Monday, May 27, 2013

How To Write Women

So, a male screenwriter friend of mine asked me to do a blog entry on suggestions for writing women. I thought this was an awesome, very astute, and sensitive thing for him to ask. And then became a bit daunted by the task.

Writing women, especially where film is concerned, has become a very important topic. There has been numerous discourse about the fact that, percentage wise, many, if not most women are relegated to the “damsel in distress” arm candy role – pretty, hot girls whose only function is to be the “reward” the guy gets at the end. The first “Transformers” movie, and the role Megan Fox portrays usually serves as the first example cited. If you haven’t heard of the Bechdel Test (a test that helps identify gender bias in mass media) this is it:

Take a minute and think through some of the most recently released films. Start with “The Avengers.” Do they pass?

SIDE NOTE: There are times when it is totally justified that a story not pass the Bechdel test. Someone brought up "Romeo and Juliet." I would argue that the conversations between Juliet and the Nurse do actually pass the test - although Romeo/Paris are important to all their conversations, they are not talking about "OMG - he's so cute. I want him!" "No I want him!" They are using those men to explore deeper issues about their relationship - and about Juliet's life choices. In the "The clock struck nine when I did send the nurse" scene - the nurse basically talks about everything BUT Romeo for the vast majority of it. And keep in mind - though "Romeo and Juliet" is a love story, at it's heart it's a story about the tragedy of blind feuds. But in essence, the Bechdel test is good generally - and it's really good for talking about the majority of Hollywood "moneymakers." But it's just a guide - and no simple guide is going to solve the problem. But if you choose to not follow it make sure it's exactly that - an informed choice. 

The discussion gets more complex when you start looking at films like “Sucker Punch” – which claims to be a movie about female empowerment, but which depicts said females as “erotic fan boy stereotypes.” Personally, I actually really liked “Sucker Punch” – and I think it had some positive things to say, even though it may not have accomplished it’s “female empowerment” goal as successfully as it could have.

The point is, I think most of us can agree that women are not always portrayed well. We can’t all agree on how best to rectify that. I’m not really totally sure myself. Sometimes it’s more difficult to talk about how to write what you ARE then what you’re not. But for what it’s worth, here’s my two cents.

First of all, take a brief interlude, and go watch/read the following:

Ted Talks: How Movies Teach Manhood


                  (And no, "but there are more women in the second one" is not the right answer.) 

No, seriously, go. I’ll wait.

You done?


Well, I thought I’d start by trying to think of some examples of well-written female characters. And I thought the most effective way to do that would be to start with the female characters I’ve identified with the most through out my life. This is a personal list – this doesn’t mean that these are THE BEST female characters. This doesn’t mean that every woman will identify with these characters. It just means that I do. This includes films, stories, musicals, etc.

Ofelia – “Pan’s Labyrinth”
Joan of Arc
The Little Mermaid (original Hans Christian Anderson story)
Elphaba – “Wicked”
Matilda – “Matilda” (the book)

And, there are male characters I identify with as well:

Frodo – “Lord of the Rings”
Katurian – “The Pillowman”

are just two examples. When someone asks me who I’d love to play in the musical “Into The Woods” the answer I want to give is The Baker, or in “Pippin,” Pippin. Two male characters.

Yes – there are major themes connecting all these characters. Those are the themes I most strongly identify with personally. Everyone has their own.

Interestingly, there are many articles discussing the fact that since there are usually more male characters in a story then female (often there is just the “token” female,) most women grow up learning to identify with a male character. “Ok, no women I relate too, I’ll just relate to him.” (Please note: This, as with points made through out this entry is not a hard and fast rule. In fact, sometimes trying to "break" gender bias convention ends up causing more of a problem. There are more women in "Oz The Great and Powerful" then in "The Wizard of Oz." But it's still a far poorer film at portraying women.) It’s the same with any under represented group. So sometimes I wonder, when and how do men relate to female characters? Does a little boy watching “The Wizard of Oz” more strongly relate to, say, the Scarecrow – because he’s a boy, or to Dorothy – because she’s the protagonist? I tend to relate more to Frodo then Arwen, or more to Spiderman then Mary Jane. I remember being in great turmoil as a child because I could never decide if I would rather be Peter Pan or Wendy. I’m still not sure.

And I think that’s an interesting place to start. If you’re unsure how to write female characters – or just want to get better at it, make a list of all the female characters you identify with. For example, if you were an actor, and a woman, what roles would you like to play?

Then really start thinking about WHY you relate to that character. Why do you like them? What do you identify with? The truth is, both genders can be stereotyped. Think of same gender characters you really don’t relate to – and figure out why. Now think of opposite gender characters you don’t relate to – and figure out why. Take physical characteristics out of the equation. Imagine playing that part. Would you want to? Why or why not?

A really hot topic right now is female empowerment, especially in film. Now, I’m all for female empowerment. But the second I, or anyone else tries to write an “empowered female” – that being the sole goal – I’ve probably just killed any chance of ACTUALLY writing an empowered character. First and foremost you have to write a good, well-rounded character with an arc. The truth is, the vast majority of politically correct female characters I’ve seen recently, actually feel more offensive, and politically INcorrect to me as a woman. I’m a huge fairy tale fan (that’s a blog in and of itself.) I found the Snow White character in “Snow White and the Huntsman” – you know, the supposed “bad ass” Snow with a sword in her hand FAR more politically incorrect then the Snow in the original story. Putting a sword in her hand doesn’t make her a relatable character. And you’ve completely missed the METAPHORIC significance of her journey in the original story. I found that Snow White to have no personality, no real want, and really, nothing I could relate to, or empathize with. Where as I do with the Snow in the original story - even though her character is far from fleshed out. On the flip side, I find Ginnifer Goodwin’s Snow in the T.V series “Once Upon a Time” to be both an empowered bad ass, AND to have all the metaphoric elements inherent in the original story. But that’s because the creators of the show did more then just put a sword in her hand (which they do within the first five minutes of the pilot) – they gave her a well rounded character with strengths and flaws and wants and thoughts and feelings. She has an arc to her character. She grows and changes. She’s strong, she’s funny, she’s vulnerable. Yes, I said she’s strong AND vulnerable. Women, just like men, can have contradictions. It makes them interesting. Just like real people. And being vulnerable doesn't make her weak. 

