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'Guardians of the Galaxy', women writers and kicking down doors

Guardians of the Galaxy has enjoyed critical success, with 92% "fresh" on aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, and incredible commercial success, as it's destroyed August box office records.

It was also co-written by a woman: Nicole Perlman.

Guardians of the Galaxy is the first Marvel Studios movie to be penned by a woman screenwriter. Perlman is only the second woman to have a major writing credit on a Marvel property's big screen adaptations (the first was Jane Goldman, on X-Men: First Class). Here's why she's getting so much attention.


Perlman has always been interested in science and science fiction, and studied screenwriting at NYU. She gained serious interest when her script about the Challenger mission, written on spec, hit the prestigious Blacklist.

She was invited to a sort of dream job — developing screenplays for Marvel properties — in 2009, where she decided to take on Guardians of the Galaxy, a lesser-known comic in the Marvel universe. She chose the characters, and wrote the first draft of what we now see on the screen.

44% of ticket sales for Guardians of the Galaxy are coming from women

It's interesting to note that Guardians of the Galaxy is seeing unprecedented attention from women moviegoers, with 44% of ticket sales coming from women. Perlman's co-writing the script is not necessarily a causal factor here, but the figure suggests that women want to see big-budget action/sci-fi movies. But women are rarely seen in major creative roles on genre films.

The Celluloid Ceiling

Women screenwriters are already a minority in the business — at least, if you take into account those who have actually had their films make it to the screen. This is especially true in the realms of action and science fiction.

Women accounted for 10 percent of the entire workforce of film writers, a 5 percent fall from 2012

Women Make Media's 2014 report paints a dire picture. Drawing from research conducted at San Diego State University, and referring to 2013 numbers, the report concluded that "Women accounted for 10 percent of the entire workforce of film writers, a 5 percent fall from 2012's figure and a 3 percent decrease from 1998. Eighty-three percent of films had no female writers."

And it's even more dismal when accounting for genre. "Women were most likely to work on dramas, comedies and documentaries but least likely to work on animated, science-fiction and horror movies."

In TV, at least when accounting for network, cable and Netflix production combined, the statistics were a little bit better, if not wonderful. Those numbers show that women are 30 percent of the workforce of writers.

Sexism behind the numbers

Perlman herself experienced sexism as a woman writer with an eye on sci-fi.Perlman was interested in going from "specific, science-y, historical pictures," to writing in the "larger realm of science fiction and more fun, action-packed movies."

But she encountered a decidedly retro attitude in the process.

"There was a little of this, like, 'You're a cute a lovely girl! How are you going to write a — she affected a deep, macho voice here — 'big action masculine movie?!'"

"I think the undercurrent was very much like, 'We're just not sure you could handle it,' even if they really loved my take or my pitch."

Women in the genre game

I asked a number of women writers — across film, TV and games — if they'd experienced those attitudes, being in the minority on their action or sci-fi projects. Most of them mentioned that they had at least one negative experience with overt sexism, though they all implied that the subtler forms of sexism were likely a stronger force. And each of them took Perlman's success story as a good sign for women writing genre fiction.

Anne Toole has written for TV, including work on House MD as a script coordinator and Days of Our Lives, for comics like Crystal Cadets and for games such as The Witcher and the upcoming Dead Island 2.

"The closest I got to [hearing overt sexism] was after I'd been hired as the Head Writer for a big MMO. One of the investor people said it was good I was involved, because then it would be less about fighting or something," she told me. "I said that I liked to kill things in games, and he seemed surprised and pleased. He then later wrote on my whiteboard: ‘Killer' which might be odd, but I found it funny."

She then pointed out that the most insidious form of sexism is the unspoken form. The subtle kind that keeps the gender scale tipped so obviously to one side.

"the worst is when it's not overt"

"The worst is when it's not overt. You never know if you didn't get the job — or weren't even considered — because you didn't play your hand right, or if they just secretly think a man could write it better or get along better with the rest of the team."

"In Hollywood and comics, the assumption [is] 'You have girl parts; you must be able to write romance and girl stuff!'

Toole noted that she doesn't like to turn down jobs for romance or content aimed at the woman audience, as that's been the majority of her live-action work. But the divide is obvious to her.

"Despite the issues the game industry faces with the representation and treatment of women, no one, besides that investor guy, seems surprised that I am writing hardcore action games."

