Cartoon by Michael E. Cohen
Highland 2 Helps Screenwriters Balance Genders
Did you know that, among the 100 top-grossing films in the United States in 2017, only 24% featured female protagonists, just 37% had female major characters, and only 32 of the 100 films featured 10 or more female characters with speaking parts (compared to the 79 that contained speaking parts for at least 10 male characters). When it comes to cinematic characters, the default setting is “male.”
Nor are many of the roles available for female actors particularly deep or challenging, a state of affairs so commonly recognized that the phrase “fails the Bechdel Test” has become a shorthand cliché for a movie that offers little range for its female actors. The Bechdel Test doesn’t set a very high bar: to pass it, a film need have only one scene in which two named female characters talk to each other about anything other than a man. Nonetheless, in 2018, among the releases that failed the Bechdel Test were the Oscar-nominated Green Book and the summer blockbuster Mission Impossible: Fallout.
Of course, characters originate in screenplays, and, as it happens, the Highland 2 writing app provides some simple but effective assistance for “woke” screenwriters who want to pay more explicit attention to the gender balance in their screenplays. We wrote about Highland a while back (see “Writing Screenplays with Highland,” 18 May 2015), and while the latest version has evolved into a full-blown Markdown editor with lots of writer-friendly features, its forte is still screenwriting. Among the tools in its current incarnation is one labeled Gender Analysis.
The Gender Analysis tool is simple in concept—it lists the speaking parts that Highland finds in a screenplay (not a feat of artificial intelligence analysis: the rigid screenplay format makes compiling such a list trivially easy), and then requires the user to tick a checkbox manually for each character to indicate the character’s gender. Nor does the analysis take into account gender fluidity: you can choose only M for male, F for female, and U for unspecified.
With those boxes ticked, a screenwriter can see how many characters of each gender appear in the screenplay, how many lines or words the characters of each gender speak, and how many scenes the script contains that feature at least two female characters interacting. That last statistic is as close to a Bechdel Test analysis as the software can go: while it can find scenes where two or more female characters speak, the Gender Analysis tool can’t tell if the characters are talking about a man.
Rudimentary as it is, Highland 2’s Gender Analysis tool does provide useful feedback. To try it out, I took a PDF I received a few months ago from a friend that contained a draft screenplay he’d written, and I “melted” it into Highland 2. (“Melting” is what Highland calls extracting the text of a properly formatted screenplay PDF into Highland’s own format; it’s a simple drag-and-drop operation.) I then opened the Gender Analysis tool, ticked the checkboxes, and learned that the draft was a typical Hollywood screenplay: more than two-thirds of the characters were male, and they delivered most of the dialog. The screenplay did contain one, albeit only one, scene that depicted two female characters speaking. When I read that scene, I found that it did pass the Bechdel Test because its dialog did not mention any men.
I had expected such results: the script was an action-comedy about twin brothers, one a cop, the other a convict, so it promised to be a phallocentric tale from the get-go. In fact, I was surprised that it included even one scene that passed the Bechdel Test. When I called my friend to tell him of Highland’s findings, he laughed and told me that not long after I received the draft, he had done a similar gender census on the screenplay and, based on that, had changed a number of minor characters from men to women.
What can we learn from this? Most importantly, that analyzing a screenplay for gender balance doesn’t require sophisticated artificial intelligence. Highland 2’s basic Gender Analysis tool makes it easy, but all that’s really necessary is a simple bookkeeping chart and a calculator. What matters most is being aware that cinematic gender balance is an issue in the first place, being willing to investigate that balance, and then being willing to take some action based on the investigation. And the reward for that work? Maybe more and better parts for female actors. That’s a coming attraction I would pay to see.
A couple of extra points I omitted from the piece for reasons of space.
First, the Bechdel Test should, by rights, be called the Bechdel-Wallace Test; see here for why that is: https://www.themarysue.com/bechdel-wallace-test-please-alison-bechdel/
Second, if you have Highland 2 or a similar app, you can find lots of screenplays in PDF form on the web you could analyze, such as here: https://www.scriptreaderpro.com/best-screenplays-to-read/
Note that WriterDuet V5 also offers the Bechdel-Wallace Test.
I didn’t find it helpful to have politics inserted into an article about a software application. Why not remove that stuff and simply mention the new feature in Highland 2 without the commentary?
Anyone who is a serious writer is well aware of those “issues”, so there’s no need for politics here on TidBITS. Thanks for the article.
Sorry, but what is political about gender imbalance in film? And how would one cover a tool designed to reveal gender imbalance in screenplays without mentioning gender imbalance?
I am not going down this rabbit hole. I will make a few comments and let it be…
The way things are presented, it conveys a distorted picture of reality. Is a top-grossing film the only measure of success or gender balance? No, it isn’t. Most top-grossing films are actions films with long-established male lead characters. Simply switching genders, as was done with the recent “Ghostbusters” didn’t work out well, at all.
