A prostitute in a library or a pregnant woman with an AK47: What exactly are 'good' female characters?

Tuesday 9 April 2013, 15:19

Sally Stott Sally Stott Writersroom Reader

“Something must be done,” people on stage are saying to people in the audience who are saying it back to them. I’m at a post-show discussion. It follows twelve short plays aiming to depict women in new and interesting ways. The evening’s been organised by Equal Writes as a response to recent research  showing that there are twice as many roles for men as women in theatre. Things aren’t any better in film and TV with statistics  by the BBC and Cultural Diversity Network highlighting that men also outnumber women 2:1 on screen.
Despite this, lots of people want more and better characters for women. In February, I wrote a blog trying to encourage some into the Script Room. But what exactly does a ‘good’ female character mean? Is she someone who breaks down the barriers of a patriarchal society using only a rolled up copy of the Guardian? Is she the familiar wife, daughter or girlfriend but with better dialogue? Or perhaps she’s so different to everything we’ve seen before that we’d struggle to recognise her?

Prisoners-Wives.jpg Prisoners' Wives

The majority of the plays at the Equal Writes evening, selected from hundreds of entries, do three things.
•                    They show women in a believable way.
•                    They undermine how women are sometimes seen by others.
•                    They’re funny.
Some are naturalistic, some are stylised or satirical. Walkie Talkies, by Kaite O’Reilly, is a disabled woman’s critique of life in a super caring care home. Andrew Curtis’s Flags shows two older women from different backgrounds arm wrestling over their heritage. Sarah Rutherford’s La Barbe is a surrealist comedy about office culture. Paul Macauley’s Piece of Cake is a family drama that ridicules the advertising industry.
The twelve scripts contain lots of original ideas but also some familiar ones: for instance, older women needing to be looked after, women fighting over men, and mother and daughter relationships. The difficultly in creating a completely original female character is that she also has to be identifiable - someone we can recognise. And what we recognise is partly informed by film and TV - places where female characters can be shown in limited ways.
So what can writers do to avoid regurgitating the same types of women, while still giving audiences something they can identify with and understand?
A way Hollywood tries to get around this is to turn female characters into men. Action films are full of literally ‘strong’ women, just as capable as blokes, with durable clothing and an AK47 to prove it. Famously Ripley from the Alien films was written as a man. Recently, The Killing’s Sophie Gråbøl said she played Detective Inspector Sarah Lund as if she was male (see link). Both are generally seen as examples of good female characters. However, getting rid of a female characters’ sexuality in order to make her less female and, presumably, less rubbish seems a rather convoluted and, in some ways, destructive way of making her ‘good’.
Another popular technique is to place female characters in traditionally male-orientated genres, as with Thelma and Louise. In some ways the audience knows what to expect (a road trip) and in some ways they don’t (female protagonists). More recently, Bridesmaids fuses elements of the ‘gross-out’ film – a genre normally populated by teenage boys or men pretending to be them - with a female-driven romantic comedy. In both instances, the characters aren’t so outlandish it’s impossible to relate to them, but they aren’t completely familiar either.
Cartoonist Alison Bechdel created The Bechdel Test, which can be used to test how well women are portrayed in any kind of comedy or drama. For your script to pass, all you need to do is answer the following questions with “yes”:
•                    Are there two or more women who have names?
•                    Do they talk to each other?
•                    Do they talk to each other about something other than men?
How did you get on?

Miranda.jpg Miranda

Good characters, both male and female, also have flaws. One of the dullest kinds of female supporting roles is the voice-of-reason, trying to rein in the behaviour of maverick larger-than-life men (see my recent review of The Incredible Burt Wonderstone). Sometimes a better female character means one who’s worse. Miranda isn’t popular because she’s perfect. Neither are Patsy and Edina, from Absolutely Fabulous - one of the few series where female characters significantly outnumber male ones. Equity’s Joan Blackham, who has been compiling informal statistics on the number of women in TV shows, also highlights Call the Midwife and Prisoners’ Wives as examples of good dramas where there is a fairly equal ratio of male to female characters.

