Posts Tagged ‘Characterisation’

A few days ago, I went on a Twitter rant about female characterisation and Mad Max: Fury Road which ended up attracting rather more attention than I’d anticipated. As such, a few people replied to ask for advice about how to write good female characters, and while I answered in brief at the time, it’s something I’d like to address in a bit more detail.

Whenever the topic of how not to write women comes up, usually with reference to such narrative basics as avoiding objectification, lone Exceptional Girls and gender stereotypes, there’s a predictable sort of outrage from people who’ve missed the point. Are you saying we can’t write beautiful women? they ask, only semi-facetiously. Is there a quota for female characters per story we have to hit to avoid being called misogynists? Is romance allowed at all? Can women have any feminine interests, or is that sexist, too? And because we’ve already gone on at length about all these things, we’re usually too exhausted to reply.

The thing is, there’s no one “right” way to write women, just as there’s no one “right” way to write any type of person. In talking about common mistakes, and particularly when we’re talking about them in brief, we’re rarely saying “avoid this one, overly simplified Bad Thing in its entirety,” but are rather expressing frustration at how that particular element is overwhelmingly used in certain quarters, while emphasising how to do it well.

As writers, it behoves us to get into the mindset of our characters: to understand their personalities, backgrounds and motivations, whatever they might be. Bad characterisation is what happens when a writer fails to do this; and while that failure can occur for any number of reasons, one of the most common (and therefore most frustrating) permutations occurs when the writer has a reductive, inaccurate or otherwise stereotypical view of what certain types of people are like in real life, or when they fail to acknowledge that their own experience of the world can’t be universally applied to people from different backgrounds.

So: let’s talk beautiful women and the ostensible ban on writing them, which is one of my personal bugbears.

Culturally, women are expected to be beautiful. In the West, the mainstream concept of “beauty” is held to expire at a certain age while being inherently fetishised, diminished or inaccessible to anyone not white. This means that, in a large number of Western narratives, female characters skew conveniently young, even in contexts where you’d expect such a person to be older; are conveniently long-haired, fashionable and permanently made up, even when disdain for such trappings is ostensibly part of their characterisation; and are frequently written as though beauty is a personality trait instead of a personal judgement. What this means is that we’re all collectively conditioned to make female characters “beautiful” as a reflex, because if we’re going to invent a woman out of thin air, then why on Earth would we want to make her ugly?

But as even the type of misogynist prone to rating women’s looks has tangentially realised, not being beautiful isn’t the same as being ugly. Even given the massive cultural dominance of mainstream Western beauty standards – white, blonde-haired and light-eyed, slim but busty, of medium height, able-bodied, aged between sixteen and thirty, or thirty-five at the absolute most – most of us are generally able to acknowledge the attractiveness of women who differ from those parameters by virtue of more than their hair colour. And when it comes to the question of individual preference – well. The world, as they say, is our oyster. Beauty is not an absolute, but a personal judgement, and that’s before you get into the question of attractiveness as determined by personality rather than looks, which is a great deal more significant than many reductive persons care to admit.

All of which tells us a great deal about how female beauty is perceived, and which is therefore relevant to how female characters are viewed by the audience. But when you’re writing a story, the character has their own internality: you have to know them from the inside, too. When a story tells me in the raw narration, rather than from a character’s POV, that a woman is beautiful, it invariably feels forced, as though the author is imposing a false universal over any judgement I might prefer to make for myself. But in a narrative context where women have every reason to be aware of the value placed on their looks, a story that goes out of its way to tell me about a female character’s beauty from an external perspective only is doing her a disservice.

One of the great paradoxes of mainstream beauty culture is that, while women are expected to look good for men, the effort that goes into maintaining that beauty – physical, emotional, financial – is held to be of zero masculine interest. On TV, it’s common to see a hard-bitten female detective whose hair is worn long and sprayed into perfect coiffure, whose heels are high, whose face is permanently made up, and whose fashion choices visibly outstrip her salary, because we expect all TV characters to be exceptionally pretty. It’s just that, with women, by virtue of the extra accessories and effort “mainstream” beauty requires, making any and all characters strive to clear that bar can’t help but impinge on their characterisation in a way that it doesn’t for men. A flock of teenage boys all showing up to school in various dapper vest, suit and tie combinations would raise eyebrows on TV, but we’re inured to the sight of teenage girls in math class dressed like they’re off to a movie premiere. And what this means, whether intentionally or not, is that we void the prospect of women who, at the level of characterisation, have different approaches to beauty, not just in terms of individual style, but as a social expectation.

So: you tell me your character is beautiful in context, wildly attractive to the men around her. Great! But what does she think about that? Did she go through puberty so early that she was teased about having breasts for years before the same boys started to hit on her? Is she uncomfortable with the attention? Does she enjoy it? Does she deliberately “dress down” to avoid getting catcalled? Does she even like men? Is she confident in her looks? Does she feel insecure? Does she enjoy make up? If so, how much time, money and effort does she put into using it? If not, how sick is she of being cajoled into trying it? How does she dress? Does she actually enjoy shopping at all? What cultural norms have shaped her idea of beauty? Have you noticed how many of these questions are context-dependent on the modern world and our implicit association of beauty with makeup and fashion? If your setting is an invented one, have you given any thought to local beauty standards, or have you just unconsciously imported what’s familiar?

