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Author Topic: Gender Politix Linkage  (Read 934 times)

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Offline Cyrano JohnsonTopic starter

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Gender Politix Linkage
« on: August 21, 2013, 05:06:03 PM »
This is really more of a creative writing resource than a political article, but because it does touch on, and issue from, gender politics I thought I should best post it here: I've felt something very "off" about the quest for the "strong female character" for a long time, and Sophia MacDougall puts it into words far better than I've ever managed.
« Last Edit: August 21, 2013, 05:08:35 PM by Cyrano Johnson »

Offline Kythia

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Re: Gender Politix Linkage
« Reply #1 on: August 21, 2013, 05:30:59 PM »
Indeed.

I do have a little sympathy for the position of Wendig and the like who argue that "SFC" could be just as easily a strong character who is female rather than simply a female character who is strong but I agree that's rarely how it pans out.

Where I disagree with the author though is her dismissal of strong (badass) female characters at all.  She dismisses male equivalents as boring and namechecks Superman - Superman who has been selling comics since before the war, had like six films, an series of awesome Dean Cain related adventures and is probably one of the best recognised superheros ever.  Sure, he may be boring.  I haven't read any of the comics, seen any of the films or watched any of the TV shows.  But it seems clear he's not too boring to be successful.  There's no reason a female equivalent should be dismissed out of hand  (Off topic- is that Wonder Woman?  I know basically fuck all about her).

The core of the problem isn't in the gender split, to my mind, though sure its an issue.  Female characters are put in as a sop (seriously, remove Johansson - I don't remember her character name - from Avengers.  See the utter lack of effect that has on the plot) and so all that's necessary is to show they are just as good as the boys - to show they belong on the team in their own right as a character not simply the meta-textual reasons. And because the team is doing stereotypically male things, that necessarily results in her becoming an ersatz male; because scriptwriters are lazy they want to do as little character development and defining as possible in order to give the outline of a team and their job is done with the female member.  She's the female member. 

But that isn't the core.  The core is that many films are fundamentally about males.  Not to say action films, adventure films, superhero films can't be about females.  But the conventions of the genre, as they currently stand, make them about males.  I don't blame scriptwriters for making Scarlet Johansson essentially masculine, they want to sell films and breaking from established guidelines is a risky move.  Not everything has to be trailblazing and, yes, the gender split does effectively masculinise her.  But the gender split being addressed won't fully change that if the same films are being written - look at the Charlie's Angels films.  Three female leads, all kick-ass badasses and extremely forgettable characters.  I'm sure there are other examples.

Characters aren't divorced from setting is my point, and until the public conception of the genre expands enough to allow settings that allow female characters to have the depth of, well, she uses Sherlock Holmes - not sure how good an example he is but whatever - then nothing will change. 

How to do that, though, I don't know.

Offline Beguile's Mistress

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Re: Gender Politix Linkage
« Reply #2 on: August 21, 2013, 05:59:14 PM »
Strong comes in many different flavors.  I like strong female characters when I'm reading and writing.  In my lexicon a character on the page and in the position of a lead needs to have attributes that are going to be attractive and enough personality to be vulnerable and slightly off.  You know?  Real?  Even a second in a story, a villain or a victim can be strong, can have some power and worth.

I don't mean stronger than everyone else or strong all the time.  Trading off the power, being the bigger person, matching the other emotion for emotion and going toe to toe are what I look for.  The think I find least attractive in a male writer is a tendency to want his character to dominate all the time and put the woman beneath him literally and figuratively.  Is it because he's afraid of what will happen if she gets the upper hand?  Or he is afraid he'll be diminished if she does?

Bah!  Who needs it.  I don't go for the caveman type for most stories and I don't write shrinking violets very often either.

Offline gaggedLouise

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Re: Gender Politix Linkage
« Reply #3 on: August 21, 2013, 06:04:53 PM »
I think "quirky", wistful or thoughtful characters have gone out of fashion a bit on tv. What they're asking for now is punchy, pushy and ruthless or devious figures, not people like Sherlock Holmes or let's say some of the characters of The West Wing or Six feet Under, who were aware of their own personal limitations. Both The Tudors, Mad Men and Boardwalk Empire have central characters who are ruthless and power-grabbing, people who try to climb, who know what they want and are prepared to act rough to get it, a bit like wrestlers or football players.

