A prostitute in a library or a pregnant woman with an AK47: What exactly are ‘good’ female characters?

“Something must be done,” people on stage are saying to people in the audience who are saying it back to them. I’m at a post-show discussion. It follows twelve short plays aiming to depict women in new and interesting ways. The evening’s been organised by Equal Writes as a response to recent research showing that there are twice as many roles for men as women in theatre. Things aren’t any better in film and TV with statistics by the BBC and Cultural Diversity Network highlighting that men also outnumber women 2:1 on screen.

Despite this, lots of people want more and better characters for women. In February, I wrote a blog trying to encourage some into the BBC Script Room. But what exactly does a ‘good’ female character mean? Is she someone who breaks down the barriers of a patriarchal society using only a rolled up copy of the Guardian? Is she the familiar wife, daughter or girlfriend but with better dialogue? Or perhaps she’s so different to everything we’ve seen before that we’d struggle to recognise her?

The majority of the plays at the Equal Writes evening, selected from hundreds of entries, do three things.

• They show women in a believable way.
• They undermine how women are sometimes seen by others.
• They’re funny.

Some are naturalistic, some are stylised or satirical. Walkie Talkies, by Kaite O’Reilly, is a disabled woman’s critique of life in a super caring care home. Andrew Curtis’s Flags shows two older women from different backgrounds arm wrestling over their heritage. Sarah Rutherford’s La Barbe is a surrealist comedy about office culture. Paul Macauley’s Piece of Cake is a family drama that ridicules the advertising industry.

The twelve scripts contain lots of original ideas but also some familiar ones: for instance, older women needing to be looked after, women fighting over men, and mother and daughter relationships. The difficultly in creating a completely original female character is that she also has to be identifiable – someone we can recognise. And what we recognise is partly informed by film and TV – places where female characters can be shown in limited ways.

So what can writers do to avoid regurgitating the same types of women, while still giving audiences something they can identify with and understand?

A way Hollywood tries to get around this is to turn female characters into men. Action films are full of literally ‘strong’ women, just as capable as blokes, with durable clothing and an AK47 to prove it. Famously Ripley from the Alien films was written as a man. Recently, The Killing’s Sophie Gråbøl said she played Detective Inspector Sarah Lund as if she was male (see here). Both are generally seen as examples of good female characters. However, getting rid of a female characters’ sexuality in order to make her less female and, presumably, less rubbish seems a rather convoluted and, in some ways, destructive way of making her ‘good’.

Another popular technique is to place female characters in traditionally male-orientated genres, as with Thelma and Louise. In some ways the audience knows what to expect (a road trip) and in some ways they don’t (female protagonists). More recently, Bridesmaids fused elements of the ‘gross-out’ film – a genre normally populated by teenage boys or men pretending to be them – with a female-driven romantic comedy. In both instances, the characters aren’t so outlandish it’s impossible to relate to them, but they aren’t completely familiar either.

Cartoonist Alison Bechdel created The Bechdel Test, which can be used to test how well women are portrayed in any kind of comedy or drama. For your script to pass, all you need to do is answer the following questions with “yes”:

• Are there two or more women who have names?
• Do they talk to each other?
• Do they talk to each other about something other than men?

How did you get on?

Good characters, both male and female, also have flaws. One of the dullest kinds of female supporting roles is the voice-of-reason, trying to rein in the behaviour of maverick larger-than-life men (see my recent review of The Incredible Burt Wonderstone). Sometimes a better female character means one who’s worse. Miranda isn’t popular because she’s perfect. Neither are Patsy and Edina, from Absolutely Fabulous – one of the few series where female characters significantly outnumber male ones. Equity’s Joan Blackham, who has been compiling informal statistics on the number of women in TV shows, also highlights Call the Midwife and Prisoners’ Wives as examples of good dramas where there is a fairly equal ratio of male to female characters.

Back at Equal Writes, lots of impassioned people are talking about something called ‘gender parity’. Paul Macauley, the writer of Piece of Cake, later admits on his blog that he hasn’t a clue what this means. I doubt he’s alone. It’s true, something does need to be done, but you can only achieve so much in a post-show discussion, however enthusiastically you wave you hand in the air and lovingly construct questions about things like ‘discourse’. The real power lies with those who write and produce enjoyable scripts.

Written for BBC Writersroom

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3 thoughts on “A prostitute in a library or a pregnant woman with an AK47: What exactly are ‘good’ female characters?

  1. mike April 11, 2013 at 1:51 pm Reply

    And your mission continues…

    I thought of your previous blog on the subject when I was reading this weekend’s Volkskrant. (I live in Amsterdam.) There was an interview with Sidse Babbett Knudsen who was in Brussels and she was asked her thoughts on Birgitte Nyborg as a role model for women.

    Her answer was that different countries had different reactions to her. The French were really busy with the Woman In Power thing whereas the Dutch and the Belgians enjoyed her as a deal-maker who agonised over moral issues. Americans liked the work vs. family life stuff and, on a recent visit to Scotland, the actress was struck by how surprised people were at a show where they sympathised with a politician. The fact that she was a woman was a sort of extra.

  2. Elizabeth April 13, 2013 at 4:55 am Reply

    I completely agree. I left a comment in the writers room but I am just glad to hear this. I have grown so tired of watching the world through ‘men’s eyes’. I hope recent calls for scripts brings more women into the fold. Though perhaps not the 15-20% who are disabled in ways which often mean having to follow the body rather than the deadline or the 15%-20% who are working the jobs trying to survive. I once worked five jobs at the same time, and three were full time (a cinema job from 5pm Friday to 4 am monday morning was 35 hours). It is an odd life, ‘If it is Tuesday it must mean I’m teaching at uni before working for Sainsbury’s’, but not the most uncommon one. And for real drama, how about the university system, which the Higher Education study concluded would remain patriarcial entrenched for at least another 100 years. The one woman who made it up past professor at our uni ended up spending 75% of the time on hiring panels in order to ‘ensure gender equality in hiring’ – when I graduated, there were 16 heads on the platform to shake my hand, and all men. My partner would be the one to give all the interesting stories about titular heads who were alcoholic and the department was run by the women while his door remained locked as he drank or was hung over. At the end of the year, he was promoted for his effective management. To me, drama for women everywhere, it is what they deal with to survive. It is too bad they are too busy to write it into a script and are ignorant of the writers room.

  3. Sally April 19, 2013 at 7:25 pm Reply

    Hi Mike and Elizabeth,

    It does indeed!

    Interesting to hear about the different perspectives in different countries, Mike. And about the professor who ended up spending most of her time on hiring panels, Elizabeth.

    When I was a student I used to work in the clothes shop by day and Asda by night. The latter was better as there were no customers. Only then they started opening 24 hours and it went down hill. A man once threatened me with a live rat.

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