September 4, 2014

NEEDELL | I Don’t Understand Women and Movies Aren’t Helping

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A great character is an interpretation of its author. It is a representation of the author’s most fascinating qualities, placed in a situation that showcases these qualities, for better or worse. It is the reassembling of the id, the ego and the superego, screaming out from pen to paper, insecure and begging the world for acceptance.

Last semester, I took a screenwriting course.

The first exercises we were assigned asked us to create characters — sympathetic, interesting, unique. Characters that the audience would want to know about.

I exclusively wrote about myself. This lack of compelling female leads from male writers is then preventing female leads from becoming more prominent in the media, starting the vicious cycle all over again.

One day, we were given a prompt that did not allow me to write about the gun-slinging, toothpick-chewing, hyper-cynical cowboy-ninja-assassin that lays dormant in the depths of my soul.

“I want you to write a protagonist who is your polar opposite.”

I stared at that single sentence longer any other writing prompt I had been assigned.

It is one thing to write a character who is a product of yourself. That kind of introspection is relatively easy and rewarding. What do I like about myself? What don’t I like about myself? How can I focus on these to make an interesting character?

Toss that in the oven real quick, and we’ve got something to work with.

But considering what you aren’t — that is a whole different beast.

How do you approach that character? What aspects of your inner self to you choose to counter? Which really make you, you? How do you feel about that character? Is he your arch-nemesis? Or your evil twin?

At the core of my being, who am I, and what is the exact opposite of that?

For starters, mine was a girl.

The character I wrote was the most shallow, two-dimensional and stereotypical one I wrote the entire semester. But it was not for a lack of effort. I really did try to make her into a complex and fascinating character.

And to be clear, the problem at this point was not that this character was supposed to be my polar opposite. No, despite my existential crisis (imagine John Malkovich in the Malkovich Portal), it was something else from the get-go.

The problem was that I hadn’t the slightest clue how to write a female character. What does she think? What does she do? What are her hobbies? Where are her priorities?

You have to wonder how many male writers have run into this very same problem. How many have tried to write a script with a female lead that was just was not very good — not because it had a female lead, but because the writer was simply too ignorant to write a good one?

I’m sure many of you have heard of the Bechdel Test. Inspired by a comic strip written by Alison Bechdel, it tests films for gender representation by asking three questions: Does the film (1) have at least two named female characters? If so, do they (2) speak to each other (3) about something other than a man? A film that can check off these three boxes passes the Bechdel test.

Courtesy of Dykes to Watch Out For