A series like Brideshead Revisited - often hailed as the best tv drama ever - couldn't be made today, both because it was too 'slow' for the present age - though it's set among twenties and thirties English nobles - and because it's too concerned with creating the right tone rather than getting hardline action, and because few of the characters are people of action at all - they're trying to find their way through uncharted waters and they tend to be reflective or probing, they really don't say things out loud. Or speak out in a way that the viewer will get it even if he's a foot thick - which I think people did a lot in Tudors. They are like people in a novel - and of course it was made from a novel. So yes, there is a rush for strong characters today, but I guess that applies to guys as well.

Downton Abbey does try for some of what Brideshead Revisited did, that kind of fiction, and it's now reaching about the same years where BR started, but it's, like, less of a consistent, big-picture story: it's drifted into a mix of period soap opera and satire, though it does it with a real sense of style.
« Last Edit: August 21, 2013, 06:13:36 PM by gaggedLouise »

Offline Oniya

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Re: Gender Politix Linkage
« Reply #4 on: August 21, 2013, 06:19:55 PM »
I think "quirky", wistful or thoughtful characters have gone out of fashion a bit on tv. What they're asking for now is punchy, pushy and ruthless or devious figures, not people like Sherlock Holmes or let's say some of the characters of The West Wing or Six feet Under, who were aware of their own personal limitations. Both The Tudors, Mad Men and Boardwalk Empire have central characters who are ruthless and power-grabbing, people who try to climb, who know what they want and are prepared to act rough to get it, a bit like wrestlers or football players.

This may explain why I haven't seen much on TV that made it worth keeping around.

Offline gaggedLouise

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Re: Gender Politix Linkage
« Reply #5 on: August 21, 2013, 06:28:58 PM »
This may explain why I haven't seen much on TV that made it worth keeping around.

Well, I loved The Borgias which is a power-grabbing drama if anything - but it did have the ability to pull you in through the dialogue and the acting rather than through forcing the fat bones of a violent story down your throat. And Jeremy Irons was great as the pope.

The first season was great - then they decided to jampack the second season with overt, glossy sex and violence instead of letting you fill some of it in yourself.

Offline Beguile's Mistress

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Re: Gender Politix Linkage
« Reply #6 on: August 21, 2013, 06:31:47 PM »
I hate it when they treat you like you're not allowed to think.  I'd rather watch schlocky crime TV that be fed pap with a silver spoon.

Offline gaggedLouise

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Re: Gender Politix Linkage
« Reply #7 on: August 21, 2013, 06:39:07 PM »
Anyone who loved Downton Abbey should try to get to see Brideshead Revisited (the long tv series, not the recent film) and Gosford Park (written by Julian Fellowes who created the Abbey, and has a slew of fabulous actors), if they haven't caught them in the past. They're the blueprints for what you can do out of the "Upstairs and Downstairs" setting.

Offline Ephiral

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Re: Gender Politix Linkage
« Reply #8 on: August 21, 2013, 07:25:16 PM »
It strikes me - and on this point, I agree with her - that her central complaint is that "strong" is being used as a substitute for "complex" or "three-dimensional". When that happens, yeah, you'll get boring characters. I do think she gave Black Widow a bit less credit than she deserved - her relationship with Hawkeye was kinda an important point - and I disagree that "strong" is inherently a bad thing. It just can't be the only thing - or even the central thing.

Offline Beguile's Mistress

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Re: Gender Politix Linkage
« Reply #9 on: August 21, 2013, 10:40:36 PM »
Some people see Abby from "NCIS" as a strong female character and in most ways she is.  However, she hasn't grown much over the years.  She's a super genius with technology and forensics but she still has a mouth on her and a demeaning attitude toward the rest of the team.  It's getting old and detracting from the strength of her character.

Now, while she isn't the strongest female character out there Dr. Santino from "Necessary Roughness" is more my idea of what I'm talking about.  So is Jane Rizzolli of "Rizzolli & Isles" and other characters of that ilk.  They aren't perfect; aren't man-haters; don't act superior; have vulnerabilities, quirks and imperfections.  They make mistakes and try to fix them.  They have limitations and work within them.

The point is that as characters they can stand on their own.

Offline Oniya

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Re: Gender Politix Linkage
« Reply #10 on: August 21, 2013, 10:57:15 PM »
I'd throw Captain Janeway from ST:Voyager into the mix.  More than once she showed that she was capable of taking responsibility for the lives of her entire crew, and yet she wasn't - and never claimed to be - perfect.  She did, however, deal with situations with aplomb, even proving herself a match for Q (who had managed to get under every other captain's skin since his appearance in Encounter at Farpoint).

