An Actress's Thoughts

NEROPA during Script Development

  • The Initial Question
  • The NEROPA-Lights
  • Write first, decide later
  • Is that really necessary?
  • German Film Funding November 17
  • Epilogue: Ships that Pass in the Night

The Initial Question

Every now then I get asked if script writers can also work with the casting method NEROPA to modify the striking gender imbalance between female and male roles on television. The clear answer to that is “not really“ and “yes of course“ at the same time, and that is something I will talk about today.
Ideally the NEROPA check is performed by three individuals. Six eyes won‘t read thesame way , three brains will tick differently and people will have had different experiences in their lives. So the 3 will most probably find differing neutral roles in the investigated script, i.e. roles whose gender is not essentioal to the plot. Then the three will talk and agree upon a final list of neutral characteres (see also NEROPA-Check).

“not really“
A script – at least as long as it hasn‘t been altered by order of commissioning editors or others – represents the author‘s intention, it presents characters exactly in a way the authors meant them to be, they do and say exactly what the authors want them to do or say. If the authors were to nerope* their scripts they most probably end up with zero neutral roles as they were all intended to be who they are. Just ask a child about their soft toy: “Ah, so he‘s called Berti Bear. But couldn‘t it also be Berta Bear or Brownie Bear?“ No of course not. Everyone can see it‘s Berti Bear. (Actually I can‘t, but that‘s just the point. Stuffed animals‘ gender is in the eyes of the beholder. Or rather keeper.)
I imagine the characters in a script are like the stuffed animals of a writer, they have been playing / occupied with them for weeks, months or even years. They know them inside out, they know who they are and why they even are in the story in the first place. So the chances that an author will say „yes of course, these four or ten roles can be neutral“ (or worse “sure, they can be deleted“) are pretty dim.

“yes, of course!“
Now the author could go about getting a couple of other persons, have them use  NEROPA on the script and then discuss the neutral findings among the three of them. But that does not really seem like a plausible thing to do. So instead I came up with something else, a NEROPA solo so to speak, to apply at an earlier stage of the script. And I think this idea could work well and again, it‘s quite a straightforward method.

Always be prepared. With the NEROPA lights

The NEROPA Lights*

Once or twice I‘ve heard someone object: “But script writers don‘t like it when their work gets tampered with.“ Obviously this is understandable. But as most of us probably know by now, there is an alarming gender imbalance in German film and television. Actually I would suggest that the NEROPA Check be performed on all films that have twice as many male roles or mor in the cast.
So the best protection an author can get against having the gender of characters changed as a result of the NEROPA check (or other tools that may exist) is to incorporate the concept of neutral roles parity in their their own script development and their writing process.
Just as a reminder, here are some of my evaluations of six prime time tv film spots from 2015, from the two main German channels (ARD and ZDF). From left to right it‘s the first roles of the cast list, the main casts (as published by the tv channels) and then two figures that show the imbalance from another perspective. Each of the roughly 35 films per weekday that has twice as many or more roles of one gender is depicted.


What I find quite remarkable in the findings for the ZDF Sunday evening, the so-called heart cinema films (Herzkino): there are 100 % female leads / first roles on the list and a relatively balanced overall cast situation. There are six films with 2 to 3,5 times more male roles, but no films with twice as many females. Why don‘t we see this in the rerverse situation, i.e. in a group where the films with male leads are dominant? For example the ZDF Monday films (the so-called tv movies of the week / FERNSEHFILM DER WOCHE) and the ARD Sunday films (TATORTE / crime scene – cop drama), there we have main casts with more than 60 % male roles and 11 and 13 films with twice as many and more male roles – 11 times / 4 times as many as the peaks.

This imbalance is something we need to abolish since it does not reflect our society – that also wants to see a different representation on tv (read also The Standards for Public Broadcasting).

* Seeing the three little tins with shiny remains of colours in them on my desk reminded me of traffic lights. And that‘s a fitting image in a way, not just because of the way they are arranged, but also because red / pink signals Stop and green signals start moving / go on, so not bad as a metaphor. Way to go, NEROPA! So keeping the NEROPA lights in the back of your head can simply just meand remember the three colours, remember the three character categories.

Write first, decide later

In most cases the course for gender distribution in films is set very early. The leading character, the protagonist and antagonist, the two or three roles in the centre are in most cases created at the beginning, and their gender is determined as well. In the course of developing the script, as writing time goes by, during the various phases of the script (see also: DramaWiki: Text-types) other characters are added so that in the end there are 15 or 25 or even more speaking roles.
I can imagine leading characters will be drawn in greater detail and revised numerous times. This happens less often with supporting roles and least with the nameless smallies. With them it may just be the basic question of in-or-out: Do I keep “neighbour“? Or does he have so little to say that I can merge him with “postman“?
With some characters, there‘s no need for deciding their gender for a long time. They are neutral and can be actively and visibly classified as such, quite officially. This can be done on an overview concept sheet, on (green) index cards, with little wooden or plastic figures you use for visualizing the characters, or digitally. They can even get gender neutral first names for a start, Chris, Stevie, Robin, Jackie, just surnames without Mr / Ms, or be called by their profession, maybe stressing the neutralness if it is not generally perceived as neutral. Be inventive! (teacher, police officer, plumbing person, acter, chippy shop).
While the script is growing and the story getting more depth, reasons why Chris and teacher have to be male, and Stevie and plumbing person female may come up. The others will remain neutral, and finally can tadaaa! be defined as female – male – female – male alternately in the NEROPA way. And get names if they haven‘t got any yet. Or you simply leave them as neutral and pass the cast list on like this to the production and particularly to the casting director who then will suggest acting people most suitable (see also The Future is Now).
(Of course what is also possible is this: all neutral roles can be declared as female characters. Maybe the cast will be female biased then, but so what? There will be loads of films with a male majority for the roles, so any film that counterbalances this is a contribution for more diversity.)
But since we talk about NEROPA, of course the transformation on a parity basis will have a positive effect and is a contribution towards depicting our diverse society a little better.