I’m not asking these questions to situate them as absolute must-haves in every narrative instance. I’m asking because I’m sick of “she was beautiful” being treated as a throw-away line that’s nonetheless meant to stand in lieu of further characterisation, as though there’s no internal narrative to beauty and no point in mentioning it unless to make clear that male readers should find the character fuckable.

This goes double for warrior women in SFF novels particularly, not because powerful, kickass ladies can’t be beautiful, but because there’s a base degree of grime and practicality inherent in fighting that’s often at odds with the way their looks are described. A skilled fighter who has no scars or bruises at any given time is as implausible as a swordswoman with baby-soft, uncalloused hands. Long, silky hair might look good, and it’s certainly not beyond the realm of possibility for a warrior to have it, but your girl is still going to need to tie it back when she’s in the field, and if she’s out on the road or in battle with no more bathing opportunities than her male comrades, it’s not going to fall out of her helmet looking like she’s a L’oreal model. If your armies are gender diverse and there’s no stated reason why women can’t hold rank, but the only women we ever see are young and hot, then yes, I’m going to assume you’ve prioritised beauty over competence at the expense of including other, more interesting characters. A woman’s looks are far from being the most salient thing about her, and if a subconscious need to find your female characters conventionally attractive (unless they’re villains) is influencing who you write about, believe me, it’s going to be noticeable.

I could address those other, early queries at similar length, but what it all boils down to is a marriage of context and internality. No, there’s no quota for female characters per book, but if you’re going to give me a POV perspective on a lone woman associating with an otherwise all-male cast, simply telling me “she’d always gotten along better with men than women” is not sufficient to explain the why of it, especially if her being there is contextually incongruous. By the same token, if you show me the POV of a woman who has every reason to associate primarily with other women but whose thoughts are only ever about men, I’m going to raise a disbelieving eyebrow. If you can’t imagine what women talk about when men aren’t in the room, or if you simply don’t think it’s likely to be interesting, then yes, it’s going to affect your ability to write female characters, because even if you only ever show them with men, those private judgements should still inform their internal characterisation.

One of the most dispiriting experiences I’ve ever had in a writing group was watching a man in late middle-age describe a young woman of his own invention. As an exercise, we’d all taken fifteen minutes or so to write out a detailed rundown of a particular character, either one we’d invented on the spot or who featured in our fiction, and to share that work with the group. This man produced an unattractive girl in her late teens who had no interests besides working in a dollar shop, who lived with her mother but didn’t really have any friends, who liked shopping and eating chips – and that was it. Every time a member of the group prompted him for more details, he just shrugged smugly and said she just liked being in the shop, and that was it. When pressed further, he insisted that he saw plenty of girls like this on the bus and around his area, that she was a realistic character, and that there was no need to develop her beyond this dim outline because she just wasn’t clever or interesting or curious, so why would she have opinions about anything else? It was maddening, depressing and so unbearably sexist I wanted to scream, because by his own admission, what he’d done was look at women in the real world and assume that his reductive judgement of their goals and interests, made on the basis of their appearance, was genuinely the be-all, end-all of who they were as people, such that even when it came to putting a woman like that in fiction, he didn’t feel moved to develop her any further.

Ultimately, if you want to write good female characters, there’s no one way to do it. But if I had to distil all this into a single piece of advice – a practical thing for writers to do, to try and better their skillsets – I’d say: as an exercise, try writing a story with only female characters, or in which men are the clear minority. When women only ever appear singly or in contexts where they never talk to each other, it’s easy to fall into the habit of letting their gender and beauty stand in for characterisation, because you only need to distinguish them from men, not from each other. But try your hand at a story whose five characters are all women, and suddenly the balance shifts. You can’t just have The Feminine One and The Tomboy, or The Ultra Hot One and the Girl Next Door, and nor can you lapse into defining them as such in their own perspectives. You can certainly pick a narrative setting that explains why they’re all or mostly the same age (high school, for instance), but it’s harder to lump them together.

And if it’s never occurred to you to write women as a majority before? Then you might want to ask yourself why that is, and consider how your answer might be impacting your ability to write them as individuals.

 

 

 

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On the phone from the Middle East, where he is currently deployed, Torgersen lamented what he called “the cognitive dissonance of people saying, ‘No, the Hugos are about quality,’ and then at the same time they’re like: ‘Ooh, we can vote for this author because they’re gay, or for this story because it’s got gay characters,’ or, ‘Ooh, we’re going to vote for this author because they’re not white.’ As soon as that becomes the criteria, well, quality goes out the window.”

Who Won Science Fiction’s Hugo Awards, and Why It Matters, by Amy Wallace

In light of this year’s Hugo Award results, and with particular reference to Amy Wallace’s excellent rundown on the Puppies affair, I feel moved to address the Sad, rather than the Rabid, contingent. Per Torgersen’s remarks above, and setting aside every other aspect of the debate that renders me alternately queasy or enraged, I can’t shake the feeling that there’s something fairly fundamental to the problem that’s consistently misunderstood by the Puppies, and which, when explained, might go a long way towards explaining the dissonance between what they think is happening and what is actually happening. Not that I particularly expect Torgersen or Correia to listen to me at this point; or if they did, I’d be greatly surprised. Even so, the point seems worth stating, if only for the sake of greater clarity.