Offline Ephiral

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Re: Gender Politix Linkage
« Reply #11 on: August 21, 2013, 11:13:36 PM »
Ehh, Janeway's a mixed bag. She gets much better later on, but a lot of her early actions are wince-inducing in precisely the way you'd expect a SFC to be. There are numerous occasions where she endangers her ship or seriously screws it over because she won't spend two minutes looking for solutions other than "Shoot it lots."

Offline Beguile's Mistress

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Re: Gender Politix Linkage
« Reply #12 on: August 21, 2013, 11:17:55 PM »
Then the producers and writers got their priorities in order and fixed their mistakes.

Offline Ephiral

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Re: Gender Politix Linkage
« Reply #13 on: August 21, 2013, 11:37:23 PM »
Oh, absolutely - late Janeway is actually my second-favourite Trek captain. She manages to make difficult decisions and deal with the consequences without ever falling into Hard Person Making Hard Decisions territory, to have several delightful relationships without falling into any of the minefield of tropes regarding female characters, to vex Q, and to anchor one of the most poignant episodes ever. I just think her faults need acknowledgement if we're going to hold her up as an example.

(Now if only Mulgrew had been successful in getting gay characters on Voyager...)

Offline Oniya

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Re: Gender Politix Linkage
« Reply #14 on: August 21, 2013, 11:41:35 PM »
Oh, by all means acknowledge her faults.  It's part of the character.  Aaaand, I can think of at least one other captain who fell into the 'Shoot it lots' category.  ;)  (Well, that or 'Seduce the women'.)

Offline Ephiral

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Re: Gender Politix Linkage
« Reply #15 on: August 21, 2013, 11:48:56 PM »
Well, yeah, but honestly? Kirk, taken alone (ie not considering the Kirk-Spock-McCoy love triangle fraternal affection) is by far the weakest captain, and in a different era both in-universe and out. Janeway was supposed to be a product of the new, enlightened Starfleet that put a career diplomat in charge of its flagship.

EDIT: Honestly, it took my SO's recommendation to give Voyager a second try; I abandoned it somewhere in season 2 because I was honestly tired of feeling like Janeway was out to prove herself as badass as the male captains before her. I'm glad I did try it again, though, because she really is a delightful and deep character later on. B'elanna also gets some points there - less so, she's much more one-sided but does develop. Seven would, if the writers could ever remember that they devoted an entire episode to developing her character just last week. Kes... ugh. So many problems with Kes.

EDIT 2: To steer somewhat back toward the topic at hand, I'd like to submit David Weber's Honorverse as an example of decent writing of female characters. They manage to feel convincingly like women, while being both capable and vulnerable and allowed to have faults (except Honor herself, I'll fully admit.) He's also the only writer I've ever seen who has had a character raped without mistaking it for adding depth, downplaying the horror, or getting too graphically obsessed with it. It was something that happened to her, which she fought to move past.
« Last Edit: August 22, 2013, 12:00:18 AM by Ephiral »

Offline Beguile's Mistress

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Re: Gender Politix Linkage
« Reply #16 on: August 22, 2013, 12:00:38 AM »
Oh, absolutely - late Janeway is actually my second-favourite Trek captain. She manages to make difficult decisions and deal with the consequences without ever falling into Hard Person Making Hard Decisions territory, to have several delightful relationships without falling into any of the minefield of tropes regarding female characters, to vex Q, and to anchor one of the most poignant episodes ever. I just think her faults need acknowledgement if we're going to hold her up as an example.

(Now if only Mulgrew had been successful in getting gay characters on Voyager...)

Far from dismissing the character's flaws in the beginning I see the evolution of the Janeway as proving the point.  Strong characters can begin with flaws and grow.  It's often better that way I think.

Offline Ephiral

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Re: Gender Politix Linkage
« Reply #17 on: August 22, 2013, 12:08:34 AM »
Far from dismissing the character's flaws in the beginning I see the evolution of the Janeway as proving the point.  Strong characters can begin with flaws and grow.  It's often better that way I think.
...hmm. You know, I think you're right. A previously-mediocre captain faced with a tremendously difficult situation, who learns to rise to the occasion and better herself and her crew in the process. I like that a lot. Thanks!

Offline Oniya

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Re: Gender Politix Linkage
« Reply #18 on: August 22, 2013, 12:14:50 AM »
That's kind of what I meant to say.  (And it's a lot better than Mulgrew's role in Remo Williams, which was a truly tropish SFC.)

Offline Cyrano JohnsonTopic starter

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Re: Gender Politix Linkage
« Reply #19 on: August 22, 2013, 02:03:02 AM »
But that isn't the core.  The core is that many films are fundamentally about males.  Not to say action films, adventure films, superhero films can't be about females.  But the conventions of the genre, as they currently stand, make them about males. 

