Aug 27, 2013

Easy Hacks for Writing Woman-Friendly Media

Men and women make efficient operating teams on riveting and other jobs at the Douglas Aircraft plant, Long Beach, Calif.

I have a game designer friend who said to me, a while back, that he wants to make things that hang on fewer sexist tropes, but didn’t know where to start. I replied a little sharply, that this shit is easy – and really, it is! – but I guess the question is owed a more detailed answer, so I decided to write up a couple of rough and ready tips.

In case you’re wondering, I do know a little about this stuff.  Through college and after, I wrote comedies for choral dinner theater groups that had a much larger number of women than men in their troupe, because of the way the music was arranged.  So for eight years, I wrote for a genre where it wasn’t even possible to use a male-centric script – a far different environment than today’s film or video game industries.

Off the top of my head, here are ten things you can do when you’re working on a project to help you muddle your way through to a more woman-friendly script.

  • Get out your red pen and your manuscript. Every time a woman is threatened with rape, strike the scene out. Every time a man tells a woman to shut up, strike it. Every time a man vows revenge after the death of a woman, strike it. Every time a woman is captured and has to be saved by a man, strike it. Strike them, even if you have a later reveal that changes the context of those scenes. Rewrite.
  • Write a logline for the story you’re working on. Flip the genders. Write a summary of that story, without changing any of the details from the logline.  If some of the details are better in this summary, change them in a rewrite.
  • Ask at least one woman to give notes on your manuscript. Don’t argue about sexism with them.
  • Pick a scene in your manuscript where a female character takes action. Write down why YOU would take that same action. If the explanation takes more than a sentence, rewrite.
  • Make a list of your female characters. Next to each, write down what the character wants. If the answer is “sex,” “power,” “revenge,” “a husband,” or “nothing,” scratch it out and come up with something else. Rewrite as necessary.
  • Choose two male characters at random and make them female.
  • Make a list of all your characters in order from most to least powerful, considering only their job titles. Move some of the women up the list. Adjust the story accordingly.
  • Look for scenes where your characters fail out of ignorance, flightiness, or plain stupidity. If the character to blame is a woman, change it to a man.
  • Make sure your manuscript passes the Bechdel Test.
  • Watch movies or TV with an outspoken feminist. Listen.

These are just hacks – hardly subtle or foolproof tools, but neither are they difficult to come up with.  If you’re a writer by trade, you can probably design dozens more.  In fact, if you think of any, do us all a favor and share your ideas.  If you do your sharing on Twitter, please cc me (@toenolla), because I’m dying to hear them.

Of course, the best way to learn to write women well is to think about how to write them, a lot.  Read feminist critiques of media.  Force yourself to write more female characters even if it’s more difficult.  Learn the pitfalls and come up with your own creative ways to get around them.  Once you get used to doing it, you’ll find its easy as pie.  I promise.