Rhianna Pratchett has written several high-profile games, among them Tomb Raider and Mirror's Edge.

"Thankfully I've not really had too many comments like Perlman has experienced," she told me in an email. "This might be because I initially got into the business as a games journalist, so by the time I got into development, people were very aware of my existence and passion for games."

Tomb Raider (2013) art 1280

"I was, however, once told that I was 'too emotional' to do an editing job on my own work. A justification used for not actually even asking me. I wasn't too emotional, they just were just worried I'd be pissed off, and they didn't want to handle a pissed off woman. I say woman because the phrase "too emotional" is never applied to a man."

Susan O' Connor, a writer who has worked on BioShock 1 and 2, Tomb Raider and Far Cry 2, noted that she's glad that she hasn't experienced overt sexism in her work in the game industry.

"Well, happily, nobody has ever sassed me like that (to my face)," she told me in an email when I brought up Perlman's story. To O' Connor, gender is secondary to a writer's ability to, well, write a fantastic story.

"I think 99.5% of the audience doesn't care about the gender of the writer"

"I think 99.5% of the audience doesn't care about the gender of the writer; they care about the quality of the story. And the writer works as hard as he or she can to deliver the goods."

Lindsay Morgan Lockhart, a narrative designer at Microsoft/343 Industries that worked on Halo 4 and is working on the upcoming Halo 5, had a similar view of the game industry.

"Fortunately for me, I have never felt that my being female was an issue," she said. "If anything, the teams I have been [on have been] earnest about wanting my perspective as a female gamer. They may sometimes regret that decision when I passionately insist on richer representation of female characters, but they do ultimately value my input!"

O'Connor and Lockhart's comments point to a subtle, but encouraging idea — that maybe the game industry is actually better than the film industry in this regard.

Pratchett responded thoughtfully when I asked whether the game industry was a better place for women writers. "A lot of the action games I've worked on have had female leads — Mirror's Edge, Heavenly Sword and Tomb Raider — so maybe that has a part to play in people not openly and rudely doubting me because of my gender," she said. "But it really shouldn't matter since there are plenty of female games writers who have done great work with male characters in action titles — Mary DeMarle, Amy Hennig, Karen Traviss, Marriane Krawczyk, etc."

"games might be slightly better in this regard"

"Actually, the fact that I've just listed four off the top of my head, suggests that maybe games might be slightly better in this regard."

"It might be also down to the fact that professional games writers and narrative designers are still relatively new disciplines within the industry, and they're certainly not embraced industry-wide yet," she continued. "Everyone is still learning the best way to do things and how to make the most of out unique medium, so maybe it's a little more accommodating because of that. If you can do the job, you're in! Writing and narrative design are definitely field which a lot of young women seem to be interested in entering. At least if my mailbox is anything to go by!"

O'Connor weighed in with her own experiences. "It's been a positive experience for me personally. But I read the crappy news about sexism in games, just like everybody else. Those stories are real and I know it."

"If I ever ran into a problem with a new colleague, I'd probably just take Stephen Colbert's advice," she said, referring to Colbert's sober advice regarding sexual harassment.

"So to answer your question, do I think the game industry is better than Hollywood? I couldn't say. They're both challenging for ANY creative, male or female. But that's what makes the work worthwhile. It's a quest."

A galaxy of inspiration

No matter their medium of work, all of the women I spoke with expressed hope that the success of Perlman and other women in genre entertainment will inspire other women who are so inclined to go for it.

"I hope that the successes of myself and others in these genres will help young women imagine themselves in these roles and pursue them," said Lockhart. "The first step to success is a deeply seeded belief that you can succeed, the more fanatical the better, as you will have to get past many bumps in the road on your pursuit of your dream career."

It was a sentiment shared by Toole.

"Perlman inspired me the moment I heard about her involvement in Guardians. I was inspired by Amanda [Silver], one of the writers on the Planet of the Apes movies. Every time I see a lady writing an action tentpole movie, I think they'll let me write mine, too, just as soon as I get that Pitfall license!"

"there's not a door that can't be kicked down... eventually!"

Pratchett, for her part, was also heartened by Perlman's success, and saw that as proof that the barriers can come down.

"Perlman will definitely inspire other women, just by being there as much as anything else and being passionate about what she does. She is proof that with time, talent and probably a bit of luck too there's not a door that can't be kicked down.... eventually!"

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