“Women and men alike, regularly fail the Bechdel Test in real life… just sit and listen to them in any common setting: the supper market, college hallways, the park, Church, while walking the dog, jury duty, etc.”
That was just a snippet of a humorous and facetious conversation I had with one of my coworkers recently. I know creators are all about representation in stories more than ever these days, especially women, but listening to some college-aged women walk by us innocently talking about how cute some guy was or how dreamy his blue eyes were, made me feel I could laugh a little, provided some perspective, and then my thoughts were directed toward something else in the writing world…
Hey, Josiah here, the JO in JoMarkCreative and before I begin, I’d like to give a shout out to my mom, JoMarkCreative’s BIGGEST FAN, who had a birthday this past weekend. I credit her with my love of reading and writing and showing me what real strength looks like. Mom I thank you!
I love you, Mom!
And now onto today’s topic. It is writing related and geared toward women. It’s something my dad and I and other writing friends have talked about and I thought it would be cool to share here. Please note that I am speaking for myself in this article and not for my dad or JoMarkCreative.
The title of today’s article plays on the popular phrase “strong female characters” and stems from a piece written by Sophia McDougall entitled, I Hate Strong Female Characters. I’m not going to post any excerpts here but I do want to share the effect her piece had on me and how it helped strengthen my feelings on the topic.
In short, Ms. McDougall helped me realize that nowadays (though its steadily shifting for the better) the word “strong” as it precedes “female characters” is a literal term solely focusing on feats of strength and physical prowess, and might include a little bit of no-nonsense attitude or something along those lines in terms of her personality. In her article, McDougall does an excellent job of explaining at length how strength is not just physicality nor is it determined by lack of any kind of submission. I think her article was saying that “strong” is a literary term having more to do with how sound a female hero’s character is by actually having that: character.
A character can be physically weak but very compelling and interesting on the page or onscreen. What motivates her to act the way she does can invite us into a world we might not have ever known before if not for how she sees it and moves within in. By that same notion, she can be a goddess but flat, one dimensional and lack any semblance of an inner life. I don’t see it as her being a composite of deep, dark deviant high concept ideas in one that keeps the reader up all hours of the night trying to figure her out; no, there’s no need for that much pressure. But she – any character really – needs to be strong from an objective point of view on how they move throughout any given story. We should be able to imagine what it would be like to know them in real life for their attitudes as well as their physical abilities and they should stand the test of intrigue and investment from the reader’s standpoint.
I thought McDougall’s comparisons to great thinkers in fiction was a great way to convey the point and more accurately define a character’s strength when writing a story. Sherlock Holmes is spot on, he’s not a fighter, he’s a genius, yet we love to read about him. It wasn’t until Guy Ritchie made the new films that we even imagined an action-packed Sherlock Holmes adventure, at least of that magnitude to be fair.
I think another one like Dr. Who is appropriate and I’m not even a Whovian. For the most part in my limited exposure to the character, Dr. Who isn’t a very physical hero (depending on the version I suppose) in general. Yet people, especially girls, can’t get enough of him. Why is that?
I think it’s because he’s a smart, sensitive and moral figure to watch fly through the galaxy. He’s a hero because of his desire to help people and that makes him strong first and foremost. If he sports cool gadgets or gets special powers every now and again, that’s fine too, but his powers and physicality don’t define him, his principles do, dare I say his soul defines him and his compelling connection to people.
Don’t get me wrong I love special abilities and physicality (despite my thin frame), but I think if female characters continue on this excessive bombastic path a lot of people are gonna lose out creatively and even money. Sure we tell stories to inspire and connect with people, but we do it for money too, and what better way to turn a profit than by creative rich characters whose choices are understandable?
Three female characters I’ve recently learned about are Kate Macer from the new movie Sicario, and Gemma and Agent Stahl of Sons of Anarchy fame.
I can’t say too much about Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) since the movie just came out, but what I will say is I saw a character who is very much in touch with her feelings, but has trained enough mentally and physically to become a fine FBI agent. And its that mental fortitude that comes under fire when she is recruited by Benicio del Toro and Josh Brolin to hit the drug cartels in a way that may not be by the book; yet it gets results. She conflicted because she shows she wants to get the bad guys but she isn’t sure if the cost is worth it. There’s much to her than a gun and stunner sunglasses. She’s a woman that wants to be the “good guy” but isn’t sure what that means anymore.
