Hollywood's hidden sexism: How casting notices keep beauty standards alive

Wonder why TV wives are always hotter than their husbands? Hint: It starts before the show is even cast

Published January 25, 2014 12:00AM (EST)

Sofia Vergara and Ed O'Neill of "Modern Family" attend the Emmy Awards, September 23, 2012.        (AP/Frank Micelotta)
Sofia Vergara and Ed O'Neill of "Modern Family" attend the Emmy Awards, September 23, 2012. (AP/Frank Micelotta)

Louis C.K. has largely revolutionized the tried-and-true model for producing television programming. He writes, directs, edits and stars in his own show, and has been given free rein by the network to oversee all of his own casting decisions, which is largely unheard of. Yet, for all Louie’s critically acclaimed differences from TV business as usual, his is still a show about a middle-aged comic who is divorced, has questionable prospects and is not conventionally attractive, but who often dates very attractive women. It is a show about a very real man, a recognizable man, a man audiences can laugh at and sympathize with and relate to -- but like most stories currently told on American screens, it is not about very relatable women.

And Louie is one of the more realistic shows on TV these days where female casting is concerned. Across the board, audiences today are subjected daily to female characters who are not, for lack of a better word, ordinary. They are almost always gorgeous, fit, sexy and dating or married to someone not nearly as attractive as they are. Men can be all shapes and sizes on film; women must be hot.

When I talk about this issue with fellow actresses, I’ve gotten a unanimous three-step response: 1) Recognition; 2) a shaking of the head in disgust, immediately followed by 3) a shrugging of the shoulders in defeat. I used to shrug too, and yet I decided to do some research and quickly realized that this discrepancy is lodged deep within the writing and casting processes. And I find myself, as an actress eager to get cast, unable to do anything about the pattern I have spent months charting (except stay fit and spend tons of money on makeup), but wanting to do something about it. I no longer want to feel like the idealistic, talented, industrious overachiever who is powerless in an industry dictated mostly by the very subjective notion of fuckability.

For those of you not familiar with the casting process, I will attempt to shed a little light on what goes on way before you ever see a finished movie or TV show. Once a studio has decided to run with a TV pilot, for example, part of the next strategizing process is casting. Offers will be made to named actors, and then auditions will be held for all remaining uncast roles. A casting director gets hired to find talent, vet the talent, and bring the appropriate people in front of the director, producers and studio execs. The casting directors use a service to create a digital document that communicates the needs for all the roles to the agents who represent the talent. They submit the script or screenplay to this service, sometimes with character descriptions already included, and then the service edits existing descriptions or reads the scripts and pumps out their own.

These character descriptions are called breakdowns, and they try to distill a character into a few words or a few sentences, so agents have a better sense of which actors to submit for the project, or actors looking to self-submit can more easily select the right projects to target (there are two different platforms for these breakdowns: one for agents only and one for paid subscribing actors). Once submissions have been made, casting directors look over the proposed talent and decide which actors to bring in. They don’t have unlimited time or unlimited slots available for each role, so they have to be very specific and exacting when determining whom to see.

The breakdowns are very simple and streamlined, but specific. If a script calls for a man who could believably be a coal miner to say two lines in an episode, the breakdown will say as much. If a female nurse is needed to deliver a few lines of bad news, that will be the bulk of the information an agent will get. However, if you see several of these breakdowns lined up in a row, what starts to become clear is how different the descriptions are for male roles and for female roles (not to mention for white and non-white roles, an issue worthy of its own analysis).

I've spent the past few months poring over breakdowns on the platforms available to me. Here are a few of the descriptors I encountered for female characters: Smoking hot, beautiful, cool, personable, attractive, fit, stylish, siren, curvaceous, sexy, alluring and flawless (did I mention sexy? It shows up a lot). For male ones: filthy rich, confident, wealthy, businessman, authoritative, debonair, corporate giant, brash, corn-fed, pudgy, adorable, serial killer, funny, smart, famous, passionate and handsome. As you can see, breakdowns for women put much more emphasis on looks.

