This summer marked the end of my first year of resubmitting previously-rejected scripts under my male pseudonym, “Max.” Don’t worry, I am not closing up shop; I am still waiting to hear back from about half the submissions, and just in the past week, as this installment was being finalized, got two new exciting-slash-depressing responses to Max’s resubmitted work. (More on that next time.) Given how much I feel is still going on, I am planning to go into Year Two by doing a SLAM spin-off/continuation, in which I submit new work as Max (more on that another time, too). For today, I want to focus on an aspect of what made me decide this project needed to continue; specifically some experiences from my summer which reinforced to me more than ever that we need to pay immediate attention to the dearth of women writers being given opportunity to succeed, and the total lack of women’s stories that we’re telling.
Anyone who follows me on social media knows I felt strongly about this summer’s release of the new Ghostbusters reboot. I know, that was so three months ago, and pop culture has already moved on to Pokemon Go and Stranger Things and Taco Trucks on Every Corner, but I haven’t. I am a huge fan of the original movies (yes, both), not as much from childhood as from college, when they became favorites to watch with friends and roommates. We were living in New York City, and there was a kinship to the local places, jokes, and culture of the movies. So if I had an attachment to the movies because they represented my city (a city which is featured in no lack of stories, at that), you can only imagine how excited I was to see a reboot that would represent my gender.
We desperately, direly need more stories that show women as more than sex objects, more than romantic interests, more than airheads, more than nameless forgotten supporting roles.
You might even have the same reflex as me (and, as I later learned, many others), which is to cry tears of happiness while watching the movie, particularly notable in my case because I have only cried one other time in a movie in my life, during the sad part of My Dog Skip. And I’m not saying this movie was perfect, but it let us watch women be smart and funny and significant—and that’s important.
And if there’s one thing I’ve learned this summer, it’s that we desperately, direly need more stories like this—stories that show women as more than sex objects, more than romantic interests, more than airheads, more than nameless forgotten supporting roles. Women whose character could not simply be replaced by a sexy lamp.
This summer, I taught three classes in which students ages seven to fifteen were asked to create their own original stories and characters for a short play or short movie. I worked with about fifty total students, of whom roughly thirty-five were female and fifteen male. Between them they pitched about forty different story and/or character ideas. And of those forty pitches, only about five of them were pitched about female characters. Only about five.
Most pitches went like this:
STUDENT: “I have an idea for a story about a kid who travels through time using a magical backpack.”
ME: “Awesome! What happens?”
STUDENT: “He becomes best friends with a dinosaur.”
Do you see what happened there? The story went from being about “a time-traveling kid”—a character who could be anyone—to being about “he.” Regardless of whether the student was a boy or a girl, the story would start out being about “a kid,” or “a doctor,” or “a famous music artist” and would inevitably end up being about “him.”
There is nothing wrong with having stories about male protagonists. But women are 51 percent of the population, and these classes were 70 percent female. So doesn’t it seem odd that only about 12 percent of the story ideas would be about girls?
Women are 51% of the population, and these classes were 70% female. So doesn’t it seem odd that only about 12% of the story ideas would be about girls?
Even when a co-teacher or I would model back the story idea by saying “okay, so your idea is about a kid who time travels, and then she or he befriends a dinosaur,” the student would nearly always revert back to “he.”
In one class, quite literally nobody was designing female characters and I had to go around the room and make a deliberate point of reminding the students that their characters could be girls. “Oh, I didn’t think of that,” they’d say. Or, in a moment of true heartbreak, “But I want my character to be funny.”
When over 70 percent of the programming you see portrays male characters as the leads, showing them as the important ones, the ones with authority and humor and brains and stories worthwhile of being made, why wouldn’t you want your character to be the same?
Our youngsters, our storytellers of tomorrow, are not learning that women’s stories deserve equal attention and time and praise and worthiness and authority.
So we need to keep going. Because our youngsters, our storytellers of tomorrow, are not learning that women’s stories deserve equal attention and time and praise and worthiness and authority. It’s not reflected by the stories in their books and on their TVs, and as such, we are positioning yet another generation to overlook countless amazing stories inside them, about “a goofy detective” or “a brilliant scientist” or “a catfish astronaut” who is female. And that’s why I’m continuing this project, spinning it off into another phase, so we can keep the conversation going and hope that every little bit counts.
Originally published on HowlRound.
One thought on “I Ain’t Afraid of No Female Protagonists”
Keep fighting the good fight — hooray for season 2 of SLAM!
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