The problem with asking women to create their own representation
As a writer, when I sit down to work, I just want to get my ideas down on a page and lose myself in the story I create — not stop to think and overanalyze what I’m writing while I do. But often it seems I have no other choice. As a woman, I am paralyzed by the fear of failing to write a character that female spectators can both relate to and be inspired by. I question my every move, like whether my character is too much of a cliché — the manic pixie dream girl, the femme fatale, the cold careerist, the damsel in distress. I become so engrossed with writing a female character that is realistic and moving without misrepresenting the female experience in any way that I then lose all my nerve.
I have witnessed female writers around me experience the same phenomenon. When we talk about increasing and diversifying female representation in Hollywood, it seems it is women who feel the most pressure, who feel the most responsible, to counterbalance this misrepresentation by giving voices to a wide range of characters of different colors, ages, sexualities, and backgrounds. While Amazonian warrior Diana may be able to lift large weights, the brunt of bringing an unprecedented female superhero to life is a lot to ask of mere mortal Wonder Woman director Patty Jenkins. Broad City’s Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson were likely also met with difficulty when writing dynamic and unconventional female leads. The Bold Type creator Sarah Watson probably felt a similar pressure while creating a show that is not only meant to empower women but also includes a strong LGBTQ+ romantic subplot.
While female writers and writers of color are taking up the mantle of changing media representation, white male writers don’t make this work any easier: They still get away with creating women who are psychotic, dumb, weak, or serve as little more than an object of sex, if they serve any purpose at all. In the 2017 film The Layover, the lead females objectify themselves and become catty and manipulative in the process of trying to win over a man they just met. Harley Quinn, as she was depicted in Suicide Squad, was an unstable, often feebleminded follower of the men around her, especially Joker. Blade Runner 2049 represents women as either prostitutes or holograms that exist only to serve the men.
And, despite increased rhetoric about inclusion in Hollywood, these men still completely dominate the industry. Only 8 percent of directors and 10 percent of screenwriters for the top 100 grossing films of 2017 were women, as were only 28 percent of all creators, directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors, and directors of photography working on broadcast network cable and streaming programs.
What’s more, these game-changing writers and the films they help create still aren’t receiving the recognition they deserve for their work. Take this year’s awards, for example. To be fair, the 2018 cinematic awards were a step in the right direction: Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird received nominations for both Academy Awards and Golden Globes, and female co-written films The Shape of Water and The Big Sick were also widely recognized. Television has similarly shown some progress, with the premieres of female-centered shows like The Handmaid’s Tale and Big Little Lies. But this year also marked the first in nearly a decade in which a female was nominated for Best Director, and she didn’t win. Of the nine Best Picture nominations, only three centered on the life of a woman, one of which focused on her relationship with a fish who is very explicitly male. While women were present in the remaining nominated films (except Dunkirk), they generally existed in the narrative to support a male protagonist’s struggles.
Ultimately, no male writers are told to go out there and write better male characters. While we absolutely should be calling for more stories written by and about women, it also should not be female writers’ duty or obligation. Women should be allowed to tell the stories they want, not create portrayals to amend a problem men created. Neither those who produce nor those who consume media should rely on women alone to guide men out of the traps that they set for all of us. At a time when so many parts of a woman’s life may feel like a constant battle, we must try to find a place where the voice of women can be raised not in defense, but in expression.
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