For Reference: An Individual (Hellé Nice)
There are many things that are intrinsic to a person, any person: the capacity for pain and joy, the need for self-actualization, the ability to think and reflect, the desire for companionship, fears and doubts--elements of humanity that have persisted through our whole history, in every time and culture. Then there are those things which come from the outside, social structures, and these tend to be drastically different across cultures and eras. When creating a character, it is important to distinguish between their internal life and the external structure of the society they live in.
Think for a moment of the conception of bankers in America: they are thieves, leeches on the American people. They lie, cheat, and steal, they cause financial crises that make everyone's lives worse for decades, then we find memos which reveal that not only were they aware of what they were doing, but hoped to be 'wealthy and retired by the time this house of card[s] falters'. The identity of the investment banker is defined by hoaxes like Enron, Madoff's ponzi scheme, or the mortgage ratings scandal.
Yet, as this piece from the Daily Show explores, corruption and mistrust are not intrinsic to banking. If the banking system is well-regulated, as it is in Canada, then bankers do not have to be sneak-thieves trying to make a quick buck before things fall apart. There are differences between what is strictly necessary to be a banker (a head for numbers, the ability to follow and predict trends, to estimate costs, risks, and returns) and the social conception of a banker in a particular culture--the internal and external identities. Of course, that social conception is based around the facts of that culture (in this instance, the amount of regulation)--so depending how things are set up, it will either promote underhanded bankers, or honest ones. These cultural systems can be insidious and pervasive, but they still won't affect each person in the same way.
|Danny Devito in 'Matilda'|
Now, imagine that used car dealers start showing up while you're at work, and try to sell you a car there. They stop you on the street when you're carrying groceries, "Hey you, let me sell you a car! You know you want one!" They do it when you're out with your family. If you ignore them, or don't respond, or ask to be left alone, they follow you for blocks, yelling about how you're a worthless asshole. You read stories about people who ignore them and get assaulted, or stabbed, or shot. Then, one day, you see a used car dealer outside the window of your house, watching you from the bushes. When realizes he's been noticed, he bolts, dropping a handful loan documents pre-filled with your personal data. In this extended metaphor, Used Cars=Sex, and if we're being cliche, you're a woman.
Now, most people want sex, and enjoy it when they can get it--but not from people they aren't attracted to, and not from people they feel they can't trust. So, that's the difference between the individual desire ('I think sex is pretty cool'), and the social reality ('The people who keep trying to have sex with me are totally not cool'). And at some point, the social reality can get you so down that your own desire doesn't even seem worth it any more, having to deal with being stalked and cheated and betrayed and then ultimately, not even getting what you wanted, anyways. Might as well just bike. Now, this is an important detail: it's not that the desire ceases to exist, it's just that it becomes too much of a hassle to deal with in everyday life. It's not saying 'I don't want a car', but rather 'As much as I want a car, I don't want to deal with all the stuff that goes along with acquiring and maintaining one'.
Now, in stereotypical characters, the author often overlays the social reality onto the individual, which is a mistake. It's not that women don't want to have sex, and only 'give in' in order to get other things, as the social myth claims--women want sex just as much as men, it's just that for them, the social reality of sex gets in the way, and makes it difficult to fulfill that desire (which is part of the point, since that structure developed from a social need to control childbirth and parentage). Point being: this is a social structure that is forced onto us, not something intrinsic to men or women.
In fact, if you look back through history, you'll see that the myth often supported the opposite idea: in ancient Greece, women were thought to be more sexually voracious than men, as shown in the play Lysistrata, where the women threaten to withhold sex from the male populace to force a peace negotiation, and the men all laugh and say the women won't last that long. In Chaucer's time, too, it was thought that the female urge was more insatiable than the man's, and that a man had to be on his guard against the intentions of women. The Victorians also had a variation on the same, but of course covered over with a faux-scientific explanation: that women would 'steal a man's generative energy', tiring and exhausting him with their constant need.
Of course, social realities do have an effect on the people who have to live under them, but being an individual means that you are more than just a representative of your society. Some things you'll accept, others you'll reject, which is which defines your individual personality. This can also be a problem when an author is trying to depict different races and cultures: do they make all 'Easterners' (for one common example) share the same assumptions, truths, desires, and fears, or is there room for individuals beneath the banner of any particular culture, as there is in real life?
These articles are not about men versus women, and I don't want to give that impression. The point isn't to say that this is the fault of male authors. If women can be just as unique and potent as men, they can also be just as uncreative and normative--just as sexist. Just because a writer is female, that doesn't mean she can write strong female characters, and just because an author is male, it doesn't mean he can't. Women can be chauvinists, and men can be feminists. I've already given some examples of female-made works that fall into these same traps, such as Hunger Games and Brave, and there are many more, like Twilight or most of the Romance genre. The fact that the most prominent female YA authors seem to create empty, cliche main characters and then set them up in a love triangle where they can pick from two different flavors of emotional abuse demonstrates that men don't have the copyright on weak, insulting female characters--as does the fact that legions of women buy and praise such books--after all, the whole notion of the Mary Sue arose from female author-inserts in the first place.
You hear people talk all the time about how they 'don't get the other sex', and I'd like to address those people specifically for a moment: that's crap. It's not the other sex who's a problem, it's you. It's that you act differently around people when you're trying to get with them. You know why you can hang with your bff and just talk and its not awkward? It's not because 'bros get each other' or 'girls stick together', it's because there's no sexual tension to get in the way--you don't enter friendships with the expectation that it's going to lead to bodily fluid stuff.
|No tension at all . . .|
The problem isn't that 'the opposite sex is confusing and different', the problem is that you're trying to treat all of them as if they're part of some fundamental, unvarying class. It's like saying 'Man, I asked my one brown-eyed friend what he wants in life, and he said 'freedom', and then I asked another brown-eye, and they said 'stability'--I mean, it's like their kind don't even know what they want, am I right?' Of course you're going to be confused if you take a bunch completely different people with their own individual personalities, goals, and desires, and then try to make them into a type. It's the same if you're a writer: don't write them like they are fundamentally some different, alien class of people.
That's why a lot of female authors, despite being women themselves, still struggle to write good female characters, because they're still just overlaying cultural cliches onto their characters instead of giving them personalities--they just fall back on what they think women are supposed to be like, or what they wish men and women were like. Instead of exploring a character, they get lost in their own assumptions and frustrations--which is ironic, because the way to get rid of those frustrations is not to indulge them by fantasizing, but to meet them head on by exploring what causes them.
|Emily Pankhurst addresses a crowd|
I didn't expect my exploration would spill out into five posts, but if you aren't already exhausted, please join me next time for (hopefully) the finale: Part V: Where are the Strong Women?