The Problem of “Relating,” Part 3

Step 3: Rethink “feminine” characteristics.

A revealing, though quite long, discussion on Reddit Fantasy, initiated by author Krista D. Ball, addresses the gap in success and notoriety between male and female fantasy authors — as in, while fans of the genre lick their chops in anticipation of the next release by Mark Lawrence, Patrick Rothfuss, Scott Lynch, and Joe Abercrombie, far fewer seem aware of the works of Barbara Hambly, Kate Forsyth, Juliet Marillier, and any number of my own favorite female authors. While the picture may be slowly changing as female-authored works win prestigious awards (e.g. Naomi Novik’s Uprooted claiming the Nebula Award for Best Novel), the readership and awareness gap lingers, thanks in part to the kind of thinking Brandon Sanderson describes as publishing’s conventional (ahem) wisdom:

“Boys don’t want to read ‘girl’ books…being seen as ‘feminine’ is a big deal for a boy’s identity. However, being seen as ‘masculine’ for a female youth is not nearly as big a deal. Women can wear male clothing, but not the reverse. Tomboys get an eye-roll, while sissy boys are beat up and derided. That kind of thing. Anyway, I’m not saying any of this is true–but there is a sense that it is in publishing.”

If girls are often encouraged to see themselves as boyish while boys are ridiculed for exhibiting “girly” qualities, then what is “girly” must somehow be painted as bad, or at least worse. It’s impossible not to notice that if we tell someone he/she does anything “like a girl,” that means he/she does it badly. Two problems are at work here, both at the core of gender essentialism: first, qualities coded as “feminine” are shown to be weaker, smaller, less valuable, and second, if a female character is to appeal to a general readership, she must somehow lay claim to “masculine” traits.

We need to start reworking our definitions of “feminine.” Unappealing stereotypes of “femininity” are legion, but I’ll focus on two of them, one obvious, one a bit less so, both pet peeves of mine:

The Damsel.

We all love Toy Story, the first animated feature released by the now-revered Pixar Studios. We smile when we think of cowboy leader Woody, brash upstart Space Ranger Buzz Lightyear, nervous dinosaur Rex, misanthropic Mr. Potato Head. We can probably quote substantial portions of their dialogue. But hey… whose favorite character is Bo Peep? Answer: nobody’s.

Bo Peep, the Smurfette among Andy’s toys in the first film, has a very talented and appealing voice actress in Annie Potts, but the character gives Potts nothing at all into which to sink her teeth. She plays the distressed damsel role in the little dramas Andy enacts with his toys, and while she’s never in actual distress in the story itself, she’s still very much the damsel, because she never takes any crucial action. She’s there to flirt with Woody and to deliver a few Mom-type words of wisdom when the conflict starts to heat up, none of which are funny and quotable like the dialogue of her male co-stars. No wonder she all but vanishes from the memory when the movie is done.

I chose Bo Peep as my example, rather than more obvious damsels like Spider-Man‘s Mary Jane or The Princess Bride‘s Buttercup, because I want to highlight what’s most annoying about passive female characters in fiction, besides the implied dependence on men and the use of women’s peril to give male heroes the chance to display their courage and resourcefulness: passivity is boring. However much plain common sense a female character may speak, if she never actually steps up and takes a risk, she’s not likely to engage an audience’s imagination. Toy Story‘s writers eventually realized any opportunity to give Bo Peep a vivid personality was lost, and they wrote her out of the third movie.

Damselhood isn’t really about needing rescue, since some of our most active and clever heroes have on occasion needed rescue. Damselhood is about hanging back while other characters make all the decisions that move the plot, serving at best as a “motivator,” a star shining on others from a fixed point. Still, at least the damsel is usually presented to us in a fairly positive (though boring!) light, unlike…

The Killjoy.

You’ve seen her before. She’s the one with the permanent frown, the one whose function is to disapprove whenever anything fun and/or adventurous is going on. She is born from gender-essentialist assumptions that men are risk-takers, while women value safety above all else; men are voyagers and explorers, while women are homebodies. Sometimes the narrative may put us on the killjoy’s side, e.g. we’re usually meant to sympathize with poor, harried Marge Simpson’s frustrations with Homer’s hare-brained schemes. Yet the truth is without the hare-brained schemes, the risks, the ventures, we have no story. The risk-taker’s job is to act, the killjoy’s to react. Once again, the male character has control of the tale.

