There’s been a lot of talk lately about the stereotypical “Strong Female Character,” based on the CRAZY idea that we need to start thinking of female characters as . . . characters, period. In that spirit, I offer the following six female characters we really need to stop writing.
1. “The Girl.” A big group of people in a narrative that could easily be non-gendered, and yet there’s only one girl along for the ride. It’s Our Hero, Handsome Scoundrel, Crazypants, Toughest Guy, and The Girl, who has no personality apart from BOOBS. She’s probably sleeping with Our Hero, or he wants to sleep with her, and/or she provides a reason for Our Hero and Handsome Scoundrel to have dramatic tension.
2. “The Clueless Interrupter.” Doesn’t she know how IMPORTANT her man’s task is? She’s always interrupting him while he’s saving the world, fighting the powers of evil, or having a SERIOUS BROCONVO about SERIOUS BROFEELS with her frivolous calls about their upcoming wedding, or what she should fix for dinner, or hey, the house is on fire. Our bros just shake their heads in wonder, watch as he lies like a fourth grader caught in the pastor’s liquor cabinet (“I swear there’s nothing going on, now you just go back to your frivolous ladystuff, OK?” “But I hear robot ninjas in the–” “LOVE YOU HONEY, BYE”), or grab the phone away from him and just hang up or throw it out the window. THAT’LL TEACH HER.
3. “The Woman Whose Sexual Desire Is Comical.” So, and you might wanna sit down for this, people over 40 have sex. People over 60 have sex. Women who are not skinny have sex. Women who are not “beautiful” (whatever the FUCK that means) have sex. Whatever kind of woman you’re imagining as undesirable, she’s having sex. So when you write a character whose main function is to throw herself comically at Our Hero because her very desire is HILARIOUS? I want to punch a wall. Yes, I know all about Restoration comedy and Mrs. Roper, but it’s time for that trope to retire.
4. “Hooker with a Heart of Gold.” I’ve written about this before (along with the “Magical Person of Color/Gay BFF/Disabled Person,” another trope that needs retiring, but since it’s nongendered, I’m leaving it out of this particular post). So I’m just going to be an asshole here and quote myself rather than reformulate this entire train of thought:
Sex workers are not a marker for all women everywhere. If you’re writing a play about ACTUAL SEX WORKERS, then carry on, my wayward son. But if you’re writing a play about, oh, a young man trying to find himself, or a middle-aged man who’s vaguely dissatisfied with life, or a man whose wife just doesn’t understand him and constantly asks him to do horrible things like pay attention to her or fold his own laundry, then inserting a Magical Prostitute who swans into his life and shows him The Way to Happiness, or the Broken Flower Stripper who needs the man to save her from herself and show her that college exists, then I am looking at you with crankyface. Are you writing a play with a sex worker in it? Ask yourself: WHY is she a sex worker? Are you writing about sex workers, or do you just want a naked version of the Magical Person of Color? Does she have objectives of her own that aren’t there just for the male protagonist to correct? Does she have a character, or is she just a racktacular vector for Words of Wisdom?
5. “The Girl Who Doesn’t Know She Wants It.” This is the character who spends the entire piece rejecting Our Hero until she finally “gives him a chance,” or realizes she wanted him all along. Apart from being annoying, this trope is DANGEROUS. He deserves her! What she wants is irrelevant! He’s a nice guy so her lack of interest in him is her fault! Stalking is adorable and romantic! What he wants is more important than what she wants! This character has a sister character known as “The Bitch Who’s a Bitch Because She’s Not Interested in the Main Character,” which is the same thing except she never “gives him a chance,” therefore, she’s a “bitch.”
6. “The Fantasy Feminist.” This woman is a misogynistic caricature of a feminist. She’s very vocal about hating men, not shaving, and blaming ridiculous things (like the lack of her favorite yogurt flavor at the grocery store) on “the patriarchy.” Her function in the work is to impede the main character’s love interest from “giving him a chance” or to act as comic relief. Or both.
7. BONUS ROUND: Male character you need to stop writing: “Guy Who Has No Idea How to Do Normal Stuff.” This is the guy who ends up putting a diaper on a baby’s head, or just sitting the baby in a bucket instead of diapering it. This is the guy who sets the kitchen on fire because he’s watching the game while cooking, or uses his kid’s doll carriage as a beer cooler. Believe it or not, there are tons of men who are actually quite competent at simple, real-life things.