"Snow White and the Huntsman"/Traditional Fairy Tale
                                                       Ginnifer Goodwin - "OUAT" 

What does empowerment mean for a woman? Is it different then for a man? I’m not sure. All I know is that simply transposing a masculine stereotype of “empowerment” onto a woman is not actually empowering that woman. I find the final scene of “Pan’s Labyrinth” – in which a young girl (Ofelia,) confronted by her abusive step father who is holding a loaded gun refuses to hand over her infant baby brother to him to be one of the most empowering scenes I’ve ever seen. A simple word: “No,” with the brave acceptance of the consequences such defiance will incur does more then an armory of swords and guns ever could. Simply giving a girl a weapon doesn’t make her empowered. It can make her a “fan boy fetish” just as easily. I think this can be true for both genders. I find the moment when Harry Potter walks into the forest to sacrifice himself for his friends far more meaningful and empowering then all the epic wand battle scenes.

                              Ofelia - "Pans Labyrinth"                   Megan Fox in...something

On the flip side, (as my screenwriter friend pointed out) many writers write women as damsels in distress even though they don't realize it. Since often women aren't the protagonist of the film (or sometimes even when they are,) they end up being written as reactionary, and passive instead of proactive. Stuff happens TO them. They don't DO stuff. Interestingly this is one of the issues I have with Kristen Stewart's Snow White in "Snow White and the Huntsman." Check out the film - then tell me what she actually DOES to advance her story. Yeah, she's a little feisty. She tries to escape those who are trying to hurt her - but she is in reality basically lost and confused until she meets a bunch of guys who are like: "follow me, I'll show you where to go." Then these same men go: "You're THE ONE - you have to lead us to victory." And Snow just goes along for the ride. Even the moment where she defeats the Evil Queen is basically an accident. This Snow - even though she has a sword in her hand, is really at heart a damsel in distress. "The Wizard of Oz" is the opposite. The Scarecrow, Tin Man and Lion - the "side kicks" are all given moments to be proactive. Even the Lion - who is kind of depicted as a male damsel in distress for most of the movie - has moments of driving the action forward.

And now I come to my most important point.

Above all, there must be a care, and empathy for your subject whenever your subject is “other” then yourself. This is true of a character who is another gender, race, age, ethnicity, etc. Portray women as human beings. Think about your mothers, your sisters – what are their deepest fears? Secrets? Dreams? How do they process and express their feelings? How is it different then you? I’ve had to do that in reverse to write my male characters. And it always stems from empathy. Taking the physical out of it, what do I love about men? How would the men in my life process X differently then me? I’ve never had to deal with the pressure to “be a man” in contemporary society. But my friends have – and I can empathize with that. I may never have to deal with needing to prove my masculinity, but I have had to deal with feeling like I needed to prove myself to be “worthy,” “strong,” “what I’m supposed to be” – and I use that to inform my characters. I think when we stop thinking of women as objects in life – they’ll stop being portrayed as objects on film.

So here’s what it boils down to:

1.) Unless there is a GOOD reason why, make sure everything you write passes the Bechdel Test. And even if your plot demands that not all three elements can be met, you MUST give your female character(s) something that’s driving them besides a man. I think the films of Miyazaki (“Princess Mononoke,” “Spirited Away”) are brilliant examples of stories where there is a romance, AND the stories pass the Bechdel test with flying colors.

2.) Give every character you write an objective, and an arc. No matter how minor they are. Have at least five adjectives that describe every character.

3.) Tell a good story first and foremost. Don’t TRY and empower/make politically correct/etc. women. Tell a good story with good characters. Everyone will disagree on what empowerment is. But if you tell an effective, moving story – you can’t have gone too far wrong.

4.) Make your women active. Even if they're not the primary driving force behind a plot, give them thoughts, ideas, actions. Don't make them purely passive and reactionary.

5.) Most importantly empathize. Writers have been taught for years to understand and empathize with their characters – no matter how “evil” they are. Well, do the same for gender opposite characters. Care about them. Understand them. Empathize, and relate to the real women around you. Talk to them, ask them questions. Then write real characters. There are no hard and fast rules. There can be damsels in distress. There can be attractive women. Just like there can be dumb tough guys. But the point is, that can't be ALL they are. It's difficult sometimes to understand the opposite gender. It's also difficult to understand an alien, or a murderer, or a fairy. But that's our job as writers. Care for women in real life. Do your best to understand the women around you. Then you can start to write female characters that will matter to everyone. 

On a side note - this was recently brought to my attention. Thought it was worth adding to the discussion:

Friday, May 3, 2013

Shout out

Hey everyone!

Looking back over my blog entry Women in the Arts: A Question I wanted to give a shout out to an awesome female writer/actress/friend of mine - one of the only female writers I know: Stacy Osei-Kuffour. Not only is she a fantastic female artist, she also beautifully deals with the black experience in her work. Most recently she's created a web series called Blacktress. Check her out.

And if you have any thoughts regarding my blog post about women in the arts - I'd love to hear them!