Here we find the common ground between damsel and killjoy. The male hero makes a challenging decision — say, to take on an unpopular court case or to pursue a crime investigation that will earn him dangerous enemies. How does the woman in his life respond? If she smiles and offers encouragement, she’s the damsel, and while we may like her (as, for instance, I like Bonnie Hunt’s loving-wife character in The Green Mile), she isn’t likely to take firm hold of our consciousness or carve out a place among our favorite fictional personalities. If she frowns and criticizes, or worst of all threatens to leave the hero unless he abandons his righteous but dangerous path, she’s the killjoy, limited by her inability to comprehend the magnitude of what her man is doing. I’ve never seen JFK, since Oliver Stone isn’t exactly my favorite big screen director (has he ever made a film that depicts women in a notably positive light?), but Sissy Spacek’s shrill whining in the trailers and commercials cements her in my mind as a solid example of the killjoy. The shallow, timorous spouse in A Time to Kill, played in the movie by Ashley Judd, is another one. Something’s not right if we catch ourselves rooting for our married hero to have an affair.

The Damsel and the Killjoy might make effective secondary or tertiary characters in certain stories, but I’m beyond tired of seeing these types as the female leads, the ones who have or win the active male heroes’ love and loyalty, or worse, the only significant female presence in the story. This we cannot move away from fast enough. If we’re ready to start breaking our traditional assumptions of what constitutes “feminine” behavior, let’s begin here.

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The Problem of “Relating,” Part 2

Or, the ongoing task of crafting female characters a general readership will find engaging and “relate-able”.

Step 2: Stop casting women and girls as “the Other.”

Not long ago, my husband and I watched the screen adaptation of Andy Weir’s popular sci-fi novel The Martian. I’d resisted watching it for some time, because I have never been fond of one-character dramas (Cast Away, etc.) and I’d always assumed The Martian to be just such a story. Yet when I finally watched it, I was pleasantly surprised to find the action pretty evenly divided between the astronaut struggling to survive alone on Mars and the team trying to rescue him. It did rankle me a bit that all the scientists on said team, all the real problem-solvers, were (with one briefly seen exception) men, but nonetheless I was enjoying the film. Until one scene.

The group of scientists is devising a new solution to the problem of bringing the abandoned astronaut home, and the foremost among them comes up with a name for it: Project Elrond, a reference to the half-elven King in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. The other men all approve of the name, one of them topping the leader with an even more obscure reference to Tolkien’s work. One person in the room, however, is baffled by their general amusement and unable to recognize the name “Elrond” — the room’s only woman, the PR bureaucrat played by Kristin Wiig. Her lack of comprehension adds to the men’s amusement, and the scene concludes with the frustrated Wiig proclaiming, “I hate you all,” while the menfolk enjoy a good chuckle at her expense. Girls, right? They just don’t get it.

At this point I wondered just how and why a good movie should suddenly morph into a weaker-than-usual episode of The Big Bang Theory. The worst thing about this little joke is that it’s completely unnecessary. It doesn’t advance the plot. It doesn’t tell us anything we absolutely needed to know about the characters. It’s just one more chance to affirm the already bothersome stereotype that interest in and knowledge about speculative fiction is a “guy thing.” When guys speak Klingon or quote Yoda, gals roll their eyes. Guys bond together over their special geek-related interests, but gals aren’t allowed into the club because geek stuff isn’t “for them.”

The scene is just one little symptom of a much larger problem, a tendency to create characters along the lines of what’s called “gender essentialism,” that is, the idea that while men and women might appear diverse, at their core they share the same basic traits. Men like to explore; women prefer to play it safe. Men have trouble expressing emotion; women (good women, that is) are warm, empathetic nurturers. Men are direct; women are indirect. (“Deception’s the curse of my whimsical gender,” sings Leela of Futurama, in an episode I otherwise adore.) Gender essentialist thinking lies behind accusations that warrior-women characters are just “men with boobs.” Since physical strength and aggression are presented to us as essentially masculine qualities, any woman who displays such qualities must be acting like a man — which, for some readers, may be the only way she can prove herself worthy of identification or a spot on a Favorite Characters list.

Like the Smurfette Principle, this kind of characterization sets the female character(s) apart from the pack based on gender, which of course limits the invitation to identification. In her book Brave Dames and Wimpettes, Susan Isaacs explains the effect of creating characters along gender-essentialist lines, which tends to result in “wimpettes”: “Everything they do proceeds from a single premise: They are women. As a result, they are one-dimensional characters” (17). Readers, whether male or female, aren’t likely to find them “cool.” If you’re a young male reader, honestly, how keen would you be to step into the shoes of a character whose package of defining traits is labeled “Not Like You,” and even worse, “Not Like You Should Want to Be”?

