Creating Better Female Characters Part 2 - Mistakes and Clichés
Updated: May 16, 2019
Following a fantastic response to the opening article (not read it? See the link at the end of this one.) I bring you the sequel. I sincerely hope it's more The Godfather Part 2 than Speed 2! And in deference to those who have read part 1, I'm going to skip the introduction and cut right to the chase. What better way to open an article about clichés than to start with one, right?!
There are countless clichés in movies and television. The hard-drinking detective, the career criminal who takes one last job, the super accuracy of a pistol over 50 yards and its cousin, the gun with unlimited bullets. Then there's the inability to outrun a walking zombie, the villain who spills all about the masterplan and his band of thugs who agree to only attack the hero one at a time. Or the character told to stay who never does or running in a straight line on the road when pursued by a car or the car chase that is only a danger to shopping trolleys and market stalls, never innocent bystanders, but none have the potential to be so socially damaging as those that concern the portrayal of women.
It's widely understood that the portrayal of women in film and television has not been the best over the years. That some clear improvement is long overdue. But how have they been poorly portrayed? What exactly is the problem? What mistakes have been made? What tired, old clichés need to be addressed and rethought? It's crucial to understand what the problems are in order that we can start accurately resolving them. To this end, I asked the Fab 50 - fifty professional actresses and other women working in the industry:
Do you find writers make specific mistakes when writing for women? And what clichés regarding their portrayal would you like to see addressed?
And what a reaction I received! Impassioned, earnest, fuelled by an understandable frustration. And of the 50 answers, there was one unmistakable, prevailing issue.
FOCUS ON THE PHYSICAL
This was by far the most common grievance. Almost all of the Fab 50 commented in some form or other on how female characters are described. As actor-producer Isabella Tugman deplores: ❝It's embarrassing how many female roles are based entirely on physical description without even a thought to who she is as a person.❞
And while many writers are guilty of not writing act-able description regardless of gender, it does seem to be a particular problem when it comes to the portrayal of women. Atlanta Johnson explains, ❝Men are described as WHO they are when the description for the woman is what colour lipstick she has and what she is wearing or not wearing.❞ Actress and stand-up Suanne Braun agrees: ❝I cannot stand reading a script where a male character is announced and his character traits are listed, for example 'Scott (34), preppy but sensitive too. He's intelligent, articulate and often the life and soul of the party.' And then for the female character, you get: 'Valerie (25), blonde, hot.' ONLY her physical traits are listed!❞ It's clear that more needs to be done, here. I see it with the scripts I read. There's an unnecessary fixation on aesthetics when it comes to women. Female characters should be treated in the same way as male characters when it comes to their introductory description. Rather than focus on the physical, focus on character traits. As Vanessa Bailey says, ❝I don't need to know what colour hair she has or what dress she's wearing ... but I do need to know what it feels like when she walks into a room.❞ Mhairi Calvey agrees: ❝Saying a girl is 'very attractive with long legs' doesn't tell me anything as an actress. Give personality detail, it's more useful.❞ As award-winning actress Natalie Martins says: ❝Women have more to them than just their looks and it's shallow to think otherwise.❞ Isabella nails it again: ❝Giving little character description aside from physical attributes is lazy writing and leaves a shallow, undeveloped character.❞
And this lazy writing goes further than just preoccupation with looks. Many of the Fab 50 pointed out a particular cliché which has long been a problem in film and television: the sexual objectification of women. ❝The use of a female character as a mere sexual prop❞, as Daniele Passantino succinctly puts it, needs to be addressed. ❝Women are not just girlfriends and objects of sexualization, which happens in most scripts.❞ agrees Mackenzie Firgens. And for those of you who need an example of sexual objectification, 45-plus film veteran Laura Cayouette best known for her role in Django Unchained gives us one: ❝I can say that until 45 or so, most of my roles included a scene of me in underwear or an 'ass shot' of me walking away from the camera.❞ A sad state of affairs. Much like how nudity is a prerequisite for many female roles. To clarify, those who raised this specific point were not against the revealing of flesh wholesale but ❝the endless use of the naked female form for no apparent reason.❞ as explained by Tori Butler Hart, who goes on to say, ❝I think any nudity has to be integral to the story. I'm pretty fed up of seeing strip bar scenes just for the sake of it.❞ Actress and stunt woman Cassandra Ebner concurs: ❝If you have to write it into your script, give women a good reason for their character to do it.❞
This over-use of female sexualization is a gross under-use of female characterization. Baring all doesn't even begin to reveal enough. Let's strip away these redundant go-to instances of sexual objectification. ❝When the female character exists merely as window dressing,❞ as writer-director and Tisch School graduate Robin Shanea Williams puts it, it really is only skin deep.
