When I first began my screenwriting career, I had high hopes for my female characters. As long as they didn’t do anything like grab their crotch or spit after singing the national anthem, I thought things would be fine.

Clearly, I was wrong.

In Hollywood, you learn fast that women characters, much like women in general, are expected to be above all “likable.” Sure, she is allowed to be a bit wacky, but only if she is also meek. She can have a high-powered job, but only if she still cries in the bathroom during lunch breaks. She may have interests or hobbies, but they should be related to meeting men. Alessandra Stanley put it best in an old New York Times review when she called it the ‘Ally Mcbealing’ of American women.

Though for me, it’s nothing new. In some of my early drafts of How To Lose A Guy the heroine Andie Anderson was caustic, witty and above all else, comfortable with her sexuality. She also realized that her job at a glossy woman’s magazine was somewhat shallow, but at least it paid the rent and that was good enough for her. By the time the studio got done with it, however, Andie was a serious reporter stuck in a vapid magazine job. She was the ‘How To’ girl who dreamed of writing pieces on war torn Bosnia. All sarcasm was erased, and for all intents and purposes she was a virgin (though she had a friend who was a little trampy). These changes ostensibly made her character more likable. Likable trumped real. The movie came out, grossed a fortune, and one could argue, Hollywood was right. But I always wonder how it would have played had we kept her “real.” Would it have tanked? Or played even better?

I ask the question because in reality – at least by Hollywood standards – just about every woman I know is unlikable. Still, this doesn’t stop the movies and TV from perpetuating the myth that women are generally ditzy, clumsy, girl-next-door types whose main goal in life is to find a man (The only exception to this rule being when they are crime solvers, in which case they are consummate loners unable to ever have a real relationship because they are haunted and dark.)

The reality is that women (both fictional and real) are constrained by this nebulous likability factor while male characters can do just about anything. Imagine if Neil Labute’s In the Company of Men, a black comedy that makes fun of a deaf woman – and a movie I quite liked – had been made in reverse. You don’t have to work in the film business to know that The Company of Women would never have even made it past a first draft – if that. Or what about Scent of A Woman, staring Judy Dench as the foul-mouthed, blind ex-army officer? How about Mamet’s 12 Angry Men remade as 12 Angry Women. Or maybe an adaptation of John Dollar – a brilliant novel that is basically Lord of the Flies with girls. The sad truth is, it’s not going to happen.

Of course, film and TV present a fantasy, an escape from everyday life. But do people really not want to see real women? Does the public not want to hear women speak in their true voices, which span the spectrum from prim to irreverent. Are we still living in some sort of backwards world where women can, in theory, be anything they want to be, as long as they adhere to a certain role model?

It’s sort of depressing if you consider it. That’s why, in addition to writing screenplays, I turned to writing books, believing it would be a creative outlet where I would be allowed to express my worldview without having to give myself over to the bland dictates of being likable. A few years ago, I penned a coming-of-age memoir set in New Jersey. Surely I would have free reign to render the quirky, true-to-life characters that peopled my childhood — my lecherous gym teacher, a vindictive jazz musician who once terrorized me, and even a sexually charged, timbale playing chimpanzee. And while many reviewers embraced my story, there were plenty who didn’t.

But not for the reasons I expected.

Getting critical reviews is never a pleasant experience. As a writer, you simply hope for the best, bracing yourself for the reviewer’s poisoned arrows. But while promoting my memoir, a trend began to emerge. I was compared, with an alarming frequency, to cult author Charles Bukowski, although, frankly, I’m not sure the comparison was positive. More disturbing, though, my work was taken to task for being both profane and vulgar.

Puzzled, I searched for reasons why I was getting this reaction. I thought perhaps it was because my brother cursed a lot, a fact I translated onto the page. But then I recalled David Sedaris’ brother a.k.a “The Rooster” who cursed constantly. And fine, I described how our front yard became a boggy mess after the septic tank exploded, but didn’t Augusten Burroughs discuss his bowel movements without repercussion? No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t come up with any references to support how my memoir, which didn’t include sex, violence, or drugs would deserve such a description. I looked up early reviews of Trainspotting and saw terms like “calculatedly outrageous,” and “winningly sarcastic.” I checked out reviews of Elmore Leonard, a writer I greatly admire, and found several reviews applauding his female characters, in particular his creation of Honey Deal as a “smart, ballsy, sexy, take-no-prisoner female.” Now I consider myself a pretty smart, ballsy, sexy, take-no-prisoner female, yet somehow a 79-year-old man’s creation is more pitch perfect than the real deal?

