Saturday, 4 October 2014

It is Possible to Have a Female Character Without a Love Story

So I was wandering around the internet when I found myself on the front page of IMDB and encountered a trailer for a movie called Black Sea. It sounded kinda interesting so I decided to take a look and see what this whole thing was about. It seemed alright, but one thing I quickly noticed was that there seemed to be a startling lack of female characters. Worse still, there seemed to be no particular reason why the story necessitated an all-male cast. The film appeared to be set in the present day and involved a group of treasure hunters (as opposed to any military operations or anything that might still be predominantly if not entirely male). Is it just because it is set on a submarine?

Unlike many genres, submarine movies have a small degree of justification for being very predominantly male. A lot of films in this genre are set in very male-dominated periods of history, usually either World War II or the Cold War. Now that hasn't always stopped filmmakers. Plenty have found creative ways to put women into these environments, as is the case with Blake Edwards' comedy Operation Petticoat, but generally in these sorts of movies you can normally expect to see an all-male cast.

That said, not all submarine movies deal specifically with those conflicts, at least not always in that same context. There are plenty that take place in the present day (the above-mentioned Black Sea, for example). Submarine movies can overlap with science fiction in some cases (as in Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea or the far superior film 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea). Sometimes in these areas you do see women, and sometimes even a strong female character such as Lindsay Brigman in James Cameron's The Abyss, but it is still rare.

Bringing us back to Black Sea, I saw no immediate reason why the film's story required an all-male cast, and I decided to voice my opinion on its message board. The first response I got was someone who (perhaps rightfully so) pointed out my concerns were likely my strong feelings about advocating for gender equality getting the better of me. I have been going crazy over these issues lately. Sometimes it seems I can't turn around without spotting something my mind ends up perceiving as sexist in one way or another. Once in a while I can't tell if I'm actually finding something sexist or if I'm just paranoid about everything, so he had a legitimate point. However, what disturbed me was the comment he made immediately after:

"And thank god there isn't. don't want some stupid %&# love triangle during the middle of the movie muddling up the plot."

Really? Is that what you think would happen by writing in a female character? You do know it is possible to write a strong female character into a large cast without forcing in any kind of romance, right?  You don't have to incorporate a love triangle. You could just write one of the characters as a woman and still keep the dynamic with the other men exactly the same. I mean, did this guy really think that adding in a woman automatically meant there would have to be a romantic sub-plot forced into the narrative?

Being a writer myself I know from experience that is not the case. More than half the best characters in my work have been female (in fact I have so many memorable female characters I got excited over the one time I wrote a male character that stood out to my readers), and very few have had any kind of romance at all (and fewer still have been in a heterosexual relationship but that's another matter altogether). This even includes at least three cases where the female lead is the only woman in a cast otherwise composed entirely of guys and in every case I managed to avoid any kind of forced love triangle, though this could be a bit of my own experience (I've never actually had a "girlfriend" in the sense of a romantic partner, but I do have  A LOT of friends who happen to be girls).

I recently had to watch a movie called Desk Set for one of my classes. It was a silly movie in most respects despite the presence of Katherine Hepburn and a handful of somewhat funny lines, but the point was to look at how it envisioned the impact of computer technology. The plot of the movie essentially concerned the relationship between an efficiency expert and a resource department manager who gets worried about hearing that a computer is going to be installed in her office because she and her colleagues think they're going to lose their jobs. 

The part that bothered me was that according to the professor, the makers of this film wanted to appeal to women. Their solution? Write it as a romantic comedy, because as we all know romantic comedies are the only genre that women will go to see in the theater. You would never get any female viewers if you made your computer advertisement as a drama or a thriller or a film noir... oh wait, yes you would because contrary to popular belief there's no such thing as a "women's genre" or a "man's genre".

I've known plenty of women who enjoy a good action or science fiction movie and despite being a man I have enjoyed several great romantic comedies. Bringing Up BabyRoman Holiday, Some Like it Hot, and Breakfast at Tiffany's are all romantic comedies I love because they are very well-done movies. The jokes in them are hilarious and there is a very solid emotional connection with their characters. The romance in a good romantic comedy is generally an essential part of the film, and therefore in those cases it is fine. 

However, that does not mean that every female character in any movie has to have a romantic sub-plot. Bringing up Black Sea again, I see no reason it couldn't have had a woman in the cast, nor why there would have to be a love triangle if there was one. Why couldn't there be a female treasure hunter there who is just as tough as the men and works with them on a strictly platonic level? 