Call-The-Midwife.jpg BBC One Drama - Call the Midwife

Back at Equal Writes, lots of impassioned people are talking about something called ‘gender parity’. Paul Macauley, the writer of Piece of Cake, later admits on his blog that he hasn’t a clue what this means. I doubt he’s alone. It’s true, something does need to be done, but you can only achieve so much in a post-show discussion. The real power lies with those who write and produce enjoyable scripts.
Sally blogs about film, TV and other stuff at www.iamstott.com
She is also on Twitter @sallystott


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  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    Our project gets on rather well with the Bechdel test - 30+ speaking parts, and not one of them male: https://www.facebook.com/AllHeartMovie. I find women consistently more interesting to write than men, perhaps partly because so much has already been done which features mostly men.

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    Comment number 2.

    I can believe more women want to see more and better roles for women, but more PEOPLE? As in ... men as well? MEN are campaigning for more and better roles for women? Really? Who ARE these guys?

    Okay, if I'm sitting in a post-show discussion surrounded by women lamenting the 2:1 Man/Woman ratio, I'm going to make sympathetic noises. If I had a girlfriend/wife with strong views on the issue, I would be careful and respectful. And if you were to pass a law that forces all drama to have a 50/50 ratio, I'd be fine with it. Seriously. Fair enough.

    But if I switch on the telly and there's a drama with three women talking in a room, I'd switch over; not because I'm anti-women, but because I find it BORING. I a man! What have women's issues got to do with me? Even in a great show like 'The Killing', I was getting impatient when Sarah Lund was dealing with her boyfriend/son/mother emotional stuff. 'Come on, Sarah! Let's get back to the REAL story...!'

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    Comment number 3.

    Ex-cartoonist - do you mean you presume that if 3 female characters are in a room talking then it could only be about 'women's issues'? And do you mean that really it's the emotional-ness that turns you off (rather than the femaleness)? So if men are talking about sons/girlfriends/mothers then you wouldn't want to watch that either? In series 1 of The Killing, what is the real story if it's not ultimately about how the characters relate to one another emotionally - the discovery of a dead body is a fact/event - the story is why someone was driven to do such a thing as kill them - because that killing isn't random, it is an act driven by emotional relationships. I'm not saying you shouldn't be big on plot/detective/thriller element - but they are driven by the emotion of a young woman's relationships with her secret boyfirend, with her parents etc. And Sarah (not the male detectives) is the one who works this out. Isn't that the story of the show? The story is nothing without emotion.

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    Comment number 4.

    Ex-cartoonist: Who's to say those "three women talking in a room" aren't police officers discussing a murder? Astronauts about to go into space? Vampire hunters about to mount an attack on Dracula? :)

    For a writer, there are no such things as "women's issues" and "men's issues". There are just human issues: love, trust, betrayal, fear. hate, joy, creativity, passion. Women experience all these in the same way - and in the same situations, careers and settings - as men. Showing that doesn't create "women's drama": it creates dramas with a wider appeal to audiences and a more accurate view of the human race.

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    Comment number 5.

    Ha! Yes! I too turn off drama if three people "just talk in a room about things I'm not interested in"

    But that's down to poor writing, not the gender of the fictional participants. Too often "women's scenes" are just plain awful because of a misjudged need to treat them differently.

    So as a MAN (not my caps) I'm hoping writers just write brilliantly - all the time - about everyone.

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    Comment number 6.

    debbiemoon: A few seconds of dialogue usually clarifies whether three women are vampire hunters or not. And my own experience does include men's and women's issues in addition to human issues.

    Paul Ashton: I have a different opinion about the essence of 'The Killing.' For me, it was about what happens when people go after the truth No Matter What. Sarah Lund was digging for a murderer, Troels Hartmann for corruption in the town hall and Nanna's mother for the truth about who her daughter actually was. These three emotional journeys had huge consequences for the people around them and I found it beautiful, compelling television. But Sarah's boyfriend, mother and son were so determinedly lacking in understanding that I felt manipulated by the writers. It was as though they were being deliberately respectless so we could see what a tough cookie Sarah was. THAT kind of emotionality I don't like.

