Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang!: When Men Write Women

I have recently completed several seasons of Peaky Blinders, a gangster series set in 1920s Birmingham, based on the real life family The Shelby’s and their illegal betting and black-market trading businesses.

The story is clearly a boys fantasy, while couched in history, the heroes and villains become caricatured and superheroesque and women fall into two broad categories, wives and lovers.

Initially, leading female characters seemed plucky, tough. However they soon devolve into wives with children who hover in the wings, or mothers vigilantly attending their sons. They’re sassy and have their own minor narrative arcs, trysts and adventures however they largely fall into two dimensional supports for the boys.

To be faithful to bygone days, women did not have the rights and agency of men to run businesses, bear weapons, own property or take a professional career, nor do they have the physical strength to engage in fisty-cuffs as typified in gangster sagas. What is sorely missing is not girl-versions of boy gangsters, but females with rich, varied and nuanced existences, intellect, entrepreneurship, humour, allure, mendacity and creativity of their own.

Thomas Shelby, the gang leader, is a male fantasy. Women throw themselves at him one after the other, while men either love him or want to kill him [and even the ones who want him dead will happily collaborate with such a decent foe].

What presents as a nuanced period piece, the 1920’s world brought to life amidst IRA tensions, a young Winston Churchill in office, ethnic gang wars between gypsy travelers, Italian mafia and Jewish business empires, an wider back drop of the dying and corrupt Russian Empire, the early stirrings of communism and of a second World War, becomes a disappointing two dimensional fantasy of bad boys gone badder, rolling in money, cocaine and power, breaking all the rules except the code of brotherhood and seeing foes and beautiful women falling in front of them with ease.

There is not one woman in the series who is not oriented to the men as lover, mother, wife or more crudely, an object of desire. No strong character, weak character, evil character or good redeeming character has any other place in the narrative except as part of the family or as a side interest. And this where good writing falls down.

Sociological vs Psychological Storytelling

Game of Thrones, in its eighth and final season, enjoyed audiences of more than 17 million people per week. However, fan and critic reaction though out the season indicated many of those millions loathed it.

Where did the season go wrong and why exactly did it go downhill? In May 2019, Zeynep Tufekci published an article in the Scientific American entitled, ‘The Real Reason Fans Hate the Last Season of Game of Thrones.’

Her thesis was simple; the original narrative created by George R. R. Martin struck a cord with audiences because of its unique subtlety as a sociological story which stood out among Hollywood narratives characterised by being psychological and individually motivated.

It’s not just bad storytelling—it’s because the storytelling style changed from sociological to psychological .

She explains that in sociological narratives, characters evolve in response to the broader social, political, economic and cultural incentives and norms that surround them. Author George R. R. Martin drew from medieval and renaissance history for his characters and plot devices, as well as from European myth and legend. In doing so, he specialized in having characters evolve in response to the broader social fabric and beliefs within which they were placed.

On the other hand, psychological narratives features characters driven by much more individual quests and motives. The preference for this narrative style in Hollywood is understandable: the story is easier to tell and we gravitate toward identifying with the hero or hating the antihero, at the personal level. The hallmark of sociological storytelling however, is it can encourage us to put ourselves in the place of any character, not just the main hero/heroine, and imagine ourselves making similar choices. The complexity made it much richer than a simplistic morality tale, where unadulterated good fights with evil.

An example of the power of Martin’s sociological storytelling was his willingness to kill off major characters frequently without losing the thread of the story. Narratives driven by psychological and individual motives rarely do that because the main characters are the key tools with which the story is built. Given the dearth of such narratives in fiction and in TV, this approach clearly resonated with a large fan base that latched on to the show.

Showrunners, D. B. Weiss and David Benioff, took the narrative beyond Martin’s books, and turned the later seasons into Hollywood psychological narratives. In the final season, none of the main characters are killed early or unexpectedly and the motives and movements of the protagonists and antagonists became ever more internally wrought. What resulted in season 8 was ‘deus ex-machina’ styled defeat of the forces of the dead, and simplistic dissolution to good vs. evil interplay between main characters.

And it was the story’s richness which was lost in season 8, moving fans and critics to openly pan the final episodes online. Meme’s abound like the image below featuring a young woman’s Halloween costume literally ‘trashing’ season 8.

You can read Zeynep Tufekci’s full article on Scientific American, HERE.