Writing women right.

Do female characters get a bad deal in the movies? It’s a point that’s been raised quite a lot recently, since Joss Whedon helmed the Avengers movie, and he’s known for producing stories with strong female characters. Well, he is, and he isn’t. Because the problem here isn’t Joss Whedon or which Marvel super heroines he didn’t include, it’s defining what people mean when they say “a strong female character .”

The guru of all things screenwriting, Lucy V Hay of Bang2Write has devoted a lot of time to this very question. Like a lot of contentious issues, it’s often easier to say what a strong female character ISN’T. Lucy’s a great person to talk to about this because she’s articulate, she’s educated (in screenwriting terms as well as general education) and she’s passionate about the subject. For example, many people cite the character of Sarah Conner (from the Terminator films) as a strong female character. Lucy argues that they are mistaking physical strength with strength of character. Taking a male action character (like John Maclane from Die Hard) and recasting him as a woman does not make a strong female character. She makes some more good points about Sarah Conner’s character flaws too. Back to Lucy in a minute.

In “Avengers Assemble!” we have three female characters, essentially. There’s Pepper Potts, who’s only briefly around, but shown in those moments to be a central part of Tony Stark’s life – quite a shift for the egocentric playboy. What does she DO in the film? In the biggest scene she has she demonstrates that she can stand toe to toe with Tony and see him for who he really is, and she overrules him to allow Agent Coulson to make his pitch. Bearing in mind that so often the role of the superhero’s girlfriend is to be captured and scream a lot, she’s doing ok. In the first Iron Man film, Pepper is shown to be exceptionally good at her job, in control of her emotions and able to keep her head in a chaotic situation. She’s not given the option in the same way here, but she’s not just eye candy.

Second, and in the biggest role, we have The Black Widow. This is where the main controversy rages because, duh, she wears a skintight suit for most of the film, she looks real pretty and she doesn’t have superpowers or a tech-stuffed suit of armour. Is she an embarrassment to her sex because of these things? I don’t think so. When we first see her, she’s apparently being interrogated by some bad guys. Tied to a chair, unarmed, in evening dress, and they even know exactly who she is. Then we discover that she believes she’s interrogating THEM, and BAM! She’s out of the chair and the men are incapacitated. What I saw was that she used their preconceptions of her to manoever them into the position she wanted, extracted the information she needed and was physically capable of defending herself and escaping. She didn’t need rescuing, or superpowers to escape, just superior training and confidence.

When she’s sent to retrieve David Banner, she shows common sense and emotion – she’s willing to lie to him about the amount of backup she’s brought, and she demonstrates understandable fear of the damage he could do. There’s no macho bluster, but she’s not screaming and standing on a chair either. She holds her own in the big fight, and when Captain America is handing out the roles each hero will take, he doesn’t tell her to stand at the back and roll bandages. She gets to defend the population, and later elects to go after the big shiny portal thing herself. She has a big decision to make and you can see that it is hard for her, but she makes the right choice, the logical choice at the right time. She shows, IMO, strength of character.

The final female character to look at is Agent Hill. Since she’s in uniform, I viewed her as a female in a military organisation, something with which I have had personal experience. My wife’s experience in the Armed Forces, and that of the other women we have met, says that when you’re in a male-dominated environment where your feminine nature is seen as a disadvantage, you have to be better than the men to be accepted. Better, in this case, in military terms. When Agent Hill is informed that another agent has been turned and is helping Loki escape, she snaps into action, not questioning or hesitating (from my viewing of the film, though other opinions exist) and even fires on the agent in question. She is efficient and calm and maintains focus, even when under attack. Would a male character have respoded the same way? Well, they SHOULD have. Should we expect a female character to act differently in this role because she’s a woman? I don’t think so. Women have fought (and are still fighting) for equality in many areas. A female CEO is not unlikely, and she may run her business in a different manner to her male equivalents, but she is still required to make that company a success. You may change the manner in which you do things because of your gender, but the reults need to be the ones expected of you. In a military organisation that means following orders, reacting quickly and keeping your head. The same goes for male or female.

The main issue might be that action films do not present a good format for showcasing the feminine aspects of a character. In the Resident Evil movies, Alice is strong, persistent and determined. She’s female, but are there aspects to Alice that wouldn’t be demonstrated by a male character? I don’t think so. Steel Magnolias shows a whole group of strong female characters. It shows how women can provide support for one another within a group, how they can share details and emotions that men would traditionally find hard to open up about. In that movie, you could argue that it was the maternal nature of the women that allowed them to care so much for each other, to provide the group love that sustains each character through their individual struggles.

