Thinky Post: How Irritating is It When Men Write Women as Men?

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.

Mardaani,' a Policer About Child Trafficking in India - The New York Times
This is why Mardaani works, Rani is 100% focused on saving the girls, everything else comes second

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.

It makes this movie stronger that the men are a bit mysterious. They are there in the film, it isn’t an all female world, but the gap between husband and wife, or new male friend and old friend, it’s just there. This is a woman’s world and the men are just guests.

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.

Kat is a shallow love driven character here, but she is also charming and lovely and feels different from the hero, not just a male version of the hero.

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?

23 thoughts on “Thinky Post: How Irritating is It When Men Write Women as Men?

  1. Hm, I disagree – I much prefer, generally, to have no4 (?) women written as men, who at least get to DO stuff, rather than the heavily-gendered Penelope Pitstop characters who apply lipstick and provide pretexts for (male) action by going “hey-lup!!” all over the place. Not that I don’t value the traditionally female-gendered strengths, but I do think that we have been pushed again and again towards that end of the spectrum, and that the line is more heavily policed than we are aware of until we ‘transgress’. I do love to see a woman kick arse, whether physically or otherwise. And not give a damn, occasionally.
    We are still waiting for the non-gendered womanist roles… Bagdad cafe just came to mind..hmm. Can’t think of Indian film possibles as am total newbie. Also brain fogged with long-tail covid tra-la. Must look out Gatiss Dracula At Once.

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    • If you like the sort of “male” end of the spectrum female character, Dracula is definitely for you! Now that I think about it, I also don’t like men characters who are totally “male”. I need some sense of emotional awareness and caring from my characters in general, but I resent it more in female characters since it feels even more so with them, like someone is trying to make a point.

      I guess I just don’t like it when a character feels like they are being pushed either way. I don’t want to have to be totally perfectly self-sacrificingly “female” to be an ideal, or totally uncaring logical selfish “male” either. But yes, personal preference, the “male” side bothers me more.

      On Sun, Oct 11, 2020 at 3:14 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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    • Oh, and you should check out Kahaani, Mardaani, No One Killed Jessica, Akira, and Veere Di Wedding for female characters who don’t fit in the perfect angelic “female” characteristics. It’s still India, so they are still going to have long hair and wear saris sometimes, but they can also drink and have sex and cool stuff like that.

      On Sun, Oct 11, 2020 at 3:14 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      • Sounds great, bless you for taking the touble to point me in the right direction. I also love it when people or film characters are not pushed into moulds, even better when they appear to fit neatly into a stereotype and then effortlessly and unfussily step right outside it. Men or women.

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  2. Yea, Moffat has a problem in writing women in general. See the video below, it’s very long but explains it better than I ever could. It’s about Doctor Who but covers his TV works thoroughly.

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  3. For me, it depends on genre. I like fantasy, adventure, a swashbuckling, “cool” hero sometimes. And if that hero then gets a female face, I do appreciate that, without needing her to become more introspective at the same time. But often the fictional world around that is not one that would really produce such a heroine, so when I start to think about it, that does feel even more unrealistic than all fantasy does by design.

    I noticed only when reading A Song of Ice and Fire, that an alternative is even possible, even within the fantasy genre. It does have a tomboy among the point of view characters, and a cool female captain from a culture of warriors, but it also gets the reader into the head of the wife and mother and of the stupid shallow teenage girl who becomes the princess in the tower – but with her own dilemmas and insights and character growth.

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    • See, fantasy is the genre where I most hate male authors! They seem to have this need to explain women, to build into their whole elaborate world a backstory for why this female character is like this or that. But notice, they don’t do that with the male characters. The men are just “men”. The women are raised in a warrior society, or magical priestesses, or so on and so on. Not talking about Song of Fire and Ice, because I haven’t read those, but in general when I try fantasy written by men, that is what bothers me.

