Sunday, February 5, 2017

Give Your Female Characters Agency

By Kasie Whitener

Did you know there’s a rape scene in Saturday Night Fever? In all the talk of the dancing and the music and the classic character Tony Manero wanting to climb out of his Brooklyn bleakness into stardom, no one ever mentions the rape.

Toward the end of the film, Annette, Tony’s adoring fan, is swept up by the guys as they’re leaving the club. In the backseat, Annette and one of Tony’s friends have sex. The other three friends are riding up front, heckling the couple throughout. At an intersection, the friend in the back switches places with a friend in the front and the second friend attacks Annette. She tells him no, but none of the guys bother to prevent it from happening. Tony even glances back during the act, sees tears dripping down her cheeks, and does nothing.

When we make the story about the male character, we can ignore the female character’s suffering.

My senior year in college, I directed a Tennessee Williams one-act play called 27 Wagons Full of Cotton. In it, crooked businessman Silva violently takes Jake’s wife, Flora, as payment for lost cotton.

I doubt I fully understood the story I was telling. I can’t remember identifying with Flora’s helplessness. I remember being more focused on turning my friend Dennis, who played Silva, into a predator.

I watched a TEDx talk by a father imploring storytellers to show his son exactly how good men are supposed to behave. He said the old story of “hero battles evil alone and is given the girl as a prize,” sets boys up for failure. Tony ignores Annette’s rape and Jake allows his wife to be taken as payment.

When the story focuses on the male character, it is easy to dehumanize the females around him. We’re not required to make female supporting roles complex characters who have agency and purpose. We’re allowed to let them exist as props, victims, or trophies.

This recognition of women in relation to the men around them is the center conflict of my NaNoWriMo project and a lens I am using in almost all the art I experience.

I know I should do a better job with my supporting female characters. They should act on their own motives and desires. Their experiences should be valid and plot-affecting. My male characters should demonstrate acceptable treatment of their female counterparts. They should show compassion and tenderness, offer respect, and protect dignity.

Good male characters don’t need weak women to prop them up. Annette’s rape confirms what we knew about Tony: he only cares about himself. Jake’s willing acceptance of Silva’s terms further demeans Flora. Those stories are decades old, but the challenge of female agency still exists.

For every Katniss Everdeen and Hermione Granger there must be a Gayle and a Harry: men who see their female co-stars as teammates, who have expectations of the women and enable them to succeed. Equality on the page advances both female and male characters.


Laura Puccia Valtorta said...

You bring up a good point, Cayce. When my son was in grammar school he always asked -- "Why is the father always the bad guy in movies?' That was because the fathers were rarely portrayed as supporting the freedom and personhood of their daughters and sons. I know from my great husband (Marco) and my wonderful son-in-law (Ross) that men are often intelligent and supportive of their children.

Elizabeth B said...

While I agree that fictional females (& the real ones) ought to have agency, the truth is that in many instances of real life, they don't. They are trophies and props, sadly. That is changing, of course and so also should the literature, hence your imperative.

Allow me though:
Samuel Johnson gets the credit for writing the first dictionary, prescriptively. He was aiming to fix words into permanence. His was also a moral imperative. Later lexacographers (WEbster?) designed a reference book containing words with a variety of user definitions. These descriptive dictionaries would be open to expansion; entries would account for the frequently evolving nature of language.

The difference between the two dictionaries is this: should do v. does.

My struggle with the imperative to give female characters agency is that they often just don't have it. Really. If fiction is a version of truth/reality (an assumption I think we might all have), then your encouragement/mandate will indeed be a difficult one for me, at least. I'm more inclined to write descriptively, rather than prescriptively. & yet, I don't wish to grow the cannon of entirely dependent females.

Lots to think on. Thanks!

Laura Puccia Valtorta said...

You've got to be kidding, Elizabeth. Women are the doers and shakers of the world. We grow stronger, even though we are oppressed. When I go into court, I look for the female judges and the female attorneys to do the best job. We are the brightest actors on the legal stage. Women make the best doctors, too.