Whoa! So the internet went a little nuts for my post on The Bechdel Test. Ta very much. Seems like a good time then to talk about representation of ALL characters.
It’s not fashionable or cool to talk about male characterisation, but then when Bang2write started, it wasn’t cool to talk female protagonists either and look what’s happened since. IMHO, critique of any kind is very important in challenging the status quo, but currently we are SO focused on female characters I fear we are in danger of two things:
a) putting undue pressures and expectations on individual films, characters and their makers/writers with notions of supposed “empowerment” (yet a single work cannot stand for ALL women or undo decades of BS; as I’m fond of saying, we need cumulative build up)
b) Far from simply saying “But what about the menz??”, I honestly don’t see how female characterisation can improve or even draw level on the playing field without putting male characterisation under the microscope as well, otherwise we just end up treating the symptoms and not the root cause.
For me, it comes down to this: better characterisation across the board helps everyone. Yet many writers and commentators will blithely tell me male characterisation is “fine”. NEWSFLASH: it’s not fine and for reasons just as complicated as female characterisation. I could go on about this all day based on a lifetime of consuming media products and reading a gazillion produced and spec scripts (and this article is pretty long anyway), but I’ve limited myself to just 5 points so I hope you’re happy! Here goes:
1. The notion of “worth” is too narrowly defined via male characterisation.
Okay, let’s get this out the way, which got posted on the Bang2writers Facebook page:
Whether a tongue in cheek jibe or outraged anti-feminist “statement”, the image above does a pretty good job of encapsulating many parents’ feelings on the issue of media representation and how many critiques do not take into account the difficult job of raising girls AND boys, especially in the digital age. (Do note: I’m principally talking about parenting here and so-called “impressionable minds”. Top author Chuck Wendig does a much better job than I ever could on examining objectification and the privileges of what he calls “Heteronormative White Dudes”, which you can see here).
The argument for decades has been that young girls are being short changed and even “assaulted” by a plethora of conflicting messages that denigrate their bodies and self esteem. I know it had a massive effect on me growing up, even “before” the internet (though I like to think many young people are able to search for and/or access “counter imagery” like this Upworthy video on Airbrushing now; arguably in the past there was only the poison with no antidote). As a parent however, I find it simply nonsensical to suggest girls are the ONLY intended recipients and/or ones affected by this neverending deluge of shit. Even if we accept the (frankly flawed) assumptions that boys there are somehow more able to deal with these messages; or that there are “less” harmful messages for boys; or even that there are as many “positive” representations to counter balance the negative ones, we’re STILL not figuring in personality, interpretation, lived experiences and/or worldview.
In other words then: if it’s argued a young girl can be turned anorexic or similar by society’s obsession with weight loss and stick-thin celebrities (and it is), then even if Thor or Wolverine IS a “positive” representation of supposed “manliness” within the context of a *fun* story, those characters STILL have the ability to make an individual boy feel like crap about his own body and affect his self esteem. Why? Because male characters, especially so-called Heroes and Superheroes, are too often idealised as tall, strong types: they rescue, they save the world. They are often highly sexualised and/or desirable, always straight and nearly always white. They may be clever or they may be eccentric, funny or a bit vacant, but they are always exceptional. In. Every. Way.
Let me say that again: EXCEPTIONAL. And there’s simply too many of these exceptional characters. We’re absolutely overloaded with them! Diversity is a huge issue, even BEFORE we look at the more complicated things like race and gender.
But as ALL parents know, young people are not simply passive creatures that suck up everything presented to them (if they did, educating and indeed just relating to them would be a whole lot easier). So **obviously** it’s not a case of teens and children simply being swayed like lemmings in negative – or even positive – ways by the “big, bad media” either. Whilst teens in particular can seem seemingly unbearably harsh (especially on their peers or elders), lots of young people are critical thinkers; many are able to deconstruct media images in ways adults can only dream of, too. This generation is probably the most media literate yet. So I would never patronise teenagers and children by assuming they have no moral compass (or even common sense), it’s not difficult to see why so many parents worry so much about this issue, especially when they have no frame of reference because the tech and thus accessibility to this stuff is constantly in flux. And we also know a neverending deluge of crappy media imagery DOES have an effect on young peoples’ sense of self esteem as they internalise harmful messages, such as “you must be thin to be loved” or “physical strength = worthiness”. As nasty Goebels said, “Tell a lie often enough and people will believe it”!
2. Males in antagonist or secondary role functions are too often simply evil, weak and/or two dimensional.
Character role function is an important part of any story. If a character does not have a specific job to do in “helping or hindering” the protagonist in his/her mission or goal, then however “good” or well drawn s/he is, that character is surplus to requirements and must be cut. Not hard to grasp.
