There’s been a lot of talk about female characters this week and their depiction on screen. But don’t worry, this isn’t a blog post about yet another rape on the rapiest HBO show since Oz. This is a post about agency for female characters, and how viewers have no idea what that looks like.
I think a lot about agency and female characters, mostly because I write a lot of them. And also because I’ve written some terrible female characters. And I’m youngish, so chances are I’ll write more characters who are underwhelming and one dimensional, whether they be male or female or gender neutral. But I want to do better, and I want to make sure even my one dimensional characters have agency. That is something that doesn’t happen for a lot of female characters, no matter what form of media they inhabit.
The idea of giving a female character agency is what a friend of mine called “Writing a woman like a man.” But, that isn’t it at all. The problem is we conflate masculinity with agency. The ability to make decisions, even BAD decisions, is a masculine endeavor. It shouldn’t be, but it is. This is most obvious in the way we see women in typical male action hero roles as kickass and women doing normal, traditionally female things as not so kickass. No one ever tells a CEO that he isn’t kickass. Probably because he could pay someone to kill you and dispose of all the evidence. But no one automatically thinks that a dude working in an office is a set up for a vapid rom-com *cough* Super Girl versus the Flash *cough*.
The real issue is that the majority of the decisions female characters are given are non-decisions. They aren’t the Lady or the Lion decisions that male characters are given. Typical decisions in a story should be “well option A isn’t that great, and option B is easy but slightly worse. Option C would be the best, but it’s a long shot.” This is how normal people make decisions.
But decisions for lady characters tend to be a whole ‘nother kit and caboodle. They are the Lady or COMPLETE AND TOTAL ANNHILATION! There is never any real option in the decisions presented to female characters. Get married or be murdered? Well, I reckon I can survive a marriage, but dead is dead. Go along with the established rules or rebel and hope some cute boy saves you. The female character is give two bananapants choices, one of which makes sense and the other one which is completely unreasonable. And when she picks the completely unreasonable one, there is a male figure/love interest there to save her from herself. Because we, the audience, knew that the wrong choice was the wrong choice. And OF COURSE women cannot be trusted to make a rational choice.
So the options presented to female characters are really not choices. Instead, the female main character is shoved through the Plinko machine of the plot just trying to survive.
This is one of the reasons Hunger Games works so well. Even though Katniss is being shoved through the actions of the story she still has the ability to affect the outcome to some degree. Within the games she tries to hike as far away from the other competitors as she can until she’s turned back by a wall of flames. She befriends Rue even though she knows it can’t end well, and she teams up with Peeta even though she could leave him to die and no one would blame her. Agency. And if not true Agency, at least the appearance of Agency.
And even if the story isn’t all life or OMG CONSEQUENCES, there is still the curious case of the unconscious female main character. Female characters lose consciousness more than NFL football players. Is no one worried about these girls passing out and important plot points happening while they were sleeping? Of course not. It isn’t like their choices were critical to plot progression.
Anyway, how do we fix this? How do we write female characters that are allowed the same breadth of experience as male characters?
Honestly? I’m not sure. But f I figure it out I’ll let you know.