If we want to write a good female character, we have to take a script written for a male lead and gender-flip it. There will be no tediousness and hidden condescension and it will blow minds – even with a mediocre story.
To write a good female character the writers must forget their gender biases entirely. But that’s a difficult thing to pull off and it can’t be fixed by just hiring a female writer.
It is commendable that production companies are trying to write more female characters. Characters who take action despite being female. Characters that are not just decorations, love interests or murder victims serving as motivation for revenge (by the real people). Characters who win on their own and don’t get married in the end (instead of a happy ending).
But that doesn’t mean that there will be multitude of female characters any time soon who are portrayed as full-value humans. Most of them are just good-despite-being-female and that is just as condescending as the old tropes from which they are trying to break free.
Not to mention that they are not worth watching. It is not empowering.
And most importantly, cinema still owes us to show an alternative world where sexism doesn’t exist. That is the one we need to see – and that is what cinema could really do for the cause. So we can see it with our own eyeballs that it is possible, what it looks like. So we can start to emulate it.
Writers of Strong Female Characters feel obliged to take pains to express how she does things despite being female – they simply can’t treat them as humans beings. Even the female writers. Especially The Female Writers who have been picked for their femaleness to write String Female Characters, etc. We have all seen what happens.
Just think about the intentionally Strong Female Character of Harley Quinn in the catastrophically bad DC movie Suicide Squad (2016) versus in her own “empowerment” spinoff, Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn (2020) – also tragic in its own way.
The character was so good in Suicide Squad that it earned its own spinoff, thanks to the actor, but also the way she was written. She was fearsome and dangerous because she was fearless and crazy. She was literally murdering invading aliens with a baseball bat.
In her own spinoff Birds of Prey, on the other hand, she was less than enviable. In the movie that expressly wished to tell the story of her emancipation after a breakup with the boyfriend, she couldn’t pull a single punchy-punchy without falling on her ass and giggling. Many, many times. Her superhero skills were dumb luck and knowing how to ask for help, and her craziness was a female trait, not a source of strength. It was the she-must-be-on-her-period kind of craziness. It was condescending crazy. Harley Quinn’s big female emancipation movie was a disappointment and a lengthy message that shouts: women are weak and exposed, but.
No one wants to be her.
And no, fight scenes are not about realism. Not in superhero movies, not even in realistic ones. Men’s physical strength in movies is routinely overstated. Protagonists don’t break a hand when punching someone, they often knock people out, they survive hits that would realistically kill them, and when they throw a punch, they don’t fall on their pretty asses. That is not realistic either, but we have seen it millions of times and we are used to seeing that.
No one can murder invading aliens with a baseball bat. Not even men. But it is fiction, its job is not to be realistic. So when women are be portrayed as weaker than – even in the most unrealistic of superhero movies – what purpose does that serve? To make us think less of their characters? To make sure we don’t identify with them because they are painfully helpless, even in the most imaginary of situations? Who wants to feel helpless in the cinema for her money?
And there’s the issue with the illustrations of everyday sexism in cinema. Anti-sexism efforts in cinema are often just scolding for our sexism. The writers want to show us what we do, with the supposed purpose of making us not do it. Or proving that we did it. Or I really don’t know what because as we will see, these scoldings don’t serve any progressive purpose at all.
Female writers, especially if they are hired to be The Female Writer, may put a quick demonstration of everyday sexism in their female-led script. (Hopefully just one.) They rub it in and scold us just so we know how nasty we are when we are doing it. Not only does it alienate those who are being scolded, it will result in more sexism on screen, not less.
I have always marveled how things go from being said seriously to being sad “ironically” – but they never get to the point where they are not said at all. Take sexism, for instance. Women are rightly annoyed when men do their usual testing of the waters and keep telling sexist things – only to announce that they were just saying them ironically when they are called out. It is just a joke, woman, can’t you take a joke?
The net result is that sexism is being expressed, again, just with an excuse instead of assured entitlement.
The same happens when we keep putting sexism (racism, etc.) into cinema in 2021 – but with an educational purpose. To show people how nasty it is. Or at least we think that’s what they see. I guarantee you that those who are actually sexist or racist will just enjoy those scenes and get a kick from watching them. Far from learning what they already know (they know it hurts the victims – that’s why they are doing it) they will probably masturbate on that scene that night.
There are literally thousands of movies that display sexism. Almost the entire catalog of cinema. Why is that not enough? Why do they keep filming sexism – but anti-sexist sexism this time? Just go and watch any existing movie. Why do they keep wasting good screen time on showing more of it? Ironically.
Anti-sexist scolding is thus misguided and backfires, putting more sexism on screen and perpetuating it – even when we have a chance to eradicate it from popular culture for good. Having to watch even more cringe worthy sexist scenes in cinema, after experiencing it in real life, having to watch female characters being challenged for being female, even in our leisure time, just reinforces those problems.
If even female writers’ imagination comes short of imagining what a non-sexist world would look like how are we ever to get there? Angry scolding for our sexism can not fill the void of imagining an alternative world – and showing it often and frequently.
The good news is that there is a solution.
Take a good script with a male lead and gender flip it.
Sometimes what is not there is the most poignant.
There will be no weak punchy-punchy that backfires on her. There will be no clever girl trope where the female can’t solve a problem but at least she knows how to ask for help. No one would write that about a man and think it is empowering or flattering.
There will be no illustrations of everyday sexism that sexist pricks can wank on. There will be no hints that supporting characters are surprised by the protagonist’s actions because she is female. No one writes that into men’s stories.
A male lead is the hero of his own story and what he does is henceforth believed and taken for granted. He doesn’t triumph despite his essence.
If we want to be as good to female characters as we are to male ones, start by gender-flipping scripts that were written for men, and see what the same treatment would really look like.
A good example is Marvel’s Captain Marvel (2019). Written for a male hero originally, the script lacks condescension for the female character, even when she is still weak and learning. There is a loud and deafening silence where the obligatory reflection on her femaleness should be and in the ends she gets the actual superpower, she isn’t just rescued by an even more heroic male superhero. She doesn’t even have a male love interest to validate her and confirm that she is still approved, despite triumphing (a move that often takes the edge off of string female characters).
Sometimes what is not there is the biggest lesson.
And producers should not worry. Female characters retain their pornographic value no matter what (and what else would sell them, right?) Both Harley Quinn and Captain Marvel are among the top 5 most sought content on PornHub.