I’ve long been a fan of coming-of-age films, but just lately, I’ve found that they’ve left me feeling a little deflated — like they were missing something. Having watched The Kings of Summer recently, the standard, post-movie debrief began typically enough: ‘Soooooo, whaddidya think?’
As it goes, I thought it was good; well-acted, amusingly written — with some proper big-dumb-laugh moments — and kept pretty simple. Maybe it occasionally got a bit too ‘sitcom’, but for the most part, it worked. It was a nice surprise and it’s easy to see why people have taken to it.
If it had carried on being a typical post-movie debrief, the conversation would have continued, ‘What did you think of <insert actor’s name>?’
‘Oh, who was he?’
‘He played <character>’
‘Which one was that?’
‘THE MAIN ONE. He was THE MAIN charac—‘
‘Oh, I wasn’t really paying att—‘
But instead, the conversation quickly went from, ‘Yes, that was a good film,’ to, ‘Interesting that there weren’t all that many female characters.’ It was true. ‘In fact — if you think about it — why did those characters have to be boys?’
I suppose the argument would be that they didn’t have to be boys, but it just so happens that — in this story — they were. That’s often the argument when this question is raised — that they didn’t have to be, but that’s just the way the story was. The problem, though, is that seems to be ‘the way the story was’ an awful lot of the time.
The synopsis for The Kings of Summer reads as follows:
THE KINGS OF SUMMER is a unique coming-of-age comedy about three teenage friends who, in the ultimate act of independence, decide to spend their summer building a house in the woods and living off the land. Free from their parents’ rules, their idyllic summer quickly becomes a test of friendship as each boy learns to appreciate the fact that family — whether it is the one you’re born into or the one you create — is something you can’t run away from.
Ignoring the word ‘unique’ for a moment, that synopsis pretty accurately sums up the whole movie. In the entire synopsis, there is only one word that suggests this story happens to be about boys. That word is ‘boy’. If you were to change that word to ‘girl’, the story would remain exactly the same. In fact, if you were to just swap out the three central characters and replace them with girls, you would only have to change a tiny amount of dialogue for the film to remain every bit as funny, moving, and entertaining.
Nothing in The Kings of Summer was gender-specific — there wasn’t a single character that couldn’t have had their gender switched. So, why couldn’t this film be about girls? Or, more to the point, why aren’t there more films like this one about girls? Saying this story just happened to be about boys is fine taken on an individual basis, but the fact is that so many coming-of-age films ‘just happen’ to be about boys… not just boys, in fact, but white boys.
So, where are all the films about girls? Where are all the films about black people? (Need I ask where the films about black girls are?) Of course there are some but the scale of disproportion is — frankly — outrageous.
Here’s a fun game: check out a few ‘best of’ lists in the coming-of-age genre and count up the films that are specifically about girls. I don’t mean where there are some girls as part of an ensemble cast, I mean where the story is about girls (those movies exist about boys, so it stands to reason that they should exist about girls. Right? Right? Right? Bueller?)
For bonus points, count up the films about black people — and then count those where the black character doesn’t come of age either through assistance from white people (see The Blind Side or Finding Forrester), through committing some crime — as a rite of passage — or through having a friend or family member murdered (Boyz N The Hood or Menace II Society).
Ready? Here’s the first.
Of the twenty-five ‘best’ coming-of-age films identified by Lance, four are about girls, compared with nineteen about white boys. There’s also one film about black people and one about an Indian-Canadian boy.
That’s just one list though, right? Let’s try another.
In this list of twenty-five — by James Ponsoldt, director of The Spectacular Now, no less — there are only three entries about girls (although one is actually a TV series, not a movie), and only one — School Daze — features black characters. That leaves twenty-one movies that are primarily about white boys, or feature them very heavily in an ensemble cast.
Okay. Third time’s the charm — oh, for fuck’s sake.
Twenty in the list, only two are about girls.
That’s only three lists — and it’s perhaps telling that all three are written by men — but the numbers do appear fairly consistent across most lists (feel free to check for yourself), and while the lists may not represent the total split across all coming-of-age films, I’d wager that they’re a reasonable indicator.
Of course, that’s just looking at films where the lead characters are women — there are more films that include female characters as part of an ensemble cast — but it’s not even just the main cast that’s the issue, as Geena Davis talked about in her excellent article addressing sexism in Hollywood.
The stats aren’t great: male characters outnumber female characters three-to-one (a ratio that is the same now as it was in 1946) and crowd and group scenes contain only seventeen per cent female characters.
The Kings of Summer actually holds up quite well in comparison to that crowd-and-group statistic. According to IMDB, there are some fifty-eight cast members, of whom thirty-nine (sixty-seven per cent) are male, and nineteen (thirty-three per cent) are female. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still crap, but it is at least higher than the seventeen per cent cited in the study by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media.
