Who Tells Your Story? Women in Media

As a writer, I spend a lot of time studying storytelling.  One of the main takeaways I’ve always gotten from many things I’ve read on storytelling, is that stories have to tell the truth in some way.  Usually, these truths feel very personal to the author, which means they also have the chance of feeling personal to the reader.

While our stories may be unique, our pain, our joy, generally isn’t.  That is why we love stories, because they often remind us we are not alone, while allowing us the chance to escape the mundane.  They make us feel like we are apart of something bigger, that we are not alone.

One problem we have in our current state of movies and media, often women don’t get to tell their own stories.  A recent study by the Sundance Institute found that only about 29% of filmmakers are women.  This includes writers, directors, producers, cinematographers; and editors.

You may be wondering why this matters?  Hollywood tends to have a bad reputation for underwritten or poorly written female characters.  In many movies, even very popular ones, there may not even be more than one female character, and if there is more than one, it may be rather rare to see her speak to another female character on screen.  This can be gaged using the Bechdel Test, which is admittedly a low bar for female representation.

I recently watched Dr. Strange and though I enjoyed the film, the female characters in it felt either stereotypical or underdeveloped.  While I liked Rachel McAdams’ performance as Dr. Christine Palmer, the character felt more like an accessory for Strange’s breakdown, rather than an independent and interesting character of her own. For those that know of characters like Clea Strange in the comics, Marvel may have missed an opportunity to include a dynamic and layered female character in their story.  Arguably, Dr. Strange is Stephen Strange’s story so it is expected that he would be the central figure in it.  But when Marvel has yet to have a movie led by a woman, and still only has one movie planned to be led by a woman, I think it’s probably okay to look at their female leads with a critical eye.

To me, this problem seems to be systemic.  If women aren’t there to write and tell their stories, then it seems to follow reason that we lack diverse and interesting female characters.  I am a firm believer that women have just as interesting and complicated inner lives as their male counterparts, but it is likely we don’t often see this portrayed because women are not allowed to tell their own stories.

The upcoming Wonder Woman film will be directed by a woman, but the writers are male.  It seems somewhat odd to not have a female writer involved in developing the story of one of the strongest feminist icons of the last century.  This is not to say that some men can’t write amazing, complicated and full female characters, there are many male writers that can and do.  There is still a certain authenticity when women are allowed to tell their own stories.  I think this goes for all people, that we are the ones most uniquely qualified to tell our own stories, in and out of fiction.  The problem is that women do not have an equal opportunity to do so.  I also believe that everyone can benefit from interesting, authentic and diverse stories.

 

 

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When one isn’t enough.

My friends and family have probably gotten a little sick of me asking “How many women are in it?” when they recommend TV shows or movies to me.  Trust me, I’m a little tired of it too.  Why do I keep asking though?  A several years ago I was introduced to the “Bechdel Test” by Alison Bechdel.  Initially Bechdel created a comic that became a rule of thumb for meeting the most basic rule for gender diversity in media.

It’s pretty simple.  The piece of media must have at least 2 female characters who have names, and at some point in the film, those two must talk to each other about something other than a man.   Some movies I truly love don’t pass this test, including Pacific Rim, which does include a strong female character with a solid backstory.

The Bechdel Test = The piece of media must have at least 2 female characters who have names, and at some point in the film, those two must talk to each other about something other than a man.

The Bechdel test is not the end-all be-all rule of thumb for representing women, it’s a rather low standard which should be used for evaluation and critical thinking.  The fundamental problem is, you can flip this test on its head, make it 2 male characters and a lot more films pass.  It’s not an odd thing to see a cast of 5-10 men and one woman among them.

And you might be saying, what’s the problem with that?

The problem is, it doesn’t reflect reality.  Women make up half the population.

If you follow my blog, you saw that I linked to my tumblr post about my love for the new Star Wars film a few weeks ago.  That post has gotten 300+ reblogs/likes, which blows any other tumblr post I’ve made out of the water.  Most of the comments were positive from other people who identified with how I felt and my love of seeing women all over the place in the new Star Wars film, and how I, as a life long female fan, finally felt truly welcome in the Star Wars fandom.