    Oh, and guys talking about sons/girlfriends/mothers is not my thing either. I'd switch over.

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    Comment number 7.

    This discussion reminds me of one I had with my brother about 'The Sopranos' once. He thought it was boring because it kept going off the violence and sex and back into the therapist's room, but for me the truly beautiful thing about the series lay in the divine writing, and particularly the idea that the character of Tony is seen in the context of his relationships with the women in his life, and how he unconsciously acts out aggressively on their behalf. This is beautifully illustrated in the episode where Dr Melfi is raped and then sees her attacker's picture in a hamburger bar as 'Employee of the month.' Much of the episode concentrates on her struggles not to give this information to Tony because she understands that he will then exact revenge on her behalf. She has dreams about a vicious bear, which help the writers to portray her wrestling with this. For me, all the characters fascinated, whether they were male or female and its a great example of writing character at depth.

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    Comment number 8.

    Since women comprise more than half the human race, you might as well ask to make the weather an interesting character in drama. For centuries relegated to background and bit parts, and still contextualised within the framework of male fantasies (sex, violence), women have yet to come forward as their true, recognizable selves, and might not be very interesting as drama if they did. Hence the trappings of plot (detective dramas for example, where the characters are usually mostly stereotypes in both genders, useful to hang the plot on).

    I think we have yet to see a true flowering. Jane Eyre is my ideal female character.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    Ex-cartoonist - so I guess it's not about the gender of characters at all, but about the nature/purpose of their relationships in the story, and the emotional manipulation of the audience? The Killing was about a lot of things, indeed. Don't the parallel narratives of two mothers and their problematic relationships with their families say more in the story by virtue of how they contrast? I don't think the consequences for Sarah's relationships are in relative terms any less huge. And without them, I don't think the pressure on Sarah and her increasingly unhinged behaviour would have made sense or meant so much. So - Sarah's relationship with her son is 'women's issues' but Pernille's relationship with her daughter isn't? I don't really understand what 'women's issues' (or men's) actually are.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    Game Of Thrones has some great female characters.

    Call the midwife had alot of 'good' female characters. However the male characters were ether saints or sinners.

    Do you think it's harder for men to write women / women to write men?

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    Mr Midnight - when it comes down to it, I think it's just hard for anyone to write anything well. All great character writing needs thought, attention, involvement, empathy, emotion, persistence, sensitivity, ambition and originality. Scary, isn't it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    Very scary indeed. Speeking of which how is the New Year Script Room coming along? Will we receive acknowledgments soon? :)

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    Paul: I see what you're saying. But for me, I felt the pressure Sarah was under was caused because she and Jan Meyer kept arresting people that turned out to be innocent (of the murder, not of other things). And they did it in public. (When they arrived at the town hall to arrest Hartmann, I almost shouted at the screen: 'No, Sarah! What are you DOING?') In contrast to this, problems with her family were almost light relief. I felt very little during those scenes.

    Re. 'women's issues', I used to go through life with the same sentiment as expressed by debbiemoon, that there were only human issues. Then I met a woman who was beautiful and firey and who had more contempt for Feminism than any man I've ever met. She convinced me otherwise.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    I don't understand what the term 'women's issues' is meant to mean either, but it 'feels' rather pejorative, an expression that relegates women as a whole, as somehow less interesting, Isn't it really about the human need/desire to own/disown the bits that sit uncomfortably with us, in the case of 'women's issues' the family? The female body, and what it does? Violence against women (still the majority of reported domestic crime). Rape? Perhaps people who 'feel very little' are describing their own disconnectness? For me, understanding that disconnection is pretty crucial to character and is harder to do with females, who do seem to me to be more rather than less 'connected' but have historically been written from within a narrower and thus limiting framework, and most often in 'supporting roles' to men. Women need to be written as central in terms of their importance to the story, not the male lead!

