6 June 2010 7 Comments

Leading Ladies.

Screenwriter John August posed the following three questions on his blog. Considering something you’ve written lately, take a look at his questions and give them a think:

  1. Are there two or more female characters with names?
  2. Do they talk to each other?
  3. If they talk to each other, do they talk about something other than a man?

As a woman and a writer, I’m glad to say this is a test a lot of my stuff passes. There is, however, a very colorful conversation going on amongst a number of gentlemen commenting on John’s blog, peppered with comments from the (very) occasional female voice. Most comments were fair and brought up excellent points, though there were a couple of embarrassingly old-fashioned chowderheads in the mix.

Thinking on those three questions, it’s interesting — and more than mildly depressing — to think what happens when you apply this “test” to major motion pictures. Naturally there are any number of films and plays that present men and women talking and interacting with each other. 97% of the time, those conversations are romantic — because men and women can’t look at each other without thinking sex, right?

A couple of the responses to John’s initial post (click the link above) present the argument that guys can’t write girls, so girls need to step up to the plate and provide the scripts that have strong, well-rounded female characters. I agree with this at the same time that I disagree.

I try to write good roles for women. At least one — please, let there be one! — but usually two or three. I know that I can do that; I am a woman, right? Here’s the catch, though: I don’t want my male characters to be cardboard, either. It shouldn’t be a trade-off — that one sex is interesting on screen while the other is hollow and fake. The relationship is what the audience wants to see. The way that people interact with each other. No one wants to interact with cardboard anymore than the audience wants to watch them do so.

So what if two women are talking about a man, as long as the conversation is engaging? They can talk about cake if it’s an engaging conversation. In fact, I know someone who wrote a whole play that started with two girls have a conversation about just that — cake.

It’s an excuse to say that women have to write women. I totally agree that women should be writing women. But why can’t men, too? Men should want to write about women, and women about men. If we really divide things neatly down those lines, we might as well as start doing it based on race and region and hot beverage of choice. I don’t drink coffee so I can’t have a character who drinks coffee? What sense does that make?

As much as I admire Katheryn Bigelow for her success directing The Hurt Locker — yes, this is a stretch, because she’s a director, but go with me for a bit — being the first woman to win an Oscar for achievement in directing, the great irony in that achievement is that she directed a very male-oriented film featuring an almost entirely male ensemble cast and a script written by a man. Now, the cool thing is she was able to do that, no problem. At the same time, I have this nagging feeling at the back of my mind that subconsciously Ms. Bigelow had to play a boy’s game to win a boy’s award. Would she have won if she had directed something with a female protagonist? There have only been three other women who have been nominated: Jane Campion for The Piano; Sofia Coppola for Lost in Translation; and Lina Wërtmuller who, in 1976, was the first woman ever nominated — 1976 being the year I was born and not all that long ago — for her film Seven Beauties. The Oscars have been around since 1927. You do the math. Of those four films, Campion’s is the only one with a female protagonist. The only one. Of course, all of those films (well, all but The Hurt Locker) have strong women in supporting roles, which is great. Again, though, I just wish there were more.

One of my favorite films this past year was The Young Victoria, and it was written by a man named Julian Fellowes. I think it’s one of the most underrated screenplays — and films — to come out recently. Kudos to the British gent who wrote a complete, complex, and interesting female character who just happens to be historically accurate to boot. And she’s only one of many in the film, to be honest.

Another irony is that the majority of romantic comedies and supposed “chick flicks” that get produced, just like the majority of every other film genre, are written by guys. I don’t have a problem with that, though if more romantic comedies were written as well as The Young Victoria, I’d be a much happier camper.

Recently I re-watched the HBO miniseries Band of Brothers. Total boys club, but fantastic stuff all round. Writing, acting, directing, production value; it’s all just — Wow. And you know what? I was sucked into the story all over again, and didn’t mind in the slightest that women only appear on the periphery of the story. Women aren’t on the fringes because they are lesser; the story is simply not theirs this time round.

The primary goal should always be to tell the story. It’d be hard for me to write about the 101st Airborne. But you know what? I could do it. I would do it. Those are some great characters, some great gentlemen, whose story should be told. At the same time, I would love to write about Joan of Arc — oh, wait, I did — because she was a strong, complex, fascinating woman with an incredible story. Many, many men have also written about her; Shakespeare did it, for goodness’ sake. George Bernard Shaw. Jean Anouilh. The list goes on.

There are fabulous female stories waiting to be told. I’m trying to get some out there. But it shouldn’t be left to me just because I’m a woman and this is “women’s work” or whatever the crappity that means. It should be because those stories should be told, and told well.

Guys, if you want to write about guys, fine. That’s fine. But I can do that, too; I dare you to tell me otherwise. But if it’s hard for you to write a woman… Well, maybe that’s exactly why you need to do it.

Well? Why are you still sitting here? Don’t you have something to do?

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  • Robbie

    A challenge! I always try to make sure any females I write have strong and realistic voices, but I have never taken time to make sure I’m including many females. This might be because there are so few females IN my life. I’m starting to wonder whether I’m a character in a movie. I was raised in a home full of men. I do believe, though, that most women behave differently when there are no men around, thus making it impossible to observe them. I’m going to ponder this. But expect some female characters from me soon.

  • Yes.


  • Nearly all of my plays have a strong female protagonist, or at least several strong female characters. _Swallow the Sun_ is one of the few exceptions, because C.S. Lewis historically surrounded himself with a lot of men, but I tried to find at least a few women in his historical narrative to include. But being surrounded by seven sisters growing up, I always thought women were more interesting and more personally relatable. Nan McCulloch keeps mentioning that my women are feminists, so I think that they’re more than ingenue-like, wilting violets, too. Strong women are always more interesting and complex. Does that pass your test? :]

  • Amanda

    4. If there are two women talking, and they are talking about men, are they doing shoddy embroidery and stuffing Junior Mints into their mouths? If so, the playwright is brilliant.

  • It’s called the Bechdel Test, named for its creator, cartoonist Alison Bechdel (http://dykestowatchoutfor.com/). It’s an imperfect test, but it opens up a really important dialog about the lack of female presence in the vast majority of our media.

    I’m a big fan of yours. Caught A Flickering (I’d put it in italics like it deserves, but I don’t think these comment windows allow HTML) and enjoyed the hell out of it. Also enjoying the blog.

  • Oh, Mel, how you make me wish I was a writer. I have been thinking about this so much lately. Well said. I agree wholeheartedly. As a woman, I would want to tell untold stories of real women. Not because of the obligation, but because of the desire to tell them. I also should be able to write about men if I choose. And vice versa.

    I guess for me, I just think it’s important that writers understand the responsibility they take on when endeavoring to tell someone’s story, regardless of gender/religion/race/food preferences. If they take that responsibility seriously and strive to truly know the subject they are portraying, I think the world would end up with stronger/more multi-dimensional characters.

  • Heidi

    Agreed. Amen.