For a bigger picture, here are two breakdowns for the same script:

Male: 25 - 30, Caucasian, nice guy, lacks confidence - may have a receding hairline. He wears neon colored clothing. No nudity.

Female: 20 - 23, pretty, professional, mature for her young age.  She is more of a follower than a leader. Jealousy tends to get the best of her. Partial nudity.

In this breakdown, the two characters are a couple:

Male: 30. 30 going on 21. He's married to [female]. He's a fun, hip guy, but at his core, he's become a family man.

Female: 29 - 30 years old. She's both beautiful and cool and just a few notches this side of New-Agey.

The man is described by his personality and his character’s transformation, but the woman’s personality description is intertwined with a description of her looks.

The next example proves that age doesn't change anything:

Female: 18, very good looking, athletic/shapely build.

Male: 25, average looking (''Blue collar/ working man'' presentation), somewhat muscular build.

Female: 40ish, very good looking, shapely.

Male: 40ish, average to good looking, a bit rough around the edges, average build.

Check out how, even when a man is described by his looks, it's an afterthought. You'll notice, also, that a racial reference sometimes takes the place of a description of looks:

Female: A good looking, sexy white woman in late twenties, corporate type, with wisdom beyond her years.

Male: A typical white doctor in Late Thirties but very handsome.

Female: A good-looking white babe in early twenties.

Male: Late Forties, African American, scientist type.

And these are just for fun, because I couldn’t resist:

Female: a free spirited beauty as fresh as apple pie who uses her sexuality to manipulate and disarm.

Female: Beautiful and very sexy with a fantastic body, preferably voluptuous. Her emotions will range from sweet, clever, teasing to sexy passionate to scared …

Female: The quintessential screen siren. She is her husband’s muse.

Female: Caucasian. An arising hotshot in the fashion scene: thin, loose, and beguiling … beautiful.

The pattern is unmistakable. Adjectives are key to writing a useful breakdown, but the adjectives describing appearance get a lot more play in a female description. A female character is almost always described first by her looks and then by anything else that is important for her personality type, profession, relationship to the male character or role in the plot. A male character often does not even get a description of his looks; the first sentence usually describes his occupation, which is then followed by his key personality traits or his function in the plot. Right next to the description of a "blue-collar criminal" is the description of his "pretty blue-collar mother."

Why do all the women on TV have to be beautiful while the men don’t? Are we still so sexist that a man is identified by what he does but all that matters about a woman is her looks? Will the words a woman says fail to resonate if she is not conventionally pleasing to look at? Or do the people who call the shots, the writers and producers, have a preconceived notion of what sexy is for women that they're projecting onto the screen?

Look at a show like "The Big Bang Theory," chock-full of supposed nerds. The boys are allowed to be boy nerds in all their boy-nerd glory, but the girls have to be hot nerds. Or think about "Modern Family," with its gorgeous women and average-looking men. Someone had to decide to put those casts together. Someone had to write a character breakdown with the word "hot" it in. And somewhere, an agent read that breakdown and used his or her subjective idea of hotness to submit actresses for the part. Then the casting directors weighed in and narrowed the hot list down further, and so on and so forth. So someone who could have been perfect for the role may not have been seen, because somewhere on the chain she was not deemed hot enough.

There are already fewer parts for women out there, and far more women than men trying to make it as actors, so can’t we at least have roles that are as interesting as the ones men get, that are not based solely on appearance? Can producers stop vetoing casting options based on fuckability? And can a physical character description be an afterthought, only included if it furthers the plot? From my perspective, as an actress but also as an audience member, I think it would be nice to see a complex female character physically, emotionally and mentally realized on-screen not by the hottest woman, but by the very real actress best suited to play her.

By Victoria Frings

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Breakdowns Casting Editor's Picks Hollywood Louis C.k. Modern Family Movies Sexism The Big Bang Theory Tv