What becomes problematic then is when the SAME *types* of characters perform those role functions, over and over. And just like My 5 Top Female Stereotypes, there are male stereotypes that make me gnash my teeth too, especially in antagonist and secondary roles, such as:
- Comic Book Villain. Comic Book Villain is “larger than life” and not in a good way. He monologues his motives; molests the heroine while she is tied up; plus he is usually very flamboyant, laughing evilly A LOT.
- Psycho Villain. This guy’s plan/mission has no sense whatsoever, but don’t worry about it. He’s DANGEROUS, innit.
- Bad Husband/Father. BHF may be weak and quiet, hardly playing any part in the story; or he may be abusive, beating his children and wife. When he’s not doing that, he’s passed out drunk.
- Bad Teacher/Lecturer. So our hero has a male teacher or lecturer who didn’t do all the training in order to help educate young people, but to humiliate them. And he’s never been discovered or Ofstedded? Riiiight.
- Cop By The Book. Don’t you just hate it when you’re a protagonist in a movie and have some kind of mission and then you run into one of these guys?
That’s just the start. I could be here all day, seriously.
Fact is, whether male or female, adult or child? There ARE stock characters that writers need to get rid of, STAT!!!
3. Lesser secondary & peripheral male characters are too often “disposable”.
Whilst our tolerance for violence, gore and mayhem has increased over the years (with current movies attracting 12A or PG13 ratings that would have garnered 15s or even 18s/Rs a couple of decades ago), interestingly, our tolerance for seeing “real” people die has not. As a result, the people put in the story simply to die in various colourful ways, are often NOT a cross-section of society, but white males of between 25 and 40 years old, rather than old men, black/Asian men or women and children of ANY age.
Not noticed? Check out pretty much any disaster movie of the last twenty years or so. As volcanos spew lava all over the place, or hurricanes and earthquakes sweep through towns or alien lasers blast everything in their path, generally speaking (and of course we can only talk generally, for one thing there’s been a LOT of disaster movies since CGI really got going) it will be white men of 25-40 years who are “disposable” like this, put in the story simply to DIE.
I find this really intriguing: what is behind it? Perhaps it’s just a case of there being more white actors of this age group going for auditions, but somehow I doubt it. What’s the movie industry saying here, if anything? The cynical might say that it’s because of institutional racism, but I wonder the opposite, ie. killing off swathes of people from different ethnic minorities could be seen as “racist”, so Hollywood is practicing “safe politics” and killing off the non-marginalised only, consciously or subconsciously?
Note the “disposable” male character is subtly different to the Expendable Hero, a well-liked character who sacrifices himself for his friends or for a child in the plot *for some reason*. This is never more noticeable than in the Action/Adventure and Horror genres: famous examples of Expendable Heroes include Eddie in JURASSIC PARK: THE LOST WORLD; Carlos in RESIDENT EVIL: EXTINCTION and probably most of the men in the entire ALIEN franchise.
I would wager the Expendable Hero is a largely positive representation, because audience members are literally HOWLING at his demise (and wish he *could* have survived), remembering and talking about him even after the movie or show has finished. In comparison, the disposable male is forgettable, just yet another number in the body count, EVEN IF he had a name and history, underscoring the notion that we can just throw men into the jaws of the beast or the horrors of war and there’s “plenty more where that came from”.
4. Male characters too often depend on female characters to change them and/or appeal to their better nature.
Perhaps most striking, or maybe noticeable on a daily basis: regardless of what role a male character performs, whether as part of the main cast or not, is the idea male characters are apparently completely incapable of emotional literacy.
A lot is made in feminist critique of the notion female characters are simply *there* as an emotional facilitator for men and rightly so. As a female member of the audience myself, it becomes especially wearing to see female characters used as a crutch in this way, “breaking open” those mythical “man feelings” that apparently are SO DIFFICULT for them to get in touch with. At best it’s dull and at worst, stereotypical. Le Yawn.
But let’s flip the script (we can do that, we are writers after all). As offensive as it is making females accessories to male stories, isn’t it just as insulting that male characters are so emotionally illiterate they need their feelings “unpicked” and shown to them by women oh so much wiser than them? No? Well, whatever we wimminz think, it hardly helps build great characterisation, I think we can agree. And not only that, it perpetuates unhelpful stereotypes and potentially even damages real life relationships:
“He doesn’t get it, he’s just a man.”
Ever said THAT? How about this: ever felt disgust or even just a teensy bit uncomfortable when you see a man cry, even for a good reason? Ever imagine YOU’RE the only one who can “rescue” or even NOTICE a situation that involves matters of the heart?
As noted on point 1, we’re ALL products of our environment. If little girls “can’t see it, they can’t be it” is the classic battle cry – but equally, see something TOO MUCH and you may start believing in it, too. So if men are NOT supposed to be emotional beings; if they’re not ever supposed to cry or be thought of as “weak”; if women believe they are the only ones “capable” of saving marriages or relationships – what are we ALL going to get? Another neverending river of shit, basically.
