Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Writing Strong Women, Part III: Subtle Inequalities

'The Monstrosity'
Last time, I spoke about how our own biases often end up dominating our books if we're not careful to look at what sorts of ideas we're presenting and why. Now, in the least skilled authors, this can be overt--a character might just start ranting about some pet political notion of the author's without cease for pages and pages--but it can also come out in ways that are much harder to recognize, to the point that many readers (and even the author themselves) may not realize what kind of message is actually being sent. Let me demonstrate with a riddle:

A young boy is wheeled into the hospital, he's unconscious and blood is seeping through his shirt. A doctor runs up and asks "What happened?" The paramedic pushing his gurney says "He was in a car crash, his father died at the scene, and the kid's got a collapsed lung." The doctor then looks down at the and suddenly recoils in shock, then says "I'm sorry, I can't operate on this boy. He's my son."

Get it?

The doctor's a woman. Now maybe you figured it out right away (or had heard it before), but I'm willing to bet that for at least a few of you, there was at least a moment of confusion there. That's how sexism seeps into your story--even if you aren't a chauvinist, even if you're sitting there thinking "Alright, I'm going to write a well-developed, complete female character here, let's go!"--you can still get caught up in assumptions you didn't even realize you were making.

Hey! It's that guy. I know him.
In gender representation, the most common 'devil in the details' error is the physical descriptions of the characters. I can't tell you how many stories I've read where male characters are scarcely described at all, yet every woman's looks are outlined in minute detail. Once the book is over, you may find that the main male character is still a featureless haze--maybe he has short brown hair and 'a compact, well-muscled physique', but probably no particular eye color. Yet, you can probably recite the exact shade of every woman's eyes--not just 'green', but 'a dark, mysterious green', as well as the length and shininess of her hair, the size of her chest, the quality of her cheekbones, the daintiness of her feet, how luminescent her skin is, and her 'ampleness quotient'.

In one supposedly intelligent and sophisticated genre book that came highly-recommended to me, each woman was actually redescribed almost every time she entered a fucking scene! We'll also no doubt be told how her clothes fit--the words 'clinging', 'diaphanous', and 'torn' are likely to make appearances. Now, it's no mystery why this happens: most male authors don't really feel interested in describing all the particulars of their male characters--firstly, they likely aren't that personally invested in the structure of male cheekbones, and secondly, they probably just imagine that he looks like them. Yet the moment these authors start populating their world with pretty girls, they find themselves awash in alluring tones and scents and shapes, and probably don't even recognize the difference it makes on the page--nor indeed might a reader, if they happen to share the same bias.

Of course, the implication of all these lengthy descriptions is that the value of women is in their looks--the book invites you to ogle them every time they make an appearance, whereas the men are just kind of vague presences lurking about, swinging swords and doing Plot Things--because men are chiefly defined by their actions. Once again, the women are not agents in the story, but objects--pieces of scenery to be admired, won, stolen away, imprisoned, and won back. I guess that 'male gaze' thing wasn't total bunk after all.

Statue from Mussolini's Rule
Of course, there are plenty of stories where the male characters are described in great detail, too--but often, not in quite the same way as the women. If the hero is hugely-muscled, with a 'mane' of dark hair, 'savage but intelligent blue eyes', a square jaw, and all the rest--that's just a male power fantasy, not an example of equal objectification. Indeed, such portrayals of the angular, nude male form have since classical times represented an ideal of fascist, hyper-masculine power. After all, what do superhero comics, pro wrestling, ancient Greek statuary, and fascist art have in common? That's right: hugely muscled, mostly naked dudes and very little female participation. As this comic points out, when male characters are actually depicted in a way the average woman finds appealing, it tends to make stereotypical male readers (and writers) very uncomfortable--it's not what appeals to them.

If the men are giant, awesome, powerful, and capable while the women are pretty, soft, and alluring, that's an imbalance in how the author characterizes gender. He has created a fundamental separation in his mind between different types, which is always unproductive, whether that separation is based on gender, race, class, nationality, faith, or whatever--it's all cultural bias. When an author applies a completely different style, tone, and overall approach to portraying women versus men, the characterization is going to be unbalanced.

Skintight Spandex: Not Suggestive Enough
In a lot of stories through history, ugliness and deformity were used to characterize 'badness'. This is still broadly true for male characters, but recently, for women--good, bad, or somewhere in between--all of them will tend to be attractive. Sure, the bad ones will be 'darkly attractive', and probably a few years older, but by this point, even the ancient witches have mostly turned in their warts and hooked noses for Venice Beach bodies and gallons of mascara. Blame Hollywood, but the result is that there's even less variance in female characters today than there used to be--it seems that the focus on a woman needing to be attractive trumps even the 'ugly bad guy' cliche.

