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Thursday 22 February 2018

Katie Byrne: 'Why we need female characters that don't fit the cookie-cutter stereotypes'

Why we need female characters that don't fit the cookie-cutter stereotypes

Irish Independent features writer Katie Byrne
Irish Independent features writer Katie Byrne
Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss in Mockingjay - Part 1
Lucy Liu
Katie Byrne

Katie Byrne

Many moons ago I was trying to describe a woman I had met at a meeting in the States to a friend in Ireland. "She's basically a typical Asian-American ice queen," I explained. "You know the type - beautiful, cold, calculated..."

"I know exactly who you're talking about," my friend laughed, before adding her two cents: "Poker face, speaks in clipped sentences..."

"That's her!" I cried. "That's exactly her! You have her in one!"

I was about to describe this woman even further when I was overcome by a feeling of dread, similar to realising that I had left the immersion on.

Lucy Liu
Lucy Liu

"What's wrong?" asked my friend.

"Nothing - it's just... how many Asian-American women do you know?"

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There was only portentous silence as she considered her answer, which, she eventually conceded, was the grand total of none. We soon discovered that the only "typical Asian-American ice queen" we knew was actress Lucy Liu in just about every film she had ever been cast in. I suppose you could call her a mutual friend. Or a lazy stereotype. My friend and I had fallen for what is known as the 'Dragon Lady' trope and we were left wondering if art imitates life, or is it sometimes the other way around.

Female characters in films and sitcoms are, of course, becoming better rounded. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo's Lisbeth Salander and The Hunger Games' Katniss Everdeen have given rise to a new genre of warrior women films (even if these characters were initially penned by authors rather than screenwriters). Bridesmaids and Girls were especially defining. However, there is a long way to go.

Most screenwriters could draw more complex, multi-faceted female characters: Women that are strong, spirited, compassionate, crazy and vulnerable all at once. Call me old-fashioned, but I've yet to see anything that has topped the characters played by Shirley MacLaine and Debra Winger in Terms of Endearment.

Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss in Mockingjay - Part 1
Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss in Mockingjay - Part 1

The problem is that for every deftly painted female character, we have 100 sloppily drawn tropes that woefully undermine the sisterhood. Let's start with Manic Pixie Dream Girl, a term coined by film critic Nathan Rabin to describe characters like Kirsten Dunst in Elizabethtown and Natalie Portman in Garden State.

In Rabin's own words, MPDG "exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures".

This is the 'quirky' character that wears an oversized bobble hat, owns a Super 8 camera and writes whimsical love letters in which the word 'serendipity' is used.

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The antithesis to MPDG is Uptight Power Bitch, as seen in films such as Jurassic World (Bryce Dallas Howard) and The Proposal (Sandra Bullock). UPB, who is generally the CEO of a company, leaves her male subordinates quaking in their leather loafers as she marches through the office wearing a skin-tight pencil skirt and infeasibly high stilettos. Invariably there is a suggestion that UPB's workaholism has left her sexually starved. Do you know the type of men who say "what she needs is a good ride"? They write these scripts.

The other rule is similar to the 'Good-Fast-Cheap' project management triangle, which tells us that we can only have two of these benefits at once. In film-making, it seems the triangle is Beautiful-Kind- Sophisticated.

If your female character is beautiful and sophisticated, then she can't be kind. In fact, she has to have a superhuman lack of empathy and a vagina made of titanium. It's also imperative that she is Russian (it's a Cold War hangover thing). Think Xenia Onatopp (Famke Janssen) in Goldeneye and Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett) in the latest Indiana Jones instalment.

If your female character is beautiful and kind, well then she can't be sophisticated. Instead she has to be so clumsy that she trips over in her heels during prom night, gets food stuck in her teeth while on a date or has an incident with what she thinks is hair gel.

The female protagonist's best friends are also crudely stereotyped. The BFF is either a hysterical woman who always answers the phone while wearing a face mask and doesn't seem to have a job.

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Alternatively, her best friend is the man she doesn't realise she loves yet, in which case the line "it was always you!" should be used in the final scene. The female protagonist's mother, meanwhile, is either unashamedly selfish or has no function other than to prod her daughter about the possibility of grandchildren. (And let's not even mention the fact that the actress playing the potential grandmother is 45.)

As for the Journalist Who Falls Into Bed With Interview Subject trope? I've heard of it happen twice, maybe three times, in the history of my career - and it was with the type of celebrities that turn on the Christmas lights in shopping centres for €700. I know. I'm disappointed too.

Badly drawn female tropes perpetuate myths and ingrain personas. We need characters that help us understand other women and, crucially, ourselves.

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