Stephen Cleary on Power & Gender in Storytelling

Later this month the experienced writer/producer Stephen Cleary will be in the fair city of film to provide two intriguing workshops on interest to budding storytellers on screen. Running next week with Film Network Ireland, the workshops will provide an opportunity to advance their knowledge of story structure, genre writing and more.

We decided to chat to Stephen on Power & Gender in Storytelling ahead of his upcoming workshop on the 23rd and 24th.

Which genres would you say have been traditionally dominated by women and why do you think that might be?

The obvious one is Romance, and from that things like Romantic Comedy, but even there you have to be areful. If we are talking about cinema, the genre where women have been most powerful and important is Horror. Not neccessarily from the writing point of view, though there are lots of good horror writers, but Horror has been a genre where powerful women have always existed, and in many cases thrived.

And its a genre where female directors have been working steadily for a long time and there are lots of great female Horror directors working now.

Detective stories too have been strongly influenced by women. The great detective novel of the 20th century is as much a female form as a male one, unlike lots of other areas of the novel. We might think that Agatha Christie and Dorothy L Sayers are a bit quaint now, but these women drove that genre for decades. And had a big effect on popular culture and on the kinds of detective stories that got made.

Mrs Marple is an old woman yet she is the protagonist of dozens of films and TV aaptations. How many other older women were being given centre stage in those days?

Your workshop focuses on new story structures and genres tend to rely on certain tropes and codes. Do you think that it’s more beneficial to build and redefine familiar tropes such as the Final Girl, the Femme Fatale etc or do you see us moving towards new narrative shorthands altogether?

I think those old tropes will necessarily evolve and get redifined, otherwise they lose their usefulness, but I think the kinds of changes that are happening and will happen go deeper than just character tropes. I think the way we tell stories – the narrative forms – are also being played with and changed. I think idreas of structure that we have used for decades are being challenged. Partly that’s because I think some of the narrative shapes we have been using are tired through over use, and some fit male characters much more comfortably than female ones, so new shapes are being worked out.

In horror, as you say with the Final Girl and so on, women got to see stories entering on women who go through hell and come out victorious, those kinds of victories for emale characters were hard to find elsewhere.

If you look at a film like Carrie, you would be hard pushed at the time to find a film that dealt with a female character in all her complexity in any other enres, and looked at areas of femininity that film-makers usually shied away from. And the central relationship is between a mother and her daughter. There was a genre – Melodrama – in the 40s and 50s that featured women at the cemtre magnificently, but once the 60s arrived it was denigrated and mutated into TV soap opera.

Do you think that new approaches to storytelling are more important in screenwriting or in say cinematography and direction, creating a ‘female gaze’ or lens?

I think these new approaches are all of a piece: the female gaze exists in writing as well as in cinematography, and in both cases it’s a kind of habitual, non-critical perspective. What is happening now – has been happening for decades to be fair but is getting real attention now, is the questioning of how you look more than what you are looking at. The focus tirns onto the artist, not the subject, and the question becomes what ind of an artist are you, what should you be, and how should you behave. And from that naturally you get a re-asessment of technique, i.e. why do we do it like this? What assumptions underlie it we didn’t consider the implications of? as far as story structure goes, that’s what I am involved in now.

Regarding Melodrama, why did we stop? There is an interesting parallel with the Gothic Novel, which was one of the earliest forms. It was often authored by women, and featured women at the centre of stories often. It fell into disuse because they came to be seen as undecorous and inappropriate for women, and then dismissed as overwrought and a lower kind of writing. Almost exactly the same thing happened with Melodrama. And the same reasons to dismiss it were given.

Now, these days, what is Fleabag if not Melodrama? As soon as you get a rise in the number of stories with women at the centre, as we are now seeing, Melodrama rises. And because so much of the drama is TV drama rather than features, that too brings echoes of Melodrama – The West Wing is pure Melodrama, Orange is the New Black is the prison genre mixed with Melodrama, The Handmaid’s Tale is dystopian sci-fi melodrama.

And why Melodrama? Because Melodrama is more than what happens, it is as interested in the experiencing of moments as the moments of story themselves. It is less driven, less anxious to arrive at a conclusion. It’s more like “this is what it is to live” than “his is what it means to live”.

Were there any lessons that came from the workshops ran in Denmark and Sweden which you are planning to carry across?

I learnt from Scandanavia that this whole area generates a lot of debate, and you can’t be too determined about thngs. People like me, who are interested in how stories work, how storytelling structures are evolving to include new kinds of characters, stories and narrative forms, are learning from what is actually being made. There aren’t really books and guidelines for a lot of this work because it’s so new. That’s exciting, but no one can say they are the person who knows the truth and what’s what. It’s an ongoing debate. My workshop looks to give shape, context and occasionally direction to that debate rather than laying down my version of the rules.

What is the main message someone can expect to take away from attending the workshop? 

One lesson I hope people take away is that it is without question true, because there’s been an immense amount of research in this area, that people don’t all understand stories in the same way, and they don’t tell them in the same way. And if you divide people into male and female, and record them telling stories in single sex groups, the way they tell them is very different. And so is what they get out of them. Making big generalisations about this is not helpful, but it’s also not helpful to say we all tell stories in the same way for basically the same reasons. There are fundamental differences between men and women in the West when it comes to stories. A lot of people get very uncomfortable when you bring these ideas up, but they are important, interesting and will make the world of stories we can tell each other richer and more varied once we accept it and explore the implications.

About Jess Dunne

Jess is an English with Film grad with a healthy respect for the big Blockbusters and other such entertainment 'fluff'. Who says pleasures have to be guilty?

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