Finally, while in New Jersey I did an interview for a local paper, and the reporter (male, early 30s) asked me why I was so mean.

I was taken aback by the word. Mean? The word ping-ponged through my brain. I can be dry, even sardonic on occasion. But mean? No. A straight shooter. Yes. I wondered if he was confusing the two.

Later, the reporter’s question started to burn. Why is it when a man describes the world around him in a way that’s scrupulously honest, he is described as brave, groundbreaking even? Yet when a woman writes about her world in a similar way, she is … mean.

The only answer I could come up with was that, as a woman writer, I was expected to be likable.

You see, I didn’t write about any of those safe female topics in my book. I never yearned to be prom queen, or battled with my weight, or suffered an unrequited crush on the quarterback. Instead, I wrote about being abandoned by my father, living in a crumbling house with an assortment of ill and handicapped siblings. I wrote about being perceived as an outsider by everyone around me. I wrote about feeling like a stranger in a strange land. This was my truth and it was through this prism that I saw the world around me. I was an emotional nomad who navigated the landscape of divorce in the 70s. A scrappy survivor of the mean streets of suburbia, who didn’t indulge in self-denigration or self-destruction.

So maybe I do have more in common with Bukowski than Bridget Jones. Driven by a need to find higher meaning in the world around me I took to questioning the world as I saw it. After all, alienation, sarcasm, and cynicism are not the sole domain of men, although sometimes it might seem as if they are. Back in the 50s and 60s, a group of disaffected male writers named themselves the Beat generation, playing with the paradox of the word to mean both “tired” and “upbeat” at the same time; although women were involved in the movement as well, they were often relegated to the sidelines, cast in the role of hostess, girlfriend, muse. The writing style of the beats was chaotic, gritty, and non-conformist, reflecting the burgeoning counterculture movement of the time.

Even though it’s been almost 50 years since the Beat generation, women are slowly breaking into the territory first staked out by Kerouac, Ginsberg and Burroughs. And despite the pressure to conform, to be likable, to break down and pine away and play helpless, we are resisting, enlarging the boundaries of our worldview with our gimlet eyes and bringing in the experiences of our own upbringing: the anomie of suburban life, the possibilities of the internet, the prevalence of divorce, the increasing fungibility of identity.

A growing number of female writers and performers don’t want to toe the line and be likable anymore. As I considered my role in this regard, I remembered a line Jack Kerouac once wrote, “The only people for me are the mad ones … they never yawn or say a commonplace thing.” And that’s when it hit me. Every generation has its movements, and perhaps this is ours. We are Mads. Mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved. We are nomads displaced by cultural circumstances who are now trying to find a place to call home. We are mad to experience life on all levels. Mad to connect all our million little pieces. Mad to find our own truth. We write mad lit — and yes, it’s cynical, unflinching, and irreverent. Our stories are populated by female characters who don’t want to be Meredith Grey or Carrie Bradshaw, created by female authors who don’t want pink covers and cute little cartoons on their books.

To the reporter who asked me why I was so mean, I now have an answer: I’m not mean. I’m mad. And if that makes me unlikable, so be it. Because let’s face it, being mad is a hell of a lot more interesting.

TAGS: , , , , , , , ,

KRISTEN BUCKLEY is a screenwriter, memoirist, and novelist. Her produced screenplays include How To Lose A Guy In 10 Days, 102 Dalmatians and the upcoming Shoe Addicts Anonymous. Her first novel, The Parker Grey Show, was published in 2002, and her memoir Tramps Like Us was published in 2005. Her essay, "What I Am Is What I Am" appeared in About Face (2008, Ed. Christina Baker Klein) and her horribly embarrassing personal tale, "Escape from Downtown" was recently included in Larry Doyle's, I Love You Beth Cooper (Larry now owes her). She currently lives in Los Angeles. You can read her daily posts on her website KristenBuckley.com.

35 responses to “The Mad Ones”

  1. Anon says:

    Please tell me that, after blinking a few times, you asked the reporter, “Why are you such a complete puss?”

    I have no use for weak females – in my literature or my life – and am already encouraging my daughter’s eventual Mad-ness. I would be beyond proud to see her take a [slam!] flamethrower to this place! Brava.

