This week, news broke that an all-female remake of Lord of the Flies may be the works at Warner Bros. Audiences responded vocally on Twitter, and many noted that there were plenty of all-female nods to William Golding’s classic. Perhaps most frequently cited: Libba Bray’s 2011 novel Beauty Queens.
In the exclusive essay below, Bray (The Diviners) outlines her thoughts on Hollywood’s “Woman Problem,” and explains what happened when her all-female Lord of the Flies was up for adaptation. Spoiler alert: It didn’t go well.
Hollywood’s Woman Problem
By Libba Bray
Wednesday night, Twitter came to my door with a take-out bag of “No Thanks” marked: Two Dudes decide to make an all-female version of Lord of the Flies.
And I sighed heavily and thought, “Oh. Really?”
Because I’m fairly certain I wrote a book like that in 2011. It’s a satire called Beauty Queens, and it follows a group of girls — teen beauty contestants in this case — who are stranded on an island and thus removed from the patriarchal rules that shape their daily lives. It imagines the sort of world they would begin to build. (Spoiler: It does not involve the chant, “Kill the Pig.” But it might involve Napalm hair remover.) It was written partially as a cheeky rejoinder to LoTF, which is a required high school text, among many other required texts written by white men, and which has much to say about toxic masculinity and imperialism. But BQ was also written as an honest, searching inquiry into/exploration and examination of what it is to grow up female/female-identified in a male-dominated world. A world in which we do not make the rules. A world in which it often feels as if we will never get to share in making the rules.
I thought it might be valuable to talk about Hollywood and women and getting sh– made — or not, because the backstory of Beauty Queens’ ride through Hollywood seems to be indicative of the industry’s long-running problem with women and women’s projects.
Beauty Queens was optioned in 2011 by Fuse Entertainment (now Fabrik). It was championed for many years by the smart and savvy rock-star producer, Kristen Campo. She was its tireless advocate through several different incarnations and options. She worked HARD, y’all, and I am grateful for her fierceness as well as for the hard, fierce work of the amazing team at The Gotham Group — Eddie Gamarra, Ellen Goldsmith-Vein, and Julie Kane-Ritsch.
So: Good, passionate people working hard. But then BQ went out to The Suits Who Sanction the Making of the Things. And that… was eye-opening. I’ll just say that when there is a gross imbalance of men in charge, it’s much harder to get female-centric projects made, which… everybody knows. But even when you do get up to bat, it’s still hard to have those female characters become real people. I saw a script in which every stereotype I tried to subvert in BQ was made real. There was an actual hair-pulling catfight. It’s hard to put into words exactly how I felt at that moment. But try, if you will, to imagine me with lasers coming out of my eyes while my internal organs became as the fires of Mordor. They didn’t get it. And they were legit trying to get it, which made it doubly painful. It wasn’t laziness; it was a fundamental tone deafness. An inability to comprehend and relate to women as real people.
I could tell you about the years in which my first novel, A Great and Terrible Beauty — a Gothic fantasy about adolescent sexual awakening, female friendships, and female autonomy — made the Hollywood rounds and being told that I needed to add more men to it, because there were “just too many women” and we were getting push back about “so many women.” It was recommended at one point that I change the series’ antagonist from a woman to a man or perhaps add a male antagonist, because there were “just too many women.” I began to wonder if having so many women onscreen might produce some sort of little-known chemical reaction that would lay waste to defenseless audiences, a zombie plague of estrogen: “My God… the women… everywhere… on the screen… they just kept… coming, more and more of them… oh, the humanity!” There was the interview with a male journalist who was perplexed and discomfited by the books, because “Why all those women?” To which my response was, “Why NOT all those women?” followed by the sort of sweet Southern smile I perfected at my mama’s knee accompanied by a patient silence. Because I genuinely wanted the answer. “But. The. Men,” was almost always that answer, said with blinking incomprehension. As if women could only truly exist in relationship to a man: If a woman falls in the woods and there’s no man there to take the credit, does she make a sound?
There are a couple of factors at play here. 1. How difficult it is to get ANYTHING made in Hollywood, which is a reality all writers deal with. 2. How MUCH MORE difficult it is for women to get anything made in Hollywood. 3. How flummoxed Hollywood (and the world at large) is about women in general — who they are and what to do with them.
As has been reported again and again and again, the lack of gender diversity — and diversity in general — at the power levels of Hollywood is staggering. Every woman creator I know has a story of becoming invisible in the room. Of being ignored in favor of a male colleague. Of having someone denigrate her work as being “cute” “fun” “fluffy” “a girl book.” Of not being taken as seriously as, well, the boys.
According to Dr. Stacy L. Smith, Director of the Annenberg School at USC’s Media, Diversity & Social Change Initiative, which produces an annual report on gender, race, and LGBT rep in films, “We’re seeing entrenched inequality… Whether we’re studying gender, race, ethnicity, LGBT or characters with disabilities, we’re really seeing exclusionary forces leaving out anybody that’s not a straight, white, able-bodied man.” In the 89 years of the Academy Awards, eight women have won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay (five of them as co-writers), and a paltry four female directors have been nominated as best director. Only one, Kathryn Bigelow, has won that honor. In 89 years. At this rate, female directors have a better chance of spotting a unicorn than nabbing an Oscar. The Annenberg report also found that, “Among the top 100 films of 2014, women accounted for only 1.9% of directors, 11.2% of writers and only 18.9% of producers. Critically, The Annenberg School report found that when women were directors, writers or producers on a film, that film featured more women on screen, a larger percentage of middle-aged women and less sexualization.”
