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

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

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

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.

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

Comments

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  • Comment number 35. Posted by Dunnoboutthat

    on 5 May 2013 14:43

    Not sure about this. While I agree about the relative scarcity and paucity of roles currently available for women, I'm not sure the 'rules' as outlined in article above are actually helpful as such in defining what makes a strong female character.. Surely the way in which a female character interacts with male characters can sometimes say a lot about what a woman has to say\ do to get by in a male dominated world etc. and thereby about society itself. And surely not every strong female character has to be 'likeable' or a rolemodel as such. Eg. Lady Macbeth, femme fatales in noir fiction etc. Even the character Francesca in prisoner's Wives, a character I quite liked, (pic above) would fall foul of these rules as she spends a lot of her time talking either with her husband, or about him and his 'business' dealings instead of sitting about engaging in girly chitchat and bonding with other women.
    Although, as a woman myself, yay for bigging up female writers ;)

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  • Comment number 34. Posted by Monumental

    on 29 Apr 2013 22:09

    mcgowan - I too write stuff with female characters to the fore but, I wonder how many changes occur to a script like that until it eventually arrives on screen for a... bloke actor in the role originally intended for a female?

    Is the issue with the male/female imbalance, something that happens in development and gaining star talent in order to garner financial interest in the project?

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  • Comment number 33. Posted by mcgowan

    on 28 Apr 2013 21:43

    I had some strong minded women in my family background, I also have two daughters -both in the 'Arts'.One aspiring for tv/film industry and she has seen that the ratio is weighed heavilly against the female. But! To quote her---Its down to the creativity of writers to open the doors for women characters. Something I took onboard myself in my own writing---if it ever reaches film status the cast will be fifty percent female and the rest male-----?

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  • Comment number 32. Posted by Jane Saunte

    on 28 Apr 2013 16:16

    Emily Mortimer is excellent as The Politician's Wife on BBC this week. But she is the only significant woman in the series so far. That reflects reality of couse. Few women in any Cabinet in history.

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  • Comment number 31. Posted by Monumental

    on 23 Apr 2013 12:07

    The scenes between Olivia Colman and Pauline Quirke contained the stand out performances.

    If Olivia's character had been played by a male actor, all of the moments of weakness - the crying and failing to keep a professional distance - would have been dropped from the piece.

    Anyway, the better ending was to have had the father confess etc. but in the final moments it becomes clear that actually the creepy son did it.

    Ah well, next time perhaps.

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  • Comment number 30. Posted by Jane Saunte

    on 23 Apr 2013 07:11

    To some extent I agree about Broadchurch. However, I thought that the episode where Olivia Colman's character interviewed Pauline Quirke's character moved into a different league. Olivia Colman expertly and convincingly portrayed fierceness and focus ("I will have your dog put down") with riveting emotional concentration as she listened to the interviewee's back story about child abuse within her family.
    I really believed her.
    I also think the mother is portrayed convincingly - anger as well as grief, internalising grief, and backwards and forwards about whether to have the baby.

    After a fairly weak start (I agree about the beginning), the series has started to exert a powerful grip, and I will be looking around for something equally good to take its place in my weekly viewing schedule.

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  • Comment number 29. Posted by Monumental

    on 22 Apr 2013 20:01

    It's irritating when opportunities are squandered. An example of this is a prog on the 'other' side, Broadchurch.
    I can't remember their character names but, in ep1 Olivia Coleman was frustrated because she thought she was going to get a promotion, instead David Tennant is brought in as her superior. So far, so 'exactly what happens in life'.
    However, Olivia's character then goes on to act completely unprofessionally; crying when interviewing suspects; being emotionally involved and not distancing herself; losing focus on the fact that one of these people she knows is probably the killer. This was the same character that thought she was worthy of the promotion David T's character filled!
    Would a female officer who had risen through the ranks really act like that? No, she wouldn't. Not one I've ever met.

    Meanwhile, David T is shown to have a life threatening health problem but despite that he is soldiering on. What a chap.

    Thus making the female character, Olivia's, seem weak.

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  • Comment number 28. Posted by Karen

    on 22 Apr 2013 14:16

    Thanks for the recommendation, Fadeln. I will be sure to look out for it.

    And I agree with you and Sophie, that characters (male or female) have to be interesting. Or else what’s the point in writing about them? But I guess you could get away with a dull as ditch water (pardon the cliché) character, but then they’d have to be in one hell of a plot.

    I watched the first episode of The Village and thought it had great promise but my kids (11 and 14) are often still up at that time and there was some strong sexual content at the end of the episode so I haven’t pursued it since. It’s difficult enough explaining the nature programmes to my youngest at the moment.

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  • Comment number 27. Posted by Sophie

    on 22 Apr 2013 13:42

    FadeIn, I fully agree with you that any character (male or female) who is focussed on superficial concerns such as their appearance, hostessing or soft furnishings would hold limited interest to me as a viewer. However, "personal stuff" is a very broad umbrella term. For example, Maxine Peake's character is primarily concerned with her children, home and husband which I feel falls into the "personal stuff" category. After all, nobody outside the village probably knows of her existence let alone the nuances of these concerns. Therefore, isn't it more about the writing, the presentation of these concerns to the audience, rather than the subject matter itself? Consequently, if the writing and characterisation were strong enough, is it conceivable that a woman with an eating disorder and who was facing a children's services home inspection would be of interest to you, even though it was appearance, hostess and soft furnishings focussed?

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  • Comment number 26. Posted by Monumental

    on 22 Apr 2013 13:06

    Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone is also fab.

    Maxine Peake is currently portraying a terrifically strong and stoical woman in The Village (Sunday BBC1). There are several good female roles within The Village - they lead the story along, in my view.

    Going back to Sophie's point (21), I find that I can't relate to many of the female characters on TV. They are bothered about things that I don't care about, place value in things that are valueless and talk about stuff with other female characters that I would never discuss.

    It is for those reasons that I so enjoyed Sarah Lund in The Killing. Sarah was never seen fretting about her appearance or being the perfect hostess or caring about soft furnishings. She was driven, focused and flawed. Best of all she didn't bore me senseless by talking about personal stuff - she was terrible at all the personal stuff and that is what made her so interesting to watch.

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