is article was first published in Script Magazine in August 2017
Picture this. It’s a barbecue party, the first warm sunny day of the year. Eyes closed, you’re engrossed in a laid-back conversation as you recline in a deck chair. Suddenly, a guy calls out your name. Surprised, you turn around to look at him. You’ve met him before – once. Was that last year or the year before? He calls you out from a few yards away. “Can you look after my kid? I need to go,” he says. No details, how long for, or why…
You look at his kid, he’s about three. He looks like a handful. You also look at his friends who know and see the kid regularly. It would make more sense to ask them so why is he…?
SNAP! Of course, we’re the only two women there!
It’s taken a good 30 seconds for me to figure this out, but he’s already a little annoyed. “Can you come now?” I look at my friend. She doesn’t want to do this at all, but already, her face twitches, ingrained guilt rapidly welling up inside her even though she has never met the guy.
I feel the same way, but I’m resisting the urge to help. I know why this is happening and the overwhelming feeling is that I’m having none of it.
“Why?” I ask him. Utterly baffled, he looks at me and frowns. “I need to go.” His brain clearly screaming, “what is she waiting for?” But I stand my ground. “Can’t you ask one of your friends? I barely know your child.” My friend, now wracked with guilt, mutters, “I’ll go.” I lay a firm hand on hers.
The standoff pays off. He has gone back into the house with his kid. He hasn’t asked his male friends for help.
My friend shakes her head, “I don’t like other people’s children.” I chuckle, “Nor do I.”
WHAT IS BIAS?
Women love children. They also love cooking and cleaning. Even if they don’t love doing those things, they’re better at them and expected to help and be polite. That’s the obvious bias being explored here. This is not a scene from a movie, however, but something that happened to me a few months back. That incident made me think about the way we explore bias in movies and how to go about it.
SHOW DON’T TELL
In real life, it’s impossible to put yourself in someone else’ shoes. In movies, however, it becomes a possibility, a prerequisite even. We’re exploring the “what if I was…?” We’re made to ‘feel’ and empathize for the characters.
There is a scene in the excellent TV series Sense8 (Netflix) where muscle-bound hunk Lito (Miguel Angel Silvestre) cradles his stomach, in acute pain. “What’s going on?” he says, “I feel like I’m dying!” In case you’re unfamiliar with the Sense 8, in the show, several strangers find themselves inexplicably linked to each other. In this case, Lito links to Sun (Bae Doona) as she experiences crippling period pain. I loved that scene. I remember looking at Lito and thinking, “I know, right?”
As writers, we’re often advised to add bias inorganically. For example, when writing female characters, we’re often told, “Imagine if your female protagonist was a man.” And so, we often model them on male archetypes which is a dishonest shortcut.
IS THERE SUCH A THING A MALE OR FEMALE ARCHETYPE?
A few years ago, scientists wanted to figure out if they could tell men and women apart simply by looking at their brains. They studied thousands of deceased people’s brains and they concluded that they could roughly guess about 5 out of 100 brains, the rest of the studied brains could have belonged to either gender.
I recently did a psychological test where the results came at 58% female and 42% male. It reflected a lot of what I feel within myself.
It’s just not that simple.
Instead of imagining a character, say, as a different gender, It would therefore make more sense to explore the pitfalls your character might be going through daily and build from there. Your protagonist probably isn’t that much different from you. He or she just treads a different path.
Script EXTRA: Writing Female Characters and Archetypes
SURPRISE YOUR AUDIENCE
Instead of adding bias inorganically, how about making it a determining factor in your story? A male boss constantly jokes about a woman’s navigation skills even though she’s a human GPS. She proves this by rescuing her male colleagues when she and her team are stranded in the middle of an Amazonian forest. A woman might forget every single anniversary whereas her husband would not miss one for the world, and he starts to resent her for it. In this office, the worst gossip isn’t a woman, but a straight man and he gets away with it because he’s considered inquisitive instead.
How about your protagonist is the brand-new CEO of a company only she is young, black and her team is made up of middle-aged white men set in their ways, but she is the only person qualified to rescue their company? In Hidden Figures, the Black female mathematician is the one who saves the day when the white male protagonists fall short. It’s also a true story.
USE BIAS TO YOUR CHARACTER’S ADVANTAGE
Sure, your Indiana Jones-type female protagonist isn’t taken seriously because she’s blonde. How about she uses that bias to cunningly defeat a clueless antagonist?
How about making light of bias? When a male protagonist, a typical Casanova type [think James Bond] knowingly tells a female protagonist, “You clearly couldn’t resist me last night.” Her reply, “Well, it had been a while. Could have been anybody, really.”
There are so many ways to flip the concept on its head.
BIAS ISN’T ALL ABOUT GENDER
As I have briefly hinted, this goes way beyond gender bias. It also covers poor versus rich. Old versus young, able versus disabled, the themes of race, and all the many themes in-between.
I love the TV show Black-ish. It tells the story of a Black middle-class family who find themselves living a life in a mainly white middle-class area. The show does a stellar job portraying the prejudices they face while delving into the underlying theme of poor versus rich. While the portrayal is painfully accurate, it does imply – no doubt unwittingly – that prejudices are also immutable. No matter how many times the white characters interact with the family, their prejudices do not change, worse, they seem to crystallize.
IS BIAS IMMUTABLE?
My granddad was born in 1900. He was an old foggy who went through two World Wars and was very much set in his ways. Despite not being a far-right activist, his views on race were appalling to the modern mind, to say the least. At the ripe old age of 95, he left his home and went to a care home. Low and behold, his carer was a sprightly black French man from Martinique. They struck up an unlikely friendship. His eyes would light up whenever he saw him. “They’re exactly like us, you know,” he would say.
If a 95-year-old stuck-up dude can change his mind, I doubt characters in a made-up story can’t.
Script EXTRA: Tips for Elevating Tension, Characters and Conflict
ELEVATE YOUR WRITING TO GO BEYOND BIAS
My best friend passed away three years ago. She was as black as I am white, as curvy as I am skinny. We weren’t even from the same country, but she was that special someone who shared the same brand of crazy I did. She was my soulmate.
As she laid in a hospice, dying, I spent the whole night holding her hand. That’s how much I loved that woman, and I miss her every day. Bias never entered nor influenced our friendship or bond.
Whenever I watch shows that imply that our friendship was impossible, it feels like someone tramples all over my heart. It’s like we never existed.
Thankfully, more movies are starting to explore those relationships. The excellent The Incredible Jessica James (Netflix) is one of them.
There are many complex pathways leading to a human life. It is an intricate canvas that uses many palettes, all of them as exciting as they are surprising.
They weave in, out, and beyond bias – and they all deserve to be told.