And then there’s Gemma Teller Morrow and Agent June Stahl, two women on opposite sides of the law in the FX show Sons of Anarchy, yet I think they are two side of the same coin ruthless coin; the difference is in what motivates they respective ruthless tendencies (at the time of writing this I’m only up to season 4 on Netflix). Both are aren’t afraid to get bloody either!
Agent June Stahl
I think Gemma, the biker gang matriarch, is motivated by genuine, albeit, twisted love for family, whereas Agent Stahl is motivated by power and greed. Yet both women, as tough as they are, show emotional depths I wasn’t ready for. Stahl is cunning and two-faced but can be clearly effected by the carnage she creates, no matter momentary the effects may be. There’s even something a little sad about Stahl, behind the eyes. I hate her character, but love her at the same time because she conveys so well what she wants and her decisions make perfect sense, adding layer upon layer to her life on the show and impacting the series in a positive way.
And as for Gemma, only time will tell how far she will go to keep certain secrets hidden. Right now I do believe she loves her family and Jax, but I think she is still dead set on her way or the highway, which is what makes her so interesting to watch because her secrets are horrible and I sometimes wonder if Jax’s continued ignorance is for the better. Again, both SOA women show strength of character from a written standpoint as they strive to more fully define what their character on a moral stage, really means for both of them.
Gemma Teller Morrow
Here’s a final example. I’m a huge fan of the cinematic online movement known as Black&SexyTV. In fact they recently struck a deal with BET to air episodes from 3 of their online webseries’ weekly and I couldn’t be happier for them. One of my favorite shows from them (and included in the BET lineup) is a show called Hello Cupid, about two best friends, Whitney and Robin who switch dating profile pictures, and shenanigans ensue from there. The swap is in response to the stigma of colorism among people of color where skin (light versus dark) tone determines how valuable a person is or feels in society, especially where money and romance are involved. In the show, Whitney is dark skinned, mildly preppy, with a conservative personality and believes there is a certain order to things. This sometimes drives the light skinned, spunky, loud and more outgoing Robin up the wall, but they’re friends so its not a big problem… until the swap.
Without spoiling the show, Whitney (played by the amazing Ashley Blaine Featherson) reveals more and more of domineering and manipulative side, especially after she meets ProudDad on the dating site. The problem is that since they’ve yet to meet, he sees Robin’s profile picture but gets to know the real Whitney, who is too afraid at this point to switch back to her own authentic picture. I think over the course of the show I came to realize that Whitney’s bossiness, her manipulative tendencies and explosive anger are signs of serious insecurity.
And I love that about the character! Whitney makes consistent choices all in the name of hiding the truth from ProudDad. Even though these qualities aren’t appealing in any way, it brings fans back for more to see how long Whitney can keep up the ruse and if her friendships will last. The irony is that the desire to be loved for who she is started this whole mess and I think she looses sight of that. But I think Whitney is one of the strongest characters, male or female, that I have ever had the chance to read/watch in a long, long time and she has become one of my favorites (along with Ripley, Trinity and Imperator Furiosa) female characters. She is compelling (Robin too, as her opposite), and we can all relate to bouts with insecurity, wanting to be desired, and questions of our worth. Even negative traits can make a character interesting and strong on a literary scale. And after this past season, dare I say it, as a well fleshed out and consistently compelling character, Whitney is on Heisenberg levels – real talk.
Like I said, I’ve had a lot of conversations with people about this topic and until recently I didn’t realize I was so passionate about the topic. Maybe its because I’m an introvert and not very physical myself that I care so much about the internal representations of characters. People have complained that a lot of male characters, for all of their strength and super powers, are flat and boring, but in this world, men are at the top so it doesn’t matter; with enough CGI and explosions, these poorly written characters will continue to populate our stories.
I’m blessed to have had the chance to write screenplays and publish a novel flexing my muscles to create compelling female characters. I look forward to hearing feedback about Jasmine, Diane Spencer and Camille and Dorothy LaShea, the leading ladies of Noteworthy Tribute. And I hope to get better at showing the various strengths native to female characters, both physical and mental.
Lastly, check out Sophia McDougall’s article and the Black&SexyTV shows, you might like what you see.
Keep creating, the story must be told!
(All photos taken from Google Images.)