I really think this is the core of her critique. Because if you look at actual adventure or heroism or (let's be real) war, there's actually no reason apart from established convention that they have to be all about men and the damsels-in-distress who love them, with an added side of Strong Female Characters who-can-totally-hold-their-own-with-the-boys-within-certain-bounds-and-isn't-that-just-fucking-ADORABLE.

This goes to a fundamental hole in our understanding of these genres, I think, or at the minimum Hollywood's understanding of them. Because you don't have to stretch to include women in, say, a movie about the Crusades. If you pay attention to what actually happened in that era, or any era involving women & war (which is all of them) it actually stretches credibility more to make them all-male all-the-time. You don't have to make them feminism-fests either, you can be true to the norms of the era: women have dressed up as men across multiple eras to get into the ranks of the warriors, for instance. It's just that we're so lazily accustomed to the men-only convention that we don't realize this.

This article made me realize that I would love to pitch a movie about the Mino / Dahomey Amazons' 1850 raid on Abeokuta. What a story that is: one of the most prominent all-female military units in all history -- black female units, to boot -- leading a massive raid on a fort that was created as a redoubt from the slave trade. Every complicating factor you could possibly have about the justice of war, the meaning of heroism, relations between Africa and Europe -- at the core of the whole offensive is a Portuguese-Brazilian slave trader's relationship with Dahomey's king -- the dynamics between genders, the comaraderie of women and of women + men... it's all right there. I love me some Avengers... but I would love me a movie about that a billlion-gajillion times more.
« Last Edit: August 22, 2013, 02:06:52 AM by Cyrano Johnson »

Offline Cyrano JohnsonTopic starter

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Re: Gender Politix Linkage
« Reply #20 on: August 22, 2013, 02:18:32 AM »
Well, yeah, but honestly? Kirk, taken alone (ie not considering the Kirk-Spock-McCoy love triangle fraternal affection) is by far the weakest captain

Oh, no you di'n't! *triplicate hip-swaying finger-snap*

SRSLY, Kirk makes in some ways a deservedly easy target on account of his being a blissfully-unaware avatar of Sixties militarist American masculinity: but? I'd rate him a more honest character than Picard-the-avatar-of-the-imagined-pro-American-UN -- since at least Kirk was an avatar of something that actually existed -- and less brutish and Neolithic if one actually looks at his Original Series record than he's commonly imagined to be.

(Admittedly a separate issue from the Strong Female Character rant, since of course Original Trek is the kind of crudely-sexist product that impelled the meme in the first place.)
« Last Edit: August 22, 2013, 02:36:25 AM by Cyrano Johnson »

Online Gadifriald

Re: Gender Politix Linkage
« Reply #21 on: August 22, 2013, 03:06:56 AM »
The article that Cyrano Johnson linked in the first post of this thread is kinda flawed in conception and argument since a strong character of either sex is not the same as a character who is physically dangerous or capable. A strong character is a character that stands out and makes you remember them with how they were written or played regardless of their ability to throw a punch! A great example of a strong female character who is not remotely physically dangerous is Martha Rogers from the TV show "Castle". Martha, who is the titular character Richard Castle's mother, is a very strong character brilliantly written and played and there isn't one bit of badass in her. A female character from the same show who is strong but also physically dangerous is Kate Becket, who is an NYPD homicide detective who is capable of kicking ass but is a well played and well written female character with depth, intelligence, vulnerablity and an appealing kind of believable sexiness.
A lot of writers and directors and such however tend to get "strong female character" and "badass female character" confused and many of those badass female characters are as rediculously written and portrayed as male characters of the same type if not more so. In recent years there has been an overabundance of female characters whose "strength" comes from their ability to fight and kill while looking good as they do it! While these characters obvsiously do have their appeal to creators and readers and viewers alike, let us not forget that an aging woman who doesn't remotely know how to through a punch can be a strong female character and a woman who runs around with guns in tight shorts shooting things can be a very weak female character since strength as a character has nothing to do with that character's ability to inflict violence.
« Last Edit: August 22, 2013, 03:09:02 AM by Gadifriald »

Offline meikle

Re: Gender Politix Linkage
« Reply #22 on: August 22, 2013, 06:41:12 AM »
I'm pretty sure that when people talk about strong female characters, as a contrary to weak female characters, it doesn't mean literally strong, as a quality of the character, but that the character has agency in a way that female characters often do not.

