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:
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…
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.