I work in the industry and I prefer smaller budget, story and character driven film projects. Some smaller films may be more “profitable” in that they make more than they cost, in terms of profit/cost ratio.
And, to imply in the last sentence that a tool like this is going to change any imbalance is ridiculous.
Again, political commentary doesn’t belong here.
On a lighter note…
From a software usability perspective, one could say that the “gender balance” feature described in the article is actually inadequate, in that it doesn’t provide for all the currently recognized genders as stipulated in California (for example). So, the word “balance” is a bit out of place, as there are dozens of recognized genders in California… a definite flaw in both the “Bechdel Test” and the implementation in Highland 2…
(Yes, a quite many rabbit holes are possible…)
It doesn’t take a lot really to tip people over the edge, commentary emerges and typically it’s negative. Sad to say. Nonetheless, a simple and hopefully useful tool to see added, sometimes the simple things are what will make the big changes down the road, a prompt to simply consider the mix may aid balance.
For what it’s worth, I spent a few minutes today massaging the description of what TidBITS publishes on our About page in an effort to reduce any confusion that might exist about what we feel is or is not appropriate to publish. It now reads:
Geez…have I been mistaken in thinking that action flicks Black Panther and Wonder Woman, etc., that featured strong female leads were money loosing box office failures? Everything I read about them claimed record profits not just in the US, but across the globe. Heroines in Disney animated flicks, like Elsa in Frozen and Merida in Brave, also set records. And none of these films were considered “chick flicks;” they appealed to both male and female audiences.
And in all cases, licensed products from the above box office hits, which are also huge revenue generators, did exceptionally well:
So are ancillary revenue streams from video games, streaming, DVD, etc.
Yes, one small tool in one small program that pretty much just counts lines will not change an imbalance. But I suspect this small tool was developed because producers and screenwriters recognize that the market has been rapidly evolving and guys and gals are interested in all kinds of lead characters. Would Kinky Boots or Rent have been wildly successful and profitable film, stage and music productions if large audiences hadn’t begun to “think different” about gender?
I’m sorry but your comments should be directed to the author of the article, not me. He was the one who suggested by his introduction that there was a lack of “lead character” representation in top grossing films, mostly due to some inherent (or intentional) gender bias on the part of those working in the film industry. You pointed out cases where this isn’t true. One implication of the author’s opening remarks is that by simply changing genders to provide more equal outcomes in terms of industry gender balance may part of the “solution” (to which I offered the “Ghostbusters” example).
I simply stated that swapping genders for many genre films isn’t going to work well. Forcing the audience to accept arbitrary changes would be the tail wagging the dog (most forced, overly formulaic pieces tend to be poor quality).
My other comments were intended to counter the idea that high grossing films are not necessarily the best measure to show any sort of “imbalance” of gender, real or not.
Emphasis should be placed on good storytelling, not watching a stats counter in a writing application. It would be rather silly to reject a story about the life of a woman, and one that features only women in lead roles, just because there isn’t enough representation by male, or “other gendered” characters. Picture a story about nuns in a convent, with no men around of any importance to the story. Now, flip this around and there are many cases where the opposite is artificially “massaged” to correct the imbalance. If I wrote a story about a woman and her life’s struggles (which I have), used a tool like the one described, I would not think for a second that I may have created any sort of imbalance by not having a strong/lead male character in the story, despite what the stats would say.
In addition, a tool like this is actually rather simplistic. What if if a character is mute? What if a lead character is someone with very little dialogue compared with other characters (with the same gender or not). It doesn’t take much effort to show that it’s easy to misuse any sort of tool like this, especially if you know firsthand how very difficult it is to create a good story.
Some people may be “offended” that such a tool doesn’t account for “other genders”, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc.
This is certainly not the place to discuss the more social-cultural aspects of “the intersection between society/art and technology”.
I’m closing this topic—the conversation hasn’t been constructive.
Suffice it to say that TidBITS publishes stories that I as publisher believe are interesting and relevant to our readers as a group. That doesn’t mean that any individual has to agree with my choice or find a particular article interesting or relevant.
I specifically asked Michael to write this article because we had previously covered Highland and I thought the Gender Analysis feature showed an interesting—if unapologetically simple, as the article notes with its comment on the handling of gender fluidity—use of technology to address an issue that has generated a great deal of discussion in the film industry. The article wasn’t meant as an in-depth look at that issue; hence the use of top-grossing statistics rather than more-nuanced numbers that would likely have resonated less with a lay audience.
And finally, there was no implication that a tool like Highland 2’s Gender Analysis tool would affect gender imbalance—the article explicitly notes that it’s doing nothing that couldn’t be done with some paper and a calculator and concludes: “What matters most is being aware that cinematic gender balance is an issue in the first place, being willing to investigate that balance, and then being willing to take some action based on the investigation.”
There are undoubtedly better places to discuss whether or not gender imbalance is a concern, and I would encourage those who wish to continue the discussion do so in those forums.
Join the discussion in the TidBITS Discourse forum