A prostitute in a library or a pregnant woman with an AK47?

We (uh, that would mean me, munchman) know which of these women we’d rather hang out with, but the real issue here is which would be the better character? Are they both great? Or both awful? Or…or…

womenintheaterby Sally Stott

“Something must be done,” people on stage are saying to people in the audience who are saying it back to them. I’m at a post-show discussion. It follows twelve short plays aiming to depict women in new and interesting ways. The evening’s been organised by Equal Writes as a response to recent research showing that there are twice as many roles for men as women in theatre. Things aren’t any better in film and TV with statistics  by the BBC and Cultural Diversity Network highlighting that men also outnumber women 2:1 on screen.

Despite this, lots of people want more and better characters for women. In February, I wrote a blog trying to encourage some into the Script Room. But what exactly does a ‘good’ female character mean? Is she someone who breaks down the barriers of a patriarchal society using only a rolled up copy of the Guardian? Is she the familiar wife, daughter or girlfriend but with better dialogue? Or perhaps she’s so different to everything we’ve seen before that we’d struggle to recognise her?

The majority of the plays at the Equal Writes evening, selected from hundreds of entries, do three things.

•                    They show women in a believable way.
•                    They undermine how women are sometimes seen by others.
•                    They’re funny.

Some are naturalistic, some are stylised or satirical. Walkie Talkies, by Kaite O’Reilly, is a disabled woman’s critique of life in a super caring care home. Andrew Curtis’s Flags shows two older women from different backgrounds arm wrestling over their heritage. Sarah Rutherford’s La Barbe is a surrealist comedy about office culture. Paul Macauley’s Piece of Cake is a family drama that ridicules the advertising industry.

The twelve scripts contain lots of original ideas but also some familiar ones: for instance, older women needing to be looked after, women fighting over men, and mother and daughter relationships. The difficultly in creating a completely original female character is that she also has to be identifiable – someone we can recognise. And what we recognise is partly informed by film and TV – places where female characters can be shown in limited ways.

So what can writers do to avoid regurgitating the same types of women, while still giving audiences something they can identify with and understand?

A way Hollywood tries to get around this is to turn female characters into men. Action films are full of literally ‘strong’ women, just as capable as blokes, with durable clothing and an AK47 to prove it. Famously Ripley from the Alien films was written as a man. Recently, The Killing’s Sophie Gråbøl said she played Detective Inspector Sarah Lund as if she was male (see link). Both are generally seen as examples of good female characters. However, getting rid of a female characters’ sexuality in order to make her less female and, presumably, less rubbish seems a rather convoluted and, in some ways, destructive way of making her ‘good’.

Another popular technique is to…

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