Oct 10, 2014

Writer's Block: 8 Fictional Femme Characters That Shaped Me As A Writer

We are all influenced by something, somebody. As a writer, an artist who 'paints' images with words, I don't always turn to the writers whose work practices I desire for sparks of inspiration. Most of the time, the films and television shows I view, the music I obsessively collect and absorb, and the characters that leap out of the dogged-eared novels on my bookshelf influence how my writing flows on the page.

A lot of these mediums began as scribbled down ideas on paper, so my practice of it is nothing obscure, but sometimes I feel that a lot of the fictional characters in these films, television shows, and books spark my creativity more than real-life people. I guess because sometimes real flesh and blood folk can be disappointing because they evolve with age and experience, or they masquerade their true selves in order to conform to the ebb and flow of society. They are disappointing because they are duh! human. Flawed and fluctuating fuck-ups. Fictional characters, especially the well-drawn ones, are ones that are fixated in their vibe. They are never-changing --- they are as is --- and you can return to them again and again, and they are exactly as you remembered them last. I don't know about you, but there is some comfort in knowing that.

Growing up I saw a lot of images of what a "woman writer" was supposed to be. A lot of what I saw was either a thirty, flirty, and thriving dame who stuck pencils in her teeth and hairbun, or a salt- tongued navigator who could rock a mean blazer and swap wits and snarks with the boys. All of them were saddled with a 'you're gonna make it after all' quest to conquer the newsroom and the 'big city' --- which was 9 times out of 10 was always New York City. Still a lot of of the fictional journalistic and writing femmes I admired were not Carrie Bradshaws, Mary Tyler Moores, Murphy Browns, or any character Kate Hudson has played in a film. They fit my scope. They were unconventional. They were stumbling through life in heels and high-tops. They were somewhat misbegotten, yet I didn't forget them as they inspired me and continue to inspire me to put pen to paper, fingers to keyboard, urging me to let it all pour out.

Khadijah James (Living Single, 1993-1997)

In a '90s kind of world, Khadijah James, like the other ladies in her sisterhood brood, represented the unashamed, ambitious, and verbally bold '90s woman --- and if we want to get technical --- the unashamed, ambitious, and verbally bold woman of color. Khadijah was the central character on the FOX comedy, Living Single, that followed six 20-something friends who inhabited a Brooklyn brownstone. During its run, it was one of many prime-time shows at that time that megaphoned this bold new career-minded generation of African-Americans aloud to a mainstream audience.

Queen Latifah's Khadijah James, was the unequivocal voice of reason within her crew, the calm center in the midst of comical mishaps and trials. Khadijah wasn't just the leader at home as she was also the editor and publisher of the fictional culture magazine, "Flavor", and from the looks of it, she ran it well. A Miranda Priestly she wasn't, but in several episodes when they would direct your attention to her place of work, Khadijah was all about hustle and getting the word out to the masses. She also favored taking risks and proving doubters and rival reporters wrong about a woman handling the big stories.

Khadijah was pre-Danyel Smith for me, as the former VIBE editor was one of my earlier writing she-ros, but seeing Latifah's Khadijah operating her own zine was the architect to my still-under-construction dream of cultivating my own glossy mag while shattering social norms of what a 'editor-in-chief' is supposed to be. Khadijah represented to me that no matter where you came from or what you looked like, you could disrupt the status quo and be an editor to a successful taste-making culture magazine proving that sometimes nice editors do finish first.

Harriet M. Welsch (Harriet The Spy, by Louise Fitzhugh, 1964)

Being a snitch isn't something one should strive to be, and in some circles it can get you well, killed, but Harriet M. Welsch was flippant about that as she had a composition notebook and she was going to use it to write down all the things she spied with her bespectacled eyes. Harriett's ambition to be a writer and her assertion to be a detailed investigator and documentor urged me to be a constant observer of the surroundings and persons around me. While I learned these traits, I also learned from Harriet's mistakes, as I for sure as hell didn't take my private journals to school with me so that I could have my whole class find out all the problematic things I said about them. I was already an outlier --- I didn't need any more exclusion.

Harriet's transformation as the Perez Hilton of her school is pretty nightmarish as far as middle school goes, but I'll always eat a tomato sandwich to the fact that Harriet taught me how to observe and pay attention to all the mundane goings-on in my life. Though the counter lesson was that I needed to be oh so careful of what I observed and documented, and how that translates to the page. Through Harriet's mistakes, I learned about editing and tact, how I should fact check what seemed fishy, and how I shouldn't assume everything and everybody at first glance as there are always more colors to be seen in the spectrum. Also I learned that there is always a chance to redeem yourself in your writing, even when you screw up majorly. Harriet The Spy is celebrating 50 years of shelf life this year (!), but it's still a timely story for those who need a reminder as to why this is a classic story about coming-of-age with pen in hand.