Yes, yes of course people are capable of independent thought; none of us accept everything thrown at us passively. But we may and frequently DO internalise harmful messages that affect our SELF ESTEEM, male or female … and when those damaged psyches come together? BOOM! As demonstrated in the amazing BLUE VALENTINE:
What’s particularly refreshing about the characterisation of Dean and Cindy in this movie is they’re BOTH RIGHT and they’re BOTH WRONG. Yes, Dean is a bit of a waster; but yes, Cindy is a martyr. Equally, Dean’s behaviour in the story is at times foul – but then so is Cindy’s. Neither comes out of the situation smelling of roses. Bit like most of us in relationship breakdowns, then (that do not involve blame-worthy behaviour like abuse, naturally).
My point: a lesser writer than Cianfrance would have made the breakdown of the relationship in BLUE VALENTINE one of their faults for a specific reason; an infidelity, perhaps. An even worse writer than that? Would have made one of the two RIGHT for feeling the way s/he does … and in the spec pile (and much produced content), 9/10 that character would be the FEMALE in that relationship. Because, y’know: MEN SUCK at the emotional stuff!
Look, I get it. Traditionally, men are “supposed” to not like or be able to “do” the mushy stuff and some men in real life even go so far as to hide behind society’s assumption on this, because it’s just “easier” that way. But then again, so do a lot of women. I recall, back when I was very young and immature, assuming lesbians must have GREAT relationships as a matter of course, ‘cos they both “get it” on an emotional level, by virtue of both being female (bless). Then I started to actually meet and know lesbian couples … and discovered that actually, most of them had exactly the same problems as male/female couples! (Well, durr: we’re all HUMAN).
So to round off this section: complaining about female characters being the facilitator of the male characters’ emotions and how it impacts negatively on society is not going to cut it if you want anything to actually change. Critique needs to go beyond such two dimensional approaches ITSELF and appreciate that EVERYONE is being shortchanged here: as noted in point 1, a glut of something is just as problematic as a dearth! As I’m always fond of saying: we need BALANCE.
5. The audience is asked to invest in The Great White Hope too often … as well as the fact he is a man.
If there’s one thing that drives me batshit crazy, it’s the notion of The Great White Hope. You know the one: The Chosen One Who Will Save Us All *for some reason*. He’s nearly always a white male protagonist and aged between about 10 and 40, roughly, dependant on the audience, from family movies through to more niche and/or adult offerings.
The Great White Hope appears to be a problem particularly in the Science Fiction genre. Not noticed? I haven’t seen ENDER’S GAME yet, but it would seem only white boys get into the space academy if any of the pics I’ve seen so far are to believed. Also: check out this list of DVD pics. Generally speaking, you’re more likely to see a MONSTER, ROBOT or SHADOW before you see a woman on a SF DVD cover or poster. But just as importantly, you’re more likely to see ALL of the above before you see someone from a different ethnic minority. Pretty sobering stuff.
Much is made of my apparent “dislike” of Science Fiction and/or Geek culture, but actually as a genre, it’s one of my favourites (don’t tell anyone). So I know full well that OF COURSE there are non-white heroes and anti heroes: the likes of Will Smith, Jet Li and Vin Diesel spring to mind. Equally, we have had our female heroines in the Science Fiction genre, most notably Sigourney Weaver and Linda Hamilton, but also Milla Jovavich and Charlize Theron (notice anything there??).
My point is, the white male aspect is grossly overrepresented in Science Fiction (just as it is in ALL genres), BUT given Sci Fi is so frequently held up as a “shining light” of representation (usually thanks to the WHITE Ripley and Sarah Connor), I don’t think it’s wise to break out the party poppers just yet.
But how to tackle this? Well, unlike the plethora of conversation dedicated to female representation in film of all genres, there is somewhat of a reticence to tackle diversity at all by writers and filmmakers. It’s not even that writers and filmmakers are “racist” either: many people of colour say it “shouldn’t matter” what race a character is, too. There are NO easy answers.
But here’s why it matters: that list of DVD covers again.
Where’s the diversity? Something needs to be done to PROVIDE it, because hoping for the best casting-wise is NOT working out for whatever reason.
I think I can safely say the majority of us want better representation for people of ethnic minorities of either gender on screen (and those who don’t, can frankly jump their intolerant arses off a cliff). So is it really such a hardship to stipulate race in a screenplay, without resorting to the age-old chestnut that it “should” have a bearing on the story? After all, if we choose GENDER without thought for the story (and why shouldn’t we … no one with half a brain is going to insist female protagonists must do “FEMALE THINGS ONLY”), then why not race?
For me, it really comes down to this, from the superb Sally Abbott:
Look at your characters. Now think about your MOTIVES for writing them the way they are. Is there anything you can change, twist or borrow so they’re not “the usual”?
Bet you can.