When it comes to debating strangers with radically different perspectives, you sometimes encounter what I refer to as Onion Arguments: seemingly simple questions that can’t possibly be answered to either your satisfaction or your interlocutor’s because their ignorance of concepts vital to whatever you might say is so lacking, so fundamentally incorrect, that there’s no way to answer the first point without first explaining eight other things in detail. There are layers to what’s being misunderstood, to what’s missing from the conversation, and unless you’ve got the time and inclination to dig down to the onion-core of where your perspectives ultimately diverge, there’s precious little chance of the conversation progressing peacefully. After all, if your interlocutor thinks they’ve asked a reasonable, easy question, your inability to answer it plainly is likely to make them think they’ve scored a point. It’s like a cocky first-year student asking a 101 question and feeling smug when their professor can’t condense the four years of study needed to understand why it’s a 101 question into a three-sentence answer. The problem is one as much of attitude as ignorance: having anticipated a quick response, your interlocutor has to be both willing and interested enough to want to hear what might, at least initially, sound like an explanation of a wholly unrelated issue – and that’s assuming you’re able to intuit the real sticking point straight off the bat.

So: inasmuch as any of the Puppies can be said to have a reasonable concern at the bottom of all their rhetoric, which often comes off as little more than “we think books about people who aren’t straight white dudes are boring”, it’s the worry that certain stories are being rewarded because they contain X character or are written by Y author rather than because they’re actually good. And given the way such books are often discussed and lauded by those who love them, where these aspects are openly stated as pros, you can see where the concern comes from. After all, the difference between saying “this book is great because it had a queer protagonist” and “this book is great because it had a well-written protagonist” seems, on the surface, pretty obvious: one is concerned with a single aspect of characterisation regardless of its execution, and the other is concerned with execution alone. So clearly, if you’re vaunting queerness (for instance) as though it’s a synonym for quality, you’re at risk of recommending mediocre stories on a tokenistic, uninformed basis.

Right?

Wrong.

But in order to explain why this is so, there’s six onion layers we need to unravel: context, experience, awareness, representation, language and taste.

Let’s start with layer one: context. While there’s always been an element of diversity in SFF – you can’t ignore the contributions of writers like Ursula K. Le Guin or Octavia Butler, or pretend that the Golden Age greats never wrote about politics – as the Puppies themselves agree, it’s only comparatively recently that a movement in favour of promoting diversity has flourished. Setting aside the question of whether this is a good or a bad thing, or merely just a thing, at a practical level, increased diversity in narrative means you’re adding a new set of variables to any critical equation, which in turn requires a new way to discuss them. For example: if the vast majority of protagonists in a given genre are straight, white men, then critically speaking, there’s little need to mention their straightness/whiteness/maleness when making reviews or recommendations, because none of these details are relevant in distinguishing Story A from Story B, or Character A from Character B. Instead, you talk about other things – the quality of the characterisation, for instance – and consider it a job well done.

Which, contextually, it is. And somewhat understandably, if this is what you’re used to, it can be easy to assume that ever mentioning race or gender or sexuality in a review is irrelevant – even when the characters are more diverse – because these details, whatever else they might indicate, have no bearing on the quality of the story.

Except, of course, they do, as per the evidence of layer two: experience. Who we are and where we’ve come from impacts on our construction; on our beliefs and personalities. Returning to a situation where straight white male characters are the default, a reviewer would be within their rights – would, indeed, be doing a good job – to discuss how Character A’s working class upbringing informs his personality, especially when compared with Character B’s more aristocratic heritage and attitudes. A veteran soldier will have a different perspective on combat to someone who’s only ever studied tactics at a remove, just as an old man who’s recently outlived the love of his life will think differently about romance to a teenager in the throes of his first infatuation. These details are critically pertinent because they demonstrate how and why two characters can experience the same story in radically different ways, and if we as readers happen to have some points in common with Character A or Character B, we’re always going to compare our own experiences with theirs, no matter how fantastical or futuristic the setting, because it helps us gauge whether, in our opinion, the writer has done a good job of portraying their thoughts and feelings realistically.

And so it is with details like race and gender and sexuality. A queer character will have different experiences to a straight one, particularly if they live in a homophobic culture; someone who’s religious will have a different outlook on life to someone who’s an atheist; a person from a racial and cultural minority will experience their surroundings differently to someone from the racial and cultural majority; someone who grows up poor will approach wealth differently to someone who’s always had it. How relevant these details are to individual characterisation and worldbuilding – and how successfully they’re executed within a given story – will, of course, vary on a case by case basis; but of necessity, they matter more often than not, and therefore deserve to be mentioned.

Which means that, if the straight white man is no longer the default character, but is rather just one of a number of options, his straightness, whiteness and maleness will be subject to new scrutiny, both in the present and as a retroactive phenomenon. This is layer three: awareness. All stories, no matter how fantastic or futuristic, are ultimately the product of their times, because their writers are the product of their times, too. We might envisage new worlds, but what we consider new depends as much on what we think is old as what we think is possible; our taboos change with the decade or century or according to cultural context; particular writing styles go in and out of vogue; and audiences, depending on their tastes and when they’re raised, expect a range of different things from narrative.

The retroactive criticism and analysis of old works has always been part of literary tradition; what changes is the present-day yardstick against which we measure them. Right now, we’re in the middle of a cultural shift spanning multiple fronts, both political and creative: we’re aware that stories are being told now which, for various reasons, haven’t often been told before, or which didn’t receive much prominence when they were, and which are consequently being told by a wider range of people. Depending on your personal political stance, and as with the question of diversity in the context layer, you might view this as a good thing, a bad thing, or merely a thing – but regardless of your beliefs, you can’t deny that it’s happening, and that it’s having an impact. As a direct result of this, many of us are now looking at old stories – and at old defaults – in a new light, which means that certain narratives and narrative elements which, by dint of once being so common as to void discussion, were considered thematically neutral, are now being treated as political. (Which, really, they always were – but more on that later.)