It's also important to pay attention to where these descriptions are coming from. There's a difference between 'She walked into the room. Tom thought to himself 'She's very pretty, in a prissy sort of way'.' and 'She walked into the room. She was very pretty, in a prissy sort of way.' When a certain character has a bias, that's just the character. When every observer in the story shows the same bias, that's the start of a problem. When the narration itself speaks with bias, then we're in real trouble.

One of the most interesting things about Robert E. Howard, creator of Conan the Barbarian, is how careful he was to keep opinions in the mouths of the characters. Sure, there's racism and sexism in his stories, but it isn't coming from the voice-on-high of the author, it's the observations and opinions of individuals in the story. This is an important distinction--it's the difference between exploring bigoted characters, and the book itself promoting bigotry. It also makes his approach rather more subtle and complex than most of his followers, who have done everything they can to turn Conan into just another cliche of gender imbalance--except, somewhat surprisingly, for the original film and Kurt Busiek's comics.


This artificial separation in how different groups of characters are portrayed applies not only to their appearance, but also to behavior. Robert Jordan is notorious for having all his women speak in the same way, and for them to all share the same general personality (not coincidentally, it's the same 'stubborn shrew' we discussed last time). Having all women speak and act in the same way reduces them from individual characters to a 'type', which makes them come off as flat--and again, its implying that the chief thing that defines their identity is their femininity.

This doesn't mean that we cannot represent a culture where there are differences in how men and women are socialized--every culture has its own version of 'pink horses versus baseball and firetrucks' that it tries to foist on kids, but remember: socialization is not perfect. Even if a culture were dead-set on all women being compliant slaves, a lot of them would resist that, and even those who didn't would still have unique and varying personalities beneath that cultural mantle. 'Incompetent shrew' is not a cultural trait, it's one character's personality. Filling a world with airheaded bimbos or mighty amazon women or shy dorkettes is just as nonsensical. Different characters need different personalities--that's what makes them interesting, and what makes the story dynamic.

But it's not just about appearance, or about behavior, but how the story treats the characters--does it approach men and women  in fundamentally different ways? As I mentioned before, unequal representations are rarely planned out beforehand by authors, rather they are the result of some unquestioned bias--and when we're talking gender, the place that bias is most likely to show itself is in depictions of carnal acts.

Just as a straight male author is more likely to describe an attractive female character at length, so the situations that they put men and women in tend to conform to the author's preferences for what they would like to see. The most obvious example of this is all the ridiculous fetishism one tends to see in genre fiction, whether it's bondage or S&M or spankings--and by all means, if you want to write porn, write porn, but know that making all the women into vehicles for some very specific sexual kink will inevitably transform them into an indistinguishable type.

What's worse is authors who try to excuse their fetish-wanking as 'realism'--yes, having sex in a story is realistic, having sexual assault and homosexuality is realistic--overlaying your own preferences over the world is not realistic. That's how you get stories where there are bunches of girl-on-girl scenes (because 'that's hot'), but no examples mutual male desire (because 'that's gross'). Often, such stories will feature only 'lipstick lesbians': pretty, stereotypically feminine girls who end up falling for the hero--because it turns out the sole reason they were with other girls in the first place is because no 'real man' ever came along. Instead of actually giving female characters sexual preferences and a sexual identity, the author just plugs them into a cliche setup more suited to pornography--and not even good pornography.

Death in Venice, 1971
Then you get examples like The Game of Thrones, where the wall-to-wall rape is painted by the fans as an example of a 'realistically gritty medieval world'--which it turns out not to be, when you actually look at it, because all the sexual violence is pointed squarely at women. Sure, this is definitely something women have had to deal with, but in the real world of war and death and awful things, guys get raped too, especially young guys--hell, there were whole cultures where young men were considered more sexually appealing than women (usually the very same mighty warrior cultures that inspired fantasy heroes, from Spartans to samurai). Though there are a lot of stories out there where every female character will be at menaced with sexual violence at some point, the same thing will almost never be leveled at men--not even as a threat. All this despite the fact that many more men get raped during war than women. Sure, the author put dark themes into their 'gritty epic', but only the sexy, non-subversive ones--only the ones they happen to get off on.

