Sunday, May 24, 2015

Furiosa & Others

Mad Max: Fury Road is totally worth seeing, a film to capture the imagination. I'm not really a long time fan of the franchise. In fact I tried to watch the original and was surprised to find it almost set in regular regional Australia. I didn't expect it to be about a cop taking a vacation in a post apocalyptic world. It was late, I picked it up in the middle, and I was tired and I gave up.

I'd heard some buzz about Furiosa, artists in my news feed were doing fan arts and some female friends on face book making a lot of typed noise about how exciting a character she was. I was excited, trepidatious even to see a strong female character, and I guess my expectations were ratcheted up to expect something I'd never seen before, a breakthrough, a gamechanger, a new character - to evolve into an archetype. Because I have an intense personal... I couldn't say interest, being a man... but curiosity about the challenge of writing/creating the SFC.

'The strong female character' is problematic, and the history of cinema is littered with spectacular failures and near successes and it turns out to be for me at least, an activity that bends the mind into a pretzel. These failures I feel are succinctly parodied right here.

Mark Twain wrote 'they didn't know it was impossible, so they did it.' and it's possible that the stuff I've looked at when looking into gender is a case where more information confuses what I might have intuitively or naively got right before contemplating. What I'm saying is, that it's entirely possible and even probable that I am stupid.

Seeing the film last night though, what was the true revelation of Furiosa was the insight into the invisibility of my own privilege. Furiosa will be memorable to me as part of an ensemble of memorable characters in a memorable film.

I had the sense that she was nothing new. But I'm very often guilty of hype backlash, my confirmation bias looks to evidence to support the contrary. On my ride home trying to prove the nul hypothesis, I did find it hard to recall any of her precedents. Like literally coming up blank. This was what whacked me in the face, given that Furiosa is just a character that drives a truck and fires some guns.

It appeared a land grab, an ideological land grab. A real coup for what I have thought (perhaps more specifically to men trying to write female characters) was the best process I have come across. I wouldn't be able to track down the tumblr picture that was my source, but it's basically:

How to write good female characters:
1. Create an awesome character
2. Make them a woman

For me though, the admission I have to make is my own prejudice and biases and stereotypes I carry in my head about gender that makes this process the best I've found, for me. Which is to say, I use an augmented version 1 is really - write a man. Then step 2 is having done this, go and put an 's' in front of every 'he', change the 'his' to 'hers' etc. For me it's important because it prevents me from trying to write a female character, which if I do, I lose the authenticity. Stephan Donaldson once wrote about his 'The Gap' series that every character came from him, so was him and think this is generally true.

And it comes to my mind that the difficulty with which I could recall Furiosa's precedents is key. The technique above plays to my ease of recall for writing strong male characters - batman, daredevil, every samurai ever, superman, mad max, John McClane, John Rambo, Indiana Jones, every video game avatar just about ever. And that's just naming protagonists, and sticking to the more dated and narrower archetype, forgetting revolutions like Peter Parker - the first two dimensional hero and the many nuanced flavors of strong male characters. Villains can easily become antiheros etc.

This morning, Furiosa's precedents came in a wave. The perplexing thing is that one of the trailers before mad max was for the next terminator film, yet I couldn't think of Sarah Conner (her terminator 2 incarnation, rather than the original) which in turn points further back to James Cameron's other sequels in the form of Ripley in Aliens, and if you are talking a visual precedent for Furiosa, certainly Ripley in Alien 3. Then you have Tarantino's female characters, Jackie Brown came first, but Beatrice/The Bride in Kill Bill is perhaps more salient.

But of course, it depends. For me, there's a mind-pretzel bending fine line. And from my reading 'What does it mean to be a woman?' is a very hard question to answer. One I am particularly unqualified to answer, admittedly, because I don't even have access to the unintelligible subjective experience of being a woman. But being female, or gender across the spectrum is not reducible simply to the biology of sex. People do transition, do have fluid genders, do have gender identities that don't line up with their biological sex. Even biologically, sex is difficult to draw a line between. There's a whole spectrum, of which our professional sporting institutions and regulating bodies have been trying to answer definitively and scientifically for a long time.