As our cultural taboos have shifted – as queerness has become decriminalised (if not always accepted) and rights extended to everyone regardless of race and gender (though still often enacted with prejudice) – the types of stories it’s acceptable to tell have changed, just as it’s now possible for a wider range of storytellers to be heard. We’re all aware of these changes, and whether we like them or not, their visibility makes us question our stories in ways we haven’t before. Thus: while there is nothing noteworthy in choosing to write a straight, white male protagonist in a cultural milieu where almost all protagonists share these qualities, the same act carries more meaning when the combination is understood to be just one of a number of possible choices; and especially where, of all those choices, it’s the one we’ve seen most often, and is therefore, in one sense, the least original. Which doesn’t make such characters inherently bad, or boring, or anything like that; nor does the presence of such characters – or the success of such writers – preclude the simultaneous presence of diversity. It simple means we have an increased awareness of the fact that, up until very recently, a certain type of character was the narrative default, and now that he’s not – or at least, now that he’s not to some people – it’s worth asking whether his presence is a sign that the writer, whether consciously or unconsciously, is perpetuating that default, and what that says about the story in either case.

Which brings us to the fourth layer: representation. Following on from the issue of awareness, consider that, as a wider variety of stories are now being told by a wider variety of people, a wider range of protagonists has consequently entered the narrative market. As with context and awareness, you might think this is a good thing, a bad thing, or merely a thing: regardless, it is happening, and will doubtless continue to happen. As such, a wider percentage of the audience is now having stories written both by and about them – or at least, about people like them – than in previous years; which means that, in response to the former dearth of such narratives, there’s been a corresponding rise in people requesting or recommending them primarily or prominently on the basis of their representational elements.

Ignoring for the moment all questions of quality – which, yes; I’m aware that’s the discussion we’re ultimately having, but bear with me – it should be a point of basic human empathy to understand why this is important; or at the very least, why representation matters to so many people. Despite our ability to empathise and connect with characters whose lives and experiences are utterly different to our own, we still like to see ourselves represented in fiction from time to time, not only as a form of validation – you’re worth telling stories about – but because, amidst so much difference, it’s a point of connection, affirmation, identity. Yet because straight white male characters were so long the default – and because that default, by virtue of its ubiquity, was considered politically neutral – changing the recipe, as it were, is still a visibly deliberate act: it makes the reader aware that the author chose for the character to be male or female, queer or straight, black or white (to give the simplest binary permutations), which awareness refutes the mythical idea of characters as the immaculate, fully-fledged gifts of some inviolable Muse, beyond the writer’s ability to pick or alter; and as such, there’s a reflexive tendency to conflate deliberate with forced, where the latter term carries implications of artificial, false, arbitrary, tokenistic. When these attributes don’t describe us, it’s easy to forget that actually, people like that do exist in the real world, and in considerable numbers; they’re not just something the author has made up out of whole cloth, and the fact that we might be surprised to see them in a given story doesn’t mean, ipso facto, that they’re incongruous within it.

As such, there’s a developing trend towards recommending stories which feature traditionally under-represented groups, not just as some arbitrary exercise, but because we’re aware that members of those groups might actually want to read those stories, and will, as a consequence, have a material interest in that aspect of the contents. But for precisely this reason, such recommendations are seldom indiscriminate, based, as Torgersen and the Puppies fear, solely on the presence of Character A regardless of execution or context – because even though protagonists have long defaulted to being straight, white and male, there’s an equally long tradition of other groups being portrayed badly. The fact that a book contains multiple female characters is no guarantee that those characters are written well, let alone inoffensively, just as the presence of POC within a classic text doesn’t mean their portrayal and treatment isn’t screamingly racist – which is why, when you see  diversity advocates recommending books on the basis that Character A is queer (for instance), the implication is that the filtering for quality has already taken place; that Character A both exists in a well-written narrative and isn’t a walking stereotype. The entire point of the exercise is to promote stories, not on the basis of token or forced diversity alone, but which portray diversity well – and because an author writing from their personal, in-depth experience is likely to have an extensive understanding of the topic, this support naturally extends to mentioning if, for instance, the author of a story starring multiple queer characters is queer themselves, not because there’s an assumption that straight people can’t write excellent stories about queer individuals, but because within any field or group, there’s always going to be a degree of insight or insider knowledge that can only be understood through personal experience, and it’s worth recognising which books are likely to replicate it, especially if we’re insiders, too, and are therefore more likely to notice if those perspectives are missing.

Consider, for instance, the probable insights contained in a military SF novel written by serving soldier, as distinct from one written by a military historian, as distinct again from one whose author’s knowledge of combat, tactics and fighting comes primarily from what they’ve read or seen in other fictional stories. The different backgrounds and knowledge-bases of these hypothetical authors says nothing about how well they write fiction, or how skilled they might be at other aspects of storytelling; they might have wildly different narrative styles and work within very different worlds, such that comparing their books, for all that they ostensibly share a genre, is a tricky proposition. All three books could be excellent in different ways, and all three books could be poor. But if someone you knew  to be both a good judge of fiction and possessed of actual combat experience – let’s call them Sam – handed you the first writer’s book and said, “Read this! The author actually served overseas!”, you’d probably deduce from context that, having served themselves, Sam was telling you that this writer gets it; their experience is my experience, or close enough to mine to be recognisable, and they know what they’re talking about. 

