A Writing Entry – How to Write a Strong Female Character

Or maybe I should have titled this, “An example of how NOT to write a strong female character.”

This entry is a response to the DC animated movie adaptation of “The Killing Joke.” The treatment of Barbara Gordon in that story is and has always been the elephant in the room preventing me from really embracing the story. Alan Moore is a genius warlock writer, but even he admits that he probably should have been reined in from crippling Barbara Gordon. So the team in charge of adapting the story recognized that the fridging of Barbara Gordon (in fact, the catalyst for coining the trope although it’s technically named for one of Green Lantern’s girlfriends) needed to be addressed. They saw the elephant in the room but the way they decided to get rid of it was, metaphorically, set it on fire. And then, based on the Q&A panel at ComicCon, they seemed surprised a lot of other people were upset because their remedy made the story objectively worse.

Anyway, I present, “How to write a strong female character.” And no, the first criterion isn’t, “Be a woman.” Stephenie Meyer is a woman and she wrote the “Twilight Saga” which is about an emotionally and verbally abusive relationship with a huge power imbalance passed off as some kind of romance. And millions of people, most women, agree. And William Marston created Wonder Woman explicitly so little girls could have a superhero(ine) of their very own, and she’s been quite popular with both sexes. The sex of the writer should not matter. If a writer wants to create convincing characters, then the writer will have to write outside his/her own experience.

Obviously a character is written in context of a story. For this guide, I’ll try to roll in issues with the story as well as the character. I’ve also written before about unfortunately implications in writer that occur because the writer is unaware of his/her own bias.

Method 1:
Write a story with a male protagonist. When it’s finished, gender-flip the names and pronouns. Change nothing else.

Does that seem a little simplistic? It’s really remarkable how starting with a female character causes so many writers to utilize the same worn-out and insulting tropes when writing. This method should help to avoid that pitfall as long as the gender-flip doesn’t cause major re-writes. For example, the role in Salt was written for a man, and he was supposed to have lost his wife and children. When the role went to a woman, the filmmakers decided that having a mother go on a roaring rampage of revenge wouldn’t be believable because mothers are too gentle (and apparently they had never heard of the “Mama Bear” trope), and so made the female Salt a widow but also childless. There was no reason for that change.

Method 2:
Okay, you really want to start the story with a female protagonist. You can’t imagine trying to write this story with a male. Okay, go ahead, and write out that story. When the story is done (not necessary publication ready, but done), gender-flip the names and pronouns. Now read the story again. If you think it needs some major re-writes now that the protagonist is a man, you might not have written a very strong female character in the first place. It does not matter if the story is about a character established in a shared universe as a woman. The story won’t actually be about a man in the end; this is just a thought exercise.

And that’s it, actually. Either start with a man and gender-flip, changing as little as possible, or start with a female and then do a hypothetical gender-flip and see if the story and character still hold up.

The Abominable Adaptation:
So where did “The Killing Joke” go wrong? As I said, Alan Moore’s original story has a big problem, and I applaud the writers for recognizing that and wanting to fix it. The actual part of the movie that is “The Killing Joke” is fine, although given this movie was meant for a wider release than comic fans, I would probably have made the ending less ambiguous. In fact, I can see the merit in making the actual story of “The Killing Joke” the second part of a standard three-act story. However, this movie didn’t have a third act (a teaser bit in the credits does NOT count) and the first act, well, like I said, set that elephant right on fire.

1) Writer Brian Azzarello – A writer who uses derogatory gendered insults, such as “pussy,” should not write female characters. To say words are important understates the issue. The words a person uses to express him/herself, and the world, tells the listener volumes about what that person thinks about that world. Since most people generally try to present themselves in a favorable way, they typically don’t use insults in everyday settings. But a fit of anger or frustration is one of the best times to find out who a person really is. If a person chooses to insult someone who irritates him/her by calling them “gay,” well, I wouldn’t let that person write an LGBTQ character either. When someone shows you who they are, believe them. As an aside, I know understand so much more about why New52 Wonder Woman was rebooted as a female Kratos.

2) Producer Bruce Timm – Bruce Timm, as much as I love his work in the DCAU, is a Bats/Babs shipper. I don’t understand this myself, as Dick/Babs is a better match and is mainstream canon. The Bats/Babs ship only comes into play in some of Timm’s later animated series and a few comics based on those. The Bats/Babs ship in those few examples also concerns an older, more mature Babs, although I still think it’s full of unfortunate implications. Making Babs her early 20s and Bats in his mid-30s (I guess?), and her as the student and him as the mentor, is just chalk-full of terrible tropes.

3) The elephant is on fire – so between these two, and apparently a bunch of editors and directors who I assume were all men (although I could be wrong; see comment about “Twilight”), thought they had a workable solution. So why didn’t it work?