Part of the Joss Whedon mythos is that he put females into roles they weren’t offered before. He’s said many times that Buffy the Vampire Slayer came about from him feeling sorry for the blond cheerleader that was always being dragged into the shadows by the monster and eaten. He said “Wouldn’t it be great if she gets dragged into the shadows and then kicks HIS ass?” The fact that the TV series then made so many connections with regular teenage life – the feeling that you have a secret identity that no one else gets, that you’re struggling with getting to know your own body as it changes, that some people seem to become monsters overnight… Well, that was a bonus. In Firefly, Joss put Zoe in the crew as first mate and enforcer. She’s calm and competant, but military, very much like Agent Hill. She’s not dumb muscle (they have Jayne for that), she’s a sane voice for Mal to confer with, a conscience and a friend. She’s like Spock to Kirk, only with a better outfit.

So leaving out many of the more outre Marvel superheroines was a good move. The Black Widow is not super-powered, she’s human, and she’s flawed, with her dark history to overcome. She’s a real woman, albeit one that’s trained to kill (and you could say that about my wife. As long as you’re a fast runner…) and I think she’s as real a character as you could hope for in a movie about a magic box from Asgard opening a portal to allow in an invading Alien Army.

So, back to Lucy : Here she talks about things that can make a strong female character. I would argue that it’s easier to write a strong female character in a new movie, than try to write a strong female character that also conforms to existing material (like, for example, Wonder Woman.) Nobody fights minute character history changes like comic book nerds. A while back, after watching the original True Grit, I asked Lucy what she thought of the character of Mattie Ross. I had been surprised by the portrayal of the young girl as spirited, determined, and above all unchanged by the end of the film. No one tries to gentrify Mattie, to make her more of a girl. She remains hard-headed and in fact influences the two male characters that accompany her more than she is influenced by them. Lucy replied that it’s only in the last thirty years that female characters have been watered down, so perhaps we should be looking to the noir heroines and antagonists for inspiration?

Who are your favourite screen women, and why? What female characteristics are ignored or overplayed in cinema and tv today?

Other places that cover this topic: http://screencrush.com/reel-women-avengers/

http://riosfan.wordpress.com/2012/05/31/black-widow/   : The blog of the amazing Sarah Rios, who deals with The Black Widow very eloquently, and includes a segment on that conversation with Loki which I meant to talk about and didn’t. D’oh!

All photos pinched shamelessly from around the internet with no accreditation. Sorry. All Avengers pictures are the property of the movie and Marvel, I don’t own them, and certainly do not have a collection of photos of Scarlett Johansen as Black Widow.

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4 responses to “Writing women right.

  1. when taking a male orientated film, it seems like even the female characters will only reflect the male expectations of the intended audience. What is a strong woman? To some it is one who can handle the storms of a family. To others it is Joan Wilder, from “Romancing the Stone” who can deal with challenges using (mostly) luck and her wits. Or it’s Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan in the help, who uses her own talent to show inequalities of life.
    Ultimately the female role model is a reflection of our own values. Jane Fonda risked her life and is hated and loved for her strength. Kim Kardashian is a highly successful business woman, also hated, ridiculed and admired.
    There is no “right” role model, because there is no right. Only your right and my right and often they are not in agreement.

    • I think there’s a lot of truth in what you say about perception of “right” and that’s a big hurdle for writers. The other problem is a circular one – the belief that men of a certain age and mindset are the principal audience for cinema, and therefore a successfull film must appeal to them. Women aren’t likely to go to movies like that, so the demographic does not change.
      Kim Kardashian is an interesting example to use, though, since she was cited this week as “all that is wrong with Western culture” by a teacher. She’s famous, and rich, yes, but is the way she got there something we would want for our own daughters? Speaking personally, I’d have to say no. I want my girls to have an education, skills and confidence, and to value those things over piles of cash and physical appearance.

  2. My favorite character is still Ellen Ripley. I remember as a teenager feeling so grateful there was finally a female character in a movie that I could genuinely admire for her integrity and strength. An ordinary woman, just trying to do her job, put in extraordinary circumstances where she was smart and lucky enough to beat the monster.

  3. I think that was one of the strengths of the first Alien movie – for one thing, it made space travel just something these people did for work. They weren’t engaged on some noble and heroic duty, just doing their job, and Ripley was a crew member whose gender had no effect on her standing or treatment in the crew.

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