Imagine you are a different person.
Not just a different version of yourself, maybe smarter, or stronger, or with magic powers, but a different person entirely. A different gender, race, sexuality, religion. Imagine you grew up rich, or dirt poor. Imagine you are an Armenia teenager who helps his widower father run a stall at a fish market. Imagine you are your next door neighbour. Imagine you are China’s first transgender ballerina. Imagine you grew up consuming different media, fancying different people, being called by different pronouns.
Can you imagine the entire inner and outer life of a person whose experience is completely different from yours?
This is the exercise that writers are asked to undertake. Unless we choose to write very true to our own experiences, then we have to be able to get inside the heads of people who are different to us. Sometimes these characters need little more than a basic wire framework of experience and personality. However, central characters need to be more than just a cardboard cutout. They need life, and that life generally requires some note of authenticity.
There are some very basic tenants or characterisation that any not-completely-awful writer will know; things like not reducing a character to a single trait or quirk, not making them a stereotype, and ideally, not defining them entirely through their relationship to another character. It can be a little more difficult to write ‘authentic’ emotions, but this is where the writer employs both their own experience and their ability to empathise (fairly essential to the majority of quality writing). As long as the author has experienced a reasonably wide range of emotions – happiness, anger, embarrassment, grief – they should be able to project their emotions onto their characters.
There are some emotional experiences, however, that can be extremely difficult to write accurately if the author has never experienced them. Empathy can only extend so far when it comes to accurately representing experiences such as: being an adopted Asian child growing up in a white Australian family; depression, schizophrenia, or any other mental illness; the tension of being a woman walking alone at night or the constant feeling of being watched and judged that comes with being female; the body dysmorphia that many trans people experience; being a homosexual child trying to figure out their crushes and whether or not they are ‘normal’.
Even if these experiences do not occur within the story itself, they will affect the lives of the characters, their personalities and how they behave. Can a writer who has not had these experiences convincingly write a character who has inevitably had them as a part of their life?
It is not impossible for an author to write outside of their own emotional experiences. Many writers do it well. But it is far, far easier for a queer woman to write a straight male than it is for a straight male to write a queer woman. Why?
The stories of straight, white, cisgender men are everywhere.
Big beefy male action heroes, skinny male nerds, sensitive male musicians, wise, elderly male professors, unhinged male psychopaths, compelling male assholes, evil male villains, average joes, guys-next-door, male athletes, male politicians… the narrative landscape of our society is a veritable cock forest. Just about every possible model for ‘straight, white, cis dude’ has been done a hundred thousand times. Churning out a male character becomes almost second nature given just how often audiences are expected to identify with each and every one of them. That doesn’t mean they are bad characters, or that writing them is inherently lazy – rather that it is much easier to write a good male character with so many variations to build upon.
The dearth of other narratives means that writers must build much more on experiences that may be alien to them in order to create their characters. This requires a good deal of empathy and skill, and is often where many writers can tend to fall flat on their faces.
Because of the lack of wide variation in, say, female characters, writers who learn from those who’ve come before them can often end up regurgitating sexist tropes. Female characters can end up having their personalities revolve around the fact that they are female, i.e. they exhibit only traits associated with stereotypes of femininity (irrational moodiness, superficiality, mothering, etc.). While not always bad, these sorts of characters are usually pretty terrible and can bring down a narrative with otherwise well-written (male) characters. (The best way around this, of course, is to recognise the fact that women are multi-faceted people who can possess a variety of strengths and personalities and still be interesting, well-rounded people. Game of Thrones is an excellent example of a show which contains a wide range of unique, powerful women.)
An alternative to this can be to write a character with a neutral model. This is sometimes done in films and video games, and has been responsible for some excellent female characters (Ripley from the Alien films was written this way, and she frequently ranks highly on feminists’ lists of best female characters). However, there is a limit to the sorts of narratives these ‘neutral’ characters can inhabit; sometimes plots are about a character’s gender, or race, or sexuality, and while gender may be irrelevant in a sci-fi or dystopia, it probably makes a difference in stories about the American Civil War or a romantic dramedy set in a Catholic high school (these are also stories in which gender by necessity intersects with issues of race/sexuality/etc., other issues generally irrelevant to the narrative of the straight, white, cis dude). Gender and race are also usually fairly visible in ways other traits may not be. While no character should be defined by their sexuality or their gender identity or their faith, these issues shouldn’t be invisible; the “Dumbledore was gay all along” model is a fairly lazy method of representation and is unlikely to get your writing a tick from anyone other than well-meaning straight people.
Ultimately, the best way to write a character outside of our own experiences is to do a lot of research, and never presume to be able to tell the story of someone with different experiences to us better than someone who has had those experiences. If you think it’s too much effort to research what it’s like to be trans and think you do a better job all on your own (looking at you, Jeffrey Eugenides), then think about the amount of time you’ve spent researching the Middle Ages, or how planes work, or how to dispose of a body, or how to survive a gunshot wound, all for the sake of a throwaway line in a story you stuck in a drawer. If we can do all that to provide authentic details, then we can research a character at least well enough that we aren’t going to misrepresent and offend an entire group of people.
It may be impossible to write a character that isn’t you in a way that is truly convincing. That doesn’t make you a bad writer. Writers are also not necessarily obligated to write characters who aren’t straight, white, cisgender males. We don’t have to write anything we don’t want to write. But if we really want to try to be good writers, then we probably should.
