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A crowd waited in line for an hour at Comic-Con International to attend “Girls Gone Genre,” a panel celebrating female creators and empowered characters. Panelists included writers and producers Marti Noxon (Fright Night, Jane Espenson (Once Upon a Time), Karyn Kasuma (Jennifer’s Body), Gale Anne Hurd (The Walking Dead) and Angela Robinson (True Blood) and actress Deborah Ann Woll (True Blood).
Hurd spoke fondly of how some projects that people didn’t have faith in were able to become wildly successful and showcase inspirational women, such as when she worked on the first Terminator film.
“When [James Cameron] and I would talk about [Sarah Connor], we would talk about a central character be relatable,” she recalled. “She was a waitress, she wasn’t really happy with her body, her big question was would she survive her bad boss. Little did she know. … But we wanted to start there because something I think what people respond to is ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances.”
Smiling, Hurd continued, “The first time we showed [The Terminator] to the investors, they said, ‘We’re so embarrassed by this movie. This is a down-and-dirty exploitation movie. It’ll be out of theaters in two weeks, and we really wish we could take our name off it.’ But audiences felt differently. … Sarah Connor as the lead of the first film, that surprised the investors as well. It was called ‘The Terminator’ and we said no, this is Sarah Connor’s story.”
Noxon said, “People always talk about the influence of the female staff members on [Buffy the Vampire Slayer], but truly, and Joss [Whedon] agrees with this, there is no greater woman than he. He taught me a lot of things that I now spout about feminism. I’d say for me the greatest thing about Buffy … is that she is so human. That kind of prototypical action or horror heroine is either so perfect she wasn’t accessible or the girl who got killed in the first act or because she had sex. So what a refreshing thing to see a girl be silly and superficial and vain … because we are not just one thing. And the worst thing that gender stereotyping does to us is it reduces us to just a few things … Buffy was so great and men and women love it for just that reason, it’s layered like an onion.”
“Yes!” Espenson exclaimed. “It’s a vicious, delicious onion with a strawberry center!” As the audience laughed, she added, “A whole bunch of little boys were watching that, too. Buffy was universal. … Everyone felt like an outcast. And she was very flawed. And then I go to [Battlestar Galactica], and Starbuck is incredibly flawed and damaged. … You can’t be perfect to be identifiable.”
How does an actor’s viewpoint in this genre differ from a writer, producer or director?
On her character Jessica from HBO’s True Blood, Woll said, “Even in one episode, she can be incredibly sexy and incredibly dorky. She can be incredibly wise and also naïve. … It’s never one thing. I also feel that in the past the strong heroine has often been a fighter who takes on very masculine aspects. … I like that Jessica’s very compassionate. She becomes stronger the more she opens up to the world and embraces those, what we consider feminine, aspects of herself.”
“Genre is a safe space to be transgressive and explore themes,” Robinson added. “It was kind of neat to go from The L Word — the nuances of how women interact … it was kind of nice to bring that into True Blood. You can have crazy-sexy or you can have someone just give someone a look and we’ll examine that. [In the writers’ room]. I see myself as kind of an advocate for the female characters on the show.”
“Joss, being the person he was, was interested in what I really felt,” Noxon explained. “I got to write these characters from a female point of view and not be restricted. … If I had gone onto The Pretender as I’d planned, I probably wouldn’t be writing these dimensionalized characters and because of that I got hooked on genre.”
“Being a woman who writes genre can help you because they’re not as many of them out there,” she added. “But then also … I feel there are ways that it’s absolutely held me back [due to perception]. Just look at the Nicki Minaj video where if you take the pickle juice, you’ll be drinking pickle juice all your life. Okay, no one knows what I’m talking about! [laughter] Look up the video with Nicki Minaj talking about the music business and drinking the pickle juice!”
Laughing, Espenson continued the topic. “It’s all based on perception. How we’re perceived … and how we self-perceive. I was raised in the ‘70s, and when I was a little kid you were asked, ‘So, are you going to be a nurse or a stewardess?’”
Raising a different perspective, Robinson mentioned how when she arrived at a studio to direct Herbie Unloaded, she was sometimes told automatically that the messenger’s entrance was in the back. “And I’m like, ‘I’m directing the movie!’” she said, laughing with the audience. “People don’t know what to make of me. … Whenever there’s a black person on a studio lot, we eye each other. And we give this little nod, like, ‘You made it here! Good for you!’ You walk into rooms and people have these preset conceptions. … So I kind of start talking quickly and intelligently when I’m there in the gap before they can [speak]. And then they have no box for me and they just kind of take it at face value and then we can actually have a conversation.”
“I feel very responsible about things, like not being too skinny,” Woll revealed, garnering applause from the audience. “There’s wanting to be a good role model and encourage other women. You have to have the confidence in yourself.”
“I was really lucky,” Hurd said. “I had gone to work for Roger Corman, who honestly believed that gender didn’t matter, except perhaps that women worked harder for less money. And he hired women in every capacity. I did have a role model — Barbara Boyle was the operating officer, and she was tough and she was a fighter. She’s one of the founders of women in film. The good news is that the landscape has changed.”
What advice would the panelists give to aspiring screenwriters?
“Whatever you do, you get good through doing it,” Espenson replied. “A lot of disadvantage that women have had in the writers’ room is that they aren’t given enough time in the writers’ room to learn while they are there. It’s the ability to fail and get back up that makes you better. Don’t just get through the door — persevere. Maybe you’ll lose a couple jobs early on, a lot of people do, and stick with it.”
Woll added, “I would say really be yourself and stick with your principles. You don’t want to do that nude scene? Don’t do it. You get a say in your career.”
“You really need to learn those basics, and I learned that early on and took a lot of classes,” Noxon said. “But I don’t think I became a writer until I was willing to tell on myself in ways that were embarrassing and very humbling. What makes good writing is that the devil is in the details. All those little things that are particular to your characters and particular to your story that you observe. And that’s a journey that takes time. What’ve you got to say? My breakthroughs came when I stopped trying to sell and just tried to tell the truth as I see it.”