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Hollywood screenplays love to describe women as pretty—but not too pretty

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Like so much else in the movie industry, its depictions of women begin with the writing process. Recently, Vulture combed over dozens of classic screenplays and compiled descriptions of fifty female characters in order to get some “insight into how Hollywood views women and creates roles for them.” Seeing these memorable characters boiled down to one or two sentences of physical detail is telling, to say the least.

“One of the front doors opens, and out slips EILIS—early twenties, open-faced pretty without knowing it.” That’s the extent of the description for Saoirse Ronan’s lead character in the screenplay for Brooklyn. Unsurprisingly, a female character’s beauty is a recurring theme in these descriptions, but, like some One Direction song come to life, the thing that makes these women significant is that they don’t know they’re attractive. Or, better yet, they play down their attractiveness, which is something they can totally pull off because, you know, they’re so attractive.


Here’s the description of Meg Ryan’s character from When Harry Met Sally:

Driving the car is SALLY ALBRIGHT. She’s 21 years old. She’s very pretty although not necessarily in an obvious way.


And Zooey Deschanel’s titular Summer from (500) Days Of Summer:

SUMMER FINN files folders and answers phones in a plain white office. She has cropped brown hair almost like a boy’s but her face is feminine and pretty enough to get away with it.

And, in case you thought this objectification was reserved for human women, here’s James Cameron’s description of the female Na’vi Neytiri from Avatar:

Draped on the limb like a leopard, is a striking NA’VI GIRL. She watches, only her eyes moving. She is lithe as a cat, with a long neck, muscular shoulders, and nubile breasts. And she is devastatingly beautiful — for a girl with a tail. In human age she would be 18. Her name is NEYTIRI (nay-Tee-ree).


Of course, some of these descriptions provide more insight into the character than just their bust size. The description of Lydia from Beetlejuice“usually about half-pissed off. But underneath… we like her a lot” —sets the reader up to be immediately on her side. Sometimes just a small detail is enough to endear us to the character, like in the description of Shirley MacLaine from The Apartment— “she wears a carnation in her lapel, which is strictly against regulations.”

Still, it’s hard to ignore the pure animalism with which some female characters are treated on the page. Like this gag-inducing description of Margot Robbie’s character from Wolf Of Wall Street, which wouldn’t look out of place in an awful Vanity Fair profile:

We see NAOMI, 24, blonde and gorgeous, a living wet dream in LaPerla lingerie. Naomi licks her lips; she’s incredibly, painfully hot.


It’s hard to imagine any woman reading that script and feeling creatively inspired. And special mention has to be paid to Quentin Tarantino’s introduction for Sidney Tamiia Porter’s character in Death Proof:

A tall (maybe 6ft) Amazonian Mulatto goddess walks down her hallway, dressed in a baby tee, and panties that her big ass (a good thing) spill out of, and her long legs grow out of. Her big bare feet slap on the hard wood floor. She moves to the cool rockabilly beat as she paces like a tiger putting on her clothes. Outside her apartment she hears a “Honk Honk.” She sticks her long mane of silky black curly hair, her giraffish neck and her broad shoulders, out of the window and yells to a car below. This sexy chick is Austin, Texas, local celebrity JUNGLE JULIA LUCAI, the most popular disc jockey of the coolest rock radio station in a music town.


If you’d like to see more, you can see Vulture’s full collection here, which also includes a fun little “Guess The Famous Female Character” quiz.

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