Terry Griffiths (Just One Of The Guys, 1985) 

As much as John Hughes influenced my love of all things '80s teen angst, the non-Hughesy teen-comedy, Just One Of The Guys, was my first real taste of sexism in the world of journalism. Loosely based off of William Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, Just One Of The Guys follows aspiring journalist and high school senior Terry Griffiths (played by Joyce Heyser) who is determined to win a coveted internship at her local newspaper. Terry knows she's going to win the competition because she wrote a riveting expose on the nutrition issues in the cafeteria food (girl, really?), yet she loses out on the opportunity as two of her male classmates submitted "better" articles. Terry becomes angry over this as she feels that she was skipped over because she was a woman. When she confronts her instructor about being slighted, well, the sleazy perv hits on her, and then has the nerve to tell her that since she's pretty she 'should' be a model. Ugh. Now even more fed up, Terry decides to enter her paper at another school, only this time she's going to pretend to be a boy to see if she gets a different response.

So she stuffs a sock in her coochie and heads to a new high school and is able to pull it off because that's what happens when there isn't any parental supervision and it's the 1980s. After convincing a whole student body that she "dresses like Elvis Costello and looks like the Karate Kid" she finds out quick that what she wrote initially was the problem (duh), still Terry has fallen deep into her "Dude Terry" persona so much so that she discovers truths about herself, truths about others views on women, and about the risks you have to take in order to find your voice.

Though on the surface this is a fun teen romp, but the movie touches on gender inequality quite brilliantly as there are double standard issues when we look at Terry's sex-obsessed brother, Buddy, Terry's self-absorbed boyfriend who also believes Terry should be a model and not a journalist, and a school bully who is verbally abusive not only to the runts of the school, but also to his girlfriend. In a sense, Terry's journey into Dude-dom prepared me for what was to happen in an environment of the he-man sausage club that is journalism, and well, life in general, warning me that I will always have to go the extra-mile to be seen, heard, and respected just because I "get off having tits".

Amelia (Ameila's Notebook, by Marissa Moss, 1995)

Back in 1995, I bought Amelia's Notebook at a Scholastic Book Fair, and was thus introduced to the wonderful world of journal writing. Moss created a great series around Amelia, a precocious middle school-er whose journal served as part sketchbook, part tween tome, as she navigated through the rocky waters of friends, crushes, and her family's move to another town. After reading it, I scooped up all kinds of composition books and Lisa Frank diaries, filling the pages with all my ~deep~ thoughts and short stories. I didn't get my mom's art genes, so most of my 'drawings' were really cut-outs from magazines, but eh, the creativity was there.

My passion for journal writing has kind of gone by the wayside lately as I tend to just buy journals and never fill them (because I'm a lazy git) or I use them for story ideas and plotting outlines. Yet, in my perpetual quest to be a 'serious' writer, I'm reminded of Amelia's Notebook and why I need to get back to not taking myself so serious among the lined pages and let my imagination run free.

Moesha Mitchell (Moesha, 1996 - 2001) 

So the name wasn't conventional, but who wants to be? Not Moesha Mitchell, the star of the UPN sitcom that poised singer/songwriter Brandy in the titular role as a high-schooler who lives with her dad, step-mom, and annoying little brother, Miles, in South Central Los Angeles. Headstrong and not afraid to speak her mind, Moesha was also an aspiring writer and poetess, this expressed with the show's closing monologues where she would either reflect in her journal about the lesson learned in that episode, or recite a poem or two.

Like a lot of culturally aware sitcoms of the '80s and '90s, sometimes history lessons were applied to the story lines, and Moesha had a good habit of name-dropping notable African-American writers and poets, as I first heard the names Zora Neale Hurston and James Baldwin uttered amid the comedy. One memorable episode had Moesha befriend a crabby neighbor (played by Janet Dubois) who turned out to be a Harlem Renaissance writer. Ever since then, every time I have an elderly neighbor I vie for them to be some sort of writer from a by-gone literary movement, and sadly, I haven't had such luck.

Looking back, Moesha Mitchell was one of those figures that shaped the Black feminist that I am today. Though not perfect in its run, it followed in some ways with the blueprint of The Cosby Show, as Moesha dared to show an independent-minded young woman of color, who was pretty much the voice of reason between her friends, and who was growing and learning just like the rest of us. While the 'literary-socially conscious sista' is kind of a trope nowadays, it's a trope I don't shrug off, as Moesha Mitchell showed me that you should embrace your influences and know that your voice does have a place in this world even when you're not quite sure of where you're going in life.

