Women as Buddies – rarer on film than it is in real life

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Another issue that arose in the comments on Do Audience Want Female Leads? was: why are there so few roles in which women are “buddies”?

Ankh said:

I’m a big fan of buddy movies… I thoroughly enjoyed A Knight’s Tale mainly because of the friendships and I was pleased as punch to see a woman as one of the buddies. The main female, however, annoyed the crap out of me. ‘Prove your love for me by letting yourself be bashed and battered and possibly killed’. Self-centred b*tch. I loathed her. Have her as a main character to cheer for? Forget it.

Revena then asked:

So are roles for women written the way they are because of demographic concerns, or overwhelming cultural influence, or what? How do we go about getting more Kates?

Ankh then answered with several good points, but the one I’m going to focus on is:

Perhaps in order to get more Kates in buddy relationships you have to change this idea many viewers have that Boy + Girl = Romance. In some ways it’s a self-perpetuating problem. The audience expects B + G = Romance. The writers write B + G = Romance. The more times B + G = Romance the more the audience expects B + … etc. So did the writers start this now hackneyed formula or did the audience already have it in their mind that, if you have a man and a woman working together or interacting to some degree, the urge to snog while some invisible orchestra saws away at violins will inevitably arise? Perhaps the only way we can have our Kates is to shove another woman in as some sort of sacrificial goat to suffer the mind-numbing bleedin’ boredom of being Love Interest Version 3 while Kate gets to do the cool stuff.

So, to sum up: it’s rare to see a woman in a buddy role at all, and – as Ankh’s exemple pointed out – even when we do, she’s pushed to the background while a more stereotypical female character gets featured. There are a few possible reasons why this happens, but however it got started, we seem to be locked into a cycle in which audiences expect to see romance because they’ve been shown it, and writers keep writing it because it’s expected. Which was the chicken, and which was the egg?

I think that’s an important question to settle, because if audiences are open to something different, there will be filmmakers who are happy to cater to them. The studios keep swearing they’re in this for profit, and profit comes from showing the audience what they want. The problem is, ever since demographics replaced art in the early 80’s, it’s become Bad Business to offer something new and unproven. This is why we have more remakes, adaptations and sequels than original scripts. (In fact, when you’re pitching an original screenplay, it’s advisable to describe how it’s similar to at least one or two successful films, so the studio will feel they have a quantifiable reason to believe this idea you have will sell tickets.)

The problem is, you have to show something to the audience before they can respond negatively or positively. In film, this is a tricky proposition: people don’t lay out many, many millions of dollars to make a movie without good reason to think it’s going to perform. And I can’t blame them, frankly.

But what about TV?

In TV, it’s very possible to try new things: you take a little risk, and if the audience likes it, you push a little further next time. And suddenly, you discover that audiences love this tasty new dish you’d never thought to serve them before. And if they don’t respond well, you just back off quickly and go back to same-old-same-old.

So why isn’t TV taking more risks? At least here in the US. Why did Mulder and Scully have to be linked romantically sooner or later? Why did Stargate, which started out with a lot of very interesting gender role-reversal, deconstruct their main female lead into a near-bimbo and kill off the other recurring female who’d managed to remain cool? Twenty-five years ago, WKRP showed us a little family of characters in which the women were co-conspirators in the shenanigans, just like the guys. It seems to me we’re moving backwards.

That leads to Revena’s question: is there some overwhelming demographic or cultural reason why film and TV should reflect the idea that women+men automatically = sex?

It’s very different in real life. I see men and women being “buddies” all the time, and the issue of romance/sex is completely absent. I see men and women working together without any urge to merge. And I’ve experienced one thing that I have yet to see fully developed on screen in my whole lifetime: relationships where a man and woman flirt heavily, in a ridiculous over-the-top sort of way, just clowning around, and everyone around them knows it’s just meaningless fun. It still carries an enjoyable charge, like sexual tension, but it lacks the troubling issues because it’s obvious the relationship is going to remain platonic. I’ve always thought that sort of relationship would translate beautifully to screen – giving the audience a fun titillation factor without the filmmakers writing themselves into a corner. Actors put this stuff in as subtext all the time, and yet the filmmakers seem disinterested in actually incorporating it into the scripts.

I know from conversations with people in film that filmmakers firmly and unyieldingly believe we want to see sex, sex, sex and, oh yeah – sex. It’s become a religious dogma – if you suggest this “fact” could possibly be in doubt, they cut you off with a jaded and worldly impatience that says they once believed as you do, young one, but you will soon learn the power of the dark side. Seriously, I’ve gotten this exact reaction quite a few times, from quite a few people. I even had one person tell me I was mistaken when I said that I wanted films involving females and males without sexual tension. It’s beyond religious dogma, actually – it’s a sort of scary fundamentalism.

I know they’re wrong in regards to me when they say audience members want everything to be about sex. But what about the rest of the audience? I always thought I was the oddball, and everyone else really does want endless streams of sex on screen. Which is it? Are we all being told “it’s just you” to keep us accepting status quo? Or are we really a minority?

