The Conflicted Observer

As you may know, last year I made a book of fairy tales called If Only The Grimms Had Known Alice. The premise was very simple: swap the genders of the main characters in 15 Grimms tales so princesses were adventurers no princes fell in love. I posted a photo of the first proof copy to Instagram and a moment later, Matt Locke asked me if I’d like to talk about it at his fabulous conference called The Story, in London. I said yes.

It dawned on me fairly quickly that the process of creating the book – while it took time, effort, and a bit of money – was actually fairly simple. I wasn’t sure I could fill 20 minutes about just that. I decided to have a look around the web to see about other potential topics I could include. It turns out the idea of the gender flip isn’t new. In fact, I’ve had a handful of friends who are parents mention to me that they do this quite consciously as they read stories to their kids. I did discover there’s quite a big trend, a zeitgeist, I’d say, of doing straight swaps, women for men starting to spread. I focussed on the redrawing of women in comics and the ludicrous costumes they wear. There’s quite a vein of artists positioning men in the highly sexualised bum out tits out tight clothes positions women models and supposed heroes are often in, mostly in an attempt to, I think, generate empathy in men of these ludicrous postures and how unnatural they actually are.


I stepped across to The Long Kiss Goodnight, an outstanding film made in 1996 starring Geena Davis and Samuel L. Jackson. It’s one of my favourites, simply and primarily because the lead character, Charley, shoots straight, doesn’t fall over, and wins. It’s that simple.

Geena Davis established a research foundation on Gender and Media twenty years ago, and have published some real numbers on the pathetic representation of women today’s movie business. It’s shit. Stats in the talk. It’s shit.

It felt important to try to find a female character in film that stood out for me. Lt. Ellen Ripley stood out. There is a lot of stuff about that character on the Internet. Some people are fixated on that scene where she’s alone, in her undies, erect nipples, a bit sweaty, but, there’s a lot more to it. There’s a single scene across four movies where she declares she’s capable of performing a task she’s been trained to do, driving one of those big hydraulic exoskeleton machines she eventually uses to kill the Alien with, and the men let her do what she’s trained to do. Apart from that, she’s about a hundred separate things. She’s all women, she’s Mother as Destroyer, she’s dehumanised into a clone, she bears an alien, she commits suicide, she kills her progeny, etc etc. As I claimed in the talk, this character is monstrous.  As I chided in the talk, she’s like the buffet at Caesar’s Palace of female character tropes. I want to relate to her, but then she dies and is recomposed as a uterus to bear a hybrid alien… I mean really. You can’t make this… Oh, wait. But then I think that Ms. Weaver had an executive producer role, and is apparently talking about making a fifth movie and…

I suppose, in the grand scheme, it’s really only been a very short time that women have been represented in media at all. Perhaps we’re still struggling to allow them to be complex characters. But, we must make these stories more complicated. The conclusion I neglected to reach on stage because my time was running short is that it saddens me greatly that ‘complicating the story’ today still simply means equal representation. In a tragic twist, too, I recalled how Jennifer Lawrence, star of the Hunger Games movies, was abused by hackers who spread pictures of her nude body across the Internet, represented as a sexualised commodity.

I did discover too though, a growing and wealthy network of women producers, like Reese Witherspoon and Drew Barrymore who seem to be making movies they want to see with complex female characters in the lead. The two easy steps which Geena Davis just mentioned in a recent Hollywood Reporter guest post are important, I think, and I hope you will implement them in your upcoming storytelling. This doesn’t just apply to film either, but any stories or media you make, like photos or videos of your workplace, for example.

  1. Take the projects you’re working on now and change some characters’ names to women’s names
  2. In crowd scenes, make half female

It’s really that simple.

Once that’s done, things can finally get interesting.

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