Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Writing Strong Women, Part IV: The Individual and Her Society

For Reference: An Individual (Hellé Nice)
Last time, I talked about the little stylistic details that can undermine how female characters are portrayed, but now I'd like to address something larger: the woman and her relationship to society. When we create a character, we are creating an individual. Though many of the thoughts, opinions, and assumptions of an individual are informed by the society they live in, an individual is not merely the combination of the ads they've seen and the things they were taught in school. Indeed, individuals are remarkably resistant to socialization, and love to reject what they've been told to do. So, when we make a character, it's not enough for them to simply be a distillation of their culture, a reversion to some 'type'--they must have unique qualities that set them apart.

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'
Imagine for a moment that you want to get a used car. You go down to the lot, but the guy working there creeps you out. He keeps pressuring you, he doesn't seem to be listening to what you want, or what you're willing to trade, he keeps trying to upsell you and manipulate you--so you leave. You go to another lot, and this guy seems a bit better, so you buy a car from him, but then it immediately breaks down, and despite all the promises he made, when you call him about it, he says it's not his problem, and hangs up. Now, this doesn't prove that used cars are necessarily bad (a new car could be just as problematic), or even that you have to be unscrupulous to sell used cars--it just means that the system for how they are sold in America is not especially trustworthy. It has few guarantees, a low overhead, and hence promotes desperate methods from those who choose to do it for a living. Folks unwilling to stoop that low don't last long in the business.

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?

So yes, a modern American woman must, to some degree, live beneath the social structure of the 'male sexual threat', whether it means being told 'a woman can never be alone on the street at night', or worrying that if she leaves her drink for a moment, she may be drugged, or accepting a certain level of sexual harassment from teachers, bosses, and clients as inevitable. Yet, the way each individual woman responds to this imposition is going to be different. For some, it will always be a stressor, something she avoids as much as she can. For others, it will be just another facet of life, something she deals with when it comes up, but otherwise doesn't think much about it. Some may also take inspiration from it, and come together with others to speak out and oppose it. Some may try to use the structure to their own advantage. And yes, some will internalize that value for themselves.

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 . . .
'Ah ha!' I hear you say 'But it was still weird and stressful with my significant other even after we got over the sex and were living together!' Yes, that's because living with a roommate produces its own kind of constant tension--being together every day, every hour, dealing with messes and weird habits. The gender difference is mostly in your head--and its mostly your own fault for acting so weird around people you're attracted to. Once you recognize that all people pretty much have the same motivations and desires in life, it should be a lot easier to step into someone else's shoes. Food, sex, pride, fear, self-worth--all the same stuff goes on in there--we just have very different ways of dealing with them.

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
Sure, we all represent the society we came from, in certain very real ways, but we also represent ourselves, and as an author, it's important to recognize the difference between those sides of each character's personality--indeed, for every person who has ever existed, it is a source of life-long conflict, a back and forth between your responsibility to yourself and your responsibility to your culture. If your character lacks any conflict with the society in which they live, then they lack personality. That's why it's important that we avoid basic cliches of female behavior, and limiting the roles they can take in a story. Take a look at this handy-dandy flow chart of female roles, and maybe it will help you figure out whether your characters are just being slotted into cliche types.

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?


  1. I wouldn't be surprised if the feminist school of criticism hasn't scared some male authors away from writing female characters at all. If you mess up your male characters, you're a poor writer at worst, but if you mess up your female characters, there are deeper problems with your entire personality.

    1. Yeah, I'm sure a lot of male authors find it daunting, and feel like they're walking on thin ice. But as I've been exploring, in most of these cases, the way authors mess up male characters is often completely different from how they mess up female characters. It's not that the author makes kind of a bland, cliche hero, and then an equally bland, cliche heroine--its that the heroine ends up having all this other weird, unrelated baggage--and of course, that it's just as common with women writers as male writers.

      And as for 'deeper problems with your personality', I think that's definitely going to come out for a writer, no matter what their topic is. We're going to make assumptions, have prejudices, and these things are going to shape our work. That's part of what makes books interesting: seeing the specific vision this author has. I mean, as artists, we can't really afford to be afraid of revealing ourselves, and of course, we all have flaws, so that's part of what's going to come out.

      All you can really do is educate yourself, work hard, and try to root out your own biases by challenging yourself to work outside of your comfort zone.

  2. I have just sat and read Part I to Part IV - your writing, criticisms about male and female characters, is so much more clear and digestible to me than the majority of what I read or watch about female characters.
    It is very refreshing to read someone go into detail, not just about why certain characters aren't at a better, stronger and/or more believable standard, but examine *why* a writer has constructed them that way and how they are influenced, perhaps unwittingly. I'm a game developer, most of the text I read about female characters is directly in relation to video games, reading your work has not only educated me, but taught me I really need to broaden my scope with what I read! So much criticism (in video games) is scathing, shallow (perhaps partly due to the material?), it is refreshing to read something so measured and rational. I'm really looking forward to part V.

    On a side note I have to concur as strongly as possible my agreement with your feelings towards Robert Jordan's female characters you mentioned in part III - they were the same personality, I couldn't understand the praise towards his particular depiction of female characters, their names may as well have been interchangeable, I don't think I made it past the fourth book.

    1. Yeah, part of what I talk about in Part V is how, despite the fact that this is very much 'an issue' right now, and there's no lack of discussion and articles on it out there, it never seems to lead anywhere. It's mostly just people saying the same stuff, and making the same errors in characterization.

      And as you say, the discussion is very polarized and emotional in videogames, in much the same way it is in genre fantasy, and comic books, in part because they've all been made by and for men the same type of guy for a long time--writers who are playing out biases they're completely blind to, and fans who find those biases familiar and comforting.

      But then, it's also kind of funny to look at well-written games, like Fallout, Torment, Baldur's Gate, Knights of the Old Republic, and Mass Effect, and realize that there are actually female relationships, friendships, and rivalries there. Think about something as simple as Jaheira and Aerie talking about how they appreciate one another's company as you wander through town--this little automatic response that lets you into that relationship, and which means many games pass the Bechdel Test, even when most movies still don't.

      Then of course, there's the change in a game when you select a different gender for your character. It really demonstrates that you can have exactly the same conversations and relationships with a female character as you can with a male--you can make the same choices, you can be just as merciless or indecisive--and with many games now, participate in the same romances. I mean, what better illustration that the gender of a character really is secondary to their personality and motivations?

  3. Man, I wish I could send some parts of this review to a person who constantly gripes about how girls are so "hard to understand"
    But then I'd give him another excuse to talk to me, so I won't.

    Still, this is really good. Just wow.

    1. Thanks, glad to hear it resonated with you.

      And yeah, usually you can't really educate people--no matter how much they complain, they always seem able to ignore any advice you give them. If they really wanted to understand, they'd search out the answers for themselves.