Calvin, the protagonist of the film Ruby Sparks, is a wunderkind novelist who conjures a female character so compelling he falls in love with her. Though fictional, Calvin (played by Paul Dano) belongs to a long tradition of real-life male writers who have created complex female characters: Gustave Flaubert (Emma Bovary), Tennessee Williams (Blanche DuBois), Woody Allen (Annie Hall). Yet Calvin is himself the creation of a woman—the actress and playwright Zoe Kazan—and if Kazan is any indication, it may now be turnabout time.
Today's female screenwriters are penning men who are, in many cases, more nuanced and resonant than those created by their male counterparts. Think of the cop (Chris O'Dowd) in last year's Bridesmaids, written by Annie Mumolo and Kristin Wiig: He's tough, but he also sweetly encourages Wiig's out-of-work pastry chef to start baking again. Or Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff), the aging celebrity in Sofia Coppola's Somewhere who abandons his empty life after his 11-year-old daughter comes to visit him. Or Jack (Mark Duplass), the rumpled Everyman in writer-director Lynn Shelton's recent Your Sister's Sister, who acts out male clichés (like pummeling his bike when it breaks) but can also admit when he's screwed up.
These women aren't afraid to depict men with so-called "feminine" qualities—a hint of gentleness or a longing for family. They allow their male characters to come across as actual human beings—and often deeply flawed ones. Calvin can be downright unlikable, as when he tells his therapist that he resents having to take his dog out to pee. Kazan prefers characters that present an "empathic challenge." As she puts it: "A protagonist that's inoffensive to everyone, that person is a cipher. Anyone that's truly lovable is also going to be a person that someone can hate."
Contrast characters like Calvin with the one-note, overgrown man-children written by men, like Vince Vaughn's Jeremy in Wedding Crashers, an eternal frat boy who manipulates women for kicks, or Ben Stiller in Greenberg, a curmudgeon whose anxious inner self is as guarded as a medieval castle. It's as though male screenwriters have embraced the stereotypical criticisms of disgruntled women—that men are lazy, untrustworthy, or emotionally illiterate. But these archetypes of arrested development, hilarious as they may be, don't resemble any adult man most of us have ever encountered.
Why are female screenwriters creating male characters who are so much more believable? "You have a generation of female writers that have grown up in comedy rooms, in drama rooms, ready to write features … and there are no features getting made for them," says producer Lynda Obst (Sleepless in Seattle, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days). "Women have had to be able to write anything—and they can write anything." Obst notes that even the high-grossing Bridesmaids hasn't yet ushered in a new era of edgy, female-focused material. Only 11 percent of "clearly identifiable protagonists" in 2011's 100 top-grossing movies were women, according to one recent study—down from 16 percent in 2002. Yet at a moment when many women are surpassing men professionally and financially, the fact that women are claiming the prerogative to write about human life (not just the female half of it) may be seen as a sign of progress.
If the hallmark of great characterization is the tension between a character's true self and his or her self-image—and if it's a writer's job to cast a cold eye on self-delusion of all kinds—could it be that today's female writers are simply capable of seeing male characters more clearly? "I think we lie to ourselves about who we are all the time," Lynn Shelton says. "And that may be why characters sometimes get written in a very non-authentic way." Perhaps it takes a woman to truly understand that clinging to a simplified, stereotypical idea of manhood is the least macho move there is.