I just wrapped up a draft of a television pilot script I’ve been developing (read: “in own mind”) for the last few months. Without giving too much away, it takes place in the mid-1970s and deals with professional sports. Great soil for a show: drugs, race, money… great drama. Only one problem: no women.
The way the story developed – and it developed as a strong, multi-character ensemble – I became keenly aware that one of the drawbacks of trying to be authentic in portraying a boy’s world in what was more of a boy’s era than today is the difficulty of finding a place for strong female characters, especially in a pilot where so much focus is just setting up the world – where so much could be developed down the line in that world.
Now, let’s be clear. I have no interest in creating a show driven entirely by male characters. But, in portraying a world that – at least at first gloss – is driven entirely by male characters, I still want the world I create to be authentic. There were plenty of female characters in the first draft of this pilot and I could see many of them developing into strong characters. The problem is that, in a pilot, the suggestion of development has to be there, sure, but there also has to be something already there (since a pilot is generally only ever going to be just a pilot, not a series).
Take Mad Men and its pilot. It also takes place in a different era, in a more male-centric arena, but it’s been able to introduce many fantastic, strong female roles. But what do we get in the pilot? We don’t get Betty yet. We don’t see Don’s home life until the very last scene. We get Joan and Peggy, so there is the hint that they will show us this world from a female perspective – from the savvy, sexy veteran of the gender game and the shy, homlier newbie. Structurally, these characters serve the pilot extremely well, but I’m putting a lot of weight back onto those characters, I think, because of how they end up developing and serving the show. I don’t know if there’s anything beyond a suggestion of that in the pilot and I might only be reading that suggestion in because I know how that it pans out. I think, if the pilot were a one-off, they could easily be seen in the “women in traditional roles” characters, secretaries in a male-driven world.
But here’s where Matthew Weiner made a very smart play. Along with the cigarette account storyline (men dealing with men), he introduces Rachel Menken, the daughter of a long-time department store owner, who wants Sterling-Cooper to modernize their image. She’s an immediate foil and love/sex interest for Don Draper and she seems perfectly authentic – progressive, but believable for 1960. She’s smart enough to not immediately succumb to Don Draper, which frustrates our protagonist, and becomes the resonant suggestion that this show will find room for strong female characters.
So, I looked back at my story. It works (I think). It works fine the way it is. But if I want to portray a world that’s representative of the depth of complexity that is the core of every person, then I’m going to have to tweak my representation of this world. The strongest choice that didn’t involve blowing up the script and redeveloping it with this in mind (which, most likely, would not lead to the greatest end product) was to change the owner of the sports team from a man to a woman. This forced a lot of things in a lot of scenes to change, but it also worked in the same way that Rachel Menken worked in the Mad Men pilot. Marge Schott bought a minority ownership stake in the Cincinnati Reds in 1981, not so far away from the mid-70s of this story. It would be a little progressive for this era, but not so much that it would create a big believability disconnect. In fact, it would likely produce more interesting relationships than keeping the owner a man.
Now, I’m not breaking any big news by announcing that there are places for strong female roles in traditionally male-centric worlds – and I’m not trying to. But sometimes the tension (or even the perceived tension) between authenticity and painting using the whole human pallet can be a challenge. This was just my way in on this one particular project. And there are plenty of other ways in. There are just... ways in.
With a full human pallet, I will proceed to paint some happy little trees.
- Robert Attenweiler
- Robert Attenweiler