      On Mon, Oct 12, 2020 at 6:29 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      • ASOIAF gives a lot of background to all its point of view characters. They all have reasons for being the way they are. The men are definitely raised in a warrior culture, too. ;-p

        But anyways. I hate the enduring saintly woman because I think she’s a bad role model. But I dislike options 1 and 2 a lot more than the “male” female lead. Maybe that’s because I lack a strong grounding in gender theory. But I like having a woman in the lead, period. And I wouldn’t even read that kind of character as “male”. To me, that’s just “cool”. And I don’t know about you, but cool is hot. (At least in fiction. I love the over-processing me and my wife do.) I allowed Sister Agatha to distract me during work today because she’s so amazing. In an ideal world, I guess we’d also have her counterpart Johnny Blue Eyes who defeats Dracula by the power of his emotional awareness and quiet endurance. And the respective gender switches. Why does either of those modi have to be limited to one gender? Or do you think the “male” way is inherently worse?

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  4. When I think about number 4: woman written as men, the first thing that comes to my mind is kannada movie D/O Parvathamma. It’s about a girl who is a cop, and I’m sure the movie was first written with male lead , but maybe they decided there are plenty of such movies and changed the sex of the protagonist but without changing a scene in the script. I enjoyed the movie a lot because the girl has all the mass hero scenes like: slow motion entry, bike ride, fight scenes etc . She also falls in love with gentle man who wears pink t-shirt and is a confectioner 🙂 It was fun. Definitely much better than watching another saintly female character I hate so much.

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  5. Have you watched any Vijayashanti movies where she plays a cop and is the lead actor? Those movies have her play some one who is tough, is on the offense but also has an emotional side. Malashri in Kannada played similar characters. Both their movies mostly had male directors. After reading your post I am thinking if the emotional part is just an addon or intentional.

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    • I have not watched any of those movies. But it is an interesting question, did they write the character and the emotional element came in naturally? Or did they write a “male” character and then force on an emotional element to make her “female”?

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  6. 1.I won’t mind,but maybe not enjoy.That doesn’t make the film bad though.
    2.Now I want to speak to the manager.NO!Either use template 1,or take a Govinda film sidekick to serve the story.
    3.Meh.Can I just say,Bhansali’s men manage to be even more stupid than his heroines.Cutting their finger in love.Thinking about their love on the battlefield.Hallucinating in love while dying(Is this allegory for drugs?Oh Bhansali,you are so subtle in your metaphors).I mean,you are risking thousands of other women in your stupidity and not concentrating on war.
    4.This is the worst,in my opinion.It is almost saying “men are better,strong characters can only be masculine” and “women behave like men if they want to move ahead,otherwise stay in the kitchen.”It encourages that toxic masculinity.Imagine if Rani was devoid of compassion and more like Singham.Or Kahaani had a film noir like character.The toxic masculinity that pervades the screen in a glorified form is infact extremely detrimental to self esteem of people,men and women.Especially when we refer to modern theories about psychology of gender,and gender as a harmful social construct.We don’t need more representation of characters displaying saviour complex masculinity,but relatable human characters unashamedly accepting their softer side.Otherwise their won’t be a Mardaani,just a low budget Terminator.In this aspect Andhadhun excelled with Tabu’s character.Her being a woman drives the plot to some extent,but her character is what is so riveting.Even Ayushmann was on the same page as her,so there was no “hero defeating a vamp”but two interesting complex characters one upping each other while being comfortable in their own skin.Template 4.is a feminist Mary Sue,almost as bad as template3.Saintly Mary Sue.
    5.Mogambo Khush Hua!
    By the way,Bandini is actually supposed to be from the jailor’s perspective.The story it is based was a novel ‘Tamasi’ by Jarasandha,who was a real life Jail Superintendent and wrote about some weird women he had met.Nutan is actually supposed to be crazy and not relatable.Her appearance almost makes her blend in the background,as she has started to lose the sense to even present herself.She doesn’t get any monologues to make her further removed from the audience,and this also happened in Tamasi.Instead she gets sudden outbursts.By outbursts,I mean unstable release of emotions.It is emphasised that she has reduced herself to a shell and feels only those intense moments.She instead gets a number of tight closeups,a rarity in those days,to highlight that disturbing quality in her quicksilver countenance.The novel was supposed to be a biting take that to men who actually envision women as template 3.and scream in their face-“you wanted women to be this epitome of perfection and dedicated to one goal in life,then look at this hollow masochistic crazy shell you created”.She is a softer Frankenstein,with twisted logic of the morals that the world taught her.Even the poisoning scene doesn’t follow the pattern of innocence,corruption,repentance.Instead the close ups keep that disturbing quality alive.She doesn’t repent when Ashok’s wife dies,instead when people scream on seeing the dead body she is startled like a person with weird social skills.The lightning on her is very weird,and not at all how “devis” were presented in that era(she is lit like Chhoti Bahu,with disturbing shadows on her face,not like the moonlit beauty of Paro in 1955 Devdas who fits more in line with a deitified woman).More like pushing her in the background with a PSA of “don’t be like her”.The final song makes it very clear that she has crossed the line of no return and it is almost like “na jao saiyan”from SBAG which signified Chhoti Bahu’s masochistic downward spiral.Infact the movie through the twisted lyrics of its songs makes it more clear that she doesn’t even love Dharmendra,she has convinced herself of the delusion that she is in love,and not in right state of mind.Lyrics by Gulzar generally work to convey what the movies avoid to be subtle but serve the message.I think the fact that the movie is so open ended and doesn’t show an outright tragedy,is confusing.But maybe the jailer wouldn’t know what came of his weird prisoner after she left the jail.The novel was more detailed on her craziness aspect(Nutan does capture that something not being quite right).However the subtitles in the version I saw were particularly bad(I know Hindi,but like to see how weird it is to watch with subtitles).Which version did you see?