The test of course is going to be - can other women identify with the character as a woman. If so, you have a female character. But when dealing with the hazy clouds of attributes in the Venn diagrams of 'masculinity' and 'femininity' the art comes in, (and I'm little practiced at it, and likely as such to be bad at it) in drawing attributes from the overlap the 'strong' sector if you will, and combining it with the less represented attributes in protagonists that make a for a 'female' character.

The limitation of my above simple two-step method, is that I throw out the female circle from my venn diagram, create any male character I like, and then just draw them as female, or in film, cast a woman etc.

At this point, I should point out in terms of equality between the sexes, there's a really simple question to answer, and that is: even if a protagonist is just the same archetype but a woman as all the male archetypes that came before, just by increasing the number and frequency with which female versions of male characters appear you are moving towards equality. Similarly, if female CEO's are no different in leadership style than male CEOs, you still want more female CEOs because it's about a greater distribution of the opportunity to be CEOs. That part's easy, at least to answer if not implement.

Being born into male privilege, and white male privilege at that, it would be misleading to say I particularly care about equality between the sexes. As a creator though, I am far more concerned with a character being good, and being memorable.

I saw this post in my feed: and if somebody finds the character important out there, and loves them etc. Then they are important.

For me though, my qualitative evaluation is that this character is bad. Badly conceived and poorly executed. She actually seems ham-fisted to me. Bad writing. Just as a super-hero she is what I would describe as 'over-powered' like Superman, who struggles to be interesting under the yoke of his world posing only one credible challenge to his physical robustness - kryptonite. Furthermore, being a double-minority or a two-for as executed here by being a gay latino, comes across as heavy handed something Det. Kima Greggs from 'The Wire' as a character did not.

I also find a failure that being gay latino has come at no threat to her ability to service fans, or compromise male gaze.

I can stand back and say that building up the cast of female comic book characters is across the board good. But this character I would rate as a poor concept, a crappy one, to join the ocean of crappy male characters that populate the comic universe. See Sturgeon's Law on the futility of finding crappy counter examples.

An argument could be made though, that to typecast lesbians in portrayal as being hairy legged, hairy armpitted butch characters of no appeal to sweaty mouth breathing overweight teenage boys is to stereotype lesbians, reducing their femininity and equivocating femininity with being weak. I don't think anybody actually makes this argument, and I wouldn't hold it up with what little I know about America. Going back to hark a vagrant's satire of strong female characters though, I don't think giving a character super strength and fighting ability offsets then putting them in a bikini top and hot pants.

There in lies the challenge, for me at least, whom cares more about aesthetics than equality between the sexes. The answer to the equality question as previously stated is easy, at least easy to conceive, it just needs doing.

Equality is the question 'are women missing out?', I think there is an unanswered question (possibly, it may have been answered and I'm too stupid to percieve) of 'Are we missing out?'

Is there such a thing as 'female comedy' or is it just comedy, and women have been excluded from it?

Is there such a thing as 'female leadership' (in the corporate sense) or is it just leadership, and women have been excluded from it?

I've heard enough about studies of culturally conditioned gender roles to believe women possess distinct advantages men do not, a specific one that comes to mind was a study of what makes for 'smart teams' and was told the result was a 1:1 correlation between how many women are on the team, the more women the smarter the team due to the higher number of people on a team adept at reading the emotions on other team members faces.

I feel that with Mad Max: Fury Road there is a scripting decision that could easily have removed the character of Furiosa entirely. You just needed an extra scene at the start where Max takes on Furiosa's motivation in the film and he could easily have played both roles as one character. It's a much easier exercise to imagine the film as less than it was, than take a film like Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo (same male archetype, same basic plot) or it's western adaptation A Fist Full of Dollars, and try and imagine adding a female co-lead version of the male archetype.

