If you are a male writer in a male dominated industry (i.e. comics) writing female characters you often deal with some scrutiny from readers who question whether your portrayal of that female character is appropriate and whether or not it is "sexist."
The dictionary definition of "sexism" is A) an attitude or behavior based on traditional stereotypes and sexual roles and B) discrimination or devaluation based on a person's sex. And while the definition may seem pretty simple, it's still incredibly broad. When we apply it to the characterization of female characters in comics we are left with a lot of room to speculate whether or not the way a character is being portrayed is in fact "sexist." It's no wonder, either, since for most of the time comic books have existed they have been a little bit, well, sexist. Instead of delving into whether or not this is true (there are plenty of articles online you can read that would reinforce this idea) it's best to step back and ask ourselves what it is that makes writing female characters so difficult for some writers, and how is it different from writing a male character.== TEASER ==
When a creator takes the reigns of a female character driven title the last thing they want to be perceived as is sexist. They don't want to write a character who is shallow, who is confined to traditional gender stereotypes and whose sole existence is to be "eye candy." But it wasn't always this way.
Much of the comics from the 90's saw success because they catered to this very overly-sexualized image of female characters. In fact, the popular art style of the time really reinforced the over-sexualization of women in comic books. Artists like Michael Turner, Marc Silvestri, David Finch and Jim Lee all tended to draw women in very provocative ways. But it wasn't just the art that reinforced this idea; a lot of the writing implied that women often existed solely to push the plot; that they didn't have any real value to the story.
Take for example, Witchblade in the 90's written and drawn by Marc Silvestri; the books were aesthetically pleasing, but the stories did not do a very good job portraying Sara Pezzini as this very tough as nails, strong female character. In fact, before writer Ron Marz came on board, Sara spent a lot of time having her clothes ripped off in practically every issue.
Some would say Ron Marz revolutionized Sara Pezzini and breathed new life into her character during his run of WITCHBLADE which lasted for 70 issues. You can practically see the evolution of her character based on the covers to WITCHBLADE -- she may have started in a metal bikini, but by the end of Ron's run Sara would suit up in full armor. And when she wasn't decked out in metal, she was in a crew neck t-shirt, jeans sporting her police badge. It wasn't just the imagery that Marz changed, it was the character herself. Sara matured under Ron's pen, coming into her own. She became a Mother and a considerably more self aware cop, too. She was interesting, and very different from her original incarnation. Under Ron, Sara Pezzini was given a chance to evolve. And she did.
We decided to ask Ron how he goes about writing a solid female character and what qualities and characteristics the character would need to have. Check out his response, below.
"I honestly don't approach writing female characters any differently than I approach writing male characters. I try to write individuals, and I try to write them so they're as three-dimensional as possible. Obviously someone's sex is one of the traits that factor into it, but it's certainly not the only one. A believable character needs to have both positive and negative aspects to their personality, so I try to build that into anyone I write."
"If there's one constant in the way I approach writing women, it's probably that I try to write them as more emotionally mature than men. I just feel like that's pretty often the case in real life. For me, a 'strong' character has nothing to do with physical strength, it's about the strength of their will, their resolve. I watched my wife give birth to all three of our kids, completely natural childbirth with no drugs, no pain meds, nothing except her strength and determination. You can't come away from witnessing something like that without a better understanding of how strong a woman can be. That warrior mentality I saw in my wife is definitely something I draw upon."
"But I should add that you have to balance that strength with some vulnerability, or the character doesn't come across as believable. Someone can be an ass-kicking hero and still be vulnerable or even needy at times. The important thing, I think, is making sure your heroine isn't defined by or seen as secondary to the men in her life. That 'damsel in distress' stuff is bullshit. One of the reasons I have a problem with 'Twilight' is that Bella's character is defined by sparkly vampire boy. Her primary character arc is to get a boyfriend. Lame."
I can't speak for everyone, but I have to admit I agree with Ron about the overall goals the character should have. If all she is doing is chasing after some sparkly vampire, I can't say that makes her very appealing.
She should be more than just a girl who is on this quest for a boyfriend. The fact that she wants to be in a relationship shouldn't define her.
Often female character are portrayed as being very sexy. The issue is ensuring that the character maintains her sexuality and her sexiness without being exploited and oversexualized. That is often a big challenge for writers.
For Ron, you can have a sexy woman. You can have a strong woman who happens to work in the sex industry (i.e. Voodoo) but if that's the only quality that defines her, then it becomes a problem.
"Everyone has their own definition of sexy. I think that's one of the reasons it's always such a hot-button topic. One person's sexy is another person's slutty. For me, it comes down to making sense in the story. In Witchblade, it never made sense to me that Sara was running around in, essentially, a metal bikini. So the first thing we did was get rid of that within the story and put her armor. We've still done some sexy scenes, when Sara's been with her boyfriend, or with Jackie Estacado, but it's story-driven. It's a question of who you're serving -- the characters and the story, or the segment of the audience that's apparently too shy to go buy a copy of Playboy. I honestly have no interest in catering to that audience."
"The reaction to the first issue of Voodoo was fascinating to me, because they were people who simply could not accept an issue set in a strip club, and there were people who looked beyond that to see why it was part of the story. I saw the issue was called sexist and misogynist, and I saw it called subversive and smart. Again, everybody has their own definition of what's sexy and what's exploitation. My line is different is different than your line."
"I thought it was interesting that the people who were riled up about the issue were invariably upset about the strip club, and not the murder at the end of the issue. That was hardly even mentioned. Ultimately, as a writer I'm more concerned with what characters are doing, with what they're thinking and feeling, rather than what they are or aren't wearing. If you told a story about Mata Hari, sex would be part of it, but that wouldn't make her any less of a strong woman. Just the opposite, in fact."
Clearly, Marz not only has experience writing strong, sexy women for comic books; but he's done so successfully. And while he is off of VOODOO, we are definitely looking forward to seeing what he has up his sleeve for the future. What do you think of Ron Marz's perspective? Do you agree with his thoughts on how to write a strong female character successfully?