Assorted Opinions: Parity (non-fiction)
In the novel I’m currently writing, All Bedlam Courses Past (Bedlam for short), one of the characters is a sometime actress. Being not attached to a company, she finds far fewer opportunities on the stage than her husband. He can play the villain, the detective, the doctor, the army sergeant, the neighbor, the priest…
She can play the older woman’s role, or the younger woman’s role. And any signal speaking part has been coopted already, by the theater’s resident players. Her fellow character, who has wondered why a pretty woman would not have an easy time of it, learns a new thing.
The article below gives the ratio of male to female characters in Shakespeare’s plays as 826 male; 155 female.
Does switching genders, but keeping characters in the same roles, really bring change? There’s been an uptick in talk recently on whether To Kill a Mockingbird should be used to teach race; the two questions touch on a related theme. By itself, parity in fiction writing (which includes stage and screenplays), can’t be made the bar to successfully vault or fail. The rule for characters is that they have to be who they need to be.
Take this blog’s featured story of the 1902 Saint-Pierre disaster. If this were adapted into a TV series (too much material for a movie), while the casting would be majority black, and offer a rare opportunity for Martinicans, the roles would be fairly exclusively male. All the officials, white, black, corrupt, heroic, were men. Paris reporter Jean Hess makes a perfectly sound anchoring character, provided Senator Knight, Mayor Sévère, and other notables are equally represented—that it not become a white person’s story about black people—but any woman lead would have to be wedged in, or fictionalized.
I’m not sure, myself, that this is necessary, when telling stories both true and compelling…to find the “female angle” for the sake of appealing to a general audience. In, for example, the 1975 film Jaws, the wife (Lorraine Gary) of the hero Martin Brody (Roy Scheider), ends up an overplayed nuisance. I think most viewers want to get after that shark, and don’t care for her prolonged “worry” scenes.
But this speaks to a problem, the assumption that a balance of male and female means always having a love interest, a relationship partner. The rogue detective has to have the ambitious District Attorney to spark off…either role could be male or female, it won’t change the dynamic.
Women characters don’t gain from being plugged-in counterparts, serving the traditional narrative of popular fiction. But break down the romance angle and you find a “can the goal be achieved?” plotline. The compelling force can be understood as seeking the answer to a question. Romance becomes simply the medium:
He/she is arrogant/proud/has been hurt too much, but that spunky/quirky/maverick her/him will win through his/her defenses in the end.
It’s the facility of this underplot fitted to every mystery and thriller, every spy or war novel, every fantasy or science fiction novel, that makes romance such a storyline driver. But that it has to be romance, even though most people spend most of their days neither pursing nor being pursued, also limits female characters’ chances of a culmination other than eventual girlfriend or wife.
And more opportunities for minority writers won’t translate to more opportunities for minority women characters, if the lockstep romance plotline is never challenged.
Another reason women are fewer in fiction and are given less to do, is our culture’s built-in prejudice for high over low. Most women in life don’t get the glamor jobs, or the powerful ones—witness the cast of characters in the present U.S. impeachment drama.
To suppose the preferred heroine ought to be a forensic scientist solving a suspicious death in a gated community, is to have internalized the notion that there’s no interest in, say, a sister-in-law who knows very well who the killer is…but because she’s out of work and lives in the countryside, has no money and knows no one with connections, she can’t do anything about it.
This character’s awakening and gradual self-empowerment would make a great story. It would make a great story if she were sixty years old. But we’re more likely to get the thirty-five-year-old scientist, single mom of two well-adjusted kids, owner of a shaggy sheepdog…
Davin Whitney has been hurt too much, but when she finds herself forced to collaborate with gruff Detective Champ Hacker…
The point, of course, is to be aware of what sort of character dominates the worlds we create. Demographic truth matters. The more insular the pitch-world is, the more non-parity and non-diversity in publishing and entertainment, the more the same old safe thing will be done, with the characters changing colors, but not changing stripes.
(2019, Stephanie Foster)