Thursday, April 8, 2021

How to Write Strong Women Characters

Following my last post, I wanted to give a positive example of good storytelling using female characters, since the comment section included a long discussion about turning Dr. Who into a woman. I wanted my example to be current, since my attempts at pointing out extremely well written women in sci-fi/fantasy that can be found prior to our current cultural malaise doesn’t seem to matter. Unfortunately, that meant going to a genre outside my bailiwick: professional wrestling.

There are several things in my life that I personally do not necessarily like and do not go out of my way to watch or participate in, but I do enjoy watching others who do love these things. For example, I love watching baseball fanatics geek out over baseball. I enjoy watching Trekkies being Trekkies. Ever since I became aware of professional wresting (I believe it was Cyndi Lauper’s music video for “The Goonies ‘r’ Good Enough”) I have enjoyed listening to people who wax poetic about the stories professional wrestlers portray inside and outside the ring.

Last month, the wrestling promotion AEW televised a non-sanctioned, lights-out match between the wrestlers Britt Baker D.M.D and Thunder Rosa. For those unfamiliar, that is a match where pretty much anything is allowed: chairs, tables, ladders, weapons, tacks, etc. It was a brutal affair that ended a rivalry that had gone on for several months.

Britt Baker is a home-grown wrestler for AEW. She has been the face of the women’s division since AEW started its Dynamite TV show on TNT. This has not always been a good thing. Initially, she was a bouncy, bubbly character that nobody really liked. So, she changed course and made a heel turn. This means she became one of the bad guys. It transformed her character and her career. Fans loved it.

At the same time, fans were also critical of the women’s division as a whole because it wasn’t producing the kind of stories and matches that the men’s division was (which are some of the best in pro wrestling today). In order to address this situation, AEW brought in Thunder Rosa, who came into the promotion with the express purpose of elevating the quality of women’s wrestling in AEW.

At the time, Thunder Rosa was the NWA Women’s Champion. In other words, she was not only an outsider, but an outsider who was under contract with another promotion. Her presence was a direct challenge to the entire women’s division of AEW and to Britt Baker in particular. Thus, these two were on a collision course.

The two clashed in several matches, interfered with each other when they weren’t wrestling each other and cost each other championships. The rivalry was white hot and when non-champion stories like this are told, the best ones culminate in extreme matches like the one televised last month.

One of the key things to understand about this match is that as a non-sanctioned, lights-out match it had to be the last match of the night. All of the “real” matches that counted for purposes of wins and losses were done. Due to this fact, it was the Main Event of the show. AEW promoted this. It promoted the extreme nature of the scheduled match. It heightened expectation due to its extreme nature and its position on the show. Not only did this match meet and exceed these expectations, but fans immediately started making the claim that this was one of the best matches in AEW history, let alone the best ever women’s match.

Incidentally, this was the first time a women's match had ever been the Main Event in AEW; however, this was not part of the story. Indeed, it was very important that it was not part of the story. Had this been promoted as the first women’s Main Event in AEW history, it would have irreparably damaged everything these two women had been doing over the months they were working together.

Britt Baker and Thunder Rosa pushed each other and themselves to their limits. They earned this spot through their wrestling, through their character work, and through their storytelling. Had they been just the first women’s Main Event in AEW history all of that hard work would have been rendered meaningless. They wouldn’t have earned the match because their work, their characters, and their storytelling, they would have been given the match because of an immutable characteristic they had no real control over: the fact that they are women.

When we, as a culture, promote anyone simply because of an immutable characteristic, we diminish and dehumanize them. Nothing that they personally accomplish means anything because we are promoting the idea that the only reason that have what they have is due to something they didn’t do or choose.

Had AEW screamed to the rafters that Britt Baker D.M.D vs Thunder Rosa was the first women’s Main Event, no one would have had the expectations that they had for this match. Necessarily, expectations would have been lowered because these women would not have earned the position they had due to their hard work. They would have been given the position simply because they are women. As a consequence, the fact that Britt Baker and Thunder Rosa exceeded these lowered exceptions wouldn’t have meant nearly as much. In fact, I don’t think the match would have been as great as it was because the pressure these two would have had to perform under would also have been much less.

Instead, AEW chose to let these two women be wrestlers instead of just women. They let these two characters shine rather than being just women. They expected these two women to excel at their art rather than settling on being just women. As a consequence, both are superstars beloved by wrestling fans and images from this match will be remembered in wrestling lore for generations to come.

In other words, if you want to make Dr. Who a woman “because it’s time” or “because young white men have been pandered to” you will fail. If, however, you write a story where a female Dr. Who or a female lead in the Dr. Who series makes sense in context of the show and its history and is given an opportunity to earn their spot in Dr. Who lore, you have a chance of telling one of the greatest Dr. Who stories in the series history.