This was the second most common cliché regarding the portrayal of women mentioned by the Fab 50. In fact, well over half touched on the limited and trite parts that are usually on offer. We're talking ❝someone's wife, mother, teacher, lover, conquest, assistant etc.❞ says Laura Cayouette. ❝A party girl, a sexual object, a weak wife ❞ according to Jane Badler. ❝Hookers with the heart of gold need to be taken out of commission.❞ appeals Jon Mack. ❝The usual references, such as motherhood or prostitution, as if that is all women do, in terms of roles.❞ says Kate Terence. ❝The sassy, less-attractive best friend role has got to go as well.❞ insists Lynnaire Macdonald. Emma Austin-Jones summarizes the issue: ❝The roles offered to women tend not to be diverse. Men are diverse too [but] they have more chances of being offered roles which celebrate that diversity, no matter how old or young they are.❞ If we're honest, we've all seen countless instances of the above examples. But writers: let's stop propagating these banal, humdrum conventions. It's not only a poor representation of women, but it's beneath you as a creative. So how should you fix this problem? How should you go about adding more diversity? The Fab 50 have some suggestions:
Lauren Elyse Buckley wants to see, ❝females roles that aren't simply 'the nagging wife', 'the slutty party girl', 'the bitch' etc.❞ but rather ❝more layers and unpredictable sides to these characters so we can all see ourselves in them rather than just see an overplayed idea of a woman.❞ Kate Terence proposes: ❝think first of the story, then try placing a woman into the main roles. Can she play a doctor? Yes. Doctor Foster. Can she play the leading detective? Yes. Prime Suspect. Can there be more than one female lead? Yes. Kiri.❞ And on a similar tack, Natalie Buse recommends to ❝imagine females in roles that maybe you first wrote for a male, and see if it doesn't work - because you might find yourself delighted.❞ And when it comes to supporting roles, Linda Zollo advocates asking further questions of these characters: ❝What kind of mom is she? What are her needs and wants?❞ This would then elevate them beyond the basic. It's time we start portraying a truer reflection of the world. Add more realism, particularly when it comes to representing women. ❝When I was coming up there were generally two women in every film: the love interest and her friend or adversary.❞ recalls Julie Carmen, star of The Milagro Beanfield War, Gloria & John Carpenter's In The Mouth Of Madness. ❝But let's bring those numbers to 50% of the roles in each film, that's parity with the world population.❞
And not just when it comes to numbers, but the kind of roles too. ❝At the risk of being controversial, not all women are moms or content with being housewives.❞ insists film producer and screenwriter Caroline Spence. ❝There are women out there who do big stuff and achieve big things in the world of science, technology, exploration, armed forces etc.❞ This is true. As Cassandra Ebner suggests: ❝Like a scene that has a group of bodyguards or military people. Why can we not have women in these roles as well? It's truer to what we have today.❞ And The Flash and Arrow daredevil goes on to make a great point: ❝Although this may be in the background, it's subconsciously changing the world's mind of what looks normal. For now, let's write it in so that in meetings people stop arguing that women wouldn't be in these roles. Let's help the argument from starting.❞ As writers, we should be more aware of the power that our craft wields. Film and television play a greater role in society's collective subconscious than we might realise. If we see it, we believe it. So we, as storytellers, have the opportunity to write the future.
This understandably irked a large proportion of the Fab 50 in some form or other. Aware that this is a rather broad term covering a multitude of sins, let's dig deeper into the specifics.