First, a bit of relevant back story:
For the 1966 Batman TV series, the producer wanted to boost viewership among women and asked DC to create a new female character for the comics who could then appear in the show. The new Batgirl (not to be confused with Bat-girl), was of course Dr. (yes, “Dr.” because she had a doctorate in library sciences) Barbara Gordon, Commissioner Gordon’s daughter. She was the head librarian of the Gotham City Library, an acrobat, had training in judo, an eidetic memory, and a skilled enough inventor to design and build all of her gadgets by herself. She created the Batgirl costume to win a costume party and just happened to make it fully functional for crime-fighting as well because Dr. Barbara Gordon takes her cosplay seriously. Later she became a member of Congress. May I point out that this is awesome? Was it blatant pandering to the female demographic? Hell, yes, and it worked! The show still got canceled but Batgirl became a popular staple of the DC Universe. She was older than Dick Grayson by about seven years initially, but following various DC Universe reboots, they’re roughly within 2-3 years of each other. And her fanbase was so strong that Kim Yale and John Ostander secretly rescued her from the fridge and made her into the arguably more awesome Oracle. The character of Oracle utilized all of Dr. Barbara Gordon’s mental skills, like library sciences, computer programming, hacking, and her eidetic memory. She also could pull out a can of whoop-ass if she had to despite being confined to a wheelchair.

Back to the Argument:
Right, so that’s Barbara Gordon who has a Doctorate of Library Sciences and Kicking Ass. “The Killing Joke” already made her firmly a Damsel in Distress and Disposable Woman who was Stuffed into the Fridge. That’s pretty bad. What made it worse was that the creative team decided to make Barbara Gordon emotionally relevant to the story by making her romantically relevant to Batman. There is pretty much no way that was going to turn out well. And sure enough, it didn’t.

If the team had used Method 1 and written out the story starting with, say, Richard Grayson, there’s no way they would have considered linking Robin and Batman romantically (insert your own “Ambiguously Gay Duo” joke here). If the team had used Method 2 written out the story starting with Barbara and then gender-flipped to Robin and say, Catwoman, despite the whole “hot for teacher” fetish, I am still 100% sure the team would have decided not to romantically link them. I will also point out that this story doesn’t do any favors to the character of Batman either. He’s always been emotionally distant, but he’s also always been a paragon of self-control. Batman would be aware of the power imbalance in the relationship. He also sort of treats Barbara like a favorite niece, and oh, she’s the daughter of his staunchest ally. I just don’t see him having angry rooftop sex with his student. And if that happened, I also don’t see him refusing to deal with the fallout.

Ah, but what kind of armchair editor would I be if I didn’t have my own proposal for adapting this story and dealing with the elephant in the room? So here’s my proposal:

Act 1 – Batman is mentoring Batgirl. Batgirl wants to strike out on her own but Batman doesn’t trust her and is secretly afraid she’ll get hurt or killed, which would also hurt her father and Batman’s ally Commissioner Gordon. The two work together on a crime spree that turns out to be led by the Joker. In the course of the investigation, mistakes are made, they have a fight and Batgirl tells him off. They separately pursue their own leads, with the Gotham City police also pursuing leads, until they all meet up in a messy confrontation that results in the cops hauling the Joker away. Also during this first act, I’d set up the Joker’s motivation for trying to drive Commissioner Gordon crazy. Basically either Jim or Batman would imply the Joker gets what he deserves for being a violent psychotic clown. The Joker would reply that anyone would be him under the same circumstances. So after that, Batgirl decides she needs some time to think about what she wants in her life.

Act 2 – It’s three years later, Barbara has decided to focus on being Barbara for a while, and the Joker busts out of Arkham for his revenge. Thus commences the actual “Killing Joke.”

Final scenes – It’s a few years later on the anniversary of the “Killing Joke.” Jim shines the Bat-signal into the sky. Batman answers the call. They exchange heavy dialogue about [criminal threat]. There’s a pause, and then Batman leaves. Then it switches to Jim stopping by Barbara’s apartment. She answers the door in a wheelchair. They exchange heavy dialogue about the anniversary and Jim apologies for failing her. She tells him that he didn’t fail her. They hug; it’s very tearful, and he leaves. Then Barbara goes into her bedroom and reveals a secret panel and a lot of high-tech computer equipment and says, “Oracle here. Go.” Batman’s voice comes over the computer, “The warden said Joker got a card today, with a bat logo. Are you going to do this every year?” And she says, “Yes. Every year I’m going to remind him that he failed. That he tried to drive my father crazy with one bad day and it didn’t work. That one bad day isn’t enough to destroy someone.” Switch to Batman nodding in approval and looking down at the Oracle face on his screen. “Alright. Do you have any intel for me?” And switch back to Oracle. “Yes, I do. In fact, I can tell you everything you need to know to take [criminal threat] down.”

–fade out–

Something like that anyway. The key takeaway in my proposal – NO Babs/Bats shipping, tie the Act 1 story into Act 2 and give the Joker a reason on-screen to want to go after Jim specifically, and finish the character arcs. While the original comic is ambiguous as to how it actually ends, for a movie adaptation for audience not familiar with the source material, I think an unambiguous ending is important. If the whole idea behind “The Killing Joke” is to prove that one bad day is not enough to break a person, then show the Joker failed. Show Batman still being Batman. Show Jim still being Commissioner. And DEFINITELY show Barbara’s self-reinvention as Oracle.

Seriously, why is it so hard to avoid so many terrible tropes when writing female characters?


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S. J. Drew is an aspiring writer who finally entered the blogosphere to shamelessly promote that writing (as evidenced by the title of the blog). Whether or not this works remains to be seen, but S. J. hopes you are at least entertained. And if you're actually reading this, that's probably a good sign.

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