Nfld. & Labrador

Witchy Prostitute No. 3, and other roles women say it's time to change

What's it like being a woman playing a character written by a man? Often dehumanizing, according to these filmmakers.

As gender parity on set increases across Canada, N.L. writers want better roles for women

Female characters aren't always written with personality traits in mind, according to these filmmakers. (iStock/Getty Images)

Naked Corpse. Girl Who Gets Slapped In Bikini. Woman Who Likes Yogurt (A Lot).

They sound satirical, but they're actual characters that St. John's filmmaker and actor Andie Bulman has auditioned to play.

"I've tried out for so many roles that are just brutal," Bulman said. "You don't get a name. You don't get personality."

Frustration eventually turned into creative motivation for Bulman, who recently teamed up with co-writer and director Veronica Dymond to produce a short comedy on their ordeals as female actors vying for a spot on scripts largely written by men.

Witchy Prostitute No. 3 is headed to the Charlottetown Film Festival next week. Bulman's expecting, based on reaction so far, that viewers might find their stories familiar.

There's a whole audience of people who aren't seeing themselves on screen.- Andie Bulman- Andie Bulman

But for all her exasperation, Bulman says the one-dimensional, sidelined quality of those roles likely comes from a kind of innocent ignorance, not malice.

"I don't think it's something that's done consciously," she said. "Male writers, I think, occasionally write from their perspective, and in their world they're the centre of their world. So in their stories, they're the centre of their stories."

Is 'pretty' a personality trait?

It's not just men: writers of all stripes find it hard to step out of their skins and write fully realized characters, says screenwriting instructor Wanda Nolan, whose short film Always Going Never Gone screened last week at the St. John's International Women's Film Festival.

"It's a very common thing that we do. You see it in scripts all the time," Nolan said.

St. John's-based actor and writer Andie Bulman, right, co-directed a short comedy poking fun at the female roles she's tried out for over the years. (Submitted by Andie Bulman)

Often, she says, male writers will attach a physical descriptor to a woman, but nothing else — making her pretty, but forgoing personality traits like shyness or belligerence.

"It's generally the women described that way," Nolan explains.

"If you look at the male character, the description is something about the internal. But the woman is generally beautiful, 99 per cent of the time. Unless she's meant to be ugly."

Bulman says she, too, falls into the habit when she's writing. 

"I have to consciously make sure when I'm writing that the males aren't just simple characters," Bulman said.

"I know I'm writing from this privileged perspective, and it's really easy for me to make other characters in my story a prop."

Wanda Nolan, a St. John's screenwriting instructor, says it's common to see writers failing to flesh out female roles. (Malone Mullin/CBC)

In Witchy Prostitute No. 3, the actors attempt to rebel against the writers — only to be faced with a stark decision. Bulman points out that, just like her character in the film, she finds it hard to turn down real-life jobs.

"Sometimes you have to take the lousy role even though it goes against your principles," she said.

"I might not want to play a waitress that has three lines and no name, but I need money."

Both Nolan and Bulman say they've noticed a shift in recent years, with more people willing to have a conversation about how they add flair and dimension to their characters.

But to take it further, Bulman suggests getting proofreaders for scripts: a woman or person of colour to point out if there's anything missing, so underrepresented populations can relate to realistic characters. 

"There's a whole audience of people who aren't seeing themselves on screen," she said.

A 2019 report on publicly funded Canadian productions backs up Bulman and Nolan's observations. The Women in View on Screen study found 25 per cent of key creative roles were occupied by women — a result it called "sobering."

The Women in View report surveyed the number of female creatives on set across the country. (Women in View)

The report showed greater gender diversity in productions with female showrunners, and also suggested improvement in how many women found themselves employed on set.

"The gender of a film's director also has an impact on the gender of the film's characters," the report said, finding 55 per cent of the top four roles went to women when women directed, compared with 41 per cent when men directed. "Other studies have found the same link."

Bulman says sometimes she tries to guess when a woman has written or directed a production. She can't always tell.

"I love when I'm surprised. I love when the showrunner is a male and all the women are fully developed characters," Bulman said.

"That's a victory for me."

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