What I discovered was that this stereotypical behaviour often meant showing signs of weakness alluding to some erroneous belief that women are helpless. As Cassandra Ebner asks, ❝Why is it always a woman who needs rescuing after she trips and falls?❞ Marvel's Jessica Jones' Adaku Ononogbo agrees: ❝I loathe when a female character is running away from the 'bad guy' and she trips and falls. That trick is old and outdated.❞
We've all seen it, and I am sure we can all agree it's time we dumped this particular cliché, or at least tweak it. ❝Let's maybe give her a moment where she helps pick someone up and in turn gets stuck somewhere,❞ suggests Cassandra, ❝...it may seem small but it changes the perspective of helpless women.❞
Or if they're not tripping over tree roots, they're being portrayed as weak through other trite actions. As Laura Cayouette explains: ❝In my late 40s and now 50s, almost every role that comes my way says, 'she cries' or 'she sobs'.❞ As a reader of countless screenplays, I can attest to this. I see it far too often. It shouldn't be the first-choice response. As Laura goes on to say: ❝I'm pretty great at spending hours of my work day crying on cue but in my actual life, I cry maybe once every few years. It's rarely my go-to reaction to anything.❞ We should be searching for new, more accurate traits. Laura continues: ❝It would be far more interesting to read scripts where women do more than cry in the face of pain, joy, crisis, loss, confusion, fear, embarrassment, betrayal etc.❞
But the behavioural cliché that brought the most displeasure was how they acted toward or around or because of men. According to Jennifer Durrans, ❝The weakness of needing a man is a top one.❞ Suanne Braun tires of seeing women who ❝are waiting for 'the guy' to come in and save or fix the situation.❞ as Emma Austin-Jones says, with no small amount of sarcasm: ❝because of course only a man can figure out what to do.❞ And she's right. They all are. Writers need to think beyond seeing women as damsels in distress. They don't always need rescuing. They don't always need a man to solve a problem. ❝And that's not to say at times we don't,❞ says Natalie Martins, ❝but give women some credit: we have strength in our independence too.❞
When it came to stereotypes associated with men, it wasn't all about needing to be rescued, however. Some of the Fab 50 rightly pointed out that women shouldn't be collectively pigeon-holed into being the mother or the wife or the lover. ❝Not all women are maternal, not all women are pining for a man, not all women wear dresses and not all women are on heat all the time.❞ says Jennifer Claire. ❝Yes, some are like that... but my God give us other things to do as well, other things to get up in the morning for!❞ Francesca Louise White notices that when it comes to romantic comedies, for instance, women behave in a way that is subservient to the male character. ❝Please stop having it that these women have to give up their ambitions, their dreams, their goals for which they've worked their entire lives to settle down.❞
Writing women as inherently weak is inherently weak writing. Female characters should be drawn in more absorbing, realistic ways. It's time to add to the limited categories of the past and have them do more than behave as lame, anaemic, faint and feeble versions of men as this is perpetuating a falsehood. As Kate Terence says, ❝[our] bodies do not operate with disadvantages, which is how I venture to believe some male writers see them.❞ (although I have witnessed many female writers commit the same clichés to the page) ❝That we're somehow profoundly different than men in a way that would affect our ability to reason, make decisions, fight for what we care about, etc,❞ as Laura Cayouette states, is a ridiculous assumption. ❝Women are not inherently weak or lacking. We are not less cool, less interesting versions of men and we are not unknowable, foreign creatures.❞
MALE PROPS & PLOT DEVICES
This was another often-mentioned cliché associated with female roles. There does seem to be a persistent problem whereby women are used, often blatantly, as nothing more than a mechanism to move the man's story forward.
Now while the principle behind this is sound - as one should always be striving to ensure story progression - it certainly has become a predictable stereotype to use women solely as supports, or as For The Cause director Katherine Nero puts it: ❝where women have no inner life, where their only function is to prop up the male lead.❞ What a waste of character! Lizzie Aaryn Stanton thinks ❝it's because females are still seen as vehicles to tell the male stories❞ and she's not alone. As Hidden star and soon to be seen in season 5 of Line of Duty Sian Reese-Williams states, ❝We're still not totally removed from women being bit players and enablers for the development of the male protagonist.❞
So the obvious way to combat this cliché is to avoid seeing female characters merely as supporting roles. This does seem to be a knee-jerk reaction by many writers. Let's start inverting that lazy instinct and aim for something more inspiring. Consider making your protagonist female.
That said, supporting characters are an essential component to story. They are there to initiate, complicate, help or hinder the lead's efforts and in so doing help us to better understand the main character, however these roles should have more to them than this. They should have more depth, more of a raison d'être as without this, ❝they don't feel real nor like they've been thought about beyond that function,❞ says Francesca Louise White. ❝As though the writer wasn't interested in thinking about that character.❞ Try and give even your supporting characters a clear voice. Make them feel more like a real person rather than just a flat plot device.
