Where strange fact and stranger fiction collide
Last week due to other people’s work schedules and illness, Uncle Dave was in charge of homing schooling my niece Mona. That meant Dr. Who episodes for science class ice cream with lunch and the writing assignment was a book report on the comic book Lumber Janes. Math was only a fifteen minute exercises on the computer but literature was an hour discussion on in media res, character, and setting.
We talked about whether or not gender was important in a story? I asked her if the Harry Potter stories would have been different if the main character was Herminie and not Harry? What if Star Wars had been Leia’s Story not Luke’s? Her answers where thoughtful and concise for a nine year old.
It also got me thinking about female characters. I do not consider myself a feminist, nor do I consider myself an anti-feminist. I consider myself a humanist. All humans should be judged on their own merits. The same way I consider myself a characterist, all characters should be judged on their own merits.
As a reader and watcher of visual media I really like female characters. This trend continues into my own writing. The nature of visual media (Movies, TV, and comics) means that many of the protagonist both male and female have to be good looking, I get that. But it has become that we define a female character mainly by her appearance.
Now Marvel announced a few days ago that they weren’t going to do a solo Black Widow movie and on the DC side a Wonder Woman movie is in development hell. (Personally I think a Wonder Woman movie is a good thing in theory, I would want to see the scrip first) David Hayter (Writer of the First two X-men movies, and the Metal Gear video games), even wrote a Black Widow script before Iron Man came out. The reason that Marvel is giving for us not seeing BW kicking but by herself is the failure of some big time female standalone movies which tanked at the box office.
The examples that are often thrown around of failed female action movies are Blood Rayne, Aeon Fluxx, and Ultra Violet I will even throw in the Hallie Berry Cat Woman movie into that mix. But let’s look at these movies. All of them had bigger problems than the fact they had female leads. Aeon Fluxx cartoon = brilliant, movie = poorly written and stupid. Ultra Violet, I loved that movie but the editing was so clunky that I have to buy the novelization to fill in some of the gaps. Blood Rayne, two words Uwe Boll. And Cat Woman. “Hey Hallie it’s the academy, after seeing the Cat Woman movie can uh…would you mind giving your award back?” These movies didn’t tank because the main characters were a female. They failed because they were bad movies.
I get that Hollywood is a business, and money is the bottom line. But let’s look at some action flicks with chicks in the lead that made money. Kill Bill 1 & 2, Aliens, the Tomb Raiders, Lucy, even Salt which really didn’t do as well as was expected but still made almost three hundred million in its worldwide theater run. There is defiantly a market for well written and acted action movies with a female lead.
So if you are supposed to write about what you know then the question arises. Can a man ever really write about the female experience? There is that scene As Good as it Gets. when someone asks Jack Nicholson’s character (admittedly a jerk) who he writes female characters so well and eh responds “I think of a man, and I take away reason and accountability” Are men that so off the mark they can’t create good female characters?
The same question can be justly asked can a white man creative a well written representation of an African American? When are differences so deep we can no longer relate? Now I do agree that no one may completely appreciate what another gender or race truly goes through, it doesn’t mean that we cannot portray people different from us in a realistic and interesting manner. Writers do this anytime they write about people from a different historical period.
So let’s look at three well written female chachters made by men.
One of my favorite comic book characters ever is Marshall Carrie Stetko from Whiteout and Whiteout II: Melt. Author Greg Rucka is well known for his strong and multi-dimnsional characters such as the marshal, super spy Tara Chace, Portland detective Dex Parios, and Athena Bell, the main character’s deaf teenaged daughter in Alpha and Beta.
Tasked to solve the first murder on Antarctica, Stetko has to report to her boss an incompetent, living in Hawaii, who benefited from her tragedy. She has to prove that she belongs on the ice just as much as a man. She develops a relationship with the frozen content much like she would with another human being. She isn’t crazy and begins personifying Antarctica, she realizes that a land can have traits of its own as deep as any human.
In the 2009 movie Carrie got a Hollywood make over. It is easy to target the movie for taking a strong female character and sucking all the good things out of her. In the 2013 Rose City Comicon writer Greg Rucka said “The only thing the Whiteout CD is good for is using it as a coaster to set your drink on.” I saw the movie with my sister, after I had read the comic and I was telling her how downgraded the character was and she replied. “You know the movie isn’t that bad if you haven’t read the original.” And she was right.
Freckled stocky Carrie gets played by super attractive Katie Beckinsale. OK it is a movie, so I get that. But in the comic book she loses index and pointer finger on her right hand, in the movie it is the pinky and ring finger of her left hand. That may not seem like much but it went form the two most used fingers to the least used one. A possible career ending injury is made a mere flesh wound. Yes she is still on the case without the fingers, but it is less an obsticle for her to over come. Also in the book she is not allowed to carry a fire arm in Antarctica, by international treaty. So there is a logical reason why she retreats from an attacker with an ice axe. In the movie she has a service weapon, so the movie version she justs freaks out and runs away even though the scene before has made it clear she is armed with a gun. This is a classic example of Hollywood downgrading a female character.
You know writing that made me mad, maybe I am glad Hollywood hasn’t done a female superhero movie.
Ellen Ripley is a pioneering female science fiction action hero. The characters for Alien where written to be played by either sex. In fact Ripley was envisioned as a man right up till the finial script for shooting was selected. Tom Skeritt was originally hired as Ripley and when the character was re-envisioned as female, he was given the part of Captain Dallas. We really don’t see overtly feminine traits in her until the second movie and her maternal instincts over Newt kick in.
Is that a bad thing? No. A character in a movie is a hybrid created between the writer and actor play him/her. Sigourney Weaver brings more than just her female anatomy to the part. She has a life time of experience as woman and Weaver subtly brings this to the screen. The fact that there is a degree of equality between the sexes, women are space ship officers and combat troops gives the actress more to work with than less.
Joss Whedon says that Buffy Summers was an inversion of the cliched trope “the little blonde girl who goes into a dark alley and gets killed in every horror film.” The victim becomes the heroine. Buffy is distinct from Abraham Van Helsing because of her age and gender. She goes through all a normal girl does plus zombies, vampires and whatever the plural of Apocalypse are.
In her case the concept of I slept with my boyfriend and now he acts like he is a monster is a real thing. All the worse cases of school become real. Though written by a man, the character approaches things form a female perspective. Let’s face it Bobby the vampire slayer wouldn’t have last seven seasons.
The truth is most of what we watch and a lot of what we read is written by men. Less than a decade before, but still the majority is written with someone with a XY chromosome pattern. Women are spending more money on sci-fi and action based entertainment than they have in the past. So I think that will change someday. My hope from Hollywood is not only better female characters but better characters in general.