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Writing Women: Worthy of Criticism

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Greetings once again.  Today I return to the blog to re-examine a topic I have touched on before- writing a good female character.  Previously, I’ve stated how I learned to write a female character by focusing on them as characters, and not placing much emphasis on them being female.  What brings me back to the topic is some recent criticism published about the current Wonder Woman comic.  These critics accused the writers of making the Amazons into xenophobic killers, incapable of leading themselves, and how Wonder Woman has been changed into a character hating her current roles as a hero, the Amazon Queen, and the new God of War.  The reviewer, Grant Raycroft, goes even further, saying that DC has mishandled Wonder Woman in the last four years, and calls the current book “one the comic book reader doesn’t deserve.”

These are harsh criticisms, but they do highlight something I noticed in reviews of another series I’ve discussed here, Legend of Korra.  While I still have mixed feelings on the series itself, one aspect that I did applaud it for was centering it around a young female hero in Korra.  However, I found Korra’s flaws outweighed her positive traits- she was headstrong, resolved too many problems with her fists, looked to others for approval, and just seemed ill-suited to the responsibilities of being her world’s hero.  Now, while I found many fans online that agreed with me, the critical reviews largely praised Korra, and did not mention the flaws I saw.  Obviously, difference of opinion is always a factor. But I found it strange at the time and more so now, as many reviewers have shared Raycroft’s feelings concerning the current Wonder Woman creative team and their direction.

So why does this matter?  To begin with, Wonder Woman is an icon, one that has largely been used as symbol for women’s rights.  Her portrayal is taken more seriously and has more impact as a whole.  Therefore, when she is not portrayed well, the response is voiced quickly and loudly.  Wonder Woman is a landmark in an often male-dominated medium, and despite bumps along the way, has kept that status.  But what is it that lets Korra escape many of these criticisms, despite having many flaws of her own?

Simply put, because the world of entertainment tends to be male-dominated.  Just looking at the superhero genre, there have been few superhero films that feature women.  Even after making it to the screen, Black Widow has been a supporting character in both of her film appearances.  And many times, female-led comics are done in such a way to simply attract the male readers through sex appeal, or make them seem less then some male counterpart.  Obviously, there are exceptions, such as the new Ms. Marvel, but it tends to make the idea of a positive female lead seem somewhat revolutionary.  So when a show like Korra comes along, many want to support it, and show they do want to see a female lead.

But that is the problem as well.  Because of that lack of publicity, it can be hard to say you dislike these new female leads.  Others can easily accuse a critic of hating women, or refusing to change with the times.  So there is something of a need to publicly support these female leads, even when they don’t live up to the ideals they champion.  But that makes these women seem inferior, like they can’t be judged to the same basic character standards we apply to male leads.  So what do we do about it?

For writers, I will reiterate my stance on women as characters rather then gender examples.  And I will add that if you think writing a female lead is all you need to grab attention, you’re wrong.   A female lead needs all the good character traits we expect- imperfections, goals, and far more depth then ‘toughness’ or ‘evil’.  If you want to show them as equal to men, then write the story that way.  Balance strength with sensitivity in everyone.  Let the men save the women AND the women save the men.  And for critics, when writers fail to do these things, don’t be afraid to tell them.  Women can take anything men can.

Thoughts on Writing A Good Female Character

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I had intended to spend this week’s blog on another Point of Light, but upon opening my newspaper on Monday morning, I came across something that caught my attention. It was an article on the lack of a successful super-heroine film, a fact that as a comic fan I can readily attest to. As I read the article, I found myself musing on the problems not only with women in comics, but also the problems I faced writing women into Lightrider. Therefore, this week’s entry will be my journey to write good female characters (as well as some notes on the lack of said women in comic books films).

Women in Media and in Lightrider

As I mentioned, I can easily attest to the lack of good super-heroine films from comics. While Thor and Batman bring in money hand over fist, Wonder Woman remains in development hell, while atrocities like Catwoman and Supergirl are released to worldwide disdain, further burying the concept of female heroes. Most women in these films are either damsels (Vicky Vale), or brought in to be part of a team (Black Widow), or just as eye candy (take your pick). I will readily admit part of the problem is that these characters have to compete in a male-driven world (as I mentioned in my piece on Mary-sues, female characters are often wrongly accused of being Mary-Sues when they are presented as strong characters). Even when there are acceptable strong female characters, they are almost always given some level of sex appeal to grab male readership (see Starfire in early Titans; a sweet, gentle, yet powerful alien with a model’s body that didn’t always wear clothes). Even Wonder Woman, the greatest heroine of all time, suffers from this problem, as she is best known for fighting crime in a star-spangled one piece that has changed in size various times over the years (and despite this, most men are so uncomfortable with her mission to educate the destructive race of man in the ways of peace it has hindered her film debt). As such, most comic book movie heroines have to try to relate to women and appeal to men, and usually fail on their own.

While I won’t try to claim that I never noticed or somewhat enjoyed the sexualization of women in comics, I can say that I have a much greater attachment to female characters that actually HAVE character. As a child, I never understood why so many of my favorite cartoons omitted the girls from their toyline (or at least didn’t give them the big weapons the men had). As I got older, I latched onto many strong female characters (Katara and Toph from Avatar: The Last Airbender, Raven and Starfire from Teen Titans, Cassandra Cain (Batgirl) from the Batman comics), and rolled my eyes at attempts to sexualize them (I still cringe at Starfire’s early days in Red Hood and the Outlaws.) But at the same time, I was also creating the Knights in Lightrider, and despite my understanding of good female characters, I originally wrote all the Knights as men.

I can’t really say why I did this. To some degree, I think I was afraid I would be unable to really write an accurate female character. And perhaps some part of it was the large amount of male-centric media I’d been exposed to. But as I began to show my work around, I heard from a friend, “Why aren’t some of them women?” It was a comment I heard more then once, enough that I began to seriously think about it. I decided that I needed to really asses what a good female character was before I could begin such a massive overwrite. So I looked over the characters I mentioned above, long with others I had seen as a child, and began to analyze why they worked as female heroes. But as I worked, I realized something. I cared about Katara and Toph because they were upbeat, strong, characters that had overcome personal hardships and were bravely fighting an unwinnable war. I cared about Raven and Starfire because despite all their powers, at their cores, I saw people I could relate to and understand. I cared about Cassandra Cain because she was trying overcome the shadow of her assassin father. And I found similar traits in every other female character I researched. And so I realized this- I cared about these women because they were characters first.

And thus, I had my answer. I went back to the book and chose the Knights I could change (some were simply too male to be effectively changed), made the alterations, and made a group that was not only more balanced, but was still the group of unique characters I had intended them to be. So in conclusion, for writers who want to create good female characters, to movie executives and comic writers trying to make a real heroine movie/comic, and finally, I say this- Before you think of them as a woman, make sure you think of them as characters. Because characters lasts a lot longer than a skin tight costume or the sex driven attention span of men.