The Problem With Perfect Female Characters
Podcast Audio Link: Click here.
Podcast Transcript: Hi, genuine writers! This is Innovative Editing’s Jeannette DiLouie welcoming you to episode #22 of The Genuine Writer Podcast. We keep things short, sweet and to the point here so that you can learn what you need to learn and get back to writing already.
Today’s episode – which is essentially a rant on unrealistic portrayals of females in writing – is sponsored by a book about a female character who actually makes sense. Abigail Carpenter in the historical fiction novel Maiden America is both brave and biased, kind and fiery-tempered, and an otherwise complex creature who has her laudable moments and her weak moments. In other words, she’s human. Which is what we should strive for in all of the characters we write. No matter what time period they’re in or whether they have human characteristics or not, they should never be perfect and all-capable.
Clearly, I already got away from my endorsement and started on my rant, so let me quickly say one more thing about Maiden America: that it’s based off of carefully researched historical details about two exceptionally important battles during the Revolutionary War. And those details are phenomenally fascinating enough to allow a story like this one to come about.
Before I officially get back to my rant, let me just establish that I’m not prejudiced against women any more than I’m prejudiced against men. I don’t think anybody behaves very well these days. So I’m an equal-opportunity criticizer, I suppose. Which is why I’m really not a fan at all of the feminist trope – or men-kissing-up-to-feminists trope – of the can-do-all-things female character. Sometimes it’s the protagonist who’s like that; sometimes it’s a secondary character. Either way, it’s almost always annoying.
I think that Keith Thomson in Once a Spy and the sequel, Twice a Spy, came closest to capturing a “perfect” female character I’ve read where I didn’t want to throw the book out the window, set it on fire, and dance madly around its ashes to celebrate the metaphoric death of bad writing.
Because, make no mistake of it… presenting perfect female characters in anything is bad writing. Characters are supposed to have flaws, no matter their gender, race, age or anything else. Otherwise, they come across as cheesy. And unless you’re writing a parody or something that’s meant to be silly, “cheesy” is bad. Characters should never, ever be physically, emotionally, psychologically, presentationally and intellectually amazing all at the same time. Why not? Because it’s stupid. And unrealistic. And it kills the mystery of the character.
More about that last one in a moment, but let’s go back to the reality-based objection first. While it’s completely true that there are incredibly strong people out there, incredibly beautiful people out there, incredibly mature people out there, incredibly well-balanced people out there, incredibly classy people out there and incredibly intelligent people out there, how many people can you think of who fit every single one of those descriptions?
And don’t give me Hollywood people. Their lives are almost entirely filled with immaturity and rife with unnecessary drama. Mother Theresa wasn’t perfect either. Nor was Dr. King. If you really dig into their lives, you’ll find flaws. Sad but true. Even the brilliant Christian apologeticist Ravi Zacharias, who has such a calm and gentle and respectful approach to every response he gives, has admitted that being on the road all the time has given him plenty of moments of temptation to cheat on his wife. He never did, but the temptation still happened. Why? Because he’s human and life is complicated. Those two factors never ever change in this life, which means that while there are plenty of people out there who try to portray themselves as having everything together, they’re all lying through their perfectly capped teeth.
Now let’s address that third disqualifier that we mentioned before: How perfect characters kill the mystery of a story. Riddle me this: What’s the point of reading a story: Isn’t it to see whether or not the protagonist can make it through whatever challenge he’s up against? I’d say that’s true of every single genre out there minus perhaps one, and that would be mysteries – which is a different topic for a different day. But if a character is perfect, then that question is already answered. Of course he’s going to win. Duh. True perfection never loses.
It’s true that protagonists usually come out ahead regardless. But that doesn’t mean those stories can’t grab your attention and set your heart racing regardless, wondering exactly how they’re going to make it through? It’s hard – not impossible – but hard to really get readers on the edge of their seats though when the protagonist has no flaws.