Similarly, if Sam praised either of the other two books for the military content, you’d understand that they were speaking from a position of personal experience: that, to someone with firsthand knowledge of fighting, the tactical/combat elements didn’t feel unrealistic or forced. By the same token, if Sam disliked the first book, you might take the criticism seriously while considering that, as the author was writing from their own first-hand perspective, too, a lack of realism wasn’t necessarily at fault, so much as a clash of opinions. But if Sam told you categorically that the third writer had no idea what they were talking about – that, regardless of any other qualities the book might have, the military aspect was hopeless – you’d be inclined to take that criticism more seriously than if a civilian friend with no grasp of tactics recommended it wholeheartedly; but depending on your own status as civilian, historian or soldier – and how badly you wanted to read the book for other reasons – your own reaction could be different again.

What I mean to say is this: seen from the outside, it’s easy to look at the members of a community recommending stories on what seems to you a superficial basis, and to conclude that, actually, nobody in that conversation is concerned with quality at all. But as per the fifth layer – language – what you’re really witnessing is a collectively understood shorthand: a way of signalling quickly that this book or that is worthy of attention based on a deeper awareness of commonly-held priorities, with respect accorded to those whose recommendations are supported by their personal experiences. Particularly on Twitter, where conversations between small groups are visible to non-participants and where character limitations make exposition difficult, it makes sense that bloggers, writers and critics alike try to be as succinct and powerful in their advocacy as possible. Just as I would accord a greater critical weight to the judgement of a soldier recommending a military SF novel, if a person of colour praises a book for its positive racial representation – or, conversely, criticises its lack thereof – I’m going to consider that relevant.

Which all ties in neatly to the final layer: taste. I’ve said before, and will say again, that I’m a firm believer in the value of negative reviews. Not only do they serve an important critical function, but as another person’s taste is seldom identical to our own, they help us construct a more useful idea of where our interests overlap with the critic’s, and where they diverge. Demonstrably, there’s an audience right now for diverse fiction: for stories which reject the old defaults and showcase a wider range of people, themes and places. The fact that some people enjoy such works does not, in and of itself, make them good works, just as popularity is no guarantee of goodness, either. The Venn diagram of why we love something is seldom a perfect circle with its objective strengths, inasmuch as such strengths can be reasonably said to exist: creative endeavours are funny like that. There’s always going to be a sort of tension between technique and passion, skill and heart, not because those things are in any way diametric opposites, but because we can never quite agree on whether one is more important than the other, or if you can really have one without the other, or where the distinction between them lies if, for instance, the most heartfelt aspects of a story are only so because of their technically sound expression.

As such, creative awards are contentious creatures – have always been so; will always be so – inasmuch as presenting one represents the imposition of an objective judgement into a fundamentally subjective medium; and because all claims to objectivity are inherently political, so must awards be political, too. This isn’t new information, though some people, like the Puppies, have become mightily outraged at the revelation that what they’ve historically perceived as a lack of politics was, in fact, merely a political bias towards their own comfort. That they are no longer predominantly catered to, they perceive as being under attack; what they call the forced introduction of politics into a formerly neutral space is rather the revelation of existing politics through a natural process of change. A sandbar might be solid for years, but when it shifts with the ocean and so makes new waves, it hasn’t betrayed the people standing on it – though possibly, it might have collapsed sooner beneath their weight, especially if they mistook it for solid and made it the foundation of an improbable edifice.

I guess what I want to say is this: despite what the Puppies think, the rest of us aren’t interested in diversity without quality, and as we’re all acutely aware, the failure mode of diversity is stereotype, which concept isn’t exactly on handshake terms with quality in the first place. That we want to celebrate historically silenced voices and perspectives doesn’t mean we’re doing so purely to spite you, or that we’ve lost all sense of judgement: if our tastes extend to seeing in fiction those versions of ourselves you’re disinclined to write, then who are you to tell us we aren’t entitled to our preferences? Nobody is saying you can’t tell your stories; we just might not want to read them, the same as you evidently have no desire to read ours. That’s not the genre being attacked – it’s the genre changing, and whether you change with it or not, we’re still going to like what we like.

Stop fighting the riptide, Puppies. As any Australian could tell you, it’s the surest way to drown.

Recently, I tried to watch the new Netflix series, Marco Polo, and made it through three whole episodes before ragequitting in a fit of disgust. It wasn’t the lacklustre pacing and derivative scripting that got to me, though they certainly didn’t help: it was the Orientalism and rampant misogyny that saw every female character – all of them women of colour – either viscerally sexualised or defined solely by their relationships with men. That the show took the character of Khutulun, a Mongol warrior who famously vowed never to marry unless her husband could best her at wrestling, and turned her into a smirking seductress in a leather skirt was bad enough; but having her father state that Khutulun’s ‘virginity’ was ‘promised’ to a warrior who could defeat her – reframing an arguably feminist decision as a sexist mandate and thereby stripping her of its agency – had me spitting fire. The first episode alone introduced not one, but two separate female characters by showing them in the throes of sex, their laboured panting audible even before the camera cut to their nudity; other women were shown in the periphery of shots designed to give prominence to men, off to the side even when the ostensible purpose of the scene was to introduce the ladies.