  2. Amanda says:

    Next week, a girlfriend and I are being filmed for a tv series…of the genre I like to call “reality lite”…I am freaking not because of the scrutiny (I am shy therefore cameras push my buttons and then some), the scheduling (as a Virgo, I prefer things be “just so” and bristle about the wishy-washy world of “yeah we’ll say 7 but will check in closer to that time and let you know if we still really mean 7:00”), or the commitment-juggling (several days of filming and tech stuff, mixed with prep and planning, and our real lives and real-life jobs and obligations.

    Oh no. I am freaking about the potential for the post-production skew might portray my friend and/ or I as a stock female character…the shrill one, the pissy one, the cute one, the one with boobs, the one who’s coy, the bitch, the pushover, the one who tries to make everyone just plain nice and like one another.

    Eek…eeek!

  3. Matt says:

    I would like to print out copies of this essay and insert them into every Twilight book in every bookstore here in town.

  4. Mary says:

    You have hit right on this thing about literature that’s been bugging the shit out of me lately. For me, it’s been in the form of “coming of age” books, which when they’re about men tend to have themes of coming to terms with one’s own thoughts and beliefs about the world. Maybe there is war or an artistic triumph or the first gig writing for the New York Times or an athletic victory. When the main character is a woman, though, it seems to revolve around love, marriage, divorce, motherhood and/or a mental breakdown. Even Eat, Pray, Love, which pretends to be about a spiritual maturation turns out to be about moving to the tropics and getting laid. WHAT IS UP WITH THAT? I want to write and read more works about women growing up to discover that they are amazing human beings. Where are they?

    Personally, I sincerely want to get my hands on that biopic of Valerie Solanas because I sincerely admire a woman who can be as crass (albeit mentally unstable) as she was. She’s a hell of a lot more interesting than crying in the bathroom.

  5. Mary says:

    Hmm, why yes, I did post that comment after only reading the first half of the piece. Sorry, I get a bit carried away when I know it’s going to be a good one.

    Now, after having read the second half, I would like to add: You are now one of my favorite badass women, and I propose that we go on being honest, direct, and unashamed. The only way to break that stupid mold anyway is to refuse to fit into it, and by doing so, to give other women the courage to join in and be real and mad.

  6. Judy Prince says:

    Kristen, you’ve ranted up an incipiently terrific screenplay! If the biggies don’t take it on, there’re several producers who will. And either before or after you’ve got it produced, you can give us TNBers a video of one of the scenes. Righteous anger—-good stuff!

  7. Zara Potts says:

    Great piece. I’ve often thought about this – why people are surprised when women are not nice.
    I remember reading Stella Rimington’s (Head of M15) autobiography where she said that in her considerable experience, women made much better spies because they have a ruthlessness that far outstrips men. In my own experience, I would agree that women can be incredibly ruthless and a lot of the time – just plain cruel. Especially toward to other women.
    Having said that, on the other hand, as you point out, women also get branded as bitches simply for being a little bit tough. I worked in television for many years and it always amazed me that women interviewers who asked hard questions were often stereotyped as ‘hysterical’ or ‘bitchy’ when in fact there were doing no more, or no less, than their male counterparts.

    • Mary says:

      I wonder if it’s more that people foolishly trust women where they would not trust a man. People will tell women things they wouldn’t tell a man. Why? Because they’re assuming a woman will listen and empathize and keep their secrets. Damnit, now I want to give up this writing jazz and become a spy.

      • Anon says:

        “People will tell women things they wouldn’t tell a man. Why?”

        Well, um, at least 85% of the time, it’s just because we’re trying to get down your pants. 🙂

        • Judy Prince says:

          You’ve got a point there, Anon.

          When I read dear Rodent Zara’s quote (“People will tell women things they wouldn’t tell a man. Why?”), he said, “It’s because they know a man won’t listen.”

        • Judy Prince says:

          Sorry, I meant Mary’s quote.

        • Anon says:

          No need to correct the name. I wasn’t really listening to you. 🙂

        • Judy Prince says:

          It’s ok, I can’t remember your name, anyway. Wait—-you’re the no-name, no-face CIA operative dude! You’re funny, too.

        • Anon says:

          Wait – I thought I was MI6! Oy vey…. Oh! Maybe I’m Mossad.