Recently we learned that the as-yet-unnamed sequel to ‘Man of Steel’ will add another famous face to its lineup of heroes. Laying the foundations for a Justice League answer to the success of Marvel’s ‘Avengers’ film, Warner Brothers have confirmed that Wonder Woman will appear in the 2015 production starring Batman (Ben Affleck) and Superman (Henry Cavill).
Arguably DC’s most iconic and popular heroine, Wonder Woman – a.k.a. Diana Prince – has been a long-time fan favourite; her image recognised and replicated far beyond the comics. It’s been a long time coming, but the Amazonian princess is finally set to debut in her first feature-length, live action film.*
So why are her fans so furious?
While we’ve long awaited her debut on the big screen, we’re less-than-thrilled to learn that she will be second fiddle in someone else’s movie (why are we seeing what feels like the tenth Batman movie before we see Wonder Woman in her first solo?) and the casting of her character.
Here are the two things incredibly wrong about all this:
#1. The ‘sidekick’ status. Wonder Woman is a supporting cast member instead of the leading lady. She has been relegated to the sidelines and, while visibility of women in media is an excellent mark of progress, there are some things only the titular character can enjoy.
Diana has a rich and exciting story which should be explored fully. This is something which would be difficult to include in a story focusing on one other superhero, let alone two. Supporting characters simply do not experience the full development and personal transformation like that of the primary protagonist.
I’ve seen enough movies to know the formula Hollywood works by. Here’s how her scenes will go:
She’ll appear, probably dramatically, just in time to save the day in a skirmish early on in the film. We’ll have a short introduction to her history when the chaos blows over – just enough to produce a general idea of her origins – before we return to the main arc of conflict surrounding Batman and Superman. She’ll have some butt-kicking moments (perhaps even a scene where the enemy is so shocked that a woman has bested him in combat! Gasp!) but ultimately Clark and Bruce will have the final hurrah. Roll credits.
The sad truth is, as long as Wonder Woman is merely a back-up to the big boys, she’ll never be their fully-fledged equal.
How much of Wonder Woman’s part has been scripted solely for the sake of having a female superhero? Will the director celebrate her strength as a woman, or will her scenes be more reminiscient of the fanservice Gadot provided us in The Fast and the Furious? It certainly makes you wonder when the film’s casting agents asked specifically for “exotic”-looking actresses for the role. Tokenism and the fetishization of women of colour are very harmful forces which the film industry has only recently begun to address. It would be a shame to take a backwards step.
Let’s check out the second point of contention:
#2. Gadot’s ‘model material’ body. Diana’s muscular frame are more than just for show, they are part of her intrinsic character; strong, proud and powerful – a legendary Amazonian warrior endowed with godly powers. Her presence is meant to be commanding.
The problems of a very thin Wonder Woman on her own are doubled when we then think about her alongside other heroes. Instead of standing tall and strong like the titular heroes Batman and Superman, this Wonder Woman will quite literally be half their size (even whilst teetering in what will likely be high heels).
Such a difference in frame shrinks her physical prowress and presence in comparison to her male peers, reinforcing the idea that women are the ‘lesser’ heroes in capability and in appearance.
Intentional or not, Warner Bros. has made a major statement in their decision to cast an actress with such a thin figure. If Wonder Woman can’t appear onscreen played by someone bigger than size zero, who can?
It seems that her inclusion is an attempt to toss as many recogniseable characters as possible into the movie in hopes of recreating the success of Marvel’s Avengers. This incarnation of Wonder Woman seems to be making an appearance merely to appease viewers calling for female superheroes to be given their due. Warner Bros. will tell us that this is something we should be happy with; isn’t it nice, how she helped the main characters succeed? Shouldn’t we be satisfied that Wonder Woman helps the boys save the day?
But this is not what we have been asking for. This is not good enough. This is second-best and Warner Bros. knows it.
Wonder Woman’s name isn’t included in the title. She’s yet to appear on posters or official promotional material. She will be half their size and will receive half their screen time.
Wonder Woman is not “starring alongside” Batman and Superman. This is their movie and it will be their story; their journey, their obstacles to overcome and ultimately, their triumph.
So until she is given what she deserves – a film of her own – Wonder Woman fans will just have to raise our voices a little louder!
Disclaimer: GayGeek is pleased that Gadot is expanding her career horizons and wishes her all the best. The only regret felt here is at Warner Brothers’ treatment of Wonder Woman the character and their obstinate refusal to give female DC heroines the same chance as their male peers to star onscreen.
*Preceded only by a Lego toy in her image in the upcoming LEGO movie (which ALSO has Batman set to play a more central role).
Every sci-fi spaceship in current knowledge. Brought to you by Dirk Loechel. Super impressive. Especially when you note that these are actually all done to scale, with 1 pixel = 10 meters.
Anyone else think that Stargate’s Atlantis city-ship is kinda ridiculously small?!
It seems that this Shanghai cinema just assumed that Thor 2 was in fact a love story between two powerful, godly men with flowing hair and rippling muscles who…
Yep, I knew that me trying to post this would quickly turn into fan fiction. Seems a cinema in Shanghai accidentally put up this fan-photoshopped poster for Thor 2.
This can be seen as actually a really positive sign – even in Shanghai, a poster of two men looking quite intimate for an action movie (and not, say, Brokeback Mountain) wasn’t immediately recognised as fake. This could be seen as that homosexuality is becoming a little more normalised, and that it isn’t totally outrageous that the main character of a superhero movie may have a homosexual love interest.
If only that would actually happen now.