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    Comment number 15.

    I completely agree. I have read the books regarding Call the Midwife, but the BBC series one was much tighter, agressive almost in showing the reality of the variety of women.

    I have found that YA fiction, films and TV all push women writing women to place them in the almost men catagory. I learn a lot about pushing my internal boundries about what I 'can' say by watching BBC series like Prisoner's wives. There is such a difference between Game of Thrones where getting pregnant is just a way to unleash all sort of power and 'poof' dragons appear, or women standing up as male commanders versus the reality of having a spina bifida child or pregancy for a REAL homeless woman. I would like something to reflect MY world, which are lives of disabled women (1 in 6 of the population have a disability), the lives of scavenging children, the ones who aren't in gangs or blinged beyond all recognition but getting on with staying alive. I hope more women come into writing for the BBC.

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    Did anyone see the film which starred Jude Law about a female Eastern European refugee (played by Juliette Binoche) who prostituted herself to save her son from the consequences of his actions? It did comment on female desperation, female insignificance, female use of body to achieve goal in male-dominated world, and main female priority (one's children). I wouldn't say, though, that any of the characters were particularly well-developed. It was a film that made a point and told a good story.

    On the other hand the film by Rebecca Miller, based on her book of the same title, "The Private Lives of Pippa Lee", does develop a female character over a life-time, and is convincing, (to me,anyway).
    Would it have got made, (or the book published) were it not for the name (daughter of Arthur Miller), and connections (wife of Daniel Day Lewis)?

    Paul, would you have accepted the script for the BBC?

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    Comment number 17.

    Jane - we wouldn't have accepted the script here in the sense that it's an adaptation and we only want to see original scripts here - I haven't seen it so couldn't comment on whether it was 'good enough' (as it were) as a script

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    Beats me what a good female character is, and i studied gender studies as a minor in my first year at uni. It's a particularly important definition for me since I'm transsexual! I have tried to look at this at length, and to attempt to try to understand what is going on. The first thing for me is that there are a number of ways to approach the problem, and that there are differences between women and men; but they aren't that much, there is huge overlap, and much ahs to do with societal attitudes. For me as a transsexual the major problem was trying to live up to what I was expected to be, which was horrible. Probably exacherbated by my parents divorcing when I was young, and my fathers violence, but for me as I grew up and then I constantly felt pressure to be a certain way and adopt certain features. Probably it's the same for all people, but a very striking thing for me was when I was a psychiatric nurse (where the men were real men and so were the women). Not enough words allowed..

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    The 2:1 ratio is a sad indictment and should be corrected but the emphasis on 'good female roles' is wrong IMO. Shallow, stereotypical writing is bad in any situation. It shows a lack of depth of character. A woman can be girly and shallow or she can be hard and masculine. I've met both - but as long as you show motivation or reason from their past it is excusable and makes sense.
    When I write characters, I write people, but I do recognise societies different expectations on the sexes and how these can be twisted by or a burden to the protagonists. Women are expected to act in certain ways but so are men. And often, these aspects come through in the opposite which makes for an interesting dynamic.

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    I hadn't really noticed a problem with the quality of female characters, but more with the quantity. Having said that I don't watch much serious telly fiction. I decided long ago being a fairly concrete person that my own ratio should be at least 2 women to 1 man, simply because the balance should be about right, and th emoment it's the other way 'round, despite the drama groups I've been to always having about 3 women for 1 man. I get quite interseted in the formation of characters, and one of the more interesting thing is to try to phathom how much a charcter is the product of an environment. Lots of women seem quite desperate to prove they're not weak at present where lots of men are keen to show their more sensitive side. Despite that representation doesn't seem to get much better though. It's a problem representing women where mostly men are in positions of power. I often think well maybe I could kind of create a women whose really a man, like others, but MrsT cant be everywhere.


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