Josie Geller (Never Been Kissed, 1998)

Josie Geller wasn't a writer at the beginning of the film, she was a prim yet awkward news copy editor for the Chicago Sun-Times, with a dowdy bun, coolock pants, and a Buick LeSaber. Super chic woman of the news. Still, with this combo, she was kind of a push-over, and forget about her not being able to "grab a bull's balls", she was not even taken seriously by her (male) work colleagues, much less herself. Still she loved words and the proper usage of them, and well, Josie is my hero for being brave to admit that.

Never Been Kissed is similar to Just One Of The Guys as it follows a woman has to go incognito to find herself and her headline snatching story with all the madcap mistaken identity crises in-between. Never Been Kissed is different though as it doesn't do a gender swap, but rather an 'age downgrade', where Josie, being baby-faced and only 25 years of age, is passed off as a high school student and goes undercover Cameron Crowe style at a local high school to learn about the cool kids. Unlike Guys' Terry, who was already a popular girl, Josie was a brace-faced geek in high school with the unfortunate nickname "Josie Grossie", and she has PTSD still over it, making it difficult for her to adjust with a whole new generation of "rufus kids". Nonetheless, Josie is able to re-do high school, but along the way she discovers herself.

Josie and I have some things in common as we are both awkward when it comes to our non-existent love lives, and had terrible prom experiences (except I didn't wear a pink foil dress and get eggs thrown at me), but we both love words and we're both determined to prove that we were above others misconceptions of us. Sure Never Been Kissed is about as frosted and butterflied clippy as the late-90s were, but looking between the laughs and cheesiness, Josie taught me that sometimes you have to be brave, to come from behind the desk and your past and face yourself in your writing, because if you don't hold up that mirror, you could miss one hell of a story --- or, as a bonus, bypass a hunky English teacher, who could ultimately rock my world.

Daria Morgendorffer (Daria, 1997 - 2002) 

Cynicism is the rite of passage for teenagers and by the time I hit high school, I was spraying on the eau de attitude like it was Curve Crush. I have Daria to thank for that.

Daria Morgendorffer's pithiness towards her mundane life in the bittersweet apple pie suburb called Lawndale is the essential basis of the hit MTV cartoon. With her deadpan, often astute observations, it wasn't a big surprise that Daria wanted to pursue a career in writing considering most writers and creatives (at least the ones I know including myself) had less than stellar growing up periods, and we're all pretty much getting our revenge out in our art.

Daria's writing wasn't highlighted much throughout the series, but talk of it was sprinkled here and there, like in one episode the realistic evil that is story rejection occurred where one of Daria's stories was passed over by a publication, but as consolation she received notice from the magazine to keep on writing (that never happens...well, at least to me it doesn't). She also wrote a realist future tale about her family as well as created the uber-cool Melody Powers spy character. Another highlighted episode discussed Daria's desire to buy some software in order to make her very own website. At the time, that concept was new to me, and though fleeting, Daria directed my attention to what would be my future life in website design and blog writing.

Though I'm more in line with the Black feminisms of Jodie, and possess Jane's honey-tinged sarcasm, I admired how Daria called out life's bullshit like the bespectacled Fiona Apple she was, and that she kept that sharp tongue for her writing, not backing down, or complying to the norm.

Justice (Poetic Justice, 1993) 

While most girls were focusing on the pristine box braids of Janet Jackson and attempting to covet the look, apple cap and all, I was focusing on the fact that Jackson's Justice was a lover of poetry and how supremely cool that was. Okay, so I was a huge Janet Jackson fan back then (actually still am) and that was the initial reason why I sat down with this underrated John Singleton film when I was about 14, still, I came away with loving Justice's passion for the written word, and didn't waste time possessing that love for myself.

Poetic Justice also had a hand at introducing me to Maya Angelou's writing. It was Angelou's words that were coming out of Justice's pen, with the powerful poems "Alone" and "Phenomenal Woman" being the two recited and applied to the storyline of Justice dealing with the murder of her boyfriend and her period of healing while riding in a mail truck with a dimpled Tupac Shakur. Years later, Angelou (who also makes a cameo in the film) went on to make a huge impact on my writing, but if I hadn't seen Poetic Justice back in my teen years, Angelou's words would've never graced my ears at that pivotal moment of puberty when I needed to hear them the most.

As I battle my own demons and afflictions, I continue to think of how Justice used writing as a way to plow through her craggy mental state, and how vastly important that is to do when you're on a personal quest to find emotional peace in the aftershocks of grief.

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