Katherine Boutry, Ph.D.
West Los Angeles College
Dr. Katherine Boutry got her PhD in English from Harvard where she taught for five years. After moving to LA, she became a staff writer on the Lionsgate/Lifetime series “1 800 MISSING,” participated in the Warner Brothers TV Drama Writers Program, sold a pilot to Oxygen, and taught Screenwriting in the M.A. Humanities Program at Mount Saint Mary’s College.
Dr. Boutry is now a fulltime professor of English and screenwriting at West Los Angeles College, and a writer on the television series THE HAUNTING HOUR. She is currently writing features and developing a new pilot for cable.
As an undergrad at Georgetown, she spent a semester at the Sorbonne in Paris. Later, she had a Fulbright Scholarship to the Czech Republic. She speaks French, Italian, and a little Czech, and lives in LA with her French husband, three children, and chocolate Labrador puppy, Violette.
When she was little, she spent every Saturday afternoon watching “Creature Double Feature” and “The Twilight Zone” with her dad. That’s where her love of storytelling started.
You Can’t Be What You Can’t See
A recent documentary called “Miss Representation” by Jennifer Siebel Newsom premiered at Sundance and continues to get a lot of buzz nationally. Screenings are happening in schools, colleges, and corporations, including a private screening at the Hollywood talent and literary agency superpower CAA this month. Although the film isn’t perfect, (there are too many female interviewees making grammatical errors for my taste), this documentary has sparked considerable dialogue about women’s roles in film and the media in good ways, I think, and I hope those agents at CAA are listening.
Newsom’s film argues that this misrepresentation is not only dangerous to female self-esteem, but that it actually has a concrete impact on our politics and our world. Because we don’t see women represented in positions of power and politics on the screen without a corresponding attack on their femininity or ability to be “real women” (see Margaret Thatcher, Madeleine Albright, Hillary Clinton) or an attack on their abilities to mother or think (see Nancy Pelosi and Sarah Palin), young girls are turning away from feeling politically powerful and from thinking about participating in politics. The film tells us that at age seven, young girls and boys want to be president when they grow up in equal numbers. By the time those same girls are fifteen, there’s a drastic drop. The film makes the argument that “the media’s misrepresentations of women have led to the underrepresentation of women in positions of power and influence.” As a woman interviewed in the film states very eloquently, “You can’t be what you can’t see.”
So what does that have to do with you? Many of you who read this column are interested in screenwriting and films. I’d like to devote this column to the issues of women as represented in film and each ask ourselves what part we can play as producers and/or consumers of media. Not because I think any writer or filmmaker has an obligation to represent anybody any way. I believe solidly in freedom of expression. My complaint comes from the boredom of seeing the same tired female stereotypes over and over. The “tv-ugly” girl next door, the asexual, loving grandma, the bitter, sex-starved divorcee, the prostitute with the heart of gold, the promiscuous victim of violence on Law and Order, SVU, you get the picture.
Pay attention to the women’s roles in the movies you see. About a hundred years ago, in her essay on female creativity A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf posited that “In a hundred years, women will have ceased to be the protected sex.” I ask students to consider whether they think she was right. The results are mixed. Especially in film and advertising and music videos. Repeatedly, women are cast in roles as sexual objects or objects of violence. At this point, someone invariably brings up Angelina Jolie. While we may see more Angelina Jolie’s kicking butt and assassinating bad guys, they’re always doing that in ridiculously implausible latex and heels. The film makers are only paying lip service to the equality of the action heroine. While we’re supposed to be admiring her smarts and action moves in outwitting the villains, I suspect lots of viewers may find themselves distractedly admiring her leather-clad body instead. Let’s face it. It’s hard to take her seriously.
But male fantasy in film making is not the only culprit when it comes to depictions of women. Reality television, the fastest growing television content, is the worst. And let’s not pretend for a second that reality television isn’t scripted. What’s passing for (and being accepted by the public as) “reality” is women as catty, jealous, materialistic (“Keeping Up with the Kardashians”) and competitive (“The Bachelor,” “Bridezilla”). The list of these shows is seemingly endless, and there are more slated for next season. The public just can’t seem to get enough. We could all blame the evil media for poisoning our minds against women, but that would be grossly unfair and overly simplistic. The media only makes a profit when they hit a nerve and appeal to a prejudice their audience already shares. Otherwise, no one would buy. Television and film portray women this way because we allow it. So the next time you see yourself tuning into these shows, have a moment of self-reflection and ask yourself if this is the kind of stereotype you’d like to perpetuate and support. If not, turn off the set. This is your power as a consumer.
More importantly, if you are a writer of content, consider these questions before selling your soul or being told that anything other than the status quo “just won’t sell.” Many times we ‘re told that a female protagonist “just can’t carry a movie.” Untrue. .” Juno did great. So did the Twilight series. Please hear me when I say, you do not have any obligation as a writer to represent your sex, race, age or astrological sign in a positive light. That would be a sin on the same order. Women shouldn’t be put on a pedestal any more than they should be reduced to sexual objects. But honestly, how many women do you know who resemble the two-dimensional cartoon characters we see on screen? And how painful it is to see bright young women in real life transforming themselves through make-up and surgery and anorexia in the pursuit of an impossible, photo-shopped ideal guaranteed to disappoint.
You don’t have to preach. Just tell the truth. Write roles for complex, interesting women characters and the audience will come. I don’t know about you, but I like to be surprised when I watch a movie, and I’ve already seen the Madonna, whore, and librarian models for years. Yawn. Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing wrong with sexual attractiveness in either gender. That’s part of the pleasure of going to the movies. It only becomes problematic when it is the only value a woman adds to the equation. Let’s see some variety on screen and not just in the occasional quirky Indie film that does well at the festivals but bombs at the box office because it gets no publicity.
I’ve requested a public screening of “Miss Representation” for fall to get the dialogue flowing on campus at West. I think as writers and consumers of film, it’s important for us to have this conversation and be mindful of the boring stereotypes we’re inflicting on our audiences. Entertain with complexity.
You can check out the trailer for the film: www.missrepresentation.org/the-film/