Bradley Cooper and Zoe Saldana in "The Words"
In a story about parallel lives, it’s natural that characters won’t represent a broad range of women’s experiences. But when the parallel is a slavish devotion to men, the range could stand to be broader.
|Bradley Cooper and Zoe Saldana in "The Words"||Source: thelifefiles.com|
Recently, while discussing an unrepresentative depiction of women with a friend, I was confronted by an interesting objection to my feminist approach. The contention was that portrayals of women as fawning wives, sex kittens, or mindless ditzes aren’t unrealistic, because women who fit those stereotypes do exist. My friend claimed that I was only upset by these portrayals because they didn’t match my own experience of womanhood—because they didn’t depict me.
I thought about that line of reasoning when I went to see “The Words,” a film by CBS Films about a struggling novelist who claims another writer’s superior work as his own. I knew it would be personal to me as I’m a creative writer myself, and the desire for recognition and artistic merit is a strong one. And even though the novelist main character is male, I knew I’d be able to translate his experiences to mine and identify with him across the gender gap.
Even if women’s roles are sometimes realistic, they explore the same themes over and over, to the point that most women cannot see themselves in female depictions and must instead identify with the more complex roles offered to men.
How did I know? Because women have to do that all the time. So many stories are told from men’s perspectives, and so few human concerns are hashed out in women’s words. Even if women’s roles are sometimes realistic, they explore the same themes over and over, to the point that most women cannot see themselves in female depictions and must instead identify with the more complex roles offered to men.
Let’s use the six main characters of “The Words” to trace the patterns. These six characters are organized into three sets of male-female pairs living out parallel themes about romance and the creative process.
Rory is our struggling writer living with his wife Dora. He works a menial job while trying to get published, and Dora is always there to soothe his wounded ego when he feels he hasn’t achieved enough. When Dora mistakes another author’s work for Rory’s and praises him for it, Rory finally finds the validation he’s craved and publishes the work as his own.
Clayton is an established novelist who meets a literary grad student named Daniella at one of his readings. She’s sexy, engaging, and knowledgeable about his life, and when Clayton reveals that he’s separated from his wife, we can already tell Daniella will move in for the kill. They share a drink at his apartment, a few startling personal secrets, a brief but passionate kiss… and then they part ways.
A young American soldier stationed in Paris meets a French waitress named Celia, and after their storybook “love at first sight” romance, they marry and have a daughter. Unfortunately, the daughter dies, and Celia returns to her childhood home. Grief inspires the young man to write a literary masterpiece, and its beauty charms Celia back into his arms. However, she loses his manuscript, and his anger drives them back apart.
Because these three stories are meant to be similar, both the men’s and women’s roles will necessarily repeat themselves and fail to represent a wide spectrum of experiences. However, the elements they choose to repeat are telling.
Among the men: Rory longs for literary recognition to prove his worth. Clayton yearns to have his true self understood in his work. The young soldier struggles to balance his family commitment and his budding literary sensibility.
The common thread: artistic expression and its complicated relationship to identity. Perfectly respectable theme.
But among the women: Dora fights to convince Rory of his worth. Daniella seduces Clayton in order to understand him better and have some fun. Celia is blown about by her grief and infatuation with her husband.
The common thread: their relationships with the men they worship.
It’s true that some women will see themselves in Dora or Celia. However, when portrayals of women all fall into the same stereotypical categories, the vast majority of women must instead translate their experiences into a male equivalent to identify with more varied male roles.
It’s a shame that women’s complexity is so often ignored while men’s is celebrated. It’s a shame that women are asked to appreciate men’s perspectives while the favor is never returned. It’s a shame that male characters are the default. It’s time to tell gender-neutral themes, like identity and artistry, through both female and male characters alike.