NEROPA, a tool against unequal gender distribution of film characters
One of our active members, Belinde Ruth Stieve, has developed an innovative tool to counterbalance the unequal gender distribution of film characters in the audiovisual industry. Belinde is a German actress from Hamburg, who started researching the situation of women behind and in front of the camera four years ago. We have asked her a few questions to find out more about NEROPA.
How and when did you come up with the idea of a casting tool?
That was 1 1⁄2 years ago. I had been doing my own research for years, both on the situation behind and in front of the camera, and of course I knew about the international findings. In Germany and probably most other countries there is a strong majority of male over female roles in film and television, in regards to both quantity and quality. And then there is this age thing, roles for women start decreasing from age 40, roles for men fifteen years later.
All this has a negative impact on the audience, young and old, female and male. With less women on screen, women have less potential characters to identify or contrast with. Less professional diversity of female characters means less role models, less impulses for the careers of girls and young women, so generally the stories will simply be plainer and poorer. I call this phenomenon “men talk and women listen – men act and women look nice“. It can also influence male audiences and their attitude towards women of course. If you as a businessman, employer, manager, politician etc. are mainly shown women as decorative accessories, you may less likely think of hiring or training women, especially for “untypical jobs“, or of appointing them as board members etc.
So I knew the situation and that it was time for a change. Not for more research or more appeals for equality, but to come up with something effective that is plausible, has a low-threshold and can be put into practice right away. So I created the casting tool NEROPA, which is short for Neutral Roles Parity.
How does NEROPA work ?
NEROPA sets in when the production is well underway but before the casting process starts. The script is checked for neutral roles, i.e. characters – small or leading! - whose gender is not essential to the story. These roles are then marked as NEUTRAL and redefined as woman – man – woman – man alternately.
Ideally this check is done by three individuals from different departments, who have to agree on the final list of neutral roles, three, thirteen or twenty-one, whatever. This depends on the story and the NEROPA checkers and their discussions of course, there is no right or wrong. Most probably after the NEROPA check there will be more female characters in the film.
Who is it addressed to ?
First of all to decision-makers within the film and TV industry, producers for example. And film funding bodies and TV channels, commissioning editors and so on. Of course also to film schools where the next generations of film makers are trained. And generally to everybody who is interested in the big picture and the future of audiovisual media.
What impact has the tool had so far ?
A very positive one. It has helped cast the focus on change, rather than on describing and deploring a bad situation over and over again. A lot of people have seen that immediate change is possible in small steps, film by film, without – and this is very important – interfering in a creative process or compromising it.
What are your ambitions with NEROPA for the future?
First of all let me say that I am happy to travel anywhere to introduce the method and its possible impact through talks and hands-on workshops.
On a broader scale it would be great if one day NEROPA was known all over Europe or even worldwide as a standard that is applied before any film is shot.
No public money – whether it‘s film funding or TV money – should be poured into productions that tell stories with an overwhelming majority of male characters that is not justified. Of course we need films about men just as we need films that tell stories of women. But I think in probably every script there are a few or even many neutral roles, and therefore more roles for women.
Hopefully, NEROPA will eventually lead to a rethinking of writers, so they will be more conscious when they assign a gender to a character or simply write them as male. So maybe one day NEROPA will be redundant because the writers have implemented it in their work.
Or better still, maybe one day the concept of neutral roles will prevail and replace binary thinking? Then a casting director can put forward both women and men and everyone else who is right for a character. This could revolutionize films and storytelling.
Even without that NEROPA will change film and television for the better to the benefit of the audience. And on a minor note, actresses will benefit: more work and more exciting roles to audition for! I have heard of projects where casting directors wanted to gender- change a character from male to female and were stopped because that would have resulted in a female majority. So what? We need those films as well! It‘s the overall cast statistics that should be equal, not for every individual film.
The NEROPA method has been extended to the phases of script development and writing. Find out more here (added on November 16th, 2017)