I've said from the beginning that one of the most important aspects of writing the Indestructibles was to make sure that, whenever possible, every character was treated as gender-neutral. Not "this book needs strong female characters." I wanted to go further than that, to create a set of heroes who, if I were to write the book all over again, could easily be portrayed by either gender (or for that matter, by any race or creed) with minimal changes.
In part it was an experiment in writing--could I avoid stereotypes? Can I do better than a "strong female heroine?" And in part it's because "strong female lead" is a trope that has failed in a lot of ways. We don't need strong female leads, we need characters who are not defined by whether they have girl parts or boy parts.
The other reason for this was something I knew about but saw described much better in the Atlantic recently: there are a lot of women reading comics. And they deserve the best writing possible, when female characters are frequently marginalized or stereotyped.
A good friend's very young daughter was "reading" a comic a few days ago (she's not yet reading level, so she was pretending to read and following along with the images). She finished, and at the end, she flops the comic open and says to her mother: "Mommy, where are the GIRLS?"
Let's take it a step further--it's not just comics, and it's not just superheroes. There is a significant absence of fair representation of women in summer blockbusters, too. This is nothing new, of course. As a sometimes film actor myself I know how my colleagues there struggle to find good roles for women who aren't girlfriends, wives, mothers, or prostitutes.
I didn't run the Indestructibles through the Bechdel Test when I was finished, but we shouldn't need to have a Bechdel Test if we're doing our jobs right. (For those playing at home, the Bechdel Test requires that a story has to have two women who talk to each other and they talk about something other than a man.) Women make up more than half the population in the US. In another part of my life, I'm a journalist, and every single week I'm asked to write a story about a young woman doing something fantastic for her community that has nothing to do with her gender and everything to do with her being smart and motivated. There's inspiration out there for female characters who aren't defined by their gender. And we're seeing great female writers do excellent work to improve this situation, but what I'm here today to say is to my fellow male writers: we can be better. It's not hard. And while female readers and viewers deserve better, so do our male readers and viewers. They deserve to read about female characters who are on even footing with their male counterparts, both great and flawed, good and bad, heroic and evil.
We saw recently some fairly vile commentary on Marvel's decision to introduce a female Thor. Whether this is just a publicity stunt by Marvel or not (they did announce it on the View, after all) doesn't really matter. What mattered was that there were a lot of readers who were appalled at the idea of this role being filled by a woman. (A similar hue and cry occurred when long-time Captain America partner in crime Falcon was announced as taking over the mantle of the role, with a massive amount of focus landing on the fact that the character is African American... but that is an entirely different discussion.) The fact that there was such nasty commentary spoke less about the decision to make Thor a woman and more about the fact that we haven't really come far enough yet with female characters in general.
The one comment I could agree with against the decision: where are the new, great female characters, rather than swapping the gender of the old ones? I think we can do both. I think we need both.
And speaking of both--to create quality characters who happen to be female you are not required to neglect or throw out your great male characters. Male characters receive more volume in terms of roles and that means they get more opportunities for variety, but male characters fall victim to stereotypes and overused tropes as well. We want to find characters "like" us in every story. In an ideal world, we should be able to connect with anyone we're reading about, regardless of gender, but that gender identity is hardwired in, and that's not always a terrible thing. (I wanted a character I could immediately relate to in a story about teenage superheroes, and that's where Doc Silence, and at times Agent Black, came into play. We all need ciphers.)
But we can be better. We can be a lot better. Our readers, both male and female, deserve a lot better. But I'm done preaching for the day. Go forth, tell stories, be good to each other. Thanks for listening.
Matthew Phillion is the writer of "The Indestructibles," part-time actor, occasional filmmaker. Currently on the lam in Salem with his trusty dog, Watson.