PUBLISHED JANUARY/FEBRUARY 2019
by Angela D. Coleman, Founder & President of Sisterhood Agenda —
Angela D. Coleman
Authors and publishers need to understand the changing social climate in order to produce content that women and girls want and need.
Women and girls are rising around the globe. After decades of women empowerment activities, the plight of women and girls is now front and center, with millions of women protesting the inauguration of Donald Trump, embracing the #MeToo movement, and unifying support around the notion of “Time’s Up.” With a historic number of women running for political positions, gender inclusion riders, equal pay and parity requirements, the global natural hair movement, and a major shift toward diversity and inclusion, it is not hyperbole to state, “The future is female.”
Remarkably, many of the most salient movements led by women have happened within the last 18 months. They affect all aspects of life, including beauty, sports, and film. They did not occur in a vacuum but in a coordinated fashion where women came together as a collective sisterhood to affect positive social change. To fully benefit from our female future, we have to embrace it. Oprah Winfrey said it best: “This year, we became the story.”
Recognizing the rising relevance of women and girls means understanding their power. Empowerment is holistic: social, emotional, psychological, physical, spiritual, and economic. Empowerment occurs on both individual and community levels. As individuals and as a collective, women and girls are our target audiences, our potential buyers, and ultimate consumers of all things that matter to them.
As an author and publisher, you need to understand this changing social climate in order to produce content that women and girls want and need. This includes materials that your audience may not realize they want and need until you offer it to them. Confusing? Let’s dive deeper.
As a society, we are becoming more educated about the high prevalence of violence against women and girls, unreported incidents of sexual assault and harassment in the workplace, and the impact of trauma on the lives of our mothers, daughters, sisters, girlfriends, and wives. Our work should be similarly trauma-informed.
We have seen trauma and female character development. Traditionally, a female character was defined by either her relationship to her husband or boyfriend or by her response to traumatic events, such as sexual assault or the death of her child. Hollywood-strong female characters often had a revenge component: a woman suffers, then fights back against those who wronged her.
In our female future, I look forward to seeing a different type of trauma representation. Given the fact that the majority of women experience at least one adverse childhood experience (ACE) by the time they are 18 (usually a sexual violence event), we can, unfortunately, assume a history of violence. It is more common than uncommon. Isn’t that what “me, too” is all about?
Shared experiences with a common enemy can be very compelling. However, we are seeing more social action as a result of #MeToo, and this affects the narrative. Men in power are losing their positions, and strong female characters are no longer being defined by their traumatic experiences.
Strong female characters have autonomy. They think and speak clearly for themselves with their own ideas and opinions. They have more dialogue, more words, and increased interactions with more people. Rather than superficial shells, they display complexity in how they live their lives. They have character flaws, they evolve with character development arcs, and they have prominence in the telling of a story. Strong female characters are relatable, with shades of gray, because gender roles and women’s issues are not always black and white.
Strong female characters do not have to be lead characters. They can play supporting roles and still be “strong.” Their strength comes from being multidimensional, layered, and nuanced. Think about Shuri in Black Panther (box office gross: $1.34 billion).
Many readers like reading about themselves—stories that remind them of their girlhood and womanhood experiences. They like diversity and body positivity. They enjoy seeing women and girls being brave and courageous, overcoming obstacles, exhibiting special talents and abilities, or having unique experiences. Having superhero abilities and fighting for justice is not required; however, there is still room in this genre, too. Let the success of Wonder Woman (box office gross: $822 million), Supergirl, Captain Marvel, and Ant-Man and the Wasp be your guide.
In addition, we are seeing more sisterhood in our female future. Instead of portraying women as enemies of each other who fight and stab each other in the back, more enlightened women are coming together to uplift one another, focusing on strengths instead of differences. When women come together, we can move mountains. Or, like Ocean’s 8‘s all-women ensemble, steal a lot of stuff and make a lot of money (box office gross: $295 million).
When women support each other, we also build resilience. Resilience is what takes us away from being immersed in the experience of trauma and allows us to move on with other aspects of our lives. When the future is female, women advocate for each other, similar to the way sports superstar Serena Williams dedicated her comeback at Wimbledon to all working mothers, stating, “To all the moms out there, I was playing out there for you today, and I tried.” While Williams did not win the match, she won a whole new fan base. We enjoy coming together, just for fun and in times of need. Sometimes it is the journey, not the outcome, that is most intriguing and heartfelt.
Whether your work is fiction, nonfiction, screenwriting for a web, television, or film project, or gaming, the future is still female. These evolving, often complex, gender realities dictate what consumers want to see in our work. It demonstrates an understanding of who women are and what women experience. Who doesn’t like reading stories with strong female characters that are real, informative, reflective, inspiration, and aspirational?
Tips & Takeaways
- Engage women and girls. If you want to know what is going on with women and girls, it helps to have them on your team as active (and equal) contributors within your organization.
- Be authentic. By being true to yourself, you avoid the pitfalls of looking like you are trying too hard or preaching from a place of ulterior motives or privilege.
- Embrace diversity. Understanding that women and girls represent a huge, diverse group with varying needs, desires, goals, and visions, allows you to create subgroups by age, geographic region, culture, and other socioeconomic data to target them more specifically.
- Research multiple media outlets. Look at multimedia platforms such as television, film, radio, internet, social media, and gaming to see what issues are resonating with women and girls. Observe marketing trends, in particular, because advertisers have already done the research for you, spending a lot of time and money in the process.
- Avoid the polarization of politics and religion. Unless they are central to your story, it helps to stay away from political naming and religious doctrine. This is useful to maintain focus on your entire target audience and the development of female characters themselves, not taking an overtly political or religious stand on their issues, which alienates some and, ultimately, narrows your audience.
- Avoid stereotypes. Generally, women and girls in the female future do not hold on tightly to antiquated, narrowly defined, socially imposed notions of identity, race, and gender. Defying these labels and letting them go in favor of self-development and self-definition is often part of their empowerment process.
- Partner with those who share common ground. Collaboration with individuals and organizations who know and respond to the needs of women and girls can provide greater strength and impact.
- Do frequent status checks. Use focus groups and community meetings to get feedback on what is working well and what change might look like.
- Maintain an open mind. You never really know what will resonate strongly and what might fail. Each next step is part of the learning curve.
- Go with the flow. Be adaptable to changing needs, social climates, and circumstances.
Angela D. Coleman is the founder and president of Sisterhood Agenda. She is an award-winning sisterhood activist, women’s empowerment specialist, counselor, and author who travels around the world.
To read more about the women and publishing, check out this IBPA Independent article, “The Year of Publishing Women.”