty to Katherine of Hidden Figures to Daenarys of Game of Thrones. In what way do they become different over the course of the story? Those are the words to use in place of beautiful.
If you’re still worried that you’re falling into the use of an annoying cliché or that you might be perpetuating the omnipresent stereotypical or overused narrative with your descriptions, ask somebody to give you feedback on them.
… and if you don’t have anybody to give you this kind of feedback, feel free to bring your character descriptions to the WGF Library. This script librarian would be happy to give you slightly objective perspective on your character intros.
I’ll keep calling attention to this issue until empty words like beautiful, pretty, attractive and cute are replaced with a slew of dynamic adjectives and nouns and we feel empowered to become each and every one of them.
I’ll soon be back to my regular posts on cool scripts to read in the library. Now and always, keep writing!