Are 'Strong Female Characters' an Endangered Species?
And who's killing them?
In a recent interview, Simon Pegg said that women write men better than men write women. It was a bold claim — and an admission as well. While Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz are brilliant, it’s true that Pegg himself isn’t known for writing female characters. The few present in his films are nags, ditzy, evil, or evil ditzy nags.
According to Pegg, men usually write women they’d want, which is to say unrealistic women. This is a valid point if we look at some of the women that have featured prominently on screens in recent years. They often fall into four main categories:
There’s the sultry sexpot, like the Sand Snakes in Game of Thrones or Megan Fox in Megan Fox movies. Then there’s the shrew, like Skyler in Breaking Bad or the girlfriend in every Judd Apatow movie. Sometimes these categories overlap, as the sultry sexpot becomes the shrew, like Betty Draper. Then there’s the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, which we’re all familiar with, and the one-dimensional heroine that the writers think is three dimensional because she has several token personality traits. Daenerys Targaryan may, sadly, fall within this category.
These are the characters Pegg is talking about when he says, “Men tend to write their women as fantasy."
But there are, of course, plenty of nuanced women on the screen too. So to truly evaluate whether he’s right, let’s take a look at some of the strongest female characters in recent years and see who wrote them.
Before we proceed, a quick word on the term “strong female characters.” Many have pointed out that the concept itself is somewhat regressive. Those people aren’t wrong, but let’s proceed with this exercise anyway.
Anya, Buffy The Vampire Slayer.
Writer: Joss Whedon.
Actress: Emma Caulfield.
Why the Character Works: Whedon is one of the male writers who is most frequently praised for his writing of female characters. And yet, his most famous character is one of his weakest. Buffy suffers from Protagonist Syndrome, a malady in which the protagonist is the least interesting character in a story (fellow sufferers include Frodo, Harry Potter, and Jon Snow in the first couple seasons). But Whedon’s side characters are where he earns his reputation. Rarely does a female character get to be the irreverent snarker; the dynamic shirker of social conventions. Plenty of guys are: Tyler Durden, The Dude, Tyrion Lannister, Mercutio. But Anya is up there with them. She pays little mind to social convention — she loves money and capitalism, says inappropriate things at inappropriate times, irrationally hates bunnies, is slightly sex-obsessed, occasionally violent, and deftly walks the line between sympathetic and sinister. Plus, in the mold of all the best irreverent snarkers, when she gets serious, she’s that much more heartbreaking:
Juno MacGuff, Juno
Writer: Diablo Cody
Actress: Ellen Page
Why the Character Works: We may be suffering from Quirky Girl fatigue after pop culture has been inundated with them, but Juno was the original. Gutsy, opinionated, and compassionate, she’s a character that has stuck.
Brienne of Tarth, Game of Thrones.
Writer: George R.R. Martin, David Benioff, D.B. Weiss
Actress: Gwendoline Christie
Why the Character Works: Often, when a character is a “tough” woman, the writer takes that to mean she can’t show any vulnerability or affection for things that are traditionally feminine. “Tough” women are rarely three-dimensional, being tough is often their only quality. When Brienne first appeared, she seemed close to that stereotype, but over time she has revealed that still waters run deep. And in a medieval world rife with morally bankrupt characters, she’s the closet thing they have to a traditional Chivalric Knight.
Gemma Teller Morrow, Sons of Anarchy
Writer: Kurt Sutter
Why the Character Works: Show runner and writer Kurt Sutter, with his Twitter tirades about “incompetent cunts” is one of the last guys you’d expect to write a woman well. But in this Hamlet-on-Harleys narrative that often muddled its Shakespeare references, Gemma isn’t just Gertrude, she’s Lady Macbeth. Vampy yet loving, sharp yet shortsighted, and utterly ruthless, she’s a Don Draper sort of anti-heroine who spits in the face of the idea that heroines must be likable. And yet, for the first couple seasons, you can’t help liking her anyway.
Clementine Kruczynski, Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind
Writer: Charlie Kaufman
Why the Character Works: Free-spirited, moody, irresponsible, fickle, crayola-coiffed, and alternately open-hearted and careless, Clementine is the anti-Manic Pixie Dream Girl. She deconstructs the entire concept in one short, fantastic monologue: “too many guys think I’m a concept, or I complete them, or I’m gonna make them alive. But I’m just a fucked up girl who’s looking for my own peace of mind; don’t assign me yours.”
Minerva McGonagall Harry Potter
Writer: J.K. Rowling
Why the Character Works: Proper, fierce, and occasionally scary, McGonagall is a boss. She holds her values - her students, education - above all else and refuses to cave even when the authorities try to intervene. In spite of her severity, she’s not without the occasional light moment. You can tell that if you drank with her, she’d have some crazy stories about her youth.
Liz Lemon, 30 Rock
Writer: Tina Fey
Why the Character Works:There’s some Liz in all of us. She’s confident yet awkward, together yet scattered, eats at inappropriate times, doesn’t have the best luck with dating…or socializing…or managing her employees… but she gives her all to everything she does.
Stella Gibson, The Fall
Writer: Alan Cubitt
Why the Character Works: Played by Agent Scully herself, Gibson is the agent hot on the tail of Christian Grey. I mean, a sexy serial killer. I mean, Christian Grey. The elegant cat-and-mouse chase is almost enough reason to tune into this moody British drama, but Gibson’s steely charisma is the main appeal. Check out her mic drop here:
Ilana Wexler, Broad City
Writer: Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer
Why the Character Works: Ilana is everyone’s crazy friend. But she’s not just crazy, she’s also supportive and ridiculously enthusiastic about her friend’s accomplishments. It doesn’t matter where she is, even if she’s at her grandmother’s shiva, she will take the time to celebrate her friend.
Janice Ian, Mean Girls
Janice marches to the beat of her own drum. She’s creative, open and welcoming if you’re the new kid in school, rocks a tux, and she isn’t afraid to be brutally honest when she needs to be.
In case you weren't keeping track of the writer ratio, the final tally falls to five written by men, five by women. Problem solved, sexism is over! And right on the heels of racism being over, since we elected Obama, and all.
Simon Pegg still isn’t wrong — Hollywood is still dangerously low on the laughably simple Bechdel Test and great writers like Pegg and Martin McDonagh admit to their work sporting a dearth of well-written female characters.
But McDonagh has also said, “If you write strong women, you can really surprise an audience, because they’re written so infrequently. If you create an intriguing and strong female character, that can take the story anywhere.”
The fact that Hollywood has gender issues isn’t news, but maybe the situation isn’t as hopeless as Pegg thinks. Amy Schumer’s movie is coming out in just over a month, maybe Pegg should ask for her help on his next script.