But amidst all the dehumanising nakedness and concubine orgies, what really struck me was a comparatively small detail: the positioning of the camera in the few scenes showing the Princess Kokachin interacting with her young daughter. Even in moments where the two women were ostensibly its sole focus, the camera was still painting them with an outsider’s perspective – we saw them from a distance, like strangers observing a ritual, rather than intimately, from their own eyes. When men interrupted these scenes – which, inevitably, they did – the framing felt like a pre-emptive extension of their gaze, slewing back to confirm that yes, we were viewing the women at a remove, rather than tightening to suggest, as the narrative context otherwise did, that this was a male intrusion into a private, female space. Though not as overtly gratuitous as the surfeit of naked ladies, the direction in these moments felt equally dehumanising for its failure to recognise that women can have a gaze of their own; can be the active participants within a narrative, rather than merely passive subjects.

Have You Met A Human Woman

In the field of developmental psychology, there’s a concept called object permanence: our awareness of the fact that things continue to exist even when we can’t see them. The fact that babies lack an understanding of object permanence is why they can be entertained by games like peek-a-boo or grow distressed when a parent or cherished object is out of sight: in their perception, whatever they can’t see has ceased to exist. Adults, of course, are meant to know better, but when it comes to the portrayal of women in film especially, I often wonder if certain creators lack object permanence about their female characters: if they only exist in sight of men, and otherwise fade away.

It’s not just a question of our telling stories that are primarily about men as a cultural default, though this fact is often used, somewhat paradoxically, to excuse the very problem it represents. If the protagonist is male, the logic goes, then it only makes sense that we’d see any female characters purely through his eyes – an argument that conveniently ignores the many narratives with male heroes that still make time to fully develop and humanise their secondary male characters. Ladies in these stories are treated as accessories, not participants: their individuality is less important than their adornment of someone else’s triumph, and as such, what they do on their own time doesn’t matter.

When discussing the presence of women in narrative, we often use the Bechdel Test as a basic means of gauging whether or not female characters both exist in plurality and engage with one another. As yardsticks go, it’s something of a blunt instrument, in that it pays no attention to the type of character or representation on offer, retaining its usefulness only because the achingly low bar it represents too often goes unjumped. More recently, as a means of compensating for these limitations, the Mako Mori Test was coined to take account of the actual roles of women in narrative – a test of context rather than dialogue, and another important axis of representation. When it comes to the presence and characterisation of women in cinematic narratives, however, I’d like to suggest a third such tool: the Solo Test, which a film will pass if it:

a) shows a female character alone;

b) in a scene that neither begins with a man leaving nor ends with a man arriving;

c) that doesn’t focus primarily or exclusively on her physical attractiveness.

Though the Solo Test could quite easily be applied to other types of narrative, it is, I feel, of greatest relevance to film: a medium whose time constraints often necessitate smaller core casts than can be managed in serial narratives and whose culture is powerfully male-dominated, both in terms of creation and focus. The test is meant as a measurement of gaze and visual imperative, because, to put it bluntly, I’m sick of watching films that will happily take the time to show us how male characters behave while alone or in private, but whose female characters only show up when the men do – women who are never viewed alone, in their own right, unless they’re getting out of bed (naked) or into the shower (naked) or otherwise caught in the act of cleansing or dressing themselves. It’s astonishing how many films still treat female solitude with a sneaking-into-the-girl’s-locker-room-mentality, as though the primary value in a woman alone is necessarily voyeuristic, her feelings relevant only inasmuch as they decode the mystique of her secret reactions to men.

There are, of course, contextual limitations to the usefulness of such a test – as, indeed, is the case with the Bechdel and Mako Mori. An equally useful variant of the Solo Test, for instance – and one that provides a helpful counterpoint when assessing the treatment of male vs female secondary characters – let’s call it the Sidekick Test – might focus on the depth of characterisation afforded to any non-protagonist by asking similar questions, such as:

a) Are they shown in isolation?

b) Do they have conversations and/or demonstrable interests that don’t involve the protagonist?

c) Are they defined by more than their sexuality?

Whether used separately or in combination, these tests can hopefully provide an interesting analysis of gaze, and especially cinematic gaze, as a means of assessing whose individuality and personhood is considered narratively relevant to a given story, or suite of stories, and whose is considered optional. Nor is the applicability of such questions restricted wholly to issues of gender; applying them on the basis of race – or along multiple such intersections, as per comparing portrayals of white women with portrayals of women of colour – can provide an equally relevant (and revealing) analysis. Though the language of camera angles and comic book panels is crucial to the establishment of a visual gaze, the idea of a narrative gaze – those facts of characterisation that creators deem relevant vs their expression within the story – is similarly important, and goes a long way towards describing the role and focus of non-protagonist characters.

While the bulk of characterisation comes through engagement and interaction, we shouldn’t underestimate the importance of silence and solitude: the way a person behaves when the metaphorical cameras are off, when they exist for nobody but themselves. It’s in these moments that we see characters at their least guarded, their most honest, and if this space and privacy is routinely denied to women – if we see them only ever as others do, at a public remove, or else as voyeurs intent on their bodies – then we deny them personhood and object permanence both: we force them to exist as performers alone, and never for themselves.