So far, my anti-perfect-female-character criticisms can be applied just as easily to my thoughts about how dumb it is to have a perfect male character. And I guess the same is true of this next point too. But considering the trend of making female characters perfect these days, I’m still going to aim it that way anyway…
Telling women that they can be perfect in the real world or in artistic interpretations of that real world is just flat-out dangerous. It’s dangerous from a physical perspective, giving the impression that women can walk into any situation and come out unharmed. Which, let’s face it, isn’t always going to be the case. Like it or not, that imperfect world we live in with imperfect humans means that we need to use our smarts and intuition to lessen our chances of being hurt. And before you argue that we’re smart enough to know the difference between fiction and nonfiction, the more exposure we have to any notion. no matter its format, the more we’re going to want to take it at face-value, accepting it as the norm.
Then there’s the emotional/psychological side to the equation. Not to get all political, but modern-day feminism makes us think we have to do it all because we can do it all. When, guess what? Nobody’s equipped to do it all. And we shouldn’t be bullied into thinking otherwise. It’s okay to choose just a career or just mommyhood if that’s really what you want. You don’t have to drive yourself to drink, or prescription drugs or a mental breakdown trying to be perfect.
In conclusion, I’m going to quote a piece by Kelly Martinez on KCPR.com. Warning: it’s a long quote, but I think it’s very telling:
[Gillian Flynn’s] Gone Girl sparked a considerable amount of controversy when it hit the big screen, particularly among women. Some felt that a character like Amy – who not only frames her husband for murder, but also falsely accuses men of rape, writes a detailed and false account of her husband’s “abusive” behaviors, and ultimately traps him in the end by inseminating herself with his sample without his consent – was an insulting characterization of women. Amy has been accused of being a mere stereotype of the “crazy girl” trope and a sexist suggestion that this is how real women behave.
This past summer, another one of Flynn’s bestsellers – her debut novel, actually – hit the screens, this time as a miniseries on HBO. Sharp Objects tells the story of young journalist Camille Preaker, who returns to her hometown to investigate a series of murders of teenage girls. While home, Camille reunites with her narcissistic mother, Adora, and teenage half-sister, Amma.
Spoiler alert: Amy Dunne has nothing on Amma. The young teenager is every bit as harrowing and captivating – and the things she’s capable of are terrifying, to put it mildly. The mini-series has received praise for its exploration of female relationships, mental illness and family dysfunction. Still though, accusations of misogyny continue to follow Flynn’s work.
But Gillian Flynn had an interesting response to these claims. “If a male author writes a nasty male character, he’s an anti-hero. But if a woman does it, it’s anti-feminist.”
Flynn raises an important question: why aren’t there more female villains?
In a world where audiences find themselves captivated by – and even rooting for – the villainous male protagonists on shows like Breaking Bad and House of Cards, why are we hesitant to explore equally dark and complex female characters?
“I particularly mourn the lack of female villains – good, potent female villains,” Flynn said. “Not ill-tempered women who scheme about landing good men and better shoes (as if we had nothing more interesting to war over), not chilly WASP mothers (emotionally distant isn’t necessarily evil), not soapy vixens (merely bitchy doesn’t qualify either). I’m talking violent, wicked women. Scary women. Don’t tell me you don’t know some.”
Of course you do. And if you don’t, go look up the true history of Queen Elizabeth.
Check out what female slave owners did to their husband’s willing or unwilling concubines, not to mention the poor babies born from it. Or, if you really want to throw up, try looking into Countess Erzsébet (Elizabeth) Báthory de Ecsed. And there are plenty of modern-day stories of women acting despicably too.
Why? Because we women are human. We’re capable of doing absolutely amazing things. And we’re capable of doing absolutely horrible things. And we’re never perfect regardless. If you deny that, you’re treading on entirely unrealistic ground – so much so that it doesn’t even work for fiction.
Thanks for tuning into The Genuine Writer Podcast. As always, it was wonderful to have you here, and I’ll catch you writers next week. Until then, very happy writing.