Saturday, August 22, 2009

In Defense of Lifetime

Before I get started on telling everyone what I think about the newest episode of Project Runway, there's something I need to address: Lifetime, Television for Women.

I think all of us have to admit that we have insulted Lifetime Original Movies, and the station in general. The Onion has skewered the channel brilliantly on multiple occasions. We love to talk about the melodrama and the bad writing. In particular, I am constantly talking about how whenever I end up flipping through channels I won't let myself stop on Lifetime because I get sucked into their movies and I end up losing two hours of my life. So that was why I was making fun of the new home of Project Runway, saying I must change the channel the second that it's over or I'll never move from my couch.

However, in the last few months I have heard several people talking about the work of women screenwriters, using the term "Lifetime movie" as an insult that reeks of more sexism than I've encountered in my small corner of the industry.

As I've mentioned before, I am a film student and a screenwriter. The moment I remember thinking that this was a problem was in my summer screenwriting course, when the professor told a student that she should add a male character to her story so that it wasn't "too Lifetime."

This particular treatment was fascinating, well thought, and had great characters. It had drama, it had emotion, it had risk, and it was heart-wrenching at times. But the main character was a women, and the point of the film was her dealing with an extremely traumatic experience in a war-torn country. The professor spent over a half hour trying to defend his statement, saying that "men don't watch movies about women" and the great gem, "I'm not saying this to be sexist..." If you have to point that out, most of the time, it means you ARE being sexist.

I was so angry about the whole thing, because it was the first time in my program I had encountered any sexism at all. Only the week before I had been defending the industry on Jezebel saying that while there is still plenty of sexism, that at least at my film school it wasn't something I had seen and the women there were being trained to not think about how they had the odds stacked against them, but to think about how to be the best filmmakers they could be (which is, incidentally, the best thing I can think of to combat the problems in the industry. Stop telling women they're going to fail, and give them the tools to succeed. Because there is no surer way to get someone to fail than to tell them they can't win).

Months ago, I entered a screenplay competition with a draft of my first finished feature script. Now, I want to be very clear on two things here:

1. I did not enter this competition expecting or even intending to win. I entered because it was free, and one of the benefits was getting a page of comments from "an industry professional." The fact that I wasn't a finalist isn't a sticking point for me. Actually, if that draft had actually placed I would think the competition wasn't very good, because it was not a draft that was ready, it was one I was stuck on and needed more critiques in order to improve.

2. The response that I received did have some valid points about my writing and the story itself. They weren't new ideas, and were all things my professor had pointed out, so I admit I was disappointed that I have no new insights on where to go from here, but not all critiques are perfect or insightful.

The problem is that amidst the comments was the well placed insult that my script was "more suited to Lifetime Channel programming than a feature film."

First of all: what exactly do they think Lifetime Original movies are? They are full length films made for television. Nothing in the rules of the competition stated that it needed to be a major studio motion picture for distribution in a million theaters.

The problem lies in the fact that people have a tendency to regulate any script that features a woman dealing with emotional issues as a "chick flick" or a "Lifetime movie." This is especially true if it isn't of the currently popular ilk of "career woman realizes she needs to be more emotionally open and find a man in order to be happy."

My particular script was trying to discuss real life issues in realistic ways. And I specifically wrote it to avoid melodrama and Hollywood stereotypes. Maybe I didn't succeed, that's a valid point to make. But to say that because my film deals with the breakdown of a marriage that it belongs on Lifetime is sexist. There is no other way I can break this down.

You might be thinking I'm too sensitive, that maybe they were saying I wrote it in the melodramatic way that people associate with the Lifetime originals of the 1990s. Maybe they were saying it was cliched?

But no, the sentence specifically said that the subject matter was what regulated it to "television for women" and that because of the SUBJECT ALONE it was not good enough for a feature film.

So what both my professor and the anonymous commenter are saying that movies about women, especially dramatic movies about women, belong only on a channel billing itself for women, because no one else can or should enjoy them.

This is downright ridiculous. Movies that my friends and I love often have female protagonists. Successful films can star women, and maybe the marketing people will tell you they usually don't but maybe that's because we're not giving good films starring women a chance. It's ridiculous when you think about it, we're creating self fulfilling prophecies for the sake of marketing. Art isn't supposed to be about marketing, and I know the film business is a business, but it's also an art. So let it speak like one.

And while we're at it, what IS so wrong with writing something for Lifetime? If Lifetime approached me tomorrow with a paying job writing for them, I would take it and I would call everybody I know to tell them about it. Because it would be a paid writing job, and because just because a television channel is aimed at women doesn't make it less of a television channel.

Most people make fun of Lifetime because of the melodrama. The abused women murdering their husbands, etc. And, let's admit it, the production quality can be pretty low sometimes. But they've left a lot of that behind. Army Wives is critically renowned, and everybody just seems to ignore the fact that it's on Lifetime. There are mixed reviews for Drop Dead Diva, but for the most part people agree that it's better than a lot of things on television today.

During the premiere of Project Runway, they advertised a film starring Joan Cusack. I don't know about you, but I think Joan Cusack is one of the most talented comedic actresses of this generation. I'll watch almost anything that she's in, no matter what channel it's on.

And let's address the big thing here: Project Runway. Obviously, that show is one of my absolute favorites. Lifetime is doing it justice, and Models of the Runway might need a little tweaking to be less reminiscent of "America's Next Top Model" but at the same time it was fun to get to know the girls a little more, and see their reactions to their designers and the eliminations. It was a good little show.

So maybe it's time for us to stop being so harsh to Lifetime, and maybe it's time for us to stop using it as a tool for sexism and to degrade and discourage female screenwriters.

When I started this feature, another girl in class was writing about almost the same topic. She said she was worried about it being "too Lifetime." My teacher (a much better one) responded that we shouldn't worry about that kind of thing, and be true. We should write OUR stories, we should create OUR characters, and that if we did that the piece would be the best that it could be. And if that happened, then really, who cared where it ended up?