We know about the feedback loop of opportunity: Men get more chances to tell their stories, so if some work and some don’t, No Big. The successes are rewarded with more chances to make movies and the failures…are rewarded with more chances to make movies. But, as we’ve just witnessed with Wonder Woman ($800+ million, the most successful DC Universe movie EVER, woman director), Hidden Figures ($230+ million, 2 women producers, woman screenwriter adapting a book written by a woman), and Girls Trip ($100+ million, 3 women writers), women don’t get the same benefit of the doubt. If we win, it’s a fluke, and if we fail, it’s a failure for all women; the men in power throw up their hands and say, “Welp. That didn’t work. Guess people just don’t want to see women.” And, of course, this gets double- and triple-layered for women of color.
As the screenwriter of Hidden Figures, Alison Schroeder, says: “I think a lot of times people look at me and say, ‘Well, we can’t possibly hand a show over to her to run’….It seemed like executives would be worried about me controlling a room and having power, and I’d say, ‘Oh, I can control a room. I can give an order like nobody’s business.’ I think there’s an unconscious bias, and it gets a little disheartening after a while.”
And there’s the real trouble: Women with power. That, it seems to me, is what Hollywood and the world at large fears most—autonomous, complex women running their own show, a theme very much at the heart of Beauty Queens. As one character, Mary Lou says, in what felt to me to be the heart of the story when I wrote it, “Maybe girls need an island to find themselves.”
We’re not supposed to talk about these things publicly, of course. Talking about them plays into stereotypes that we are (insert knowing smirk and eye roll here) “that woman” — angry, loud, bitter, a bitch. Of course, if we don’t talk about these things, the pattern simply continues, “same as it ever was.” So, if you’re keeping score at home, that’s talk and be shunned as “trouble”; keep quiet and be ignored and invisible. Gee. That’s a pretty neat little set-up. Well played, Patriarchy.
Well, I have decided that I am trouble. And I am becoming more troublesome by the day. This election did me in. I’ve been fighting back against sexism for nearly four decades. I want things, not only for myself but for the generation of women coming up and for the ones after that. My sisters: I see you. I hear you. I want all of your stories.
The patriarchal world we live in has very little interest in women beyond whether we can f— them, feed them, or foil them. Hence, we get the ubiquitous, mostly mute strippers, prostitutes, and arm candy. We get the supportive-but-still-largely mute girlfriends, wives, and mothers who hand the Action Man™ a cup of coffee while wearing vague expressions of constipated sympathy and concern as they watch him Racing Toward Danger from the other side of the screen door. We get teenage girls who are Lolitas, Troubled Daughters, Vicious Cheerleaders, or Vapid Shoppers. Manic Pixie Dream Girls. Angry Black Women. Mentally Ill Bright Stars Who Touch the Hero’s Life but Who Ultimately Are Too Unstable to Stay, Which Is, Like, Hella Sad for Dude McWiserNow. And, my personal fave, unhinged bitches out to fuck up a man’s good thang by neutering him through their ceaseless, bitchy demands or by boiling a bunny on his stove — i.e., She Who Must Be Stopped.
We don’t often get women, though. Real women.
We don’t often get Amy Adams in Arrival. Or Parminder Nagra in Bend It Like Beckham. Viola Davis in How to Get Away with Murder. Ruth Negga in Loving. Helen Mirren in Prime Suspect. Or the sublime Issa Rae in Insecure which is, to me, hands-down the best, most multi-layered, laugh-out-loud and moving show on TV about women right now. That it was created and shepherded by Ms. Rae every step of the way can be felt in each lived-in beat.
That’s what I long for: movies and TV shows with complicated women who have rich inner lives, flaws, strengths, surprises, and frustrations. Women with doubts, fears, longings, petty moments, and philosophical and existential struggles just like those Romanticized Smoking French Dudes™ and Bukowski Wannabes™ are allowed to have. Women who get their periods in the grocery store and have to go into the sketchy back bathroom/mop closet so they can shove a wad of purse-Kleenex into their panties. Women who don’t always know what to say to their spouses or kids because they fear if they let it out, there’ll be no stopping the vomitous flow they hold back most of the time. Women who fantasize about sex with strangers on the bus because they’re bored and it’s a way to pass 10 minutes. Women advised to “try shopping at Chico’s!” who respond, “Why? Did my vagina die in the night?” Women trying to get taken seriously at a professional party full of dick. Women who have to mirror-pep talk themselves into doing what feels scary. Women who drop everything and race for a cab when a friend texts, “It’s cancer.” Women like all of the women I personally know.
Jesus, is that so hard? No, really. I am seriously, seriously asking here. Why. Is. That. So. Hard?
It makes me think of a piece of graffiti I saw while walking through Barcelona (sometimes, women go to Barcelona). It said, simply, J’existe. I exist. I am.
That is what is missing in Hollywood—the narrative, the idea, that women simply are, in all of our messy ROYGBIV glory. We exist, complete with our stories which are also complete. And we can tell the hell out of those stories about ourselves by ourselves.
If only we could get the chance.