I know there are more! I invite you to comment with the sexist tropes you’d most like to see fired into the sun.
Your post is damned terrific, as usual. I’m frightened to realize how much of this stuff I’ve numbed myself to. I love your wake-up calls.
A lot of my upcoming female characters are outside the norm. Of course, I also have a few current ones that are also untraditional. I have always thought that we, as writers, have portrayed the sexes unequally.
I love your blog so much.
1) The-emotionally-unstable-until-she-gets-a-man female character. Often she is also the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” who clearly needs a man to make her sane, ground her, and then she magically because stable and amiable.
2) The awkward tomboy female character (or needs-a-makeover-girl). She’s boyish and/or not booby and covered in makeup and she is uncomfortable with this. She is socially awkward until she gets a makeover and suddenly looks sexy and has confidence because, you know, a slinky red dress and lipstick are all you need to feel comfortable as yourself.
3) The mysterious sexually powerful foreign man. Dude has an accent and longish hair, and is obviously killer in the sack and all women are helpless to his looks and words. Of course exoticism is sexy and foreign people are attractive, but why is the foreign national guy always tall, hot, and trying to steal have sex with everyone? It’s Chris Kattan’s Antonio Banderas impression: https://screen.yahoo.com/ah-yes-show-gina-cutter-000000957.html
The Black Dildo – The Black man whose only function is to serve as a verboten “exotic” sexual fantasy for a White woman. Variations include The Black Rapist from “Birth of a Nation” and The Black Eunuch who assists the White woman, but – despite both of them being attractive – they don’t get together, as she probably would with a White male. Sam Jackson and Morgan Freeman often play Black Eunuchs – the asexual Black sidekicks. Mind you: I am NOT AT ALL suggesting that the Black man expect sex as a reward (that’s fuckin’ terrible), but the fact that it’s rare for the “Happily Ever After” to include an interracial couple is disturbing.
The Madonna / The Whore – ‘Cause those are the only two women in the world, right?
The Business Bitch – she either doesn’t like men or she’s a dominatrix. Neither of those things are inherently bad, but just because a woman at work won’t fuck you doesn’t necessarily mean it’s for those reasons. Maybe she’s trying to, y’know, do her job?
Woman in Refrigerator – ’nuff said.
I’m thinking of a few more…
This is awesome. Sending all my romance friends here! HUGS hon!
The one I hate is the Female Cop Who Doesn’t Seem to Actually Have Training / Isn’t as Competent as the Male Cops.
I really enjoy your blog.
Thank you – interesting post. I enjoyed it. Personally I am sick of macho, physically honed androgynous females, drinking, copulating, and beating the shit out of the badidies, in many movies I watch. Even us Brits are writing them into movies and on TV. We obviously got the idea from across the pond! But I didn’t see them in your post.
I have a story about manic pixie dream girl whore with heart of gold that is conscious of the trope but which I’m afraid is confusing to editors who think that I’m unconscious of the trope. The post-singularity disposable girl is literally programmed to be MPDG WWHOG. I no longer expect to sell it any time soon.
Love this last post. In my last post on my blog, I found out that in my experience I feel that I have been victimized by another possible type: evil socialite. Does she encompass any other types above? I wonder … Now evil is perhaps the wrong adjective. There’s a previous trope, and I am thinking of Margaret DuMont, comical, pretentious, ultimately feckless socialite. Just saw one of those on The Lucy Show last night. But the socialites I have experienced aren’t aware of their evil … or what I deem their parasitical existence.
The overly-emotional woman.
The dead woman or girl whose death is used to humanize the hero.
The cranky yet endearing old woman, who usually has a few scenes and then dies.
The pretty girl who surprises everyone by being smart.
The plain girl who turns out to be pretty.
This is less a character trope than a plot trope, but it drives me nuts when a pregnant woman is just going about her day then suddenly her water breaks and has to rush immediately to the hospital. It so rarely happens that way that I think all the entertainment channels that propagate that myth are just confusing future mothers everywhere.
Indeed! We can do without the phoney-baloney stereotypes.
^^TRUTH! Truth about all, but BIG TRUTH about the water-breaking thing. It’s worse than the Countdown Clock on a Bomb cliche.
Right! No women in novels.
Blessings and Bear hugs!
The cranky yet endearing old woman … LOL. What roles would there be character actresses when novels become screenplays and then movies?
