I’ve been having a lazy weekend, scrolling through streaming options, and there’s a pattern I keep noticing in the things I start and then stop. At the same time, I watched Bang Bang and Duplicate, and there was a pattern with those that I liked and kept me going. Anyway, made me think about female characters and stuff.
Gender is a construct, but it is a construct which is so deeply embedded in our personality that it becomes the first thing we know about ourselves, and the first thing we see in others. It is also a power dynamic, male gender is on top and female gender is on bottom. Men are just better.
The male gender means logic, action, control, power. The female gender means emotion, passivity, following, powerlessness. The biggest difference I notice again and again is offense versus defense. The male gender style is to go on the attack, to focus on the enemy. The female gender is to focus on the victim.
Once again, construct! When I say “male means this” and “female means this”, I am defining the way that society sees the genders. Which is also how we ourselves see ourselves. As a man, you are taught to avoid revealing emotions, to try to grab control, to value people who Do things. As a woman, you are taught to think about others and put them first, to pay attention to your emotions and the emotions of others. And those are also the virtues you admire in others.
The funny thing is, women are taught to think about others including men. But men are not taught to think about others, including women. So when a woman sits down to write about women, she knows the behavior and values they have been taught, the way they have been trained to think and act. And she also has usually observed the way men think and act too, and can understand that. I far prefer to read books written by women, and watch movies and shows written by them as well, for this reason. They aren’t all great of course, and among the flaws is a lack of understanding for male characters present in some work. But I find it far more common with female authors to be able to write well for characters trained in both genders. Or alternatively, understand their weakness and simply not include male characters.
To understand what I mean, you can look at Zoya Akhtar and Reema Kagti who write magnificent male and female characters in every film. Or you can look at Gauri Shinde who I think might struggle a bit with the internal life of men, but it doesn’t matter since her films are wonderful stories of women with women, and she leaves the men to be slightly removed and mysterious, as they are to the women in their lives.
But then there are men writing for women. Sigh. Seems there there are four options in that case. 1. The women are almost completely ignored, female characters given one or two lines at most. 2. The women are treated as secondary characters, love interests without the same motivations and full fledged personality as the men. 3. The women are written as perfect saintly fantasies of what women are without flaws. 4. The women are made into lead characters but written as men, not women.
There’s the 5th option of course, that men write female characters who are complicated full fledged characters, and accurately reflect the gender dynamics under which women are raised. But we all know how rare that is. Especially compared to women who can write men.
What I was noticing this week as I compared the shows I didn’t like with the movies I enjoyed was how much much MUCH better option 2 (women as secondary characters) is than option 3 (women written as men) or option 4.
In Duplicate and Bang Bang, the female characters are very silly supports in a very silly action movie. They exist to fall in love and be kidnapped and other silly things. But they care about other people’s feelings, will listen to other people and change their minds, and aren’t afraid to express emotions. And then I watch something like the Moffat-Gattiss Dracula (just added to Netflix, it’s Halloween, I thought “why not”) and there is a nice strong female lead, only she isn’t really a female lead, she is just a male lead in skirts. She is all about logic over emotion, being strong by not caring about others, being focused on attacking evil instead of protecting innocence. BLECH. And then I think about goshdarn Bandini and Nutan who is so driven by love and sacrifice that she doesn’t seem capable of joy in anything else.
I think for me, although it is close, my least favorite kind of bad female character is option 3, the one who is really just a male character written as a woman. The one who is “just one of the lads”, who has casual sex and makes mean jokes and forces her way into leadership roles. Because that’s not a female character. It’s not a realistic way a woman raised in a gendered society would behave (at least not without also struggling with feelings of guilt an abnormality), and it’s also not a character for women in the audience. Not for people who were raised to value caring for others, emotional intelligence, sitting back and watching a situation instead of controlling it, all kinds of things. Those are my values, not just because I am a woman, but because they fit with the values of my family, with my own in born way of seeing the world. So when I am told that this is a “good” female character, a “real” female character that I should envy, because she is selfish and puts her needs first, and ignores her emotions and care for others, I resent it. Because I think I am a strong person, and a good person, and I’m not like that at all. I think my values, which are “female” values, are perfectly okay to have. And I don’t like a man coming in and saying the only way a woman can be the lead in their art is if she turns into a “man”.
Here’s the interesting bit! Everything I said before is more or less common critical theory, male versus female values, women being written as men, and so on. But what I realized as I was writing it out, is that I could think of plenty of Hindi film examples for movies where the women were women-y and love interests. And I could think of a surprising number of movies where the women were the main characters, and were clearly drawn with all the pressures of their existence specific to them, but I couldn’t think of a single film where the women were written as men. The “female” values and behaviors and all the rest, those aren’t rejected in Hindi film, for whatever reason. That’s nice. We still have horrible option 4, the Saintly Woman, the impossible ideal (thanks Bhansali!), but at least we have escaped option 3, the “down deep women are just men” argument.
Okay, that’s all I’ve got! Do you understand what I am saying? Which of the badly written female character types is your least favorite? Which are your most hated examples of them? What else do you think?