more of this, please

Right now, I’m a third of the way through Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, a book whose paciness, premise and execution I’m thus far enjoying, but which is nonetheless conspiring to irk me on gender grounds. Our protagonist, Quentin Coldwater, is a teenaged trainee magician, and for multiple reasons, I’m struggling to connect with him as a character. It’s not that he’s an implausible fiction, per se, but rather than he’s overwhelmingly cast in a mold I’m sick of seeing: that of the quiet, studious, socially awkward straight-white-male from a blandly privileged background with no particular personality beyond his penchant for lamenting his lack of same, and whose specialness is far more frequently told than shown. So far, for instance, we’ve been told of Quentin’s academic excellence in the mundane world without his smarts ever being visibly demonstrated, and then further told that he’s an exceptional young magician on the basis of no more evidence, given his own internal doubts, than a teacher’s say-so. He’s an overwhelmingly passive character: 130 pages in, we’re yet to see him make a proactive decision or do anything other than respond to external pressures, and while that’s not something I object to on principle, I tend to prefer such characters to compensate for their reactiveness in other ways – by possessing a sense of humour, say, or introspecting with insight. Quentin, though, demonstrates neither of these qualities, but rather presents as simultaneously amorphous and entitled; what I suspect is meant to read as a sort of youthful, talented-but-underappreciated everyman as per the standards of fiction, but which in reality describes exactly the sort of person who fades into the background precisely because they have little or nothing to offer socially and no sense of why this matters.

And this bothers me; partly because it seems like a waste, but mostly because this particular species of stock – and it is stock – young male characterisation, that of the generically disenfranchised and romantically unsuccessful loner whose chafing ego is vindicated by the narrative’s confirmation of his innate specialness, always seems to go hand in hand with a particular manifestation of the male gaze; one that’s always bothered me, but whose parameters I’ve only just managed to articulate. Now, to be clear: I have no problem with the male gaze as a concept. I might dislike its unthinking ubiquity at times – such as, for instance, in stories where straight male writers forget to differentiate their own sexual preferences from that of their straight female characters, leading to what Kate Elliot refers to as the omniscient breasts problem – but generally speaking, I’m on board with the idea that, while it might not always be to my taste, there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with male characters noticing the physical attractiveness of nearby female characters. I do, however, take issue with expressions of the male gaze that, whether intentionally or not, effectively demean or diminish women in narrative, or which are heavily redolent of negative social attitudes and stereotypes. Thus: a story wherein the straight male hero observes the fierce beauty of a warrior queen is unlikely to rile me; but a story where every female character is gratuitously sexualised will.

The Magicians is very definitely written in the male gaze, and in a way which seems to tell us more about Grossman himself than Quentin as a protagonist – specifically, about the extent to which he seems to view female beauty as being incongruous with female competence. By way of demonstration, consider this early passage:

Three paramedics crouched around him, two men and a woman. The woman was disarmingly, almost inappropriately pretty – she looked out of place in that grim scene, miscast…

Quentin wished she weren’t so attractive. Unpretty women were so much easier to deal with in some ways – you didn’t have to face the pain of their probable unattainability. But she was not unpretty. She was pale and thin and unreasonably lovely, with a broad, ridiculously sexy mouth.

And then, consider these lines, which describe an entirely different character:

His tutor was Professor Sunderland, the pretty young woman who had asked him to draw maps during his Examination. She looked nothing like a magician was supposed to: she was blond and dimply and distractingly curvy.

Not long after this, we’re treated to Quentin’s longing for, and I quote, “the radiant upper slopes of her [Professor Sunderland’s] achingly full and gropable breasts,” a sentence which is only slightly less hilarious than it is a disturbing – and, one assumes, unintentional – example of crude lust battling with aesthetic appreciation. In both examples, however, Quentin – and, by extension, Grossman – has concluded that female beauty is incongruous with professionalism; these women are noteworthy, not just because Quentin finds them attractive, but because he doesn’t expect attractive women to be professionals. By direct implication, therefore, Quentin’s surprise at their prettiness undermines his respect for their competence in much the same way that his views on the gropability of Professor Sunderland’s breasts undermines his profession of their radiance. And what makes this an irritating example of the male gaze is the fact that we, the reader, are not meant to notice this dissonance, but are rather expected to sympathise with Quentin: to agree, however tacitly and subconsciously, that it is just a bit surprising and unusual to encounter pretty female professionals, because deep down, our expectation is that intelligence and beauty are mutually exclusive qualities, particularly in women, and that in any case, attractive ladies don’t really need to work at all on account of being attractive.

In this respect, then, The Magicians presents a negative example of the male gaze, in that sexist stereotypes are both present as a background detail and utterly unexamined, let alone acknowledged, by the narrative. But that’s not my main revelation. The other side of the coin is far more subtle: the fact that Quentin’s attraction to women only ever seems to be physical. By which I mean: while women to whom he feels no attraction are described objectively, without sexualisation, his attractions are only ever described in terms of his lust, disassociated from anything deeper or more human like shared interests, emotional connection or personality. And the thing is, if Quentin were meant to be a jaded, sexist, sexually confident character – one whose shallowness was noted in the text – that wouldn’t bother me so much, because it would at least indicate that Grossman and I were on the same page. But because Quentin is meant to be an everyman despite his specialness – because we, the audience, are meant to sympathise with his romantic shortcomings – I find myself repulsed by the unthinking assumption that his hypocrisy doesn’t exist; that it’s perfectly acceptable to lust after women purely because of their bodies with never a thought to liking them as people, all while lamenting their inability to like you for who you are. As though, in other words, their inability to appreciate Quentin as a person has nothing to do with his inability to appreciate them as people, and everything to do with the fact that they’re too beautiful or oblivious to notice him. And the thing is, even though I’m only a third of the way in, this doesn’t seem like a developmental stage he’s about to transcend, because once again, it’s a form of sexist cognitive dissonance that isn’t flagged in the text: we’re not meant to notice it, because in all probability, Grossman didn’t mean for it to be there – or rather, if he did, he didn’t mean for it to be read as negative.