I should mention that I came back around to enjoying The Martian thanks to the character played by Jessica Chastain, whose moment to shine I won’t Spoil with too much detail. Unlike Wiig, Chastain plays a character whose gender doesn’t set her apart from those who surround her. Her role may be small, yet she’s a character any viewer might admire and even want to be.

Coming soon: Part 3: Rethinking “feminine” traits

The Problem of “Relating,” Part 1

One thing I can’t help noticing as I browse websites like Reddit Fantasy or Fantasy Faction: when the sites’ users are asked to name their very favorite characters from fantasy novels, male characters will dominate the lists. On lists of ten, maybe two female characters will sneak in. Lists of five, say, one out of three may name a female character. Most lists of three won’t name any women at all. Nor does the gender of the poster make much difference; both male and female posters tend to prefer male characters. Just why is this? It’s tempting to cry, “Sexism!” and leave it at that. But I’m afraid the problem is more complicated.

More evidence of the same problem can be found in the number of Reddit posters who claim, in the tone of confession, that they don’t enjoy reading about female protagonists because they “can’t relate” to them. These same posters have no problem identifying with protagonists from imaginary kingdoms with alien customs and beliefs. They can identify just fine with characters whose race is different from their own, or who may not even be human. But female, somehow, is a deal-breaker. Female authors are all right as long as they’re writing about male leads, as Robin Hobb does in her “FitzChivalry” novels and Naomi Novik does in her Temeraire series.

Why do so many (too many) readers find it such a struggle to relate to female characters, to enjoy walking in their shoes? Some of it, I admit, may boil down to good old-fashioned sexism, the idea that a girl or woman, real or fictional, just isn’t as good (as brave, as clever, as capable) as a boy or man, and training and experience can never make her so. This sexism manifests itself in the persistent notion that stories about girls are for a specifically female audience while stories about boys are for everyone, a notion that influences which books our youngest readers are directed toward. Too many boys, and a fair number of girls, are trained to think female characters and their stories are “lame.” We see plenty of discussions of the lack of teen boy readers and the strategies needed to encourage boys to read. The number of female leads in YA fiction is nearly always blamed, and the same solution is nearly always proposed — not that more boys should be encouraged to see that stories about girls can be fun and rewarding, but that more YA authors should write books about boys. And so the problem goes merrily on.

But does the problem lie just with the readers? I’m one of those YA authors, and I want to create stories with something to offer as many different readers as possible. Yet I am my first audience, and I write the kinds of stories my thirteen-year-old self would have been thrilled to read. That means female characters occupy central or at least significant roles. One day I may write a story with a male protagonist, but even in that one, girls and women will feature prominently. I will not and will never push female characters into the background to please any reader (boy or girl) who thinks “girls have cooties.” What I can do, what we can all do, is work to create the kinds of female leads that both girls and boys will enjoy identifying with. And I need to think about what that means.

How can we be part of the solution?

Step 1: Abandon the Smurfette Principle.

I’m far from the only one who feels the practice of including a token female character in a cast full of menfolk severely undercuts said female character’s chances of being memorable in any good way. (“I Hate Strong Female Characters” by Sophia McDougall, for instance, offers insight into its effects.) Consider the show the trope name comes from. The male Smurfs are identified by position within the community (Papa), a personality trait (e.g. Vanity), or a special skill or interest (e.g. Poet, Painter, Handy). These features distinguish them from each other. Then there’s Smurfette. What does she bring to the table? What sets her apart? That little “ette” — her gender. The others are special because of something they do. She is special because she’s a girl. Why would any boy, or girl for that matter, latch onto such a character or name her as a favorite?

The spirit of tokenism pervades this trope. The person whose distinguishing characteristic is gender (and who, as such, is called upon to represent the entire gender) gets thrown into an all-male mix often solely to appeal to an imagined demographic, rather than because the author really wants her there. Authors may feel they have to add a girl, and if they’re not genuinely invested in her, they take as little time and trouble with her characterization as they can get away with. The inclusion of such sketchily drawn girl characters does readers no favors, and once again, those characters aren’t likely to turn up on anyone’s Favorites list.

We need to stop expecting a single female to stand in for Womanhood in total and stop imagining that a character whose central defining feature is her gender has any hope of being the sort of complex and intriguing individual that readers will want to engage with. Maybe we should try taking a couple or three supporting characters whose gender is not dictated by the plot and writing them as female, and see what happens.