Here’s the full list of those nineteen female characters in The Kings of Summer:
2. Mrs. Keenan
3. Grandma Keenan
6. Captain Davis
8. Face Paint
9. News Reporter
10. Nurse (uncredited)
11. High School Teacher (uncredited)
12. Parade Spectator (uncredited)
13. Doctor in Plain Clothes (uncredited)
14. High School Student (uncredited)
15. Bus Passenger (uncredited)
16. Teacher (uncredited)
17. Doctor (uncredited)
18. Doctor (uncredited)
19. Doctor (uncredited)
You can probably guess from those names that a lot of them are background characters — lurking, dialogue-less, in the shadows or strolling across a shot. That’s not to say they’re not important — and that it isn’t a good thing to see a higher percentage of female background characters — as per Davis’s article, it’s about creating a balanced world, and that means getting the background characters in order.
The biggest issue I had with the film was really how the main female characters were portrayed. For example, Kelly — played by Erin Moriarty — was the love interest for Joe, but ended up dating Patrick, and so was purely there as a source of conflict between the two friends. Meanwhile, her friend Vicki (Lili Reinhart) said very little and was instantly forgettable.
Patrick’s Mum — the brilliant Megan Mullally — as with Kelly, was a source of conflict. She was interfering, smothering, saccharine-sweet, and — as it turns out — casually racist. Not one positive character trait.
The theme seems to be that the women in the movie tended to play fairly destructive characters whose main purpose was to bring conflict. The only real exceptions were Police Captain Davis (played by Mary Lynn Rajskub) and Joe’s sister Heather (Alison Brie). For the most part, they weren’t reduced to merely being stereotypes and were even allowed ‘in on the joke’ from time to time. Captain Davis was painfully aware of the buffoon of a sidekick she had been assigned (though I would ask why said sidekick had to be a man — the ‘straight man and comic’ double act would have worked just as well with two women), while Heather could laugh along with her brother about some of his antics, and served to call their dad up on his boorish behavior.
As an aside, the dads don’t fare much better in this movie — also being subjected to lazy stereotyping: one is a boorish prick and the cause of much conflict in Joe’s life, and the other is a wet, feckless boob who’s every bit as irksome to his own son. Because, you know, dads are shit aren’t they? Heh heh heh.
There’s a 1995 movie called Now and Then (above) about a group of girls (Cristina Ricci, Thora Birch, Gaby Hoffman, and Ashleigh Aston Moore) who have their own coming-of-age journey centering around their discovery of a body. If that sounds familiar, it’s because there was another film in which a group of then-very-popular actors had something of a defining journey involving the discovery of a body — that one was based on The Body by Stephen King. They’re very different films, as it goes, but watching Now and Then does go some way towards highlighting that if the main characters in Stand by Me had been girls, the story would still have worked.
So, if the movies could just as easily be about girls, why is it that they’re not? Why is it that writers seem to just stick to writing about boys? One ’golden rule’ of writing is to ‘write what you know’, so it stands to reason that — in writing a coming-of-age film — a writer will base it, to some extent, on his or her own childhood. The problem, though, is that only thirteen per cent of writers working in Hollywood are women, which means that — even if one hundred per cent of those women were open to writing a coming-of-age script — a maximum of thirteen per cent of what Hollywood knows would be a girl’s childhood. Throw into the mix that only twenty per cent of producers, and seven per cent of directors, are women, and I think we’ve identified the problem.
So, what’s the solution? There has been much talk lately of how best to tackle gender bias in film — ranging from the, in my opinion, problematic Bechdel Test, to some of the ideas that Davis pointed out in her previously-linked-to article. I tend to favour Davis’s proposed solution, and it’s one that all writers can implement right at the source — in their script (or manuscript).
Step 1: Go through the projects you’re already working on and change a bunch of the characters’ first names to women’s names. With one stroke you’ve created some colorful unstereotypical female characters that might turn out to be even more interesting now that they’ve had a gender switch. What if the plumber or pilot or construction foreman is a woman? What if the taxi driver or the scheming politician is a woman? What if both police officers that arrive on the scene are women — and it’s not a big deal?
Step 2: When describing a crowd scene, write in the script, “A crowd gathers, which is half female.” That may seem weird, but I promise you, somehow or other on the set that day the crowd will turn out to be seventeen percent female otherwise. Maybe first ADs think women don’t gather, I don’t know.
It isn’t going to solve the issue overnight, but I think it’s a great place to start, because, once you begin thinking about switching the genders of just a few characters, you then start to question all of them and you may reach a point where you’re actively thinking about it as you create each new character.
I’ve been working on what I hope will be one of the last big re-writes on my novel, and I’ve been looking to follow those two steps throughout. At first I only changed a few minor characters, but recently I realised that I could easily change a major character, and doing so immediately made that character more interesting.
So that means, just by thinking about Davis’s two steps, not only have I started to create a more balanced world in my book, I’ve also actually improved it.
I’m always happy to find ways to improve my writing, so I’ll be happy to build this two-step process into all future projects. Perhaps it’s a rite of passage that coming-of-age films need to go through too.