4 Opportunities Created by Female Protagonists

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by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)

It’s no secret that women’s voices have been historically underrepresented in the world of film and storytelling in general. Upcoming movies such as Suffragette will continue to expand the body of films that tell stories of strong women. However, smart writers have long realized the power a female protagonist holds. Here are four unique opportunities these characters bring to a story.

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1. THE OPPORTUNITY FOR A NEW PERSPECTIVE TO BE EXPLORED

Stories of mothers, daughters, grandmothers, aunts, and sisters have been mysteriously absent from the historical archives of narrative. There remains a wealth of untapped experience in the human condition that scriptwriters have avoided, mistakenly assuming that audiences wouldn’t show up for, or have been simply unaware of.

The stories of women in middle passages of life are finding a greater presence on the screen. This year alone, Rikki and the Flash attracted the mammoth talents of Meryl Streep as well as a faithful audience, and Lily Tomlin brought a story we had never experienced before to life in Grandma. Wild could not have packed the power it did with a male protagonist. Cheryl Strayed’s story resonated with audiences BECAUSE she was a woman on this journey, not in spite of this fact.

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2. THE OPPORTUNITY FOR TWICE AS MANY ANTAGONISTS

Audiences have been less likely to respond to stories where a male protagonist battles it out against a woman. We could examine reasons why this might be the case. Or we can simply recognize the fact that female protagonists can face off against males and females and still delight audiences.

The Hunger Games franchise has demonstrated this with dramatic box office numbers, as has the Divergent series. Angelina Jolie has single handedly removed any doubt about the potential success of matching a woman against any antagonist in Tombraider, Salt, and several others. Kill Bill Vol. 1 and 2, Sucker Punch, and Lucy have all found success with audiences and demonstrated the wide variety of antagonists a female protagonist is capable of dealing with.

Still of Brie Larson and Keith Stanfield in "Short Term 12."

3. THE OPPORTUNITY FOR NEW STORIES TO BE TOLD

As writers, we’re often reminded that there’s really nothing new. Everything has been done. It will only be a matter of how we remix it. It’s important to remember, however, that the catalogue of women’s stories on screen is a much smaller tome than that of men’s. We have seen the story of an American cowboy taming the Wild West a million times, but we have yet to see the story of a woman in that environment that resonates with audiences and finds box office success (with the singular semi-exception of True Grit — notice that Hailee Steinfeld’s role wasn’t big enough for her name to make the poster).

The untapped possibilities are truly endless. We had never experienced what it was like to be a woman working in a youth care facility until Short Term 12. Beyond the exploitation films, we had never journeyed with a woman serving out a prison sentence until Orange is the New Black. We’ve seen women run drug rings in Weeds. Women come of age in Diary of A Teenage Girl. And a woman try to raise a son while kidnapped in Room. And still it feels as though women’s stories are only beginning to be told.

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4. THE OPPORTUNITY TO CHALLENGE CULTURAL NORMS

Many writers are looking for opportunities to tell stories that make a difference – stories that will comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable. There is perhaps no greater opportunity to do this than through a female protagonist. From the early days of film, this has been a winning approach. In the late 1930s, the norm was men going on adventures. However, none were as compelling as the young woman who ventured from Kansas to the land of Oz. Challenging what was popular and accepted brought generation after generation to the theater to journey with Dorothy as she traversed wicked antagonists and found friendship along the way.

The same could be said of Alice in Alice in Wonderland. Currently Julianne Moore and Ellen Page are challenging cultural norms in Freeheld. Emily Blunt is challenging a completely different norm in Sicario. And Claire Daines has continued to challenge the norms of what women are supposed to do in Homeland. This is to say nothing of women born in bodies they don’t identify with. Transparent has demonstrated that challenging cultural norms can resonate with audiences and make the story a critical darling.

I would be remiss if I didn’t address the subject of males writing stories with female protagonists. Certainly, women write stories of men on a daily basis that feel authentic and truthful. However, we have had thousands of years of storytelling from the male perspective. Everyone is fairly familiar with that lens. Men can certainly be capable of writing authentic female protagonists. However, it’s important to do a bit of extra homework so that the character is not the portrayal of a woman through the male lens, as we have often seen.

Reading the work of Laura Mulvey can be helpful, as can watching films that have been written and/or directed by women in order to notice differences in creative choices. Seeking feedback from a trusted female friend, preferably also a writer, can be of great benefit as well. Women bring something special to the screen. Their stories are important. Storytellers, both male and female, should be engaged in telling them.

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John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and the upcoming Secrets of Short Visual Storytelling. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to International Ambassadors. He teaches at The LA Film Studies Center and has conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his blog, welcometothesideshow.org.

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