The sad thing is that even today this notion of associated romance with women is something that is still widespread today even though we should know better. Just look at the whole "Disney Princess" franchise that completely skews children's perspectives of the company's animated films. It markets all the "princesses" (including some who really, really don't belong in there) as lovely women in fancy dresses in front of pink backgrounds and something specifically for little girls. Boys on the other hand are encouraged with the notion they shouldn't have anything to do with princesses, and subsequently are alienated from a number of films that are actually quite decent when you give them a chance.

Even the more progressive images of women in the past have generally been involved in romances of some sort. Howard Hawks often wrote strong female characters but most if not all had some sort of romance with the lead (albeit with more depth than many others of the time). You don't seem to see very many that can have a strictly platonic relationship with the men. The earliest case I know of a film where a female character is able to avoid any kind of romantic sub-plot at all is Alien, where both Ripley and Lambert are treated almost literally as one of the guys (though earlier drafts of the script had a sex scene involving Ripley that was never shot).

Still, I'm starting to feel like we need to see more platonic relationships between men and women. Sometimes love can be a great source of drama to a story, but it isn't always required. You can in fact write a strong female lead into a film without incorporating an unneeded love story. A lot of screenwriters seem to fail to realize that simple truth, and it needs to be understood. The presence of a female character does not mean there has to be a romance. Furthermore, I think it's time we did something about the association between romance and femininity. After all, a traditional heterosexual romance usually requires a male partner so why shouldn't it be associated with men as well? 

Bringing this all back to that one comment made on IMDB, whoever this user was they seemed to be under the misguided impression that writing even one of the male characters in the film as a woman would have automatically meant a forced romantic sub-plot. To an extent I can understand (at least based on what I saw in the trailer) why he wouldn't want a love triangle becoming part of the narrative. I will agree that it would get in the way of the central narrative, but were the writers of Black Sea just incapable of writing female characters without trying to force in a romantic sub-plot of any kind? If that is indeed the case then they're probably not very good writers which also means that this movie probably isn't worth my time.


  1. You are passionate about the role of women and the sexist ideas that have been perpetrated and continue to be in some respects. I recall, in university days, I was walking behind a girl and a guy. The guy opened the door for the girl and she snapped at him that she can open her own door. We continued walking down the hall and came to another door and this time he opened it and didn't hold it. What did she say? Yup she berated him for not being polite and keeping the door open. Obviously that girl was nuts and needing to find her marbles in the grass where she buried them. I say this because we can get too upset by the films and other things that perpetrate women in a negative way. I can tell the difference when it is done in fun (Austin Powers) and when women are gawked at (pick any film where they centre on a blond T & A clad bikini gal in roller blades). Can a film be made where the men and women are not romantically or sexually engaged...Yes! Does the average film from Hollywood make a film like this....Rarely. Why? They feel a woman has to be in a film when maybe she is not needed (the remake of the Flight Of The Phoenix) and when a female presence is but they often do have to stick some romantic sub-plot in there and it is often not needed. I also get bothered that the men will be dressed in a basic t-shirt and pants but the women always must be in some clingy t-shirt and her pants get ripped so they have to make them into shorts. It would be refreshing if a film was made, women were in it but there was nothing romantic in the plot. Let's see if this can be pulled off in Hollywood land. It is rare

    1. Oh yeah, that's another thing that annoys me. A lot of movies like to put women in high heels during action scenes while the men get to wear more practical footwear. If you ask me women shouldn't wear high heels for ANYTHING because of how much they impede walking but especially not for action scenes. I can tolerate it a bit more in older movies where it had more to do with the time period (i.e. North by Northwest) but that's one area I might have to visit in the future.

      I've seen a few movies where they managed to pull off a compelling story with little romance. Ripley did a pretty good job of it, but we could use more like her.

    2. I love your posts about equality. They're so thoughtful and well written. And YES to the women wearing high heels in actions scenes. That drives me nuts. It reminds me of In Time, when Amanda Seyfriend's character initially goes on the run, she's in 5 inch heels. Then when she gets the opportunity to change clothes, she picks ANOTHER pair of 5 inch heels, even though she knows she's literally going to be running from people.

    3. I'll definitely have to cover that one somewhere down the line. However, I'm probably going to space it out a bit from this one.