In Bridesmaids, Kristen Wiig plays – for a comedy – a wonderfully complicated character. One who loves her friend but is prepared to totally ruin her bridal shower; who can organise a hen night but so badly that everyone gets the shits; who can flirt with a policeman, and then throw him out when he suggests she’s avoiding something. In Ben Stiller’s Walter Mitty, she turns up as The Girl. The one whom he must impress, whose sole role is as moral compass. Shame.
And let’s not let the women writers off the hook. Lena Dunham, who writes possibly the most important TV series of the last five years, created a wonderfully spikey character in Adam. A character who is at the same time loving and gross. Except in the latest series, in which he seems to have turned into some perfect cookie-cutter boyfriend: supportive of her ambitions, saying the right things when her friends go mental, always there for her.
I think this is the third time I’ve written about the difficulty that the sexes have in writing about one another. There is always a temptation to write a character who is the-person-who-would-solve-my-problems and, in doing so, deny them an independent life. There’s probably a good reason for this. The film/TV/Book is about Character A, not character B. Give B too full a character and it becomes about them. But some people manage it: Harry Met Sally, Mad Men, even The Bridge.
In the meantime, From Dickens to Dunham, the minimising goes on.
I once read a piece by a woman about men in a gym: they were in the shower comparing the size of their penises. Trouble is, this would never happen – the possibility of humiliation would be too great. But men are often described as being obsessed with the size of their willies, and being competitive with one another, so doesn’t it seem logical that they would behave in that way?
By way of balance, I asked a female friend if there were any similar examples written by a man about women. She mentioned Ian McEwan’s Atonement. At one point the protagonist, who is not aware that he’s attracted to a woman called Olivia, throws her clip (or something) into a fountain. She proceeds to take off her shirt (and possibly her skirt) to wade in and get it. In my friend’s opinion no woman would do that unless she wants sexual attention from the man. She’d step in fully clothed or tell him to get it. She has since talked to many women who all say the same thing.
I guess the point is about research. When we write about a plumber or a spy or a magistrate, we’d go and ask what they do. But with the opposite sex we often assume that we know. Because we’ve met a few.
One of the most astute romantic comedies is When Harry Met Sally. Perhaps because it is written by Nora Ephron with input from Rob Reiner. In her next film, Sleepless in Seattle, the male character was a complete J-Cloth. It is noticeable that Mad Men is often written with paired male and female writers, and is the better for it.
But novelists don’t have that luxury. So perhaps all I’m talking about is seeking out and listening to feedback. In my second novel, an elderly woman writes a few jokes at home in preparation for a comedy gig. She stands in front of the mirror and reads them out. When I showed it to a female colleague she told me that the woman would also be concerned about her appearance: what she would wear, how her hair would be. The thought that an elderly woman would have those concerns had not even entered my head. I took her advice and added a paragraph.