Step 5: Let female characters be funny.
In my third post in this series, I posited that nobody’s favorite Toy Story character is Bo Peep. I pointed to her passivity (a boring quality by its very nature) as a reason why audiences aren’t likely to get very attached to this character and why she wasn’t missed when she was dropped from the third film. Yet passivity is only part of her problem. Despite voice actress Annie Potts’ best efforts to imbue her with some spark of personality, she’s the only one of the gang of Andy’s toys who has no quotable lines of dialogue — the only one who isn’t funny.
The female character who has to play it straight while the male characters around her have the freedom to cut loose shows up in more than one otherwise great story. In another of my favorite films, The Princess Bride, every character is funny (even those with no more than five lines or so! “Oh, you mean this gate key”) with one conspicuous exception: the heroine, Buttercup. She may get to deliver a few noble romantic speeches, but she never makes us laugh. She’s written, and Robin Wright plays her, as a type rather than a personality. Some girls who saw the movie when it was first released might have wanted to be Buttercup because she wears pretty dresses, but as for me, I wanted to be Inigo Montoya. As much as I adore the movie, I wish its approach to the heroine had followed William Goldman’s source novel, in which Buttercup, while still a passive damsel, is written with some humor and given a few noteworthy personality quirks.
Can any writer populate his or her story with a multitude of funny characters and expect the sole un-funny one to engage our imaginations? And why does that one character comparatively lacking in humor end up being, far too often, a girl or woman?
Part of the problem might actually lie in the rise of the “strong female character” type. It began with the best of intentions. To create heroines capable of overcoming a wide range of obstacles is a worthy goal for any writer. Unfortunately, too many of us end up equating “strong” with “humorless,” so that the characters come across as less engaging despite their manifold butt-kicking abilities. Writers wishing to create “strong female characters” may be squeamish when it comes to giving those characters flaws, and without flaws, a character can’t be funny.
Yet we can, if we know where to look, find examples of fictional girls and women in which “strength” (competence, courage) and humor happily coexist, and these are the girls and women who may be quickest to win an audience’s appreciation. When I look at “favorite characters” lists that do include female names, I notice a lot of those names seem to come from the work of one particular author — Terry Pratchett, the superb British comic fantasist whom I’ve praised here in the past. The dour witch Granny Weatherwax (who, like Brooklyn Nine-Nine‘s Captain Holt, has no sense of humor but is screamingly funny precisely because of this lack) and her coven get a good share of love from the list-makers, as do apprentice witch Tiffany Aching and Death’s no-nonsense granddaughter Susan. These women defeat formidable foes and save the day, yet we laugh when we’re in their company. Who among us wouldn’t love a character we can laugh with?
Matters are improving, even in what strikes me as the most conservative of pop culture arenas, the big screen. In comedies we see the token un-funny woman less and less. In Pixar Animation Studios, the bland Smurfette Bo Peep of Toy Story has given way to Joy, Sadness, and Disgust of Inside Out, each of whom is very funny in her own way. The good work Mel Brooks began when he gave Teri Garr and Madeline Kahn their chance to shine in Young Frankenstein has been taken up by Paul Feig, whose Ghostbusters reboot, the source of so much Internet rancor, has been winning hearts of male and female viewers. Then we have TV shows like Brooklyn Nine-Nine and The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt making the most of their female cast members’ comedic gifts; Kimmy, in particular, is a character almost anyone would love, blessed with a kind heart, prone to mistakes, but unwilling to give up, ever. In graphic novels I’ve found my new favorite superheroine, Doreen Green, the Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, who embraces her heroic responsibilities with gusto and enthusiasm and has a boundless capacity for humor. I got to know her thanks to my husband, who erupted into laughter every five minutes as he was reading the first volume and passed it on to me saying, “Honey, you’ve got to read this.” All in all, it’s not a half bad time for fictional women in comedy.
But what about those books, movies, and shows that aren’t comedies? In largely serious works, say, the majority of epic fantasies, protagonists grapple with potentially deadly threats and deal with weighty issues and aren’t called upon to be funny (at least not very often). Yet the stories still need leavening with the occasional smile or laugh, and the responsibility for providing those moments of humor falls to supporting characters. These “comic relief” characters are usually fan favorites whose appearance on the page is greeted with enthusiasm — and they’re still overwhelmingly male, even when gender has no effect on their positions within the stories. The “male is the default” curse strikes again. As writers, we could be a little more aware of it, and try to make a change.
Since the thrust of this series has been the need for more female characters that all audiences would identify with and many would name as favorites, I figured a little field research would not go amiss. I asked my guy friends on Facebook to give me the names of female characters they think are cool and a brief explanation of why they’re cool. Here are some of the responses:
“Isabelle Dalhausie who solves problems by being as philosophically perfect as she can.”
“Harriet Vane. Education and fierce independence.”
“Veronica Mars. Calm under pressure and quick w/her mouth.”
“Jessica Pearson, the character played by Gina Torres on the TV show “Suits.” Competent, decisive, loyal and more.”
“Peggy Olson from Mad Men. She figures out how to be a successful career woman on her own terms at a time when it wasn’t fashionable to do so.”
“Per my husband… Katniss Everdeen- followed her own instincts, Black Widow – honorable, follows her instincts.”
“Nancy Drew. Because she ignores the rules and solves murders.”