Comments

  1. SunlessNick says

    As well as boy + girl = sex, I think it’s an assumption that a sexual relationship – or one where sex is desired but unavaillable – is necessarily more dramatic than a nonsexual one. Or that the viewing public will find it so. And I don’t know if we’re in a minority or not.

    As in so many cases, Alias is a telling example. One of the biggest relationships in Syd’s life is with Dixon – dramatic, powerful, nuanced – and with no hint of a sexual element. Then there’s Weiss, who grew close to her in the early part of season 3, but again, not in a sexual way, just the way of a man who sees his friend going through hell.
    The there’s Will and Vaughn, both of whom cross into sexual territory: with Will, there’s so much else between them, and it’s those other things that define them and their relationship; with Vaughn, it’s couched in romantic terms from the very beginning, and easily becomes the least compelling part of the show (I also think that much of what Vaughn feels and does for Syd could have been incorporated just as easily using a colleague-bond).

    Love and sex are given such primacy that they end up crowding out other elements: characters who relate on that level too often have other levels of relationship neglected; and relationships that function on only one level get pretty dull. The assumption that sex is the most dramatic level can end up leeching more drama than it provides.

    Maybe Stargate is an example there as well.

  2. Jennifer Kesler says

    I totally agree with your whole post. I think most of the audience DOES assume sexual relationships are more intense and dramatic, but possibly only because that’s what they know to expect from TV.

  3. sbg says

    I’ve actually heard people state, specifically about Stargate, that they went in simply assuming that Jack and Sam were a couple…because that’s what shows do: Lead Male Character invariably ends up with Lead Female Character, actual romantic chemistry be damned. It’s there because the writers tell us it’s there, not because we see it naturally.

    And romances do happen in real life, it’s true, but to claim that as justification for shoving it down our throats constantly is daft; more often than not, it doesn’t happen. More often than not people have complex and interesting relationships not based around sex. I know, it’s tough to believe, but I do not want to have sex with my male coworkers. I’m happy to have a drink with them now and again or share stories or whatnot…but no to the sex.

    I wish someone somewhere would brave the non-romantic front, because honestly? It’s not what drives me toward shows. If it’s there only as a plot device, it’s what drives me away.

  4. Jennifer Kesler says

    I guess I’m strange, but if I know a guy’s off-limits, I just don’t even go there. Maybe I’m lacking those overwhelming hormones that force you to lust after people who are married or otherwise off-limits? Yep, must be a serious hormonal imbalance there. /rolleyes

  5. Eva says

    You all mention Stargate…do you think there’s a chance Carter and Vala will become teammates/friends vs antagonists based on the fact they’re both women? It’s ok if they’re antagnoists because their methods of doing things are in conflict, or they come from different backgrounds, or one’s military and the other’s…not.

    I’m betting that we don’t see a cat-fight. Can I keep my fingers crossed?

  6. SunlessNick says

    I guess I’m strange, but if I know a guy’s off-limits, I just don’t even go there.I guess I’m strange, but if I know a guy’s off-limits, I just don’t even go there. - BetaCandy

    Millennium is a good example there, with Frank Black and Lara Means. They do spark a couple of times, but Frank’s married and he’s not going to cheat, and Lara is not going to ask him to, or pine over him. And they’re both insightful enough that they’d sense a romantic relationship would likely be disastrous for them as colleagues, friends, and people who both suffer terrifying visions.

  7. Scarlett says

    I guess I’m strange, but if I know a guy’s off-limits, I just don’t even go there. Maybe I’m lacking those overwhelming hormones that force you to lust after people who are married or otherwise off-limits?

    A friend of mine got involved with a guy in a longterm relationship, and one of the reasons she cited was she loved that he desired her so much he would jeapordise his relationship. I pointed out that if a guy’s going to cheat, it’s not about the person he cheats with, it’s about him being a jerk. I think she got that intellectually but egotistically, she loved the idea of being so desirable he woudl jeapordise his relationship to be with her.

    I suspect that’s a huge factor in people pursuing people who are off-limits. And I think that comes down to self-esteem. When you have a healthy self-image you don’t find married men desiring you to be a compliment, and you have higher standards than married men anyway. I’m not saying it’s entirely the fault of the people who pursue people who are off-limits – women are so sociallyconditioned to place their worth in what men think of them – but I think it’s a sad state of affairs when women judge their worth by how far an off-limits guy is willing to go for them.

  8. Anemone Cerridwen says

    “I know from conversations with people in film that filmmakers firmly and unyieldingly believe we want to see sex, sex, sex and, oh yeah – sex. It’s become a religious dogma – if you suggest this “fact” could possibly be in doubt, they cut you off with a jaded and worldly impatience that says they once believed as you do, young one, but you will soon learn the power of the dark side.”

    This is particularly funny because I actually collected hard data and crunched the numbers and found that sex is *negatively* correlated with box office. When I reported this on an actors forum, I was told I was wrong.

    Splutter, splutter.

    I managed to find a coauthor to help me get my numbers into an academic journal. Should be fun when the paper comes out.

    Did I already link to this here?

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