Is there such a thing as a female gaze in movies and television? That was the hot topic at last weekend's Toronto Screenwriting Conference. On Saturday, I sat down with five female writers who'd just discussed it in an hourlong panel: Tracey Deer (Mohawk Girls); Jennifer Holness (Shoot the Messenger); Robby Hoffman (Odd Squad and Workin' Moms); Katrina Saville (Private Eyes); and Courtney Jane Walker (Degrassi: The Next Generation). We could have gone on all day.
On Sunday, Marti Noxon took a crack at defining it. After writing for Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Grey's Anatomy and Mad Men, she's surfing a wave of her own projects, including Girlfriends' Guide to Divorce, which she conceived after her own divorce. She has two new series on the way – HBO's Sharp Objects, starring Amy Adams as an alcoholic, self-harming reporter, directed by Jean-Marc Vallée; and AMC's Dietland, based on Sarai Walker's satiric novel about anti-diet guerrillas. As well, Noxon's semi-autobiographical film To the Bone, about anorexia, premiered at Sundance and will drop on Netflix July 14. It's her feature directorial debut.
All six agree about what the female gaze is not. It's not an inversion of the male gaze. It's not about objectifying anyone. They also agree it's going to take a while to define – there was much referencing of Jill Soloway's remark (I'm paraphrasing) that for us to say what the female gaze is, we would first need 100 years of nearly every film and television show to be written, produced and directed by women, to embed those tropes (whatever they may be) in our subconscious.
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By the end of the weekend, though, a definition began to emerge: The female gaze is less about seeing and more about being seen (and heard) – but for who we really are.
"I'm Mohawk," Deer says. "My whole life, I've been pushing against this country's image of a native person. I've always felt, 'No, I am more than that. You need to think more of me, expect more for me.' It's only after a lot of therapy that I realized I feel the same way as a woman. I'd bought into the old idea of what the male-centric media told me I needed to be. So for me, the female gaze is standing up and saying, 'This is who we are,' and being unapologetic about it."
"It's a process of unlearning," Walker says. In thinking about the series that were seminal to her, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Veronica Mars, she realized that for their female leads to be heroes, they had to kill vampires and solve crimes. "And they were 15!" she exclaims. "It wasn't enough for them just to be a compelling individual in their own right. They had to slot into a male-driven idea of a hero's journey. So we have to unlearn those story tropes."
On Degrassi, Walker pushed for a storyline about a girl learning to masturbate. "It's a simple story, but it feels transgressive, because there's not a lot of those on TV," she says.
Noxon contends that she's successful now because she finally figured out what she cares about. "I tried for a long time just to sell my writing," she says. She walked away from at least three hit shows, Brothers & Sisters, Prison Break and Glee, because the fit was wrong. "The nadir was a script whose logline was, 'It's Mrs. Doubtfire, but it's a ghost!'" She pauses. "I really wrote that."
Finally, she started writing to connect – with others and with herself. "Everything I'm working on now came from, 'I have to see this made!'" she says, clutching her heart. "For both Sharp Objects and To the Bone, I thought, 'I will make this no matter what. If I have to, I will get sock puppets, I will go to the park and I will do a sock-puppet version.'"
Noxon calls it "a passion to be understood." That is interestingly modest. It's not about world-conquering. It's about getting a glass of water after decades of desperate thirst.
Sometimes, the female gaze is about saying no. "I've worked with great guys, progressive guys, guys who've championed me," Hoffman says. "But even they have blind spots, because they've grown up with the male gaze, too."
She cites an incident from the writers' room of Odd Squad, the PBS show she calls "Law & Order for kids." A man pitched a story in which the female agent "is talking too much," so she gets zapped with a silence ray and her male partner has to get her voice back for her. Walker, Holness, Deer and Saville erupt in hoots. "That is some Little Mermaid crap," one says. "So Freudian!" another says.
Hoffman was the only woman in the room and the most junior writer. But she said no to this storyline and kept saying no until they heard her. "It was insane!" she says. "These were great guys. But if you don't say 'It's Mermaid!' they don't know it's Mermaid."
"I get so tired, waving that flag," Saville says.
"There's a great Onion headline: Feminist Forgets Politics for an Hour to Enjoy Television Show," Walker says. "I'm on guard all the time. You get a reputation for it in writers' rooms, but I love that rep. I'll tattoo it on my forehead."
Holness is cautiously optimistic, though. "I'm seeing a push toward gender parity," she says. "It's not simply having a woman's voice in the room. It's that people are actively looking for an oppositional point of view. My voice that's been kept quiet, I can now explore what that is. What I really think – not filtered in a way I think people want and expect, but what I want."
For Noxon, the female gaze is about seeing things others haven't seen – for example, creating UnREAL because "reality TV is Bully TV, and that hadn't been taken seriously," she says – and then adding details that only you could know.
"For years, I carried little airplane bottles of alcohol in my purse," she says. "Those aren't for planes. They're for people like me, a control-freak, anorexic, alcoholic, high-functioning woman who likes to keep a little in her bag, but who also needs to know how many calories are in each shot. I'm sober now, so I can joke about it." She wrote the airplane bottles into Sharp Objects for Adams's character. "She also pours booze into her water bottles," Noxon adds. "I put mine in a Big Gulp."
Noxon puts herself on the page because she knows that specificity "makes it feel alive," she says. "But that requires examination and honesty. You have to mine your own fascinations, foibles, compulsions, fetishes. You have to be willing to look deeply."
Maybe the female gaze isn't about looking outward. Maybe it's about looking inward. Looking in the mirror, then looking beneath that, and telling the unlacquered, unkempt truth about what you find.