One reblogger stated, in a somewhat condescending way, how they did not understand how I could not feel welcome initially, “Have you met Princess Leia?”  It took me back a bit, because, of course I knew who Leia was.  I had mentioned Leia in my initial post and my love for her.  At first I wanted to respond politely and re-affirm that I loved Leia and the original trilogy, but then it hit me.

I responded in a very different way.

I pointed out that sort of gate keeping mentality is exactly why women don’t feel welcome.

I pointed out that sort of gate keeping mentality is exactly why women don’t feel welcome. One female character, even a strong one, does not a warm welcome to fandom make.

My initial post has mentioned how much I loved Leia and the expanded universe novels.  It clearly stated that I had been a Star Wars fan most of my life, but just because I’m a fan of something, doesn’t mean I’m satisfied with one strong female character in a film.  The original trilogy gave me Leia, but the Force Awakens gave me Leia as a General, Rey, Captain Phasma, Maz Kanata and many women in background roles of pilots, resistance fighters and even storm troopers.

Because of this representation, which had me over joyed, the film was boycotted by a group of men (who I will not name, because I do not want to give them more fame than they’ve already gotten) because of the films diverse main characters.  A woman and a black man.  Of course, that boycott is barely a drop in the bucket.  But it is still an interesting thing to look at.  Why would it be upsetting to have a film more strongly reflect reality in terms of diversity?8d550275660caec4515f06af4627e996

This is truly just the start for me.  I want not only more than one woman in a film with a name and an important role, I want to see the varied and interesting inner lives of women.  I want to see scenes where women have friendships and relationships that do not revolve around competition for a man’s attention, because that is what my reality looks like.  I have close female friends who cheer each other on, who build each other up.  When I watch a film that lacks this representation, I quickly lose interest.

Not because there aren’t more women in it, but because it’s usually a story I’ve seen many times before.  The women watch as the men do.

With my own writing, I hope to portray the rich inner lives of both men and women, but especially women, because I am one.  I can speak to my own life and experiences as a woman.  Hopefully movies like Star Wars and Mad Max symbolize a shift in the narrative, that Hollywood and other media facets will realize that women and men want more from their media.  I’m happy to continue to provide those stories from my little corner of the writing world, and I hope you will consider doing so as well.

Well Written Female Characters: A How to Guide, Part 3

Like I mentioned last week, today’s post is going to be about variance and diversity in your female characters personality.  Hopefully at this point you have more than one female character in your story, which is really the first step.

I know I’ve talked to other writers who sometimes feel like their female characters have to fit a certain box to a good role model or to be strong.  I think we get a lot of female characters that seem both similar and disposable, because they end up hitting the same tropes over and over again.

So today I’m going to walk you through an exercise to help you make your female characters more varied, so they have their own voices.

First, make a list of the female characters in your story.

Just the main characters for the purpose of this exercise, but you could later do the minor characters as well.  List them by first and last name.  Hopefully you’ve breezed past the Bechdel test by now, and you have at least 2 main female characters.  My characters in the example are going to have sort of funny names, but surely you will find better names for your characters.  I’m counting on you.

Example:

Hera Badass

Emily Sweetheart

Katie Timid

Second, make a list of their traits.

This is going to give you an idea if there’s the basic needed diversity between your characters. If they look sort of similar on most of the traits, then you may want to make some character revisions.  If they have some things in common, that’s probably not the end of the world.  I would avoid having all your female characters be timid and submissive or defiant and rebellious, unless you have a really good reason plot wise for that.  Just watch out for too much similarity based on traits.

 My mother, sister and I all grew up in similar places with similar cultural and familial backgrounds.  We do have things in common, for sure, but we aren’t copies of each other when it comes to personality traits.  My mom has a gift for honesty and analysis.  My sister is a joyous ball of endless energy who loves all things girly.  I’m sarcastic, overly caring and very sensitive.  I’m using this as an example to show you that even though we’re all from the same place and same culture, we’re all still very different people.

Example of traits list:

Hera – Strong, Persistent, Determined, Loyal, Brutal, Blunt.

Emily – Compassionate, Caring, Sympathetic, Anxious, Unsure, Talkative.

Katie – Shy, Smart, Capable, Enduring, Thoughtful, Quiet.

Third, make a list of what they want and what they fear.

