Why we Need to Write Weaker Female Characters

Why we Struggle to Write Good Parts for Women ☛

I had a discussion online the other day with actress Alice Lowe about the portrayal of women on screen. The place of women in the film industry, on-screen and off, is something of a hot topic following the woeful under-representation of women at this year’s Oscars.

Alice Lowe demonstrates that Sara Lund doesn’t have the monopoly on knitwear.

Alice was talking about the screenplay for The Theory of Everything, in which Felicity Jones’s character was given little to do but provide moral support for the male lead, and ask questions that allowed him to provide learned exposition. This is the sort of thing that is massively unrewarding for the actress; Alice commented that too many parts for women are “struts or sluts”.

Statistics back her up – a recent report by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University found that in 2014 women made up 12 percent of the protagonists in the top films at the box office, down 3 percentage points from the year before, and that female characters are “more likely to support and help others”.

Nor is Alice alone. At a recent table read of the script of American Pie the genders of the roles were reversed. Olivia Wilde reported that the male actors complained how frustrating they found it to play the girl parts. “You think?” she commented, “Welcome to our world!”

But unhappy actresses aren’t the only reason to write better female parts. A different report found that movies that pass the Bechdel test – which examines whether a screenplay contains a scene in which two female characters discuss something other than a man – actually make more money than those that fail the test. So why do screenwriters find it so hard to write good parts for women? More importantly, what can we do to improve?

For me a good example of what’s going wrong came in another Oscar-nominated screenplay The Imitation Game. We first meet Keira Knightley’s character when she turns up to an exam for a job at the code-breaking centre Bletchley Park, after having won a crossword competition. None of the men present can believe that a woman could possibly have solved the crossword. Presenting her as the only woman with the brains to solve the crossword struck me as insulting to all the other intelligent British women of the 1940s. In truth, many women worked at Bletchley Park and they were mainly recruited via crossword competitions. The moment reminded me of James Bond in Moonraker greeting his NASA contact Dr Goodhead with a raised eyebrow and an impressed: “A woman…?” By trying too hard to compliment women, the screenwriter has ended up patronising them (porn-star character names may not help either).

Roger Moore: feminist.

I suspect that slips like these are due to an excess of self-consciousness. All screenwriters know that they must write strong female characters. But a female character who is ‘strong’ isn’t necessarily any more complex than one who is weak: if ‘strength’ (of whatever sort) is all that distinguishes them, they’re two-dimensional. Lara Croft might kick ass, but the attempts to make her effortlessly capable make her nothing more than another male fantasy figure. Watching her, I feel the writer echoing O’Reilly, the lechy builder in Fawlty Towers: “I like woman with spirit, Mrs. Fawlty, I do, I do!”

While English-language cinema is struggling, Scandinavian crime drama has excelled in providing complex, nuanced female characters for the small screen, and progressive depictions of knitwear. Is this is to do with the greater equality that women enjoy in Scandic countries? Certainly the northern writers are admirably unselfconscious in their depiction of women. That said, Sara Lund is a much more complex character than, say, Lisbeth Salander who with her fetishistic lesbianism and borderline psychotic personality disorder feels more like an updating of the femme fatale. She is certainly strong, she may even be complex, but she comes across as a conundrum for the male protagonist to solve, a woman seen very much through a man’s eyes. I suspect what actresses like Alice and female audiences are looking for are screen women in whom they can see something of themselves without having to filter out the male gaze.

The same year that Roger Moore was raising an eyebrow at Lois Chiles in Moonraker a female character was born who is now seen as the queen of sci-fi: Ellen Ripley in Alien. She has all the conventional heroic characteristics of unwavering determination and defiance. These positive characteristics are, however, undercut, in the first film at least, by her enthusiasm for following official procedures. This anal quality is neither classically heroic nor conventionally feminine, but is for me a big part of what makes her feel like a real person. After all, someone who’s keen to do things by the book is often uncertain of their own judgement – a very human failing. Her strength may make her impressive, but it is her weakness that makes her interesting.

What’s even more interesting is how this unselfconsciously female character came into being: she wasn’t originally written to be a woman. In fact all of the characters in the script of Alien were originally conceived to be castable either way, although no one expected Ripley to end up as a woman. This rather Scandic approach of writing characters as people, rather than making them gender specific, really paid off for all the characters in Alien, not just Ripley.

