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Where do all the women hide?

I’m sure none of I’m about to say comes as a surprise to anyone reading this blog. But I still think it’s important to say over and over again, as a reminder to myself and others. Because women (and people of color, and people with non-binary genders, and people who aren’t heterosexual [including the dreaded bisexuals]) are not wild animals that hide in trees every time film crews happen to be around.

There are a lot of Indie speculative films that I’m excited about, but the more I build my list, the more painfully obvious it become that women are so rare in these imagined worlds, they might as well be unicorns. I don’t know how any of these people reproduce. At best, you get small films with two male characters and a single female character caught between them (Ex MachinaZ for Zachariah). At worse, it’s an entire team of men, sometimes if you’re lucky with some racial diversity, and the Token Tough Woman. Sometimes there’s also the Token Love Interest Woman. Often, they’re the same woman.

I recently had the privilege of reading some stories by unpublished writers (though I don’t think they’ll remain unpublished for long) and partway through the pile, I couldn’t help but notice that the characters within were either all male, or with a token female. There was only one story I read that had a female main character. I don’t blame new writers for this kind of thing. When I was just starting out, most of my characters were male. The first two novels I ever did for NaNoWriMo had male main characters. I was a couple years into writing my own stuff before I ever wrote a female main character (Hob Ravani, whom you will all get to meet soon, promise) and she was completely surrounded by men.

I think for me, it was partially an outgrowth of the writing I did before I switched to my own original fiction: I wrote a shitload of fanfiction. And with a few exceptions (like Sailor Moon) here and there, my fanfiction was always about male characters, because those were the ones in the anime series or book series or movie that were interesting.

Which brings us back to my list of movies and its depressing lack of women.

I know female characters can and do have interesting stories. I write stories about them now myself. But it’s this vicious cycle where we’re surrounded by media that tells us only men have interesting stories… and the education for the production of that media sure doesn’t help. Look at the beat sheet bible that gets used and overused for film writing: Save the Cat. I don’t think Mr. Snyder is expressing more than the constant background level of societal sexism when he frames all conflicts and characters as being about male characters, and getting the girl, and so on. But it still sticks with you. And then you go and write stories about men, because women are obviously boring and don’t do anything but be the girlfriend.

I finished writing and editing a second-world fantasy novel this year. One of the basic world building concepts was that where the story takes place, the female to male birthrate is two or three to one. And I still had to have it pointed out to me by my long-suffering beta reader that while there were a lot of women as background, almost all of the characters with actual speaking roles were men. And it made no sense. On the edit I went through and changed every male character into a female character unless I had a specific reason he needed to be male. Much better.

I’m working on a screenplay now, for the classes I’ve been taking. Of the core set of characters, one is female and three are male; I can’t really help that, since those three are on a tank crew in a country where crews are all male. But as I’ve continued on, I’ve made a very conscious effort to write the side characters as female unless I have a reason to make them male. And the same principle can be very easily applied to making certain characters of color exist in writing, and characters with different sexualities/gender identities, etc.

And no, this is not “forcing” “political correctness” into my writing. This is actually acknowledging that women exist in the fucking worlds we build as more than furniture in the background. Just like we do in real life. This is challenging my unconscious mental presumption that all characters somehow must be male unless there is a defining need for them to be female. And if other people have a problem with it, it tacitly forces them to admit their sexism (racism/homophobia/transphobia) out loud and attempt justification. Sometimes, in situations like that, people finally listen to themselves talk. Sometimes, other people are listening. It’s a start.

I look forward to the day when I have to go through a story or script I’ve written and switch some of the characters to male because there’s not a realistic enough number. Maybe then I’ll have finally purged that bias from my system.

Originally published at Rachael Acks: Sound and Nerdery. You can comment here or there.

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