I’ve been having arguments with directors and producers about women characters for years now and it’s really beginning to piss me off.
In fact, the arguments are so frequent and so numerous I’m beginning to suspect I’m in the wrong. Which, let’s face it, seems unlikely.
Me? Wrong? Never.
Except when I am.
The arguments usually begin with a producer or director (almost exclusively male producers or directors) telling me I’m not allowed to write negative traits for my female characters, because it’s sexist. Women can’t be portrayed as stupid or selfish or violent or conniving or brutal or … well, human.
To me, this is piffle of the highest order. Some women are unpleasant. Not all, not even most; but there are definitely some I’ve met who I’d happily push under a bus.
Some are rude, thoughtless, vain, asinine, greedy, lazy, racist or downright sneery. Just like some men, because, guess what? Yep, women are human beings too. Shocking, I know.
The stupid part of all this is frequently the producer or director in question doesn’t think women are perfect, innocent and flawless (some of these guys seem to pretty much hate all women); but they genuinely believe PORTRAYING them as anything but angelic is sexist and will get them into trouble.
This is bollocks, isn’t it?
The worst thing (for me) is that some of these guys claim to be feminists because they won’t have ANY women being unpleasant or treated badly in their films.
What a load of shit.
To me, the question you need to ask yourself is “If I reversed the character’s gender, would I still think it was sexist?”
If the answer’s yes, then something needs to change; but if you’d be happy with a vain, selfish, aggressive male character … then let it ride.
I think you can (generally) apply that gender reversal to all your characters as a loose sexism test. Take, for example, Indiana Jones vs Lara Croft.
Indiana Jones is sexy because he’s a good looking guy who can fight, think and win the day in an all out heroic fashion.
Lara Croft should be sexy for precisely the same reasons.
Indiana Jones should get his shirt off occasionally.
Lara Croft should show a bit of leg or cleavage. *
All well and good. However, can you imagine an Indiana Jones film where they show him showering and have long, lingering shots of him rubbing soap all over himself? In super-sexy slo-mo?
I’m not saying women (or some guys) wouldn’t want to see Harrison Ford soaping himself up; but in the context of an action-adventure film it would be a bit odd. So why do it for Lara Croft?
Sometimes, I think sexism in films doesn’t really apply to individual characters but to the film as a whole. If all the women in the film are unpleasant or all of them are subjected to extreme violence for no particular reason then you may have a problem.
Or you may not, depends on the type of film, I suppose.
Take the ‘woman in a fridge’ syndrome where women in comics tend to exist as easily murderable characters to give the man some motivation to wear tights and beat the fuck out of bad guys.
Taken on a case by case basis, it’s not really a problem. Killing a character of any gender to create motivation for the main character works well. If a bloke was killed to motivate his wife towards revenge then there’d be no problem. The issue comes from the sheer amount of murdered women whose death spawns an avenging man. Once you get past twenty or so it does seem to be a policy statement rather than a plot point.
There’s a whole other debate there though about more men reading comics than women and since they tend to prefer male heroes there’s a natural tendency to make the murdered loved one a woman.
The counter argument being, maybe if there were more female heroes then perhaps more women would read comics in the first place.
Chicken, egg? I don’t know.
Actually, I do. It was the egg; but that’s beside the point.
Here’s an interesting scenario – let’s say you write a sitcom based on five guys you know. One of them is an idiot, the rest aren’t. Now let’s say an actress reads the script and decides she wants to play the stupid character – if you cast her, is the script now automatically sexist since the only stupid character is a woman?
Or is it less sexist than it was because it was originally written for an all male cast?
Or maybe the correct answer is ‘oh fuck off’.
The point is, having an unpleasant female character isn’t sexist. Thinking ALL women are or aren’t unpleasant is.
Try reversing the genders in your script – do you suddenly feel the characters don’t ring true? If so, why? Have you gone wrong somewhere or does it genuinely only work if the genders stay the same? It’s an interesting exercise.
*If Lara Croft got her nipples out, even if it was shot in a totally matter of fact, shirt was used to stem the flow of blood from dying child way … it would probably look odd and feel exploitative no matter what; because, the bottom line is men and women are fundamentally different in some ways and some sexist attitudes are so deeply ingrained that breaking them would just be weird.