Female Characters with Shawna Romkey

Jennifer here. My guest today is YA Author Shawna Romkey!  Please join me in welcoming Shawna!

A lot has been in the writing world lately about writing strong female characters and what exactly that means.  This article is making the rounds http://www.newstatesman.com/culture/2013/08/i-hate-strong-female-characters. Natalie Portman has been quoted recently saying “I want [female characters] to be allowed to be weak and strong and happy and sad – human, basically. The fallacy in Hollywood is that if you’re making a ‘feminist’ story, the woman kicks ass and wins. That’s not feminist, that’s macho. A movie about a weak, vulnerable woman can be feminist if it shows a real person that we can empathize with.”Natalie Portman 

Joss Whedon has this to say about it: Toymakers will tell you they won’t sell enough, and movie people will point to the two terrible superheroine movies that were made and say, You see? It can’t be done. It’s stupid, and I’m hoping “The Hunger Games” will lead to a paradigm shift. It’s frustrating to me that I don’t see anybody developing one of these movies. It actually pisses me off. My daughter watched “The Avengers” and was like, “My favorite characters were the Black Widow and Maria Hill,” and I thought, Yeah, of course they were. I read a beautiful thing Junot Diaz wrote: “If you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves.”

For years I collected female action figures because 1. I’m a nerd and 2. I understand business. The toymakers are right. The female action figures didn’t sell as much, so manufacturers didn’t make as many, so most of the Princess Leia’s in the sets are rare and therefore worth more.

The debate about whether a female super hero movie would succeed is out there and all sorts of geeks are chiming in as to how it could work or why it wouldn’t.

If you’ve seen the documentary Miss Representation (and if you haven’t I highly recommend that you do), you can see an illustration of what Whedon discusses above, denying the existence of women. MR states:

  1. 1.       Males outnumber females 3 to 1 in family films. In contrast, females comprise just over 50% of the population in the United States. Even more staggering is the fact that this ratio, as seen in family films, is the same as it was in 1946.
  2. 2.      Women are about 37% of prime-time TV characters (they are 51% of the U.S. population). Women 45 and older are only 15% of prime-time TV characters.
  3. 3.      Male TV characters (41%) were more likely to be shown “on the job” than female characters (28%). Men were more likely to talk about work than women were (52% vs. 40%) and less likely to talk about romantic relationships (49% vs. 63%)

So as a writer and as woman I think it’s important to provide role models for young women. I’ve written about how YA shouldn’t be sexualized and why. I would think it would benefit men too to have confident, secure women around them.

George RR Martin said in an interview that he writes women so well because he’s always considered them to be people.

So where is the disconnect? Are female characters supposed to be strong and kick ass or aren’t they? Are they interesting as a super hero or aren’t they? Are they supposed to put up with BS or not? And how are we to write female characters in a way that isn’t condescending or sexist or unbelievable or uninteresting?

Maybe a female character doesn’t necessarily have to be strong, but to start with a female character has to be there, and not as a token vag badge for lack of a better term.  If males outnumber females in family films, I’d hate to see the action film ratio.  So for a start, just make sure they’re there, so our daughters and nieces see that they are allowed to exist in this world.

That’s where the Bechdel test comes in. It doesn’t completely determine if a film or book is sexist or not, but does test whether women are there. It asks the questions of the work below.

  1. Does it have at least two women in it?
  2. Do they talk to each other?
  3. Do they talk about something besides a man?

If the answer is yes to those three questions, it’s considered a pass.

That’s a start anyway.

We don’t call male characters, strong male characters. We call them characters. So let’s go with that. Then we can worry about whether they are strong or not. Just make sure they’re there. Make sure they speak, and make sure when they do, it’s about something relevant. Once we master that, we can worry about whether Wonder Woman will be a successful movie or whether females should kick ass.

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2 thoughts on “Female Characters with Shawna Romkey”

  1. Interesting analysis, Shawna. I write YA as well and I’m always concerned that my female characters are either too strong to be realistic and believable (Jordie and Penny) or not strong enough and come across as wimpy (Brinn and Lily). Readers seem to want kick ass heroines, but at 16 or 17, how kick ass is a teenage girl going to be before she becomes an unrealistic foil on the page?

    Teenage girls are often whiny and indecisive, emotionally driven and ruled by hormones. Not generally the characteristics of a kick-ass heroine. So the question for us writers is more about how do we keep our characters authentic without disappointing our readers? I think it’s important to show their flaws and weaknesses so that we can also show their growth throughout the story. Having them struggle with their principles, with their emotional angst, and even with their PMS moodiness, makes for more relatable characters, but who wants to read about teenage girls melting down all the time?

    I think women in fiction should be portrayed as real people with real problems. That means that they have weaknesses that readers can identify with and strengths that they can admire. It’s our job as writers to find a way to help our female characters push beyond their challenges and become the heroine of their own story. Thanks for a great post.

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