Guest Post: Stella MT

Here’s a guest post from my friend and sometimes critique partner (when she’s not working on her doctoral program – sheesh, can’t she just find a few hours to squeeze little old me in?) Stella MT from The Great Big Jump. She’s been a great supporter of this blog and has some wise “You go girl” insights. I’m honored that she wanted to dabble in the badassery and examine when some femme characters fall short of that right. But, she changed her mind midstream and this is what she came up with. Please enjoy!


Stella MT’s Post:
Originally, I had set out to write a funny article about network TV procedurals and their lack of convincingly bad-ass female characters, which could be attributed to several different factors that affect TV and film writing in general. I had it all planned out: who to snark on, who to blame, what could have been.

Then the news of Nora Ephron’s death broke out all over the Internet.

I admit that, outside of her most popular movies (When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle, even You’ve Got Mail and Julie and Julia), I’ve never really considered Nora Ephron as a “girl power” icon; all I know is that she’s a superb writer with a lifetime’s worth of snappy anecdotes to share, and I wish I had been able to truly develop my appreciation of her work before she passed away.

And yet, as the news of her passing flooded my timeline on Twitter, I found myself reading Ephron’s commencement speech at Wellesley College in 1996, where she spoke as an alumna of the school:

Many of my classmates did exactly what they were supposed to when they graduated from Wellesley, and some of them, by the way, lived happily ever after. But many of them didn’t. All sorts of things happened that no one expected. […] The women’s movement came along and made harsh value judgments about their lives—judgments that caught them by surprise, because they were doing what they were supposed to be doing, weren’t they? The rules had changed, they were caught in some kind of strange time warp. They had never intended to be the heroines of their own lives, they’d intended to be—what?—First Ladies, I guess, first ladies in the lives of big men. They ended up feeling like victims. They ended up, and this is really sad, thinking that their years in college were the best years of their lives.




What does this passage have to do with good writing? 

Put it simply, a good story often begins with the choice that must be made by a character in response to an unexpected and difficult situation.  In the case of most female protagonists, the “unexpected” could be as simple as a bad breakup (see: Rachel Green in Friends and Jess Day in New Girl) or as overwhelming as working for an office that might as well be a frat house (see also: Brenda Lee Johnson in The Closer and Ziva David in NCIS).  These moments are filled with the realization that things will never be the way it used to be: all of the sudden, there’s no going back to the old house, the previous branch, the trust that was broken by that lying piece of shit.  Survival, in one form or another, becomes the name of the game.


And yet, not all female protagonists get to become heroines in their own stories.

I look again at all the characters I set out to mock, and it becomes clear to me that they were intended to be strong and sexy in their own way: handy with a gun, easy on the eyes, tough enough to turn the tables on a perp yet sensitive enough to do everything they can for the ones they truly love, be it their messed-up families or the team of crime-fighters in their squad. Yet, as time went on, I found that they’ve only become less compelling as time went on: sure, it may be “realistic” to show our heroines not getting their way, but does it always have to happen on a regular basis? It’s already bad enough to be stonewalled by bureaucrats and left in the dark by lovers and family members… but do they also have to be tortured by psychos every other season, too?


It’s as if the creators of their respective shows are trying to tell us, over and over again, that any woman who chooses to take the bad guys down has chosen a life of martyrdom. Choose that journey, they say, and you will be doomed to a lifetime of trust issues, bad sex, substance abuse, and abandonment from nearly every single person that you’ve ever loved. You may be strong enough for this, they’ll say, but you’ll never be a hero… not even to your own self.

 

In a way, characters like these are marks of lazy storytelling – and the writers are partly at fault for the inconsistency – but, from my point of view, the repercussions may be more serious than we think. At a time when the entertainment industry has gone completely global, these shows are now shown all over the world, in different cycles, and in every possible language. And not only that, but there is a major chance that these shows – and stories – are being watched, right now, by viewers in countries where women don’t have the same rights and privileges that we have in our comfortable corners of the world.

Is this the message we want to send to the rest of the world: that, even in a democracy, there is no point for an educated woman to stand up and lead the charge against injustice? Is it fair for everyone else to think that the only stories we have to tell about our women – all women – are the ones where they have to do only what is expected, if they want to survive without being victimized?

http://kidculture.wordpress.com/2012/03/08/the-best-countries-for-women-girls/

I don’t know about you, but I’d like to think that a true heroine would never choose to live her life like this.


A true heroine, in my opinion, does not need to blame “the system” for her lack of initiative. She doesn’t have to dress up and go to work: she chooses to dress up and go to work, every day, because choosing otherwise would only make her more restless. She doesn’t always make the best decisions, but she takes responsibility for all of them, and finds a little humor in every situation. She may have to work a little harder to get some respect, but she will earn it – win or lose – and the guys in the office better recognize if they knew what’s best for them. 
And while it may be possible for her to “have it all” – good looks, great job, wicked skills, maybe a family and/or a nice house – a true heroine knows where the reallines are drawn in the first place. Cute shoes are a luxury, the right connections are a privilege… but truth, love, justice, peace of mind? Those are non-negotiable rights, and our heroine will fight for them, to the bitter end.

Which then brings us, once again, to Nora Ephron, and her message to the Class of ’96 at Wellesley:

Above all, be the heroine of your life, not the victim. Because you don’t have the alibi my class had—this is one of the great achievements and mixed blessings you inherit: Unlike us, you can’t say nobody told you there were other options. […] Did I say it was hard? Yes, but let me say it again so that none of you can ever say the words, nobody said it was so hard. But it’s also incredibly interesting. You are so lucky to have that life as an option.


Right or wrong – and regardless of who gets to run “the show” – a true heroine gets to choose her own destiny. And that is always a story worth telling, for all time. 

~Stella

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