The type-A workaholic who needs to learn to chill out and loosen up and enjoy life a little, as by the intervention of a lovable arrested-development man-boy.
Honestly, this list appears out-dated. Ms. Roper is close to three decades old and there are no contemporary examples given on these stereotypes of female characters. A couple of years ago I researched female action heroes for a play I was writing, including reading Super Bitches and Action Babes: The Female Hero in Popular Cinema, 1970-2006 and Reel Knockouts: Violent Women in the Movies as well as other texts and watching the movies represented. I was amazed at how female action characters have changed and evolved over the years. From man-hating sexually aggressive Varla in Russ Meyer’s 1966 FASTER PUSSYCAT KILL! KILL! KILL! to the HUNGER GAMES’ Catniss Everdeen, a female character that is neither hyper-sexualized nor objectified. Some commenter’s suggest other character types that might be more relevant, but, for example, I can’t remember the last time I saw a film with the “Magical Person of Color/Gay BFF/Disabled Person,” aside from Whoppi Goldberg in 1990’s GHOSTS. Even Disney’s FROZEN puts the kabash on the whole female character finding her prince which is a pretty minor subplot to Anna’s act of self love to save her sister. There are might be other recent movies or books or plays or whatever that I haven’t seen where these sterotypes are prevalent, but it feels like this post could have been written any time before the turn of the 21st century. There probably more relevant female stereotypes out there today than the one’s listed here or it might be that these stereotypes have transformed into something else.
These are all taken from plays I’ve read or seen recently, which is the reason I wrote the article. If you think, for example, the Magical Person of Color or the Clueless Interrupter are tropes no one uses any longer, you’re dreaming. My company gets between 300 and 400 unsolicited submissions a year, plus the plays we ask for, plus the plays I see at other companies. All of these tropes are alive and well, TRUST.
I used Mrs Roper as an example because 1. humor, 2. shared references make clearer examples– if I had used the examples I’ve seen from new plays, most people would not know what I was talking about, and 3. I’m not here to call any current playwrights out specifically. Except David Mamet. HE KNOWS WHY. 😉
I recently watched “Now You See Me,” and I recall enjoying the feud between the male and female cop (one American and one French) until their growing mutual respect for each other turned romantic. I didn’t see why that was necessary for either. Why they couldn’t ultimately just gain respect for each other and find a good working relationship befuddled me. Does a caper comedy/thriller really need a romance? And it seemed to me particularly that the female character would have been stronger to focus on the job and certainly commiserate and console on a human level, but without resorting to sexual attraction. Think of it, a man and a woman who are at odds with each other begin to recognize the humanity in each other and the blossoming friendship makes them better at the job they have been forced into together! Insane, I know.
OH SO MUCH YES. Why does a male/female professional combo have to equal sexual tension almost every time? It’s SO disappointing. I can see it happening in plays from page one. I’m thrilled when I get a play where this doesn’t happen. Hm– that might be my next article– unexpected happiness in new plays.
You forgot “the successful business woman who soon realizes her only goal to happiness is getting married and having kids.”
I just read your Six Characters post. Wonderful! And made a twitter thing of it.
This is so great. I would add the physically strong typical “badass” female character who matches the male hero in skill and intensity, except of course that she is ruled completely by emotions, like say revenge, and therefore needs the male hero to help her think rationally instead of emotionally.
piggybacking on the above stereotype ls this idea that you can put a woman who can fight into a book or movie and make her a completely flat and undeveloped character, and all the sudden you have a feminist role model, yet even the more minor male characters have more development than our supposed female role model does.
Just realized that in one of my stories, I have a gender-swapped version of that dynamic. Nice!
I kinda want to make a book that has almost every single stereotype now. Lol. But it’s true, people are abusing these characters, and this comes from a boy!
“carry on my wayward son” YES
thanks for this, I’m writing a book and this helps a lot 😀
The endless female characters whose only serious life motivation seems to be related to pregnancy or children. They’re everywhere: dramas, comedy, horror–all genres. It’s as if writers can’t imagine any serious life motivation for female characters outside of procreation.
“So, and you might wanna sit down for this, people over 40 have sex. People over 60 have sex. Women who are not skinny have sex. Women who are not “beautiful” (whatever the FUCK that means) have sex. Whatever kind of woman you’re imagining as undesirable, she’s having sex.”
I’m a woman and I don’t have sex and never want to. I get what you’re trying to say, but please don’t claim that all women have sex.