“Strong female [insert noun here]”

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You’re a strong female improvisor. You’re a strong female writer. You write really strong female characters. And yada-yada-yada.

I hear those phrases constantly.

I know that people are trying to compliment me but I can’t help but hate that compliment. It’s not because I don’t think I’m a strong improvisor or writer, or because I’m ashamed of being female… I’m actually really proud of both things. I just hate when they make it into the same sentence.

Why? Because my gender and talent don’t correlate. Yes, some of my work is definitely influenced by my gender… but just as much is influenced by my career, age, income, family, education, interests and current mood.

Call me an improvisor. Call me a writer. Tell me my characters are strong.

Because when you don’t, you make me sound like a unicorn. Don’t get me wrong, I love unicorns. But unicorns either don’t exist or are very, very rare. 

Please stop telling me that writing female characters is hard. My skin cringes when I hear someone talking about how hard it is to write female characters. Not because I don’t recognize that there’s a problem… I do. I’m not going to lie and say that “strong female characters” are all over mainstream television. I get it. They’re not and you want us to be better than that. To strive for 3D characters. I get it.

But when you tell us that writing female characters is hard, and that it’s a rare talent to do so effectively, you make us feel like it’s an unattainable goal. A unicorn. Like it’s something else to put on the pile of “things I’ll never be good at”. Most beginners doubt themselves constantly, and when you tell us that something is hard, we’ll believe it. We’ll freak out and get anxious and doubt ourselves.

At the end of one of my writing classes, my teacher got up and said these exact words: “Today we had 22 male characters and 12 female characters. We want to create amazing opportunities for everyone and not have anyone be the default.” Then he dropped the mic, left class and drove away into the sunset… where we never saw him again.

Ok, not all of that was true. But he addressed this problem perfectly. If we’re not writing enough female characters, then tell us. But don’t tell us it’s hard to write them.

Here’s how I teach how to write “strong female” characters:

Write strong characters. Then cast some females into them.

I write characters that I would want to play. I try my best to ensure that no one is left out. My characters are almost always able to be played by either a male or female. We live in a world where we can have a female boss… or a male couple… or a stay at home dad in our work without making a huge statement.

So tell us to make every single character strong.

Also, stop telling us that female improvisors typically don’t make strong choices. Most novice improvisers don’t make strong choices. It’s not just a female thing. When you tell me that it’s a female thing, I see it as this obstacle that I’ll never be able to overcome because of my gender. I know you want to prepare us for what stigma people may have about female improvisors, but honestly, you just make me feel like I have no chance because no matter what I do, people will hold that stigma against me. Just tell me to be a stronger improvisor.

I had a teacher address this issue in a much more constructive way. During one of our first classes, I was having trouble getting my voice heard during a group scene. Anyone who has ever improvised with me knows that I’m not someone who typically has this problem. I tend to do the opposite too much… I can be overbearing or too physical. However, he pointed out the fact that I’m a lot shorter than everyone else I was sharing the stage with. Looking around me, I noticed the physical difference. I was improvising with a bunch of tall people with broad shoulders. I didn’t know how to make myself heard. By pointing out the physical differences between me and everyone else, he explained that I’m always going to have to be a little more physical and try a little harder to be heard. If he told me that this problem was because of my gender alone, I would have stopped listening. It wasn’t a gender thing, it was a physical thing.

I was having trouble because I’m short, not because I’m a woman.

So please, call me an improvisor. Call me a writer. Tell me I write strong characters. 

Keep my gender out of it.

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