It's fine to have individual characters who treat women differently, or a culture that has different values for men and women, but there should never be an inflexible bias of the whole world, a bias built into the very fabric of the narration itself--especially when its only there to cover things the author isn't mature enough to deal with in the text. That's not realism, it's just prejudice.

Please join me next time, when I'll be discussing the all-important relationship between the character and the human world in which they live, in Part IV: The Individual and Her Society.

13 comments:

  1. I was reading the riddle understanding the doctor to be a man, because it was written as "doctor" and not "doctore"....and then I remember English doesn't have genders.

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    1. Yes, one could say the greatest strength and the greatest frustration of the English language is its ability to be vague.

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  2. Good reading really! I'm realized that I do make some of the mistakes you point out here like writing ideal woman (though my idea of women is those who intelligent and independepent). Thankfully, I've yet to write narration that showed some bias on that matter.

    So, I have a question: If a I want to put a vague description of a female character, in order to not make subtlely sexist I have to do the same with a male character too right?

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    1. Yeah, basically what I'm talking about here is the problem of authors treating female characters completely differently from male characters. There are a lot of options that are still balanced: perhaps neither female nor male characters are described in detail, or both male and female are described in detail, or only important characters are described in detail, and secondary characters are not.

      One place it can get murky is when the author is only describing characters who are in some way physically remarkable, whether in appearance or dress--it makes sense to do this, because as authors, we should only be going into detail about unusual things, and letting regular things be assumed. However, if every female character has an 'interesting look' and no male character does--or fewer male characters do--that suggests and imbalance.

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  3. Well, I guess I know ONE thing that was trimmed from the GoT TV series.
    I look forward to seeing all of your good examples of female characterization in the next post. Here's a thought: do you think it might be possible for a male author to write a truly convincing female character in first-person?

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    1. "do you think it might be possible for a male author to write a truly convincing female character in first-person?"

      I don't see any reason why not, the male writer just has to be mature, thoughtful, and introspective as he writes, and not give into cliches or his own biases of physical attraction or how he thinks women 'should be'.

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  4. Have you ever seen Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood? It has some of the best female characters I've ever seen in fantasy, though I guess that's because it was written by a woman. One of them is a happily married housewife who is offered a place in the military, but refuses to join because of moral reasons. Watching it, I never felt like being a woman was a weakness.

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    1. I haven't seen it, no, though I have heard of it.

      "I guess that's because it was written by a woman"

      Well, I don't think that really means much. Women authors often write characters just as flat, insulting, and cliche as male authors do--in fact, several of the examples I give here were projects done by women: Hunger Games, Brave, Twilight, or for an example from anime, anything done by the studio Clamp. I mean, women can be just as sexist as men, even against other women.

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  5. Keely "One place it can get murky is when the author is only describing characters who are in some way physically remarkable, whether in appearance or dress--it makes sense to do this, because as authors, we should only be going into detail about unusual things, and letting regular things be assumed. However, if every female character has an 'interesting look' and no male character does--or fewer male characters do--that suggests and imbalance."
    Women in my society tend to dress in a more interesting way than men, and bring out their features so I think that's part of it. Also I can guess certain things about their personality and background from what they wear. A women may wear her Sari's in public whereas her brother dresses in tshirts and jeans.
    Of course they're physical features are just as interesting if not more as women tend to hide wear marks as imperfections whereas on men it's seen as character.

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    1. Well, there's no reason a t-shirt and slacks can't give a telling impression about a character--in this instance, it might stand in for the fact that he's more Westernized than others. The author can also talk about his particular style--whether his clothes are rumpled or neat, whether he wears bright colors or dark, whether his clothes fit well, or whether he's swimming in them. In those ways, his choices can tell us just as much about his character and the choices he makes as what a woman wears.

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    2. But those are things that you can tell from female characters as well. And they're not as likely to wear symbols like crosses and Davids star.
      I wasn't really comfortable typing that comment and I know men who wish to express themselves as women do without being stigmatized. But I get what you're saying as it's the authors job to give the impression that the way they look has the same importance as female characters even if women tend to give more information to other characters.

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    3. Yeah, there are definitely cultural differences between how men and women dress--which is why it's important for authors to look at the appearance of both men and women in their story, to explore those differences. I mean, even a man dressing to fit in, dressing 'normal', that gives information about what sort of person he is, what he thinks is important.

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    4. True, in a way differences in a character can be more significant because of their expected uniform.

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