Overcoming Object Love: How to Write Female Leads Who Are People
My goal in this article isn't to explore the complexity and pitfalls of gender representation. Instead, I want to simplify the issue and teach you how to overcome an insidious (and painfully common) writing disease: Object love.
Sometimes we write characters who are people. Sometimes we write characters who are objects, objectives, or incentives. Even worse are the times when we write characters as objects and fail to recognize that we've done so. We come to praise characters for being such shiny and valuable things. We even love them for being less than human.
While male characters sometimes fall prey to this kind of "object love," the disease affects female characters at a disproportionately high rate, so the portrayal of female characters will be my concern in this article. (For the record, it all applies to men, too.) Rather than trying to guide you through the Gordian knot of cultural factors, value systems, and unspoken consumerist stories that make this sickness so popular and destructive, I'm going to show you how to slice through the issue with a few simple questions.
Yeah. You're asking the wrong question.
Too often, the phrase "strong female character" is used to describe women who are portrayed as fully human. This is problematic for two reasons. First, it's simply inaccurate that "strong" is the same as "human"; a character can simultaneously be powerful and two-dimensional. And second, it points to these female characters as exceptions.
Shannon Hale puts it beautifully when she explains how she answers the question of why she writes strong female leads.
Usually the way I answer the question is to say, 'I think I'm writing realistic female characters.'
But of course no one asks 'why do you write realistic female characters?' because that would be silly. Surely every author seeks to have realistic characters. Why I wince is 'strong females' doesn't seem to be considered synonymous with 'realistic females,' and in my experience, they should be.
People say, 'Well how do you write such good female characters?' And I go, 'Well I write people.' Approximately half of the people I know are female and they're cool, and they're interesting, and so, why wouldn't I?
In a 2012 interview, George R. R. Martin had the following exchange:
Interviewer: I noticed you write women really well and really different. Where does that come from?
George R. R. Martin: You know … I've always considered women to be people.
And my favorite has to be Joss Whedon's response, as re-told at an Equality Now address:
Interviewer: So, why do you write these strong female characters?
Whedon: Because you’re still asking me that question.
You're picking up on the pattern, right? The writers hailed for their renditions of "strong women" were not trying to make those women strong. They were simply trying to make those women people.
But those aren't people. They're just shiny objects.
It's worth taking a step back and looking at tropes in the portrayal of object love characters that can seem to make them strong or complex. When we're after deep humanization, having a well-developed character is insufficient. A character can be interesting, independent, powerful, filled with all kinds of human emotions, and can still be an object. An attractive, multi-layered, desirable object—but an object nevertheless.
Sometimes the issue is that the major traits and strengths of the female character in question boil down to physical characteristics that double as sex appeal. If the character is graceful, beautiful, and able to fearlessly pursue what she wants, you're not describing a well-rounded human. You're describing the female lead for a porn flick.
The most well-intentioned objectification I see comes in the form of praise. Women are portrayed as so extravagantly beautiful, mysterious, and amazing that they cease to be human. If the women being written are being worshipped, they are not being humanized. All elevation is a form of alienation. Characters without flaws aren't people.
Does this mean that such objectifying praise (both in the directly sexual and the more subtle forms of elevating alienation) will receive a negative response?
Well, no. Not necessarily. Even savvy female readers may like the idealized woman. But rather than looking at the thumbs up or thumbs down you receive, look at the points of reference your readers have. If readers already anticipate that female characters will be portrayed as objects, what's preferable? To see them represented as low-value objects or high-value objects?
We can do better than that. We have to.
A quick note on the broader context.
Oddly enough, with the zoom lens going right in on the character, you're likely to miss the real source of the objectification or humanization. The questions that need to be asked look at the context of the character's actions, origins, and outcomes in the story itself. But before sharing some of those questions, let me make a few notes about the broader cultural context we're reading in.
It is not only possible but necessary that some female characters should "fail the test" for some of the questions I'm about to give you. For example, a woman could remain deeply human while feeling insecure about who they are and discovering their self-definition thanks to the actions of a man. She could be trapped and unable to escape without the help of a man. She could be the lone female friend of a male character. If any of these happened as the exception to the rule, they could be just fine.
The problem is, as long as these tropes remain the norm, there can't be any exceptions. And that means that it's almost impossible to legitimately call any use of these tropes okay just because it works well for the story in question. The problem isn't the answer itself but the pattern of answers, and as long as these norms continue, each story must answer to them—either by denying or reinforcing the pattern.
And now for some better questions.
Okay. Enough preamble. Here are questions to keep asking yourself as you create female characters.
Whose story is being told?
It would be nice if women took on the central role 50% of the time, but this question still applies when your protagonist has a Y chromosome. Every character you bring on stage should be the protagonist of their own story, even if it's not the one you're actively telling—and that's doubly true for female leads who take on a romantic role.
When the female character or characters are explored only to the extent that they play into the male protagonist's plot, their lives are being used as building blocks for the men around them. And just so we're clear, blocks are objects.
What roles do other women play in the story?
If you have only one woman in your story, you may have a problem. The Bechdel Test, invented for film, can easily apply here. It asks three simple questions. First, are there at least two female characters who have names? Second, do they talk to each other at some point? Third, do they talk about something besides a male character?
By having a single well-developed woman amidst a sea of objects, you're relegating her to the role of token. Yeah. Tokens are objects.
Where does the woman get her power?
I would hope you don't need me to explain why it's an issue when women have no power in your story. But power can also come from sources that objectify the female character. Is sex appeal the only source of strength? Playing into the whimsically unrealistic spontaneity of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl?
In other words, do the roles that empower the woman simultaneously portray her as a resource intended for the physical or emotional gratification of male characters? If so, don't confuse her for a fully developed character. Powerful objects are still objects.
Who defines the woman?
Who defines the female character? Is she self-defined or does she have her importance bestowed upon her by a man? These acts of definition can be subtle and difficult to identify, but you can often spot them by asking yourself what the woman's identity would look like if all the male characters around her suddenly vanished.
The other day, I found myself discussing sexism in Dr. Who with my father (as one does). We talked about Moffat's writing, and I explained why the pattern of female identity was so distressing. In Sherlock, "The Woman" gets all her power from sex appeal and is ultimately "Sherlocked." In the Matt Smith era of Dr. Who, Amy Pond starts as a kiss-a-gram, works her way to being a model, has a forced pregnancy, and has a life revolving around her relationships with the two male leads of that ensemble. But the pattern took on its most distressing and explicit form when the series seven finale had the following exchange:
Clara Oswin Oswald: I don't even know who I am!
The Doctor: You're my impossible girl.
As long as the woman needs the man to tell her who she is or receives her identity entirely through how she connects with a man, she is not her own character. She is a mere extension of the men around her. She is a byproduct rather than a person.
Why do these questions matter?
Why is it so important to write characters as people? Quite simply, stories create the lives and roles we inhabit—and there are questions about those lives that still need to be answered. In a world where we're trapped in roles and consumerist cycles that objectify all of us, how do we connect? How do we build lives for one another? How do we survive at all?
My answer is: We can't. So it's time we start building ourselves a better world.
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