My original intention this month was to write about some of the common challenges people have when writing across gender lines—that is, male writers writing female characters and female writers writing male characters. For some people, this comes quite naturally. For others, it seems an almost impossible task—particularly when the character in question is the protagonist.
However, when I started to put together this article, I realised that there is another topic to be tackled first—and that is the stereotyping of female characters as a whole. Rather than try to say everything I wanted to say in a single post, for this month I’m going to concentrate specifically on writing female characters without devolving into ridiculous stereotypes.
Save the Day Like a Girl
The phrase “like a girl” is one that has had negative connotations for a long time. I remember it being the insult of choice back when I was young enough to count my age in single digits–and, according to my children, dinosaurs roamed the Earth back then.
Some of the discussion in the comments of my last post veered in exactly this direction, and reminded me of the ad campaign #LikeaGirl from a few years ago. You’ve probably seen this video at least once over the last three years.
In one of the other videos from this ad campaign, a young girl specifically says: “It’s always, like, the boys who rescue the girls in the stories.”
This is the world that most of us have grown up in–a world where “like a girl” is an insult, implying a lack of skill, knowledge, or competence; where “running like a girl” means worrying about your hair, flinging your hands around ineffectively, and probably tripping over and spraining your ankle; where male protagonists were considered the “default” setting. The idea is still out there that books about girls are for girls, but books about boys are for everyone, especially in children’s fiction.
And while there are genres where female protagonists are common, those genres are often seen as being written primarily for women.
There are a lot of writers stepping up and changing that situation. But there are just as many who still find it hard to envision a female protagonist who is just as competent, brave, and heroic as her male counterpart–at least, without also worrying that she’s too “manly”.
Be Heroic Like a Girl
For whatever reason, I’ve often found that the people who struggle the most with writing strong, competent, fully developed female protagonists are female writers.
Much like in the video above, we’ve internalised the idea that women are incompetent when it comes to physical activity (and maths), and can be even more guilty of playing down the strengths of our female characters than many male writers. I freely admit that there was a time in my youth (possibly around the point when dinosaurs went extinct) when I wouldn’t even consider writing a female protagonist because I knew it would be lame.
How could a female hero possibly save the day when she was bound to sprain her ankle or break a fingernail along the way?
Obviously, that’s ridiculous. I’m a woman, and I’ve never once tripped over nothing and sprained my ankle. Nor have I ever stopped doing something because I broke my nail. I can’t imagine I’d care about my manicure with the fate of the world hanging in the balance.
I’m a woman, not an idiot.
Notice Ridiculous Stereotypes Like a Girl
One of the first things to do, however, is to simply notice that these stereotypes exist–not just in our own work, but in all the stories and media we consume. Despite how far we’ve come, they’re still out there. And sometimes they’re so ingrained and internalised, we don’t even notice them.
My general, all-purpose, go-to question when I’m trying to figure out whether a scene is authentic or sexist is to simply ask myself: “Would this seem ridiculous if it was done by a person of the opposite gender?”
- Would it seems ridiculous for Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson to fall over and sprain his ankle while running through a field? Yes. Yes, it would. It would be played for laughs.
- Would it seem ridiculous for Chris Evans to bounce on to the screen, his hair dyed in rainbow colours, while he showed the heroine how to embrace the present through his quirky antics? Yes. Of course it would.
- Would it seem ridiculous for Jennifer Lawrence to stare broodingly at Joseph Gordon-Levitt, occasionally inflicting back-handed compliments on him, until he falls in love with her? Yes. It’s ridiculous from both sides.