So, stop writing stories “because it’s time” and start writing stories where characters earn everything that they have, like Britt Baker D.M.D and Thunder Rosa.


Jack Tremain said...

Its curious than when many people think about Stronk Women they always think of an athletic superheroine beating villains; which is mainly a manly attribute (physical strenght)

So, by trying to force the idea that strong women resemble strong masculine heroes, they are also lampshading all the, very real, kinds of strong women:

Woman who must make great sacrifices to tend their loved ones. Women who decided not to work and use their time to raise a home and kids, knowing that society would label them as retrograde. Women who devoted themselves to god in convents, with their battle of faith develop far from anybody's eyes. Ot those who just enjoy their work, or unfold their love doing whatever thing they like; not just kicking ass in action movies.

FrDave said...

This is an important piece of the problem with storytelling in our era. Writers are shoehorning "women" into extant stories and IPs filled with male characters. Thus, when we replace a male character with a "woman," the character is really just a man dressed up to look like a woman. As a consequence we have abandoned feminine strength. It is also why so many of these strong women characters of yesteryear are so easily dismissed.

This speaks to my original critique: storytellers have turned their back on God. Anything that even has a whiff of traditional Christian values (family, feminine strength, faith, etc.) must be rejected. The irony is that this doesn’t leave any room for real female characters. In trying to rid our stories of strong men, they’ve made everyone masculine.

Dennis Laffey said...

Thanks for this post, Padre. I haven't been into pro wrestling for decades, so hadn't heard of this match up, but it does indeed sound awesome, and for exactly the reasons you say. The rivalry was built up over time, the wrestlers played their parts well, and they earned their top spot match-up.

It also really addresses the point you were trying to make in the previous post, which I seem to have slightly misinterpreted. I was too focused on the behind the curtain marketing decisions of the IP holders, rather than the story as it is being presented, which you were focused on.

pi4t said...

I think we may be more in agreement than it appeared based on our previous conversation. The reason I disagreed with your "Romana spin off" proposal as an acceptable...hmm, how to put this without just using buzzwords or misrepresenting what you were saying? Substitute for making the Doctor a woman? Way to achieve the same objectives that making the Doctor a woman was supposed to? Neither of those are quite the right way to say it. How about: "Allow fans (and actors) of a different demographic to see people like them acting in (and themselves act in) iconic roles like that of the Doctor"?

Anyway, the reason I didn't think that a spin-off will achieve that is that it seems to me that the lead of such a spin-off series would inevitably be seen as "just" the lead of a spin-off series, and not as iconic as someone actually playing the Doctor. That's true whether they're male or female. Captain Jack was the lead of a spin-off series, one which by all accouts was pretty successful (I never watched it). Sarah Jane was the lead of a very successful spin-off series, one which lasted for several seasons and was only cut short because of the Sladen's untimely death. And before that, she was the most iconic and beloved companion on the main series. Without a doubt, she's the most well-known of all characters from Who spin-offs.

But how does she compare to the actors who've played the Doctor? She might beat some of the more obscure ones, but is she more recognisable or iconic than, say, Tom Baker? David Tennant? Even Matt Smith is better recognised than her for the general public, I think. Especially those who weren't born yet when she was on Who itself.

That's not at all unexpected, or even unreasonable: the Doctor has fifty years of history and is an incredibly iconic role. One would never expect a new character (or a character who we saw for a few years back in the classic series) to have the same following, unless they also managed to last for the same amount of time!

I know nothing about wrestling other than what you wrote in your post, but it sounds like the marketers can plausibly promote any match as the Main Event, no matter who the combatants are? That isn't the case for Doctor Who. A spin-off episode is never going to be the "Main Event" in comparison to an episode of 'real Doctor Who' (as people would rather unfairly think of it). It doesn't matter much how well-written it is, or how good the actors are. It doesn't matter how much the BBC tried to create hype for it. It doesn't even matter if it was run in place of the normal series of Doctor Who for the year, and had the Doctor Who title sequence. It still would still be seen as less important than Doctor Who, and the characters would be less important than the Doctor. And I think an attempt by the BBC to present it as equivalent to Who would have come across as an even more blatant "look, women, here's something for you!" than what they actually did.

As far as I can see, the only possible way for someone to become the most iconic character of Doctor Who is for them to play the Doctor. It's unfortunate, but there we are. That doesn't automatically justify having the Doctor become a woman, of course: Hamlet is pretty iconic, but most performances would be quite definite about Hamlet being male!

But it seems to me that the only workable options were to either 1) accept, as an unfortunate but unavoidable fact, that the "main event" in the most iconic British tv series is always going to be played by a man, or 2) arrange things so the Doctor can be played by a woman.

pi4t said...

Disclaimer: I haven't read your next post yet, I'll look at it later this evening.