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    • Yes! Option 4 is insulting, saying that “strong” and desirable character traits are always “male” character traits. Being logical, being aggressive, enjoying destructive behaviors without a reason behind them, using people. BAD!!! It works both ways as well, when you show a male character having casual sex by lying to women, it is all “good for him, so cool”. When a female character has similar behavior, it is usually built up as “she is broken inside because blah blah”. But, like, the male character is broken too! Deepika in Cocktail is a more accurate depiction of a person than, say, Ranbir in Bachne Ae Haseeno.

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  7. `
    I think of it as a power / less-power “awareness” dynamic –

    So, poor know about poor and rich while rich only know about rich.

    Rural know about rural and urban while urban only know about urban.

    Canadians know about Canada and the U.S. while U.S. only knows about U.S.

    Women know about men and women while men only know about men.

    Nurses know about nurses and doctors while doctors only know about doctors.

    etc., etc.

    Of course, this is a gross generalization. But it helps remind me how ignorant the “more-powerful” group can be.

    ——-

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  8. Some times it works a lot better when a character written for a man is played by a woman. I think I read your review of Aakira where Sonakshi played the lead (in the South version, it was played by a man). It was an amazing case study how making the character female added something extra. Some Jodie Foster roles seem like they were written for men (The Brave one or Elysium). Or look at Rekha in ‘Khailadiyon ka Khiladi’, a male villain would be generic (and comical/spoofish), but Rekha brought her glamour and sex appeal, much better and fun.

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    • I agree. And I think that is different from women being written as men. If it is a female character, sometimes it feels like the writers make her even MORE male than if it was a male character to start. A male hero can have tenderness for a child, and moments of doubt, and things. But a woman-written-like-a-man isn’t allowed those luxuries. Does that make sense?

      Also, you should watch Akira if you haven’t seen it yet! SO GOOD! Oh, and I haven’t seen the original, but my understanding is that the original hero was one of those male-characters-with-female-touches from the beginning? Cared about others, felt things deeply, and so on?

      On Tue, Oct 13, 2020 at 5:08 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      • You know I watched Akira after reading your review and loooovvvveeeed it (never seen the south version either). I have to add, I just love reading your reviews and your 101s (Kapoor family history is my fav and so is the stages of Hindi actresses’ career one). This is literally my favorite bollywood (dontcallitbollywood) site. You should check out ‘scroll.in/reel/’ and ‘filmcompanion.in’ They will be totally up your alley. very educated reviews and articles and analysis on Indian cinema.

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        • Thank you, I am so glad you like my site! And I’m flattered you put me in the same class as those other two (although I have my issues with Filmcampanion, Rahul Desai is my Nemesis).

          And I am really really glad you liked Akira!!!!! It is such a good movie, more people should watch it.

          On Tue, Oct 13, 2020 at 7:07 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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