But for me there was a sense of redundancy in Mad Max, as Max and Furiosa were in essence the same character. I suspect most will feel the redundant of the two is Max, and my suspicion would be driven by most of the audience viewing the film as a reboot or new film, and overlook that this is Max's fourth appearance, and his function as protagonist is as tour guide to a new and strange world. A person who finds the cultures he comes across as strange as we do, and negotiates and navigates them as we would. As Terry Pratchett said of his character Rincewind, 'his job is to go around the world meeting much more interesting characters than he is'.

I am sure this post is by and large a mess. Largely because I am a mess of where and when I am interested/disinterested in female characters. The hype I experienced with Furiosa lead to expectations that here was a character that would tell me something new about what it meant to be a woman. In hindsight this was unrealistic and unlikely, Furiosa is a product of the imagination of George Miller, not Charlize Theron.

I am specifically interested in the challenge of the Strong Female Character, my intuition that Ripley, Sarah Conner, Tank Girl, Furiosa, Beatrice/The Bride, Jackie Brown etc fall on one side of a line that gets a tick and other SFCs like Katniss, Hermione, Charlie's Angels (perhaps because they are possessed by Charlie), The Black Widow fall on another side of the line that doesn't quite get that tick.

Then there's characters like Juno, the New Ms Marvel, the new incarnation of Barbara Gordon as Bat Girl, Spider Gwen etc. that while new and positive developments in their respective industries, are of no interest to me (being out of their target market demographics) and also don't really resonate as 'strong' being that they don't pose any competition to male privilege. They simply are starting to break up the monoculture of the women that populate a universe and medium that has almost exclusively tailored to a male audience and perspective.

I could write about Thor's recasting into a female character. There's something interesting in using an existing character with built up equity. But I won't, at least not here.

One thing I have to disclose or at least point out is that my list of the more successful SFC Ripley-Conner-Tank Girl-The Bride-Furiosa are my subjective judgements, opinion treated as fact. And what I note about that list is that every single one of those characters is the product of male creators. Dan O'Bannon/Ridley Scott, James Cameron, Jamie Hewlett, Quentin Tarantino and George Miller respectively.

This is both good and bad, on the plus side it establishes that men can step up and write good strong female characters, being capable of doing so, they should. It's also that if equality is going to be achieved or even approached you have to start with the male dominated industries we have. Progress can be made even while you have producers, editors, writers and directors still being predominantly male as a hangover. Women can go see a film concieved of, created and directed by a man and find a character they can identify with as an entry point to a profession and genre they may have otherwise felt excluded from. Over time this should lead to women creating female action heroes that join this archetypal roster.

The bad is that it detracts somewhat that a small collection of men are making these characters, begging the question that the experience of strength and power come more easily to somebody with the subjective experience of being male. One thing to breath easy on, is that representative bias is almost certainly the basis of this list. Sturgeon's law prevails, there are for each successful strong male character thousands of failed attempts. These men's ability to write strong female leads is most likely a bi-product of their ability to write good strong lead characters period, where most writers fail.

But in the meantime, Diablo Cody, Lena Dunham and G Willow Wilson are writing female leads that are breaking up the monotony (the easy question) but represent characters that pose no threat to male privilege (the hard question).

I have my own character and story in my head for a female lead, which is why I'm interested to see how characters like Furiosa turn out, and how they are recieved. I have aims and ambitions in mind for my own output and I will either succeed or fail. What I take away from Furiosa is that there are stories about women that men can tell. My objective is not equality, not explicitly, and while I'm interested in feminism and don't directly oppose equality between the sexes, I feel it would be misleading to identify as feminist, I am not one, and giving due credit to how much of my behavior is subconscious, would be unsurprised if I am in fact quite chauvinistic or misogynistic in effect, though it is never my intent.

In the very least I enjoy my privilege and as an individual would be reluctant to give it up, though I don't particularly care if every other man I knew lost theirs.

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