A strong female character can be lots of things that people don't think of as strong; most of my favorite characters (at least when I'm writing) are cowardly, anxious, miserable people, but they're strong characters in that they are developed, interesting, maybe detestable but not two-dimensional, not just set pieces or objects for telling the stories of other (usually male) characters.

A lot of people use strength, violence, physical power as a shorthand for agency, but that's not the only way for a character to be strong.
« Last Edit: August 22, 2013, 06:43:20 AM by meikle »

Offline Kythia

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Re: Gender Politix Linkage
« Reply #23 on: August 22, 2013, 06:56:57 AM »
Rereading, Cyrano, I really don't think that is her point.  She focuses throughout on the characters within the films not on the nature and genres of the films themselves.  She seems to be arguing she talks for a bit about some "rounded" (as a less ambiguous word for "strong" male characters, goes on to talk about how Peggy in Captain America is bearing the weight of half the population on her shoulders, shows some film posters where the sole female is at the back (or fucking smurfette), raises points about Richard II being surrounded by other males then complains about the gender split in films.

It seems to me she is pushing simply for more, physical in terms of numbers, more females in existing films.  Her points around Richard II are key here, and to a lesser extent Captain America.  That the weaknesses/unroundedness of female characters is a function of their lack of numbers.  I don't think this is the case, because of Charlie's Angels.  Everything she wanted was there except for rounded female characters purely because it was fitting in to a genre that required male characters and, more importantly, was predicated on male viewers.

Look at a bad imagining of your proposed film.  We open with a shot of husbands being dragged away by evil and presumably British slave traders.  We then focus on the few main characters we're going to follow, probably getting their assignment from a wise male elder - "You're our only chance.  Chicks fighting is just crazy enough to work".  One of them is white, obviously, because a film focusing entirely on black people is unthinkable.  One of them is fat.  One an action princess.  Five or six major characters (because more is too many.  Regardless of how many actually took part, we need to focus on one squad.  Dirty Dozen, not Dirty Division).  They spend a lot of time in skintight clothing and getting in to and out of rivers.  Enough of a hint of Ho Yay! (TV TROPES, BEWARE) to keep attention but not enough to push it up to an eighteen.  One of them is captured and chained to a table - or worse yet a post - to be interrogated while having delightfully mussed up hair.  And so on.

It doesn't have to be like that.  Of course it doesn't.  But you can imagine that film being made can't you.  Even if that wasn't the originally pitched script.  And it's nothing to do with the number of females in the film, it's the deeper expectations of the genre.


@Gadifriald

Of course you're right, and that's a problem with using "strong" in the sense of physical might and of roundedness.  Her point is though that physical strength and badassery is being used instead of roundedness and people are still pointing to them as "Strong female characters"

Offline Cyrano JohnsonTopic starter

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Re: Gender Politix Linkage
« Reply #24 on: August 22, 2013, 11:32:28 AM »
It seems to me she is pushing simply for more, physical in terms of numbers, more females in existing films.

She is arguing for genres to be reinterpreted, if necessary, in order that women are no longer a minority in most films. I think this is actually a quite important thing to have in frame, because it's not that she's demanding that fewer action films be made (for instance); she's asserting that this can be well and realistically done even within the parameters of what are typically thought of as "inherently" male films, without resorting to the cardboard Action Gurl. (If you re-re-read, she's very specific about this.)

The numerical inequality thing is not the only factor, but I think she's right that it's a major one and that it is the reason that so many female roles are stuck with Representing Womanhood In The Film. This is true even of films I otherwise love (like Django Unchained -- aces film, but it really is problematic that it's deliberately built around the Fairy-Tale Damsel in Distress premise). Even where they pull it off, as many a brilliant actress has done with even the most criminally underwritten part, it's ultimately a stunting of the female half of the industry. And though she uses the Action Gurl as a lens, I think the warping effect is just as visible in how society views female characters who are supposedly "strong" in other ways (cf. the frequency with which neurosis is misconstrued by writers as female "strength").

(Aside to Gadifriald: I'm actually quite fond of Castle, but I would not rate the mother character in that series as particularly "strong" or interesting, except inasmuch she has at least evolved beyond being a sitcom joke about rich drunk socialites. In fact I would not rate most of its female characters as particularly interesting except for Agent Beckett.)

Quote
Look at a bad imagining of your proposed film.

I laughed!  XD

Yes, of course I can see it happening that way. I'm sure Sophia can too. I think she's assuming that the reader will understand that the film in question not being produced as cheesecake for titillation purposes, and having female characters written by someone who has met a woman in the wild, would also be necessary.
« Last Edit: August 22, 2013, 11:35:01 AM by Cyrano Johnson »