Friday, 12 August 2016

Scriptwriting: challenging the default - an unconscious bias test

I've grown up aware of gender inequality. I've heard about how difficult it is for female directors and writers to get work. I’ve heard trolls moan about the 'feminazis' pushing their agenda down people's throats every time someone has the audacity to put a female in a lead role in film or TV.

But it wasn't until I started scriptwriting myself that I became fascinated by the process that leads up to these stories and how they're told – and the almost ridiculous things we must add to the script in order to improve things. The TV script I've written is full of diversity and has many female roles. The main character is (shock horror!) a woman. Yet I didn’t set out to write a diverse story – it's just the story I wanted to write. It's essential that the cast is a mixed one.

When I started to investigate scriptwriting in all its glory, I found advice saying that if you're writing a crowd scene, you should specify that half of the crowd are female and that you should specify that there are numerous ethnicities. Don’t just say 'A soldier enters' or 'A police officer enters'. Purposely make them female and non-white from time to time. Because if you don't then the default of White male is likely to appear in the end product, whether that's how you saw it or not.

And it got me thinking about the unconscious rather than the conscious bias. That if you start talking about a doctor, many people might just assume said doctor is a man. Or if you talk about a primary school teacher, the assumption is that she’s cute and wears flowery dresses and glasses. Because people are going to go to their default, whether they mean to or not.

But the fun really begins when you go against your default!

[In the interest of full disclosure, I am White, female, middle-class, London-born and raised. I have also spent time living in Baltimore, Southern Spain and Buenos Aires. That is my bias.]

I opened up this concept to Twitter, beginning with a simple Tweet about what I wanted people to do: 'Right, here goes: I'm going to describe a character. You get a picture of that person in your mind. Then answer questions on next Tweet...'

Before I’d even begun, I realised that telling people you’re doing an unconscious bias test sort of defeats the point a little bit but for me it was more important to make people think about their own default and to question it. And knowing what I was doing forced me to change my own defaults, just to try and make a more interesting story.

I started off with my first character: Show: family drama, small, intimate, psychological. Character: creepy neighbour, introvert, no friends, spying on neighbouring children.

From that one brief Tweet, the character the voters came up with was: male (88%), 30-50 years' old (50%) and White (a whopping 97%!). And what were the people like on this street? Middle class, according to 79% of the people who responded.

I had not said a thing about the street. It could have been a very poor, working class one and there could still have been a creepy neighbour. It could have been the richest street in England and it could still have worked. But middle-class, White and male just seemed to be the go-to.

Not a single person thought the neighbour could be Black. And only 3% considered that they'd be Asian.

So let's mix things up a bit. Let's imagine that story again. How about we make the neighbour a woman. Imagine that she is perceived as creepy rather than is simply because she doesn't talk to people, when actually she's just very sad. Make her misunderstood, not sinister. She's looking at the children because her own child died, perhaps. She's introverted because she's too sad to go out and talk to people. Or, alternatively, make her elderly! She just looks at the children because she's longing to go back to her misspent youth and hates that she's old. She has no friends because they've all died, and she knows her turn is coming soon and nobody will mourn her.

Or maybe she's elderly but still really, really creepy!

Let's move the street. Set it in Birmingham, or Leicester, or so many parts of London where 'White' is not the default, where there is a high Asian population, for example. Or make the whole street Asian characters who live in constant fear of the creepy White neighbour who never speaks to any of them.

The possibilities are endless. But the point, of course, is that there are possibilities that don't involve a White, middle-class male.

And so we move on to the second character I described, in a place a little further afield...
You say the story is set in space so where does your head go? Alien? Star Wars? You're probably already imagining your favourite space-age hero/heroine. A leader, possibly a female (thank you, Ripley!). But they're 'freakishly strong' which may suggest that they're male. Because there are strong women but can there be 'freakishly' strong ones? (Of course there can be!) But this 'leader' is crass and of few words. Does this suggest male more than female?

So, who did we come up with? Well, despite the first responses leaning heavily towards this character being a female (thanks, possibly, to the Katniss/Rey-effect!), the final tally made them male (61%), White (50%), with dark hair (53%), ragged/messy in appearance (70%).

This time around, the percentages weren't as high but we still ended up with a White male. 25% thought he was Black, while 10% opted for our leader to be Asian. When it came to hair choice, my own bias came into the potential answers. Because when I thought of a surly, crass leader I thought of John McClane. So I added 'non-existent' and 27% of voters agreed.

And so to our third and final character test...

And who did we cast here...? Well our lonely, imaginative, 12-year-old is a girl (91%), White (55%), from a pretty financially stable home (70%) and has dark hair.

Unlike our space leader, 20% saw this girl as having her hair dyed a vivid colour (0% considered this a possibility for the spaceman). 27% considered she'd be Black and 18% saw her as Asian. Was this because I'd purposely noted that it was set in a major city? Who can say?

The most fascinating part of this one (for me, at least!) is that only 9% of people saw her as a he. Why was it so unlikely that an imaginative 12-year-old would be a boy? Well, one voter had a suggestion. He explained that it was the use of the word 'lonely' that made him choose a girl over a boy because:

Another voter had her own idea of why this character was lonely:

What do you make of these results? Did anything surprise you?

The full Tweet threads for all three character tests can be found here:

1 comment:

  1. A great piece with some interesting results. Lovely stuff.