          Always happy to have amused.

        • Judy Prince says:

          My dearest Anon, again you’ve confused yourself trying to remember your various identities (witness protection programs can be sooooo exhausting).

          M16 has requested that you keep a lower profile, but honestly I can’t imagine anybody’s gravatar with a lower profile than yours. But don’t fret, Anon. Keep a stiff upper lip……if indeed you *have* an upper, or even lower, lip.

        • Anon says:

          Given that loose lips sink ships, I can neither confirm nor deny whether I have any at all. Your interest has been noted, though.

        • Judy Prince says:

          Your non-confirm’s duly noted, Anon. Report to Agent M1642, Hotel des Ferriers, Casablanca, ASAP.

          And I’d pack a lunch, if I were you.

          LooseLips

        • Anon says:

          Oh…. Oh, no. My wife says I’m not allowed to hang out with M1642 anymore without her present. You know – after that whole Antwerp thing. Awkwarrrrrrrd!

        • Judy Prince says:

          Which wife, Anon?

        • Anon says:

          HAHAHA!! Man, I picked the wrong time to show my wife “the site I spend so much time on”. At least the dog house has wi-fi and a liquor cabinet so it’s not so terrible being stuck in it – again….

          Thanks, Judy. (:

        • Judy Prince says:

          Yes, Anon, we’re picking up your signals from the doghouse. Over.

  8. Joe Daly says:

    Reading this, I found myself looking for (and hoping to find) characters that elude the characterization you describe, but it is really difficult. So thanks for presenting such a well-presented, informative piece. To change someone’s perspective on something, even their television watching habits, is a big deal.

    Btw- the only thing I came up with is Glenn Close’s character, Patty Hewes, in “Damages.” Patty Hewes is a strong, determined, complex character whose unlikeable traits are only slightly offset by her occasional good ones. She shows many sides and does not ultimately have to choose between power and loneliness.

    Anyway, thanks for the read!

  9. I knew from the title what this would be about. I love that quote… “The only ones for me…” Great stuff.

    I’ve spent a lot of time reading (and writing) about the women of the Beat Generation. There’s a lot of debate there… but I believe that they held a very important role, and that history has largely painted them into the background.

    One of the saddest stories I ever heard was that of Elise Cowen. She was a female who tried to rebel, and was put down at every turn. In the end she killed herself. Her male contemporaries were allowed to do everything she did. She was confined to mental hospitals and driven to her death.

  10. Good point Joe about Patty Hewes — but that’s one in a a zillion and only because it’s Glenn Close and only because it’s cable. I wish there were more characters like that.

    I would also like to say that is my secret wish – and has been since I can remember – to be a spy or a secret agent – so anyone who wants to start some sort of literary secret agent squad please be sure to contact me and (!) please read William Boyd’s Restless for an incredible female spy story. It will haunt you.

    Finally – David – Your story about Elise Cowen takes my breath away and reminds me of Camille Claudel who is a personal hero of mine – people talk about how she was ‘crazy’ but she wasn’t – she was driven mad by the fact that she couldn’t be who she was. When her frustration turned to rage her family committed her. No one except for her brother visited her – and even then sporadically. She wasn’t allowed to receive mail for something like 20 years. Finally, when her friend, painter Jessie Lipscomb was finally able to see her she confirmed the fact that Camille was not crazy; she had just been locked away by her horrible family who couldn’t handle her genius. Thirty years she suffered and if she had been a man she would have been the toast of the town. The injustice of it…

  11. Paul Clayton says:

    Kristen,

    Yours is a very interesting piece and I’ve learned a few things from it, or at least things I’ve already heard hinted about, or thought I’d observed, are made more vivid.

    I remember when, as a young man working for the Dept of Employment Security in Philly, I went with a disabled persons’ social worker on one of his home visits to a couple, both in wheelchairs, for life. I will never forget their anger, at the able-bodied, me, ‘the system,’ the world. It was a shock and an awakening of sorts. There are a lot of people walking around angry at something or somebody. Hell, they may be the majority. And I’m sure they have a right, and maybe I’d feel the same way if that shit happened to me. But I don’t want to hang out with them. Hanging out with them even in a book or movie is the challenge.

    May we all get the formula right.

    Best!

