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."
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 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|
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|
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 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|
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.