Taking gender out of the picture is only one way of writing complex female characters. Like Ripley, Clarice Starling in Silence of the Lambs is determined and ready to stand up for herself. But her context is different – in the futuristic would of Alien no one ever questions the capabilities of either Ripley or the other female character Lambert. Starling’s America of 1991 is not so enlightened: she finds herself constantly side-lined, under-estimated, patronised and leered at by the men around her.

The challenges Clarice Starling faces allow her to show her strength, but she is no hard-bitten pro: she’s young and inexperienced and sometimes this shows. The inappropriate sexual chemistry she develops both with her boss Agent Crawford and with the big bad wolf himself: Hannibal Lecter, suggest the vulnerability of a young woman drawn to men more powerful than her, an attempt to replace the father that she lost. Professionally, too, some of her strategies backfire and, in the final showdown, rather than being cool and capable she’s clearly way out of her depth and shakes like a leaf. And it is this reckless defiance of her own weaknesses that make us root for her all the more.

Clarisse Starling: strength through weakness

So often in recent years screenwriters of both sexes have mistaken the call for strong female characters as being a demand for characters who are women of strength. The reality is more challenging: the characters need to be examples of strong writing, not strong women. No positive statement is made by writing characters who are patently two-dimensional paragons of feminine capability. If we are to write better parts for Alice Lowe, Olivia Wilde and their fellow female actors, we need to dare to allow their characters to have great weaknesses against which they either prevail, or to which they tragically succumb. After all, in The Godfather Michael Corleone’s defining moments are all ones where his weakness prevails.

Male or female, the audience may admire a character for their strength, but they will never love a character who doesn’t display a weakness they can feel in themselves.


Copyright © Guy Ducker 2015

Edited by Dr Sara Lodge

9 thoughts on “Why we Need to Write Weaker Female Characters

  1. Writing “strong female characters” is the wrong target. Female characters with agency is the right one.

    (Personally I have no difficulty writing female characters with agency in my scripts and books. As George R R Martin said “I always thought women were people too.”)

  2. Any character is more interesting if they have some “weaknesses” or personality flaws, whether or not they are male or female. I think we are improving the way females are portrayed in these mediums, but even more so on tv than in film.

    Some examples you pull out I question though. If you are talking about something set in the 40’s or 50’s whether or not many women worked at Bletchley park is not the point. Women were actually thought of incapable by men of that time. It’s really difficult for women today to truly understand or realise how poorly we were thought of not that long ago and just how far we have come as a society. Watching Mad men and even Agent carter, it’s often difficult to watch because as a millennial I just can’t comprehend the sexism that was so openly administered in those times. Can this be real? But it was and it serves a reminder. So, context is required before putting it down for putting women down.

    Joss Whedon writes wonderful female leads. His characters are complex and each have their own unique personalities – different strengths and weaknesses. Very interesting characters trying to answer questions we all are asking of ourselves. George R. R Marting writes great female characters too. I could generalise and say that men seem to be able to portray well rounded female leads better than female authors; think Twilight and Sookie Stackhouse series. But I think we have come far and must continue to push big media houses to do better for all characters on screen

    1. Actually, I don’t think that the picture it paints of wartime Britain is accurate. We tend to think of women’s rights as progressing in a linear manner, but things got worse for women after the war in many ways and stayed that way for about 20 years. By many measures the lot of women in the UK and the US is currently heading backwards. Specific to Bletchley Park however: the staff was 75% female. Sure the top jobs were still male, but women had a far better deal there than we might imagine, certainly much better than the picture the film paints.

  3. Good grief, Ripley was trying to keep alien contamination out of the ship. That’s not anal, that’s good sense. “We’ve just been to Ebola Land, let us in NOW!”
    I enjoyed the series “The Bletchley Circle” with women who’d worked on codes now solving murder mysteries.

    1. Of course Ripley’s behaviour in trying to keep Kane and the others quarantined is both sensible and get’s to be more than vindicated. The point is more that she’s the only member of the crew of the Nostromo and indeed one of the very few action movie heroes who does things strictly by the book – it’s not a classically heroic characteristic and one that hints at an excessively cautious personality.

      Remember it could easily have been written that Ripley was a member of the landing party and Lambert, say, was the one standing the other side of the airlock citing the rules and regulations.

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