Development blog: On female characters

By Marcie MacLellan

Think of a character. Make her female.

I’ve been working in advertising for much longer than I’ve been working in narrative films, so I’m no stranger to the fact that the media has blatantly and persistently shown preference for a shallow and single-minded portrayal of women. But things seem to be on the turn. It seems feminism is becoming a bit of a buzzword, and it’s having an impact in the ad world.

“Pleasingly, after the feminist wasteland of the 90s, there is a dialogue now. After many years of being marketed to as stereotypes, women are speaking up about what matters to them. We are not all pink. We are not all worried about cakes and clothes. Not all mothers are the same,” writes Laura Jordan Bambach, co-founder of SheSays, president of D&AD, and a creative partner at Mr President. “We are pushing against a culture where there is still a long way to go for real equality.”

These comments came on the heels of heated debate about new feminist oriented advertising, including Always’ #LikeAGirl and Dove’s Real Beauty campaign. Some say advertisers are merely jumping on the feminist bandwagon to try to drum up sales. They are right. But regardless of their motivation, the fact that women are less frequently portrayed as one dimensional is surely a good thing.

This trend continues into the film world. For far too long the majority of female characters have been designed to support the male leads in any given film, without worthy motivations and aspirations of their own. The situation has become so dire that the Bechdel Test, originally intended as a joke, has become a genuine measurement for worthy female-friendly films. Fortunately, as a result, realistic female characters are finally becoming far more valued and essential than ever before

Like in advertising, the trend towards strong female characters in film may be the result of box office sales speaking louder than long-held arguments for equality. Research now shows that a film comprised of female characters with depth is more likely to attract higher quality talent, result in a more compelling story, receive more positive media attention, and ultimately deliver a more profitable film. According to The Telegraph, “the most successful films of 2013 [starring] strong female characters earned film studios the most money.”

As the lead producer of the feature film project Apostasy, written by Charlotte Wise and directed by Dan Kokotajilo, which is currently in development with iFeatures3, I feel the pressure to put my money where my mouth is. The story centres on two interesting and complex female leads – sisters raised in the patriarchal world of the Jehovah’s Witness faith – and their love for each other. During the intensive development phase of this project, our goal has been to keep our female leads interesting, engaging and – above all – real. In the process, we’ve sifted through a lot of advice about how to do just that. Here are the essential bits.

Give your characters something to work with

I’ve pinched filmmaker Ela Thier’s list of the “most common sexist clichés that we see on the screen” which includes the ways in which they interact with their respective male leads. I’ve condensed some of her descriptions while adding a few of my own.

The femme fatale vixen type – Don’t trust her, but definitely sleep with her

The maternal type – Bask in her devotion but dodge her nagging. Chances are you’ll need to cheat on her before you realise how much you love her

The damsel in distress – Having sex with her is the only way to bring this poor girl out of her shell. Do it for her

The care-free “pixie” who rescues the depressed guy – Give her life meaning by letting her discover the meaning in yours. But drag your heels about it

The tight-leather black-belt “liberated” woman with zingy one-liners – Stand back while she knock outs twenty large guys in high heels and lipstick. And still looks great

The girl next door – You won’t notice her until she lets her hair down (literally). Then you won’t be able to live without her

Both Thier and I agree – develop female characters that avoid these clichés at all costs and you’re halfway there.

Think hard about their motivation

Many years ago, exhausted and angry about the abundance of violence against women in films, I decided to stop watching films or television programmes featuring rape scenes. I soon realised how many of them there were; even Downtown Abbey wasn’t safe. When a plot twist is required, when a car chase simply won’t do, it seems a rape scene now tops the list of choice options. I’ve never been fully able to articulate why it bothered me so much as a filmmaker, until I found a writer who did it for me.

“Sexual violence has become the go-to plot device for writers looking to give their female characters substance, despite having no apparent understanding or interest in the rounder complexities of women as equal participants,” writes Clementine Ford, a journalist for Daily Life. “Rape as a narrative tool is neither new nor edgy. More often than not, it’s just a sign of lazy writing and even lazier direction. Women are repeatedly projected into the same role of victim in order to give their characters some kind of depth and conflict. We need to start figuring out ways to tell women’s stories that don’t involve them being violently dismantled before us so they can rise phoenix like out of the ashes of their former passivity.”

Bin the gender roles altogether

Writing strong female characters just means writing well-rounded characters, full stop. So start. Even if you’re not a woman yourself, chances are you know at least a few of them. Think of all the women you know; chances are they’re motivated by more things in life than just finding a man to share it with. They tend to be mothers, daughters, sisters, friends, and employees. They tend to pursue careers, hobbies, and childhood dreams. In short, they are people.

So, how do you write a strong female lead? “My favourite answer to this question came from a recent Google+ thread in which a writer asked, ‘how do you write female characters?’,” writes freelance writer and novelist Daniel Swensen. “Someone answered: 1) I think of a character. 2) I make them female.”

Swensen goes on to say: “Too often, the phrase “strong female character” is used to describe women who are portrayed as fully human. This is problematic for two reasons. First, it’s simply inaccurate that “strong” is the same as “human”; a character can simultaneously be powerful and two-dimensional. And second, it points to these female characters as exceptions.”

Joss Whedon, creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The Avengers, is known for writing female characters who are both strong and human. In his 2006 acceptance speech for an Equality Now award, Whedon revealed he is regularly asked: “Why do you always write these strong female characters?”, to which his responses include: “how is this even a question?”, “why aren’t you asking a hundred other guys why they don’t?” and “because you’re still asking me this question.” His speech became an internet sensation and it’s not hard to see why; his approach is refreshingly rational.

Ela Thier suggests taking this whole process one step further: “Look at the males that you wrote, and randomly turn one or more of them into a woman, keeping them exactly as you wrote them. It’s a very fun exercise, and it’s amazing what it’ll do to your script,” she writes. “Salt (Angelina Jolie), Alien (Sigourney Weaver), Identity Theft (Melissa McCarthy), were lead roles written for men. The women who brilliantly played these roles made them their own.”



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