Miss Representation: Female Writers on Screen

Writers spend a lot of time writing about, well, writing. Some have made entire careers out of it, and screenwriters are no exception. Some of the best — and this writer’s favourite — films are lead by characters that are writers: Sunset Boulevard, Misery, Wonder Boys, As Good As It Gets, Moulin Rouge, Breakfast At Tiffany’s, Barton Fink. I could go on listing films which each has an original character with a set of nuanced neuroticisms that are very much their own. I can also tell you one thing they all share in common: they’re all men.
There’s an awful trope that’s been played out for decades on film that has carried on going through the digital age. Men are serious writers and respected journalists, and women write columns in fashion magazines. There’s nothing wrong with writing for fashion magazines, of course there isn’t, but it’s also not the beginning and end of what female writers do. Worse still, when women are portrayed as authors on screen, the trials and tribulations of their romantic lives are typically the main focus. Even biopics fall into this trap; the word ‘writer’ carrying the same adjective value as ‘blonde’ or ‘brunette’ when describing a character.
Here are three of the worst offenders…
How To Lose A Guy In Ten Days – You want to prove to your magazine editor that you are a ‘serious journalist’ and should be trusted with politically charged assignments, so you come up with a ‘social experiment’ that lists all the things women do that make men break up with them. Yeah that seems like the smart choice…
Sex and the City – There’s probably a part of everyone that would like to be a little bit Carrie Bradshaw. She has an incredible collection of impossibly expensive shoes; an unwaveringly supportive friendship group; a rent-controlled New York City apartment; and endless stream of invites to all of Manhattan’s hottest spots; and did I mention the shoes? But she’s not real. No-one could keep up her lifestyle on a single column a month. Daenerys Targaryen is a more rooted in reality than Ms. Bradshaw could ever hope to be.
Mary Shelley – This list could have easily been made up of biopics that reduced amazing authors to mere love interests (I’m looking at you Becoming Jane) , but this is one of the worst offenders. It covers only her early life and the impact Percy Bysshe Shelley had on her and her first novel. Even the afterword at the film’s conclusion focuses on her relationship and how she remained unmarried following her husband’s death at twenty-nine. No mention of the last three decades of Mary’s life or her impressive literary output aside from Frankenstein.
… and the three that got it right
Stranger Than Fiction – How many times have you reached the end of a book, devastated that the author dared kill off your favourite character? This great film looks (in an offbeat, magical way) at the how those decisions give the writer sleepless nights too. The film is brilliant for many reasons, but mainly because the author being female is totally incidental. She isn’t struggling with the editing process because she’s a woman, she struggling because editing is awful for most writers — and in this case, “kill you darlings” carries a lot more weight. It’s a funny, heartfelt meditation on life and art.
Dickinson – Was I sceptical when this is announced? Yes. Did I binge the whole thing, and rejoice when season two was announced? Definitely. So many period adaptations of Emily’s life have been muted by grey and sepia tones; but seeing and hearing her words appear on screen in bursts of colour, set against a modern soundtrack, you can really appreciate how timeless her ideas were. More than anything, this show highlights that people don’t become writers (and especially not poets) because there’s an easy, obvious career path for them. They do it because nothing else is ever going to satisfy them, and excite them in the same way.
The Hours – Push past the prosthetic nose, and you’ll see that’s not what won Nicole Kidman the Oscar. Her quiet performance perfectly highlights Virginia Woolf’s mental health struggles without making them the absolute of her character. More than anything, we see a woman trying to hold on to and develop an idea that will become Mrs. Dalloway.

  • Honourable Mention: Although I wouldn’t squeeze it into the top three, Can You Ever Forgive Me, based on the confessional memoir of writer and fraudster, Lee Israel, perfectly highlights the lows of the writing process, and the pangs of jealousy writers can’t help but feel sometimes. Although I’m sure the author would never forgive me… I have to say, this was one of the very few times I enjoyed the film more than the book. On the opposite end of the scale, Murder She Wrote only just missed out on a spot on the naughty list. I’m willing to overlook the fact that Jessica Fletcher couldn’t possibly find the time to solve all those crimes in between writing so many book, for one very specific reason… I love the idea floating around online that she was responsible for all those murders on Cabot Cove. Talk about dedicated research.

These inconsistencies in the view of female writers are exactly why Rare Birds Book Club exists. There isn’t a shortage of female led literature; we couldn’t hope to make even a dent in all of it in our lifetimes. As more and more female authors achieve the recognition they deserve, and more women break into and disrupt the film industry we can only hope that the outdated Hollywood idea that: ‘writer = man’ is almost at an end.