On Wednesday, September 20th, dozens of screenwriters and academics descended upon Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri for the 15th annual Screenwriting Research Network Conference. The next few days were filled with keynote speeches from renowned screenwriting professionals from Disney, Pixar, and the BBC, presentations from academics from around the world, (including the UK, Czech Republic, Italy, Australia, and more), a costume exhibition, and plenty of wonderful networking opportunities.
The theme of the conference was “Gender and the Female Gaze.” For those who are unaware, “the female gaze” is a feminist theory which refers to the point of view of a female protagonist, artist, writer, or director. Dr. Tracy Mathewson, a conference attendee who gave a crowd favorite presentation on Greta Gerwig’s Barbie, had this to say about the conference theme, “From an academic perspective, it was so valuable hearing male colleagues speak about women screenwriters and practitioners with a depth and appreciation [for the female gaze] which is often reserved for male practitioners.”
The conference was hosted by Dr. Rosanne Welch, head of the Stephens College MFA in Screenwriting program. MFA alums and current students had a major presence in the conference, giving presentations on wide ranging topics such as “Betty Comden – Incidental Feminist?” by Lee Anne Lowry, “A Pioneer Turkish Woman Screenwriter: Ayse Sasa and the Feminine Gaze in Early Turkish Cinema” by Elif Fâtıma Görken, and “A long and winding road to women’s stories on the example of Estonian cinema” by Kristiina Davidjants.
“When I found out that this year’s SRN Conference theme was “Gender and the Female Gaze,” I knew that I would be hearing compelling, thought-provoking presentations. And I did!” said Michele Dagle O’Connor, Stephens MFA alum who gave a brilliant presentation about Joan Harrison, the screenwriting mind behind many of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic films. “But what I didn’t fully expect was the conference’s overall sense of generosity and kindness. It felt like a community.”
The communal atmosphere was palpable throughout the conference. Many attendees pointed out in particular how struck the were with the keynote speakers, Meg LaFauve (writer of Inside Out, The Good Dinosaur) Lorien McKenna, (Emmy-nominated Showrunner, Writer, Producer, and Playwright), Jeff Melvoin (EP of Killing Eve, Northern Exposure, and Army Wives) and Phil Lazebnik, (writer of Mulan, Pocahontas, and The Prince of Egypt). But it was not just their informative and engaging keynote speeches that impressed the attendees. It was the fact that all four of them stuck around for the rest of the conference, attending other panels and events, and graciously sharing their timeto have in depth conversations with attendees.
On the last day of the conference, Meg LaFauve and Lorien McKenna, did a live recording of their podcast The Screenwriting Life, where they brought attendees onto the show to give feedback on their current projects. C. Jelani Brown, one of the attendees who participated, had this to say about the experience: “Though it was the most terrifying experience of my life, it was also the most rewarding. I witnessed and participated in the process of two brilliant writers and gained insight and feedback most writers would pay out the nose for. If nothing else, I took away that real writing means vulnerability, not just for the writing but for the writer.”
But it wasn’t just the keynote presentations that stuck with people. Each panel of presentations was engaging, informative, and inspiring in their own right. Laura Kirk, professor in screenwriting, film studies, and acting at the University of Kansas, said this about one of her favorite panels, “The (presentation) by Paul Gulino (my hero, I assign his book to all my students) about subtext and indirection in dialogue went right into my classroom this week. He asks what are they DOING which is so important for any scene.”
A crowd favorite panel was “Writing Gender-Fluid Characters,” which included presentations on Greta Gerwig’s Barbie and the 2022 Amazon series, A League of Their Own. Dr. Mathewson, presented her paper “Barbie: The Queer-Coded Conspiracy Protagonist We Needed and Never Saw Coming.” This presentation was followed by Stephens MFA alum MG Scott’s “In a League of Its Own: How 2022’s A League of Their Own series expands on the original film to provide insight into the reality for queer, Latinx and BIPOC ballplayers.”
MG had this to say about the experience of presenting her paper, “I had someone come up to me on the last day of the conference to thank me for the part I played in ensuring there was a queer panel. That gave me a sense of purpose beyond just participating in the conference as a creative professional. To know that I had helped someone to feel seen, to feel safe… that’s the best feeling in the world.”
The conference wrapped up with a screening of Inside Out followed by a Q&A with Meg LaFauve and moderated by Dr. Rosanne Welch. This event was open to the public, so nearly every seat in the big theater at Ragtag Cinema was taken. Meg answered many thoughtful questions from the audience, and shared insights into the development process of the Oscar winning film.
The conference as a whole was an incredibly fulfilling event for all the attendees. There were many instances where attendees said that the panel they just attended inspired a new take on a project they were working on, or a lesson they could integrate into their own classrooms. Everyone took away something different from the conference, but almost everyone had the same thought as they left: “I can’t wait for the next one!”