  12. The point though Paul is not that I’m some angry, spewing crazy lady — it’s that I’m a regular person – which means that sometimes I curse, and sometimes I get angry, and sometimes I’m strong and sometimes I’m not. The problem with so many female characters is that they are not permitted to be complex individuals – they have to be very simple — and very likable — there’s no room for maneuvering. So it isn’t really a challenge, you hang out with complex women in your life and some of them are probably pretty fun – but they’ll never be translated onto the screen in that light.

  13. Paul Clayton says:

    Kristen,

    Sorry if I got off track. I agree with you about what’s expected in submissions to the book gods. There are many templates. We all have to conform. Just take your Soma and it all won’t bother you any more. That’s what I do.

    Paul

  14. Simon Smithson says:

    “sexually charged, timbale playing chimpanzee”

    Seriously, why has no one asked about this yet?

    Joe actually made me think, by bringing up Damages – maybe cable is one of the cultural erosion points here. Shows like The Sopranos revel in casting every single one of their characters in the most complex light possible… not revolving around any point of definition except basic humanity.

    That being said, I’m all for equality. I look forward to the new hit show, Mad Women/

  15. Marni Grossman says:

    I think you’re absolutely right. Not just in art but also in life. Women are supposed to be likable. Sweet. We’re not supposed to be caustic and bitter. That’s unattractive.

    It’s frustrating. Especially when you realize that you’ve imbibed that message yourself. Bought it hook, line and sinker. You realize that you’ve spent all your time smiling and saying nice things and your mouth hurts and you’re tired and you wish you’d just told the truth.

    Thanks for this. It was great-

  16. Lisa Rae Cunningham says:

    Wow, this is a fantastic exposition. So articulate, and I found myself agreeing with you without checking myself on whether I agree with you. I can definitely relate to being accused of “mean” narrators, when my narrators are women. Interestingly, it’s usually middle-aged women asking me why my characters are so mean, and I sit there staring at these boring people thinking, Are you fucking kidding me? It’s a character. And she isn’t even mean. She’s having a conscious thought as she experiences life, and sometimes those thoughts are ironic. Isn’t that why we don’t all go out and kill ourselves each day? Because things are not, actually, just what they seem? And is there a law against mean female characters? Because as a general rule, when it comes to men, people seem to prefer assholes.

    I loved this. Well done. And it’s true: the timbale playing chimpanzee was catchy.

  17. Tom Hansen says:

    This is why I usually disregard Hollywood movies, or at the very least do some investigation first. Hollywood wants their movies to be hits, which means bring in the most paying customers, which means escapism which means that characters who are very real get changed to make them less real. It’s getting harder and harder to slip one past them. In the 70’s a movie like Taxi Driver could get made without a thousand eyes on it to make sure it conformed to their current models for success. Scorsese even said if Hollywood had known what they were up to they probably would have been shut down. Those days are gone and ‘real’ movies with few exceptions only come from France etc.

    As for how the movie would have played if your female character had been kept more ‘real’, it probably wouldn’t have had as big a box office return, but it probably would have been more likely to be talked about years from now.

    Writing what you want to write vs what would sell is the artists eternal struggle. Personally I’m a no compromise type of guy. I don’t think art should be messed with. The more questions art asks the better. I may never make jack shit for money but that’s cool too.

    PS-Does anyone else think Avatar was like Dances With Wolves with aliens instead of Indians?

    • Cheryl says:

      as to your P.S., Tom, after my husband and I saw Avatar, I turned to him and said, “Well that was a very fancy ‘Ferngully.'” Specifically:

      The love (or in the case of “Ferngully”, sweet crush) between members of two humanoid species, one of which is is the guardian/protector of a delicate ecosystem

      A hero who starts out with the destroyers, is transformed to physically resemble the native species, and thus establishes his own connection to the ecosystem

      Both movies have a magic tree, which is home to the native species and the heart and soul of the forest; and the plot revolves around saving the magic tree

      The hero, in his transformed state and wothout access to his modern technology, must stop the encroaching bulldozer

  18. Holy hell, Kristen, this is the smartest, most insightful essay I’ve read in awhile. Thanks for touching on what should be obvious in 2010, but sadly, is not: that women, like dudes, are complex and that, contrary to most pop culture depictions, not all of us live constrained by what others think. My soy mocha remains perpetually hoisted.

  19. Cheryl says:

    Kristen, this is such a great rant. Thank you for articulating this so well. Color me Mad.

Leave a Reply to Mary Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *