Thursday, May 10, 2012

Men as Characters, Women as Symbols

By Jay Stringer

I'm returning to a theme I've looked at before, so I won't outstay my welcome on it. Yesterday Professor Weddle tweeted a link to this interview with Liz Meriwether, the creator of New Girl. I don't know if I'll lose any noir points for saying this, but I've been really enjoying New Girl. I didn't expect to; I'm very selective when it comes to sitcoms and rarely find ones that I enjoy. But the show has heart, which is it's secret weapon, and manages to be funny more often than not.

When the show came out it caught a lot of heat on the Internet. People wanted to analyse what statement the show was making, and what the characters signified about modern gender politics. Writers lined up to declare the show as some form of battleground, and to make a series of thinly disguised personal comments about the shows female lead.

In all the debates, discussions, and snark, it would have been easy to forget that we were discussing a television sitcom rather than a political manifesto.

It touches on something I've written about before. When the Internet (and the broadsheet media) took issue with perceived misogyny in an episode of SHERLOCK. I questioned whether it was fair to judge writers based on what happens in their stories. I also wondered whether people want writers to write the world as it is or as they think it should be, and if Internet critics could tell the difference.

But this interview with Meriwether really boiled down the issue far better than I could. Here's the bit I mean;

The characters don’t have to be symbols of a bigger movement. I feel like we are really past that.
That really says most of what needs to be said, right? But the interview also covers a little more ground. Does the show attract more snark because it's female lead? I'm tempted to say yes, but not in the expected old fashioned way. I think it attracted the snark because of baggage that people brought to it, and which had nothing to do with the show itself.

I'd argue, and I think perhaps the interview informs this too, that there is a tendency to read a female character as the writers definitive statement on feminism and gender politics. That's a hell of a lot of pressure to place on a character and a story.

Presenting well-rounded female characters in our work is vital. But there's a difference between someone wanting to pick up a book and feel represented in the text, and someone wanted to pick up a book and expecting a character in the text to represent all of their sex/race/gender/species/shoe size.

I think what we saw with the fuss over New Girl is that there are still a great many people who don't feel represented in the media, and still a great many rules in place as to how these things can be done. And we feel echoes of these things in our writing. But I also think it shows that there is too much pressure placed on female characters, and to be honest, I think we'd be doing far more to encourage well written female roles by removing these pressures and formulas from the conversation and simply promoting interesting characters.

Let's work towards a better balance in our fiction by stripping these barriers away, not adding to them.


Aaaaaaaaaand now that I've gone and stuck my toe into that little hornets nest, how about I close off with something completely different?

You may have seen on the twitters that I'm running an easy competition at the moment. I'll be doing a few things over the next few months in advance of OLD GOLD, but straight out the gate I'm giving away 5 signed copies. For Free. Free stuff? We like free. All you need to do to enter the draw is to join my mailing list. I'll leave the competition running until this time next week, then draw the five winners at random from my mailing list. Tell your friends. Tell your granny. Tell those guys in African countries who keep emailing you about money (sorry, I know we need to retire that joke, but once more, okay?). I want to send these books to folks who love crime fiction, but I would also like to send them to as many different places as possible. a real spread would be fun. I'll have more cool things for people on my mailing list between now and the book's release.


Stringer Belle said...

There's a scene in the pilot episode of HBO's new series Girls, which is referenced in the interview you linked, in which Lena Dunham's character (high on opium-infused tea) announces to her parents that she might just be "the voice of my generation".

"Well, maybe not MY generation," she clarifies. "But A generation. Somewhere."

I think that line so perfectly captures Liz Meriwether's point. I mean, geez, why am I even bringing up a completely unrelated show in this comment? Because the interviewer did. Because EVERY interviewer does. And Girls and New Girl could not be more different (other than in certain situations when you might be looking for shall we say INFORMATION about shows on google).

I mean, geez, why is the casting of New Girl such a talking point? If you've watched more than one episode of the show you will swiftly realise it has NOTHING TO DO with gender politics. It is an ensemble comedy, comparable to Friends more than anything else.

And yet that is a comparison I have never read anywhere else. Why? Because it's a show created by a woman, with an easily-recognisable (and in some circles controversial) female lead. That's the only difference. And that's pathetic. New Girl has gone from being appalling (you were in the room when Jehane and I watched the pilot episode, you know it was) to a guilty pleasure to a genuine pleasure, with well-rounded characters and NOBODY CARES because nobody stuck around to watch it. They were too busy going "oh, it was written by a chick".

THAT'S what we should be past.

But we're not. See also: any article written about Girls before the show even aired. In fact, anything written about it even now.

The awkward, slightly contrived "placing a lot of pressure on female characters" will continue, I predict, until the mainstream media views female writers as less of a flippin' shock. Which won't stop until those articles stop generating a fucktonne of previews... which won't happen until the feminist blogosphere has bored everybody to death with how every character needs to be representative of some wider point rather than, you know, possessed of actual lifelike flaws and stuff.

JD Rhoades said...

The characters don’t have to be symbols of a bigger movement. I feel like we are really past that.


Excellent post.

Thomas Pluck said...

Characters should be people first. I think that is less evident on television, especially in the short form, because characters are so bland. I've had a few laughs at The New Girl and Girls, but both are nothing new. The latter is Sex in the City for millenials, only better written.

Anonymous said...

She's alot hotter than her sister.

John McFetridge said...

Sure, the characters don't have to be symbols of a bigger movement, but they can be once in a while, can't they?

Are we really past that?