By listing their wants you’ll get your characters goals and their motivations for those goals.  Most of have basic needs that are similar (See: Malsow’s Hierarchy of needs) so hopefully your character motivations go beyond that, but maybe they don’t.  Maybe the world you’ve built is a wasteland and her goal is to survive, but you may also want to go further than that and figure out what she is living for.  What is her motivation to keep going?  You can also use Malsow’s Hierarchy to think of other goals.  Maybe your character is a scientist and she wants respect from her co-workers, since she’s the only woman in the lab.  Maybe she is looking for romance, a companion, while fighting off space lizards from the plant Zoonan.  Figure out what she wants and why she wants it.

Fears are important too, because they tell us a lot about the character and what they want to avoid.  Maybe that character surviving in the wasteland fears the coming of night, because scavengers come out then and they will try to kill her.  Fears can lead to conflict, and all good writing has conflict.

You can and should go into more depth than the example below.

Example: 

Hera – Goals/Motivation/Fears

Goal: To protect her sister, Katie, at all costs.

Motivation: She loves her sister and Katie has the formula to cure a evil virus that is turning everyone into space lizards.

Fear: Her parents both became space lizards, and Hera fears that she will too, and that she will fail both Katie and the human race.

Check and see where your characters look similar and where they look different.  They may have things in common.  That’s okay.  I have things in common with my mother, my sister, my friends and even women I’ve never met, but it’s rare we have everything in common.  Having things in common is different than being the same.  That is a difference that you as the writer want to be aware of as you try to give each of your own characters a background that individual to them and a voice that is unique to them.

So go forth and analyze your female characters!  And don’t forget, don’t only give them diverse personalities.  The world is filled with people from different backgrounds, places and cultures.  Do your research and broaden your horizons.  It’ll be good for you and good for your writing.

In part 4, I’ll touch on the very murky water of tropes and stereotypes.  It’s likely to be sensitive material, so be aware of that as we go into part 4.

Well Written Female Characters: A How to Guide, Part 2

Last time I covered ways to get you started on writing well written female characters.  Today I’d like to give you a few more tips and some exercises to help you look critically at the characters you’ve constructed.

I’ll get right down to it.

1.  Take your female character, and flip her gender, just as an exercise. Do any of her traits or plot points feel horribly out of place? Now, women are not men, but sometimes flipping the gender of a character can bring out some things that are possibly lacking or really wouldn’t work.  Clearly there are some gender differences that are influenced by things like culture, but sometimes this switch can point out cultural biases on what is feminine or masculine behavior, that may not really serve making the character a full fledged person.

The other thing this can do, is point out that you might not have given the female character as much to do, or as interesting a plot/backstory as her male counterparts.  I’ve read a few stories about plays where they had all the genders flipped, so men reading the female parts and women reading the male parts.  The women were thrilled, because they felt like the male parts were so much more interesting and had more to do.  The men by the end of it complained that they were bored and didn’t feel like they had much to do.

If you fail to give the female characters interesting and active things to do, there’s a good chance those characters are not going to connect with your audience, male or female.

2.  Is she just as capable as your main character, but instead of carrying the arc, she’s supporting/training the hero/main character?  So this a theme that keeps popping up in a lot of film and media.  You have a female character, she’s sassy, strong and smart, just as capable as her male counterpart.  He tends to blunder a bit through things, but she’s there to pick up the slack and guide him toward meeting his full potential.

If she’s able to get the job done on her own, please don’t make her babysit a bumbling would-be hero.  She might be your protagonist.  Maybe she needs to be the one taking the lead, and her male counterpart is actually the quippy sidekick.  We see a bit of this in movies like the Lego Movie.  Which I still loved.  I mean Elizabeth Banks and Chris Pratt?  How could I not love it.

3. Use the Bechdel test.  It amazes me how many times I’ll watch a movie or read story where there are 4-6 males characters and maybe 1-2 female characters. The men speak together a whole bunch about a bunch of different things, but the female characters either don’t speak to each other, or only talk about the men.

That’s the basis of the Bechdel test.  It was originally for film, and here’s what the movie has to have in order to pass.

– 2 female characters, both of them have names.

– At some point the female characters speak to each other.

– The conversation they have can’t be about men.