Also, I agree that phrases like "it's time" are at best extremely silly. Either we were all along in the wrong in how we chose our casts, genders of characters, etc, or we weren't and still aren't. What does the date have to do with anything?

FrDave said...

I don't see it as unfortunate in either case. These are things that can be taken advantage of.

In your first "unfortunate main event," female fans of the modern Dr. Who love the idea of a mysterious but inaccessible man sweeping them off their feet and taking them on crazy adventures through time and space. That was a really intelligent bit of storytelling that embraces the female audience in a way the original series never did. Suddenly, the maleness of Dr. Who is actually an asset with a new female audience that satisfies a uniquely feminine fantasy. It also was a strong narrative undercurrent with the Sarah Jane spin-off (which was awesome). Job well done.

In your second "unfortunate main event," there are all kinds of ways that one could have made Dr. Who a woman that worked within the lore. Based on the success of Dr. Who's resurgence with the above "main event" I don't think it was or is a wise move. It simultaneously abandons what works with both the traditional male audience and the new female audience. Having said that, I could very well see a bunch of interesting stories that could come out of a female Dr. Who where the female form was imposed, taken out of desperation, or was the result of an accident. This plays into the whole trans narrative of not feeling whole in your own body. It allows Dr. Who to explore what is feminine. It opens the door to the issue of motherhood. It also allows a strong narrative out for returning the role back into a male at a later date. As you noted, there is so much material that can be used to justify this kind of move so that fans could appreciate a female Dr. Who. What we got instead was a generic woman because it is time we have a generic woman. To add insult to narrative injury, the show actively ignored and even re-wrote all of the lore that multiple generations of fans loved.

Sadly, I don’t see an easy way for the show to recover.

pi4t said...

I don't have time to address everything you're written, I'm afraid. But it's interesting that you approve of the "sweeping them off their feet" aspect, because that's actually something which I've found a bigger lore change, and rather harder to accept. In the classic series, the Doctor was (almost) invariably portrayed without any sort of romantic attraction: his relationship with his assistants is strictly platonic. (If he's in love with anyone, it's probably the TARDIS: I think Neil Gaiman was on to something when he wrote The Doctor's Wife!) But the modern series has a habit of throwing in a romantic component into almost every Doctor/companion relationship, and I think that's at least partly to make the "sweeping them off their feet" aspect work properly. Sometimes (e.g. Martha, Amy) that's strictly one-sided. But at other times (Rose, River) the Doctor is clearly portrayed as being romantically involved too. And that feels - to me - like a much bigger narrative change than Time Lords changing gender, especially since that change hasn't actually caused any difference in the Doctor's personality beyond what we'd normally see in a regeneration.

The only "romantic" relationship between the Doctor and a companion that I found believable was Twelve and Clara, which was a lot more subtle. Perhaps not coincidentally, that one also reminded me the most of Christ's relationship with us.

FrDave said...

Admittedly, I prefer the old series to the new and the romance stuff has a little bit to do with that; however, I can still recognize good writing and good stories when I see them. While it took getting used to, some of my favorite all-time episodes use that romance angle. Given that it broadened the audience for one of my favorite franchises doesn't hurt, either.

pi4t said...

Couldn't someone say the same thing about the "Doctor becoming a woman" change that you're objecting to? I mean, if good writing excuses or justifies introducing romance to time lords, why should it not also justify introducing the idea of changing sec during regeneration? Both seem to come with similar issues in terms of canon, and both are clearly being done to target new demographics.

Of course, that does require the stories to be well-written to justify the change, which is...a matter of controversy, to put it mildly. I happen to think the writing has been pretty abysmal, especially in Thirteen's first series. And that's partly because of an annoying amount of rather clumsy preaching on this kind of subject. But if you'd be willing to accept the canon change if it was written better, isn't your complaint essentially just a criticism of the writing quality?

FrDave said...

Technically no, because my position is that there is no possible way to have anything other than abysmal writing when the reason you are making Dr. Who a woman is that you want Dr. Who to be a woman. All that is left of decades of character development is "an annoying amount of rather clumsy preaching on this kind of subject" as you so aptly put it. If your goal is "diversity" you will fail. If, however, your goal is to write a good story that fits into and develops the lore of the IP, Dr. Who could be essentially be anybody in the next regeneration.

The difference goes back to general vs. particular. "Diversity" cannot move beyond the general because its goal doesn't ever acknowledge the particular. All good stories exist within the particular. Thus, Dr. Who was doomed the moment the goal became "make Dr. Who a woman" rather than "How can we tell a really good Dr. Who tale that plays with his gender?"

pi4t said...

On that I am inclined to agree. Although I'd say that another valid reason for casting a woman would be "this person is obviously really well suited for the role with the stories I want to tell for whatever reason, but happens to be a woman."

I'm curious now, how did you feel about Missy? I wasn't a fan at first, but I actually really enjoyed her redemption(ish) story arc.