OLD = OUT OF SIGHT
The treatment of women over a certain age has for the longest time been a problem within the industry, so it came as no surprise to see this issue covered by the Fab 50. The issue being, as Vanessa Bailey puts it, that ❝Middle aged and older women become invisible.❞
And even when these female characters are permitted to appear from underneath their unwanted cloak of invisibility, it's in predictable and derivative ways, as Vanessa expounds, ❝defunct in purpose other than to be an aggrieved wife, threatened by the presence of a younger woman, or a bitter, ball breaking corporate harridan. We're generally seen as past our best, desperate and cynical. We are no longer partnered with men of the same age, or if we are we have just been through a bitter divorce or we end up throwing ourselves at a younger man.❞
❝That women over 35 are past it, that older women on screen can't be active anymore,❞ as Suanne Braun explains, is a myth. Such stereotypes surrounding older women are old hat. They don't disappear when they hit a certain age; nor should they disappear from our stories. So this preconceived notion that the older woman is unable to provide sufficient dramatic potential to a story needs to be quashed. And it's a fallacy that needs to be tackled from the very start. This means at the script stage. It's time for you writers to mine this rich vein. Don't immediately turn your attention to the young for your leads for the young have not lived the lives of those more advanced in years. The more senior have made more mistakes, have failed and fallen more often, and have more backstory from which to unearth those story-vital character flaws and dramatic needs.
One of the ways we've seen female characters depicted on screen in a bid to show parity is to have women behave physically like men. But this maddened a number of the Fab 50. As Sarah Rose says, ❝Unless the role is something like Hillary Swank's Maggie Fitzgerald in Million Dollar Baby, there's really no reason why they always have to be physically stronger than their male counterparts.❞ ❝Seeing a very thin woman (by Hollywood's standards) fight ten men” annoys actress, dancer and fire-breather Nadia Sohawon who believes, “physical appearance is defo used to build women's characters which is not helpful.❞
There are physical differences between men and women and to ignore them is likely to lead to unrealistic characterisation. As film-maker Kathi Cairey explains, ❝this idea of a strong woman being the same as a man - having the same strengths - is definitely one that has to go.❞ In an attempt to write better female leads, particularly in action genres, many writers think it's sufficient to simply take an action hero and make her an action heroine. While this can work and has worked, it's important to show strength in smarter, more appropriate ways. As Kathi continues, ❝Men and women are different and I like a writer who recognizes those differences and writes to that - someone who sees that women have different strengths and doesn't just create a "strong female character" that's basically a man with a woman's name tacked on.❞
These half-dozen clichés were merely the most talked about among the Fab 50 yet I believe they provide a discerning list of character mistakes we writers should be careful to avoid and aim to subvert in order to create better female characters. What all of these clichés come down to is a lack of attention, of observation. They are results of not seeing women as real. ❝We are all complex creatures with flaws, unique mannerisms, viewpoints, goals, ways of dealing with stress etc.❞ says Caroline Spence. ❝Women experience the full spectrum of emotions and elements of human suffering, just as men do. Women are human and make mistakes, they aren't always pure and virtuous, nor are they 100% evil villain either.❞ says Isabella Tugman. ❝No two women are alike. How each woman responds to a situation or to others is based on her history, culture, background, age, experiences and beliefs.❞ says Katherine Nero.
These are words writers need to have in the forefront of their minds when they write women in order to get women right. It's about creating characters with more range, more subtlety. Isabella sounds the call: ❝I want writers to tune into these nuances within female characters.❞ Lauren Elyse Buckley echoes this: ❝I would like to see more layers and unpredictable sides to these characters so we can all see ourselves in them rather than just see an overplayed idea of a woman.❞ At the end of the day, it's about writing real characters with depth regardless of their gender. Do this and you're likely to avoid cliché. I want to give the last word to former Emmerdale actress Sian Reese-Williams who breaks it down succinctly: ❝The writing of women needs to be approached in exactly the same way that writing for a man would be. Men are generally written just as human beings who possess all sorts of genuine, nuanced traits. That's where we need to aim for with women too. Take the gender and the buzzwords out of it and you create interesting human beings.❞
Next time: In part III of my CREATING BETTER FEMALE CHARACTERS series the Fab 50 and I will be looking at the key differences between male and female lead roles.