Please be aware, it’s a rather low bar to set for female characters, but you’d be surprised how many movies/books/stories/comics don’t pass this test.  It doesn’t take much to pass it.

4. Also use the Sexy Lamp test.  So, this test was coined by one of my favorite comics writers, Kelly Sue Deconnick.  I actually got to hear it first at a writing workshop that she taught that I was lucky enough to attend.

It’s even more simple and an even lower bar than the Bechdel test.

If you can replace your female character with a Sexy Lamp, and the story more or less still works, you need another draft.  There’s also a slight variant of this test, which includes if you could put a post-it with information she shares on the Lamp.  So for instance, if she just stands by and then tells the hero “Oh, no, if you don’t stop the magical influx, everyone will die!” and that’s her only contribution to the plot other than standing around looking good…It’s time to go back and fix your story.

Hopefully by looking at these 4 tips, you can see if the female characters in your story is active and independent, as well as relevant to the plot, or if they need some work.  I was supposed to talk about tropes in part 2, but that is likely to be covered in part 4, since a lot of it is touchy material that I want to spend a bit more time with.

Next time, I’m going to discuss how you can make your female characters varied and break out of common character types that women tend to fall into.  Basically Strong female character does not equal well written female character.  Now go forth, and write better!

photo credit: We Can Donut – Chicago via photopin (license)

Well Written Female Characters: A How to Guide, Part 1

Women tend to be vastly underrepresented in many sides of popular media, including video games (a recent study found that only 10-15% of primary and secondary characters were female) and movies (see: Bechdel test).

So to me it’s really no wonder that some writers find it difficult to write women that either don’t fall into familiar tropes or are more than 2D slightly cartoonish representations of women.  From an early age, girls are taught to identify with their boy counterparts, especially if they like stereo-typically “Boy” things.  Boys are more taught to shy away from “girl” things, and sometimes they are even perceived as weak or lesser for liking such things.

None of this is okay, but at the same time, it’s understandable that some writers feel like it’s hard to write female characters and write them well.  I’m a woman, I grew up and live with a female perspective and there are times even I stumble into bad tropes or poor characterization with my female characters.

I could continue to talk about why the problem exists, but I’d rather focus on how to fix the problem.  Here are some beginning steps that should help you write better female characters, and really, better characters over all (A lot of this advice could be extended to writing all sorts of characters that may have different life experiences than you have).  Because after all, women are just people.  Like everyone else.

1. Look at the women in your own life.  Write down some of their character traits.  Analyze why each woman is different and look at the similarities they share as well.  Sometimes taking traits and mannerisms from real people can help make your characters more real as well.

2.  Watch/read/enjoy media written by women about women.  This is not me saying go watch a bunch of chick flicks.  Find stories written by women in genres you enjoy and see what they come up with.  A lot of times people assume that women only write and want to read romance, but there is so much more out there that women enjoy writing about.  Planes, trains and automobiles.  The awesome thing about the day and age we’re living in, is that more and more women are in different genres and different types of publications.  I’m a huge comics fan, and right now the gettin’ is good.  I’ve got a lot of voices from both men and women to read from.

3. Also talk to the women in your life.  Talk about their experiences, ask them about what it was it was like being a teenage girl if you’re writing a novel about a teenage girl.  There are times that my husband and I talk about our youth, and it’s amazing to see how different our perspectives were, and even how different they continue to be.

4.  Remember that strength isn’t just physical.  At 46 my mother lost my father, her husband, to pancreatic cancer.  Prior to that, they had been married for 23 years, during which my father at times struggled with Bipolar disorder.  Many marriages where one person has Biploar end in divorce (Some stats say about 90%).  Now, she’s a little thing that I stand a good 5 inches taller than, I wouldn’t consider her to be stereo-typically strong (at least, not like Jean-Claude Van Damme Strong).  But that woman has endured and supported the people she loved.  I strongly believe that her strength and support is one of the key reasons my father was able to live a happy and productive life, including completing Medical School and two medical residencies.  Strength isn’t just being able to lift something, or fight someone, and I think with a lot of women that emotional strength shows more often than physical.

So, there are some things to get started.  In Part 2, I plan to talk about some common tropes, especially ones that are seen in comics books and other forms of fiction writing.

photo credit: Davis Sewing Machine Co. via photopin (license)