There’s no arguing with the fact that people are influenced by role models, young people especially. That influence can come from both real life and the made up one – you know, fiction, film, TV …
Whilst there are some excellent examples in the made up world, there does seem to be a preponderance of male characters, especially in terms of breath of character – strong or weak, kind or cruel, clever or stupid, successful or loser, straight, bi-sexual, trans-sexual or gay. Why aren’t we seeing the same reflected in female characters?
I believe there could be a rather big gap between indie and mainstream writers, for there are plentiful female – and varied – characters being written, but it’s rare they receive mainstream attention via traditional publishers and/or production on big or small screen.
One of the common reasons I’ve seen given for not depicting a similar quantity and range in female characters on the big or small screen is that art needs to reflect life, or it isn’t believable. Whilst there may be a tiny grain of truth somewhere in there, is it just me who feels it’s been used as an excuse? I’d find it more believable if writers admitted that they didn’t – personally – know enough examples of anything other than the limited range we see on screen, so didn’t know how to get it looking realistic. Before you think I’m defending that position, I said believable, not acceptable.
Let’s ponder on some of those extremes depicted in male characters.
Clever or stupid – unusually, the recent Oscar nomined film “Hidden Figures” had four central characters who were clever women. If it hadn’t been based on the true story of women working in NASA during the early years of the space race, would anyone have considered it believable enough to get it written, or published, or put on the screen?
Kind or cruel – whilst women are generally depicted both ways, they are expected to be kind. Because they give birth, their hormones are believed to make them better suited to the caring duties and professions – and when they don’t fit this stereotype, they’re often cast as cruel and unnatural. In depicting this particular spectrum, is what we’re seeing real life … or societal stereotypes?
What about strong or weak? Strong female characters are rare (and if anyone suggests to me that Jane Eyre is a strong female character I may have to fall out with them), while strong and successful female characters are rarer still. Yet in the realms of the fantasy genre, they are a not infrequent scenario. It cannot be that all writers of such characters in fantasy are female (like Suzanne Collins of “Hunger Games” fame), so is there some reason why the usual excuse for the paucity of (and lack of variety in) female characters – that of art needing to reflect life – doesn’t apply in fantasy?
There’s a fair bit of noise about a current TV series on the BBC called “Bodyguard” where the central (male) character provides personal security to the (female) Home Secretary of the UK. Unusually, I’ve watched the first few episodes at the same time as the rest of the viewing public (I tend to be a box set watcher). Himself and I shared the same immediate impressions so, I was surprised to read the immediate response being an enthusiastic greeting over the number females appearing in traditionally male roles – railway police officer, police sniper, armed response team leader, head of police personal security section, head of police counter terrorism section, as well as the Home Secretary herself. And whilst that is pleasing – all but one of those characters are minor and their depictions largely just a sketch.
What is decidedly less pleasing is the plotline involving the Home Secretary – the second main character. The first episode sets her up as an ambitious, successful, determined (ball-busting even) professional woman, who’s taken a hardline over terrorism and deployment of the armed services. Then she gets a personal security officer who we’re told is good at what he does (more on that later) and she goes all gooey-eyed before leaping into bed with him. I don’t care how frightened she was to come under fire and get covered by the splattered brain matter that was once her chauffeur – she’s the Home Secretary – and a pat on the back/hug and a cup of tea/strong drink is the acceptable behaviour here. I don’t care if she’s single and has had a terrible shock, it just doesn’t ring true.
Even if we accept the presumption that sex sells, why didn’t the writer have her character simply use our bit of silent hot totty as a relief for the trauma, and then go back to ignoring him as normal? This isn’t the only aspect having me raise my eyebrows, there are plot holes a-plenty, but the only one relevant to this particular discussion is when the Home Secretary comes to the conclusion that the head of police counter terrorism caused the delay to the armed response unit coming to her aid … yet does nothing about it? Heads on pikes at the tower would be the right response. You don’t get to be Home Secretary by being a fluffy-wuffy bunny.
I looked up the creator and head writer of the series and had to ask if he’s fulfilling that stereotypical male fantasy of a powerful woman needing a man to support her, preferably one of the strong silent type? For if we stick with the rationale of art imitating life, are we really going to suggest those senior female politicians (Home Secretaries included) we have had, went gooey-eyed and wobbly-kneed over their security officers? Whilst the press are trumpeting that it’s based on Amber Rudd (something she seems to be having a bit of fun with) even she states that although the relationship between principal and bodyguard is close, it’s not that close.
In a slight change of subject, that same day I read the account of a female author and writer of fantasy who was interviewed by readers at a recent ComicCon. Here are some of the questions asked of her by male readers – whether her husband helped with the writing, whether he verified her world building, if she’d had a predominantly male critique group to help her figure out how to write combat, and wasn’t her work really romance as that’s what women write? They also found it necessary to ask if she really did think up where her characters got their food from, where they got their lumber and clothing fibres, how they kept their water clean and how they managed sanitation. Really? Was she sure she didn’t need her husband to check that?
Now, I know that not all male writers and readers behave this way and my co-host here at Fiction Can Be Fun is an example of one who does not. Indeed, he created a strong and successful female character in our recent A-Z story, that of lady Michaela – engineer, inventor, gunsmith, clever, talented, and equal to her male cohorts.
I don’t believe that it’s entirely a gender-of-writer related issue. I believe David & I reflect what I see in the wider writing community. Neither of us feel the need to limit ourselves to writing about our own gender. We’re entirely comfortable writing strong women or weak men, and vice versa, depending upon the need of the storyline. That said, we both feel strongly that positive role models need to exist across both genders, and so do our best to provide them.
What we need is for mainstream publishers and producers to do likewise, rather than play to the current stereotypes surrounding women.
© Debra Carey, 2018