Five Things I Love about… Chattanooga, TN

At the end of this week, my husband and I will journey to LibertyCon in Chattanooga, TN, where I’ll be signing copies of my novels, speaking on panels, and giving my first public reading of Nightmare Lullaby. (I can’t wait!) Over the past several years, Chattanooga has become our favorite day-trip destination. Here are some reasons I’ve given my heart to that sweet city.

LibertyCon.

I’ve already proclaimed my love for DragonCon, that sprawling four-day Mardi Gras for the geek-inclined that invades Atlanta every Labor Day, but that festival has its flaws. LibertyCon is much smaller, and while it may lack the rich diversity of DragonCon’s track and panel offerings, it also lacks the massive crowds and the claustrophobia they create. I don’t have to stand in a line extending around a city block to see a panel. If two panels that interest me take place back to back, I don’t have to choose between them; I have ample time to get from one to the other. The Dealer’s Room may be only a fraction of the size of DragonCon’s labyrinthine marketplace, but I can maneuver through it with ease, and spend a decent stretch of time browsing Larry Smith Bookseller, where just about every science fiction and fantasy novel on the current market can be found. My favorite purveyor of costume apparel, Holy Clothing, also has a rack in the LibertyCon Dealer’s Room.

Another favorite aspect of LibertyCon is the generous appreciation the staff and the guests show the Atlanta Radio Theatre Company. We’re a favorite attraction of theirs and they let us know it, in attendance and applause. Further evidence of this Con’s generosity is Author’s Alley. While other Cons charge heavy fees for a dealer’s table, Author’s Alley gives writers an opportunity to rent time and space at a table to sell and exhibit their wares. For small-press writers like me, this is invaluable.

I love both the vast DragonCon and the cozier LibertyCon, each for what it is. I’m grateful for the opportunity to attend both.

McKay.

Since 2012, my husband and I have followed a tradition for the day after Thanksgiving known as Black Friday: instead of battling our way through hordes of shoppers at one or more of Atlanta’s various malls, we spend the balance of the day in Chattanooga at our very favorite used media store. We’ve visited the McKay locations both here and in Nashville, and Chattanooga’s store is bigger, with a much more extensive selection. They also have an incredibly generous trade policy. While many used media stores will exchange only DVDs for DVDs, CDs for CDs, and books from a particular genre for others of the same genre, McKay gives us a set amount of credit for all the things we trade in, and we can use that credit to buy whatever the heck we want. We average three trips to McKay every year (Black Friday, LibertyCon weekend, and around my birthday), and I’ve been known to come away with between sixteen and twenty books without having spent one penny.

No bibliophile could fail to jump at the chance of free books, as long as she could find a fair amount of old material to trade in. I relish the chance to try out titles that intrigue me, knowing that if I find them disappointing, I won’t think, “Well, that’s $8.99 I’ll never get back.”

The Hot Chocolatier.

This little place stands right across the street from the Chattanooga Choo-Choo Hotel, where LibertyCon is held. Their menu boasts as many different varieties of hot chocolate as the imagination can conjure, and I’ve only just started working my way through them, having tried cinnamon, pistachio, and Mexican (spiced with pepper). If this weren’t enough, delectable desserts sit on display behind glass to make the mouth water and the heart yearn. Since I have a sweet tooth the size of a continent, I can’t resist the place. As much as I love the various chocolate dessert creations, I have to recommend the whiskey-butterscotch bread pudding with fresh whipped cream. A bread pudding that isn’t ruined by raisins! Be still my heart.

Urban Stack.

I am not a fan of hamburgers. I’m no vegetarian, either, but I don’t like my meat ground up into fatty bits. So why should I name a burger joint among my five beloved aspects of Chattanooga? Because fresh grilled chicken can be subbed for any burger, opening up an array of tasty possibilities for my chicken sandwich. My favorite is black-and-bleu style, spicy blackened chicken covered in a bleu cheese spread. Is it Friday yet?

(Urban Stack may be my favorite Chattanooga eatery, but I should send a shout-out to Sugar’s Ribs, my husband’s favorite, offering flavorful fall-off-the-bone ribs with a variety of sauces. Yeah, we eat well whenever we visit “The Noog.”)

Attractions.

When we’re in Chattanooga, we’re tourists, so why shouldn’t we do tourist-type things? We’ve seen both Ruby Falls and Rock City; the falls may be beautiful, but my heart really wants a return visit to the surprisingly charming Rock City. This year we hope to work in a visit to the Tennessee Aquarium. I’ve been before, and it’s amazing, but for me the real treat will be seeing my husband’s eyes grow wide with wonder.