This week, the WGF convened a panel called Women Warriors: Writing Strong Female Protagonists, which means I got to listen to Amy Berg, Liz Flahive, Allan Heinberg and Moira Walley-Beckett—all of whom have created or added dimension to some of the most commanding female characters in very recent memory—discuss the fictional (and non-fictional) women who have had a profound influence on their writing. They brought up everybody from Mary Tyler Moore and Carol Burnett to Anne of Green Gables, Buffy, The Bionic Woman and Nancy Drew to the women of current TV shows such as The Handmaid’s Tale, Insecure, Fleabag and Catastrophe.
As they conversed about the female characters who’ve inspired them, I began thinking about the female characters who’ve inspired me… and thus I began this blog post about one of my favorite characters of all time.
Her name is Norma Rae Webster. She’s a scrappy, working woman, toiling away in a cotton mill in a nameless town in the American south. The titular character of her own film (Norma Rae, 1979), she grows to become a principled and deeply inspiring hero.
If Summer of 2017 has taught us anything, it’s that we really respond to female heroes. They compel us to stand up, take action and be better people.
As screenwriters, the question then becomes how do we create such heroes?
In my mind, Norma Rae provides a kind of heroism rubric for those writers trying to give any character—female or otherwise—more guts and agency. As we learned in the panel on Wednesday night, it’s characters who get up and TRY in the face of adversity, rather than those who remain passive or those who force themselves into our consciousness.
Norma Rae was written by famous screenwriting husband-and-wife team, Irving Ravetch and Harriett Frank, Jr. Their work is sweat-soaked southern storytelling at its very best. The other film of theirs worth checking out is 1963’s Hud. While Irving has since passed away, Harriett just celebrated her 100th birthday this year. Talk about a woman warrior.
The writing team finds their inspiration in Crystal Lee Sutton of North Carolina, a worker who helped mills to unionize in 1973, losing her job in the process of standing up against unfair wages and treatment of her fellow workers. Norma Rae Webster is a fictionalized version of her. The ultimate underdog heroine, she’s characterized as a promiscuous single mother of two who occasionally takes a backhand from the men she sleeps with, who still lives with her parents and is probably kept down by low self-worth more than she cares to admit. Her whole family works at the mill and has never seen a raise. In fact, it seems like their treatment on the job continues to get worse and worse, and something just no longer sits right with Norma.
What makes Norma a formidable contradiction is her big mouth. While the people she’s surrounded by seem almost sedated into submission, tolerating being worked to the bone, Norma has an almost heightened sense of empathy. She speaks her mind and is an unrelenting bulldog in seeing workplace injustices called out. She’s the textbook definition of a diamond in the rough—a hero waiting to emerge from a so-called riffraff-y veneer.
When a labor organizer named Reuben Warshsawsky, a leftist from New York City, comes to town, he sees the potential in Norma and tries to get her to join him in starting a union at the mill. He’s committed to giving more say to workers and holding the powerful bosses accountable. He’s come down to sell the mill workers on unionizing. However, as a Jewish, liberal intellectual with a big mouth of his own, he does not fit in with the small southern town where he’s been sent. In a sense, he needs Norma to connect with her fellow mill workers, knowing that she can relate and reach them in a way that he cannot.
Reuben and Norma are opposites, whose character traits become more well-defined when they are paired with one another. It’s fantastic to watch his cultural snobbery at odds with her salt-of-the-earth panache. At the end of the day, Reuben helps Norma to realize her moral imperative to help give the mill workers a voice. Once Norma feels empowered, she literally DOESN’T STOP.
It’s all the more stirring to witness as she’s not a hulking prizefighter like Marlon Brando standing up to mob bosses in On the Waterfront… she’s a tiny, little woman. She’s Sally Field.
When Norma begins to stand up, speak out and push back, things don’t get better for her, they get worse. But what ensues is elucidation a-plenty for anybody looking to write a female protagonist who TRIES.
When the sweet husband she’s managed to snag over the course of the story doesn’t approve of all her time being taken up by organizing…
She keeps going, regardless. When she and Reuben aren’t taken seriously by other employees, particularly the male ones…
She persists. When the local church insinuates that what she’s doing might be uncouth, she doesn’t abandon her faith, but she temporarily walks away from the institution until it can come to its senses…
When the corrupted mill management makes things worse for all the employees, doubling down on them due to their organizing, trying to punish them into ceasing, many of the mill hands forcefully tell Norma and Reuben to quit…
… but they don’t. When the labor union itself comes to town and tells Reuben to stop working with Norma because she doesn’t fit with their definition of what a good labor organizer is…
… she doesn’t cower away. She keeps striding toward her objective anyway.
When leadership makes the white workers think the black workers will take over the union if they form it…
… Norma raises her voice and speaks louder. Maybe that last point is worth reiterating again. When leadership makes the white workers think the black workers will take over the union if they form it, Norma raises the volume on her voice and speaks louder, refusing to cease calling out leadership’s scapegoating.
Finally, when management threatens to fire her and have her taken away by the police, Norma hops up on a table and holds up a makeshift sign that reads union, inspiring everybody in the mill to stop working and stand with her. It’s the kind of scene that jerks at the tear ducts the same way that the No Man’s Land scene in Wonder Woman does. Here is a woman who has been told no and stop six million different ways, but she stands up on the pedestal; she charges across the trench anyway. Only here, after her triumphant moment in which she finally gains the unwavering support from her fellow mill workers, Norma isn’t pulled away for photographs or hailed as a hero. Instead, she’s arrested and taken to jail.
Often after we win a little bit in our struggle for justice, there’s something even more menacing and unexpected around the corner that knocks us back a few steps or drags us away.
Here, Norma’s friend and colleague Reuben won’t let her give up on herself, especially at this low point, not when they’ve managed to get this far.
He proves to her that while standing up for what’s right isn’t always a walk in the park, a person doesn’t have to do it alone.
I won’t say what happens next because I think you should come to the WGF Library and read the script, but in the end, for her persistence despite major obstacles, defamation and personal setbacks, Norma gains more than just the camaraderie and protection of a union. By stepping up and being a hero, she gains the knowledge and confidence that she IS a hero. She’s more than just a waste of space or piece of trash. By acting to make a difference, she sets herself free.
2017 has been the year of Wonder Woman, GLOW, handmaids, Anne of Green Gables, cold war spies with impeccable combat skills, soon-to-be-tellings of Billie Jean King whooping Bobby Riggs’ tush and so much more. It’s all nothing short of emboldening and a big step forward.
But it’s also been a year and especially a summer that’s shown us both how necessary and how difficult it can be to stand up to corruption, prejudice and hatred. Standing up can come at a great personal cost. If we push hard enough, it can practically ruin us, but relentless protagonists like Norma Rae prove that we can.
Characters always reflect a bit of ourselves, and it’s worth it to create those we aspire to be.
It starts with the writer.
And if you need a bit of inspiration, you can read this script and The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Insecure, The Handmaid’s Tale, Catastrophe, GLOW, Wonder Woman, the pilots for Fleabag and The Bionic Woman and many other scripts that we, the library staff, will be thrilled to recommend to you.