The next four images show examples of how to work with the Neroping idea at an early stage of script writing:


The fourth image is a screen grab from the DramaQueen script writing software. The people behind it have told me that “most probably“ there will be a third option for the gender choice in one of the next software updates: open alongside female and male. Thank you, that sounds like great prospects!

Is that really necessary?

Do we really need to formalize all this, do we need this kind of guidelines, a detour via short-term defined neutral roles? Writing is a creative process, why this reaucratic manner?
Yes. Because. Because the alternative hasn‘t been working so far. Do I think script writers want to create male societies? No, not at all. Most of the times it just happens. Over and over again. It has for decades. A bad habit, that has been reproduced so often that we hardly notice it any more.
And maybe gender neutral language isn‘t really that neutral. A doctor, a professor, an astronaut, a nuclear physicist – surveys have revealed time and again that without additional information „sophisticated, highly qualified jobs tend to be perceived as male jobs, and caring jobs tend to be associated with females. So when people read Dr. Harrison or Professor Jones with no first names chances are they will read them as Mr. H. And Mr. J.
And also there is the question of pronouns, three characters are journalists, referred as Journalist 1, Journalist 2, Journalist 3. What about “Leading character is being followed by Journalist 2, who holds a microphone in his hand.“?
So defining the journalists officially as (gender-)neutral, for a while or until the script is finished, following the described procedure might help. could help, will help.
And also, because “I‘ll do that when everything is finished, then I‘ll look into it and maybe revise a couple of charactersnever led to any measurable effect either. Weeks and months of being occupied with the story, which also means that you‘ve lived with Mr. Harrison and Mr Jones all this time. And probably with male journalists in the plot.
And if I am aware that there are fewer female roles in films overall, and if I don‘t want to contribute to this imbalance if I can help it. Then why not do something about it right from the word go? And who knows what will happen to my story if I go with green / neutral characters for a while. It doesn‘t cost any money to do it and it won‘t really slow down the writing.

German Film Funding November 17

j Just how necessary NEROPA is – at the beginning of a film production or even earlier when developing a script – can be demonstrated by looking at the latest funding decision from the FFA German Film Funding Institution, which was published on Nov 1 (in German: Mit Alfred Döblin und Udo Jürgens von Berlin nach New York / FFA vergibt rund 1.3 Millionen Euro für Produktions- und Drehbuchförderung).
A recent very positive addition to these publications by the FFA has been the gender overview at the end, where they list the number of submitted and funded films and the number of female directors, female producers and female authors for both groups. What they are still disregarding are the leading characters. They are mentioned in the short summaries of each film, but they don‘t add them up and publish the genders numbers. So apparently the plots don‘t seem to matter as much.

Back to this month‘s funding (one of the FFA‘s 7 decisions in 2017), there wee 8 funded fictional projects and two documentaries. The latter got script funding, one is on Wau Holland, the German computer activist, and the other is about the Uffizi, a historical building housing an art gallery in Florence / Italien.
The next image gives an overview of the funded fictional projects. I colour highlighted the mentioned names of leading characters in the short summaries. At this point we see an overwhelming male majority (12 to 3). I marked the “fünfköpfige Therapiegruppe“ (five-member therapy group) as neutral, because there is no additional information. Incidentally, the two scripts written by women only have male leads.

I‘d like to suggest that the FFA include the leading characters in their gender overview of the films, to not only paint half the picture. What if 50 % of the films have female directors and female writers – and maybe they will include the DoP position as well – but they only tell stories of men? Can we lean back then? Or films that have one female lead surrounded by men in the main cast? Hollywood has shown how this is done, with THE FORCE AWAKENS and ROGUE ONE among others (see also: STAR WARS – THE EMPIRICISM STRIKES BACK).

By the way, NEROPA is basically not only a method for film productions and story development, the concept can also be applied when setting up working committees, boards, panels, talk show guest lists, political cabinets, lists of candidates and more. But that is a topic for another day.

Epilogue: Ships that Pass in the Night

Once again I have been writing a while on this text, some days and more nights, and half-way through beep! I got a notification about a new comment on my blog (for the article: Open Eyes – Stereotypes, which made me very happy and also it contains a paragraph which perfectly fits today‘s article. So thank you very much! This is what Krissi wrote (in German):

(…) I‘ve been taking notes for ideas for film scenes for a few years now, and I have noticed with many characters that I am not always totally sure what gender a character that I am creating should have. It‘s not important for the scene and I very often can imagine it to be a variety of people. So I simply call them person 1, person 2 or figure 1 and figure 2 etc. If a character‘s person is relevant for the scene that I add it in brackets. In my experience the idea behind NEROPA is useful and absolutely deserving of support. Keep it up!

Thank you very much, Krissi, for today’s closing words!


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