Quentin’s whole character, in other words, is informed by unthinking adherence to male privilege. Despite being bright, having lifelong close friends and a stable homelife, he starts out the novel feeling discontent and disaffected, which unhappiness he contrives to blame equally on his parents and the mundane awkwardness of real life; it doesn’t occur to him to look inwards for the source of his problems, because his sense of entitlement seemingly prevents such critical introspection. Similarly, his unrequited feelings for Julia and the Professor are cast by Grossman as representative of a typical, relatable dynamic – that of the overlooked scholar thwarted by the disinterest of pretty ladies – without any self-awareness of the fact that Quentin isn’t magically entitled to female company; that actually, he’s done nothing to merit their attention, and is in fact being hypocritical in lamenting their lack of appreciation for his personality when his thoughts are only ever concerned with their bodies. Quentin, in other words, in addition to being a fairly unmemorable character, is starting to read like a Nice Guy, and while the rest of the book may hopefully prove me wrong on that point, right now, I’m struggling to cope with this negative variant of the male gaze that’s all the more insidious for being subtle: one where the reader is encouraged to take male privilege – and all the social consequences thereof – for granted, but where its presence is never directly acknowledged.

Warning: spoilers.

Much to my pleasant surprise, Dinosaurs actually turned out to be a pretty solid episode, not only by dint of comparison to the monumental arsetripe of Asylum, but in its own right, too. I did have a few points of irritation – Nefertiti hitting on the Doctor, the screamingly camp robots, the frenetic pacing early on and some jumbled bits of dialogue – but otherwise, it managed to take a fairly flashy idea and actually make it work. It makes perfect sense that the Silurians, convinced their world was ending, would send up a space-ark complete with local fauna, while the slow reveal of Solomon’s capitalistic villainy, coupled with his eventual demise gave a nice, dark catharsis to the piece.

The writer, Chris Chibnal, has some pretty great credentials: apart from having penned the brilliant S3 episode 42, he’s been a major force in Torchwood and was also a writer for Life on Mars. Which possibly goes some way towards explaining why, for the first time in memory, we’ve got a DW episode that knows how to handle a bigger cast: apart from the Doctor, Amy and Rory, we’ve also got Queen Nefertiti, Rory’s dad Brian, Riddell the game hunter and villain Solomon in play, all of whom actually get meaningful screentime, and all of whom feel like genuine, fleshed-out characters.  Not only that, but Amy and Rory actually get to do something other than be in a tempestuous relationship: Amy banters with Nefertiti (at last! an episode that passes the Bechdel test!), fights dinosaurs with Riddell, solves the mystery of the ship’s origins before the Doctor does, and still gets to have a touching conversation about being left behind that neatly foreshadows the season end; while Rory gets to talk with his dad (whose presence and character both go a long way towards explaining Rory), demonstrate his nursing skills, pilot a spaceship away from the Earth, ride a triceratops and threaten a couple of robots. And honestly? That’s more than they’ve had to do for quite a while.

And then there’s the secondary characters: Chibnal treats Nefertiti with respect, establishing her firmly as intelligent, powerful and and courageous without simultaneously making sexist or racist asides at her expense (as Moffat has a tendency to do with River Song). Nor does he flinch from giving Riddell the gender attitudes appropriate to his era without making him either hostile to or dismissive of the women around him – instead, he seems genuinely to enjoy being confounded by them. Brian, by contrast, is an utterly adorkable dad, and it’s a testament to Chibnal’s deftness that he manages to both introduce and evolve him within in the space of a single episode: the contrast between his initial travel-related distemper and the final, iconic image of eating him lunch from the TARDIS step is an utterly lovely gracenote, and one that balances neatly against his role in piloting the ship. And then there’s Solomon: a genuine grasping merchant, frightening and cold – who is, I think, the first actual sentient villain we’ve had in ages.

Though Dinosaurs has something of a manic start, it soon finds its feet and manages some truly fun moments: Brian’s trowel, a triceratops who wants to play fetch with golf balls, Amy’s cheerful assertion that yes, she is a queen, and the closing image of Rory having switched domestic roles with his dad. But what really sold me on Dinosaurs was the treatment of the ladies. Not only do Amy and Nerfertiti talk, they actually get along: they trust and respect each other, make jokes with each other, and back each other up. Both of them call out Riddell for sexism – Amy says he needs a lesson on gender politics – but most importantly of all, when Nefertiti decides to go with Solomon to protect the rest of the group; when she holds up her hand, defies the Doctor’s objections and says that, no, it’s her choice? The Doctor lets her go – he respects her agency in the moment, and though he later shows up to get her back, it’s Nefertiti who gets the drop on Solomon, cathartically pinning him with his crutch-arm just as he did to her.

Still, as I said, it’s not a perfect episode: while the image of Nefertiti going off with Riddell was fun in the moment, it was loaded with unfortunate colonial overtones that felt a bit squicky; there was no reason for Solomon to kill the triceratops except as a kick the dog moment; and while I liked the Mitchell and Webb cameo as the robots’ voices, I didn’t like the robots themselves – they were bit too cartoonishly on the nose for my taste. But overall, it was a strong offering from a good writer, complete with memorable characters, solid emotional development, a mystery that made sense while still being compelling, and a proper, well-paced structure. It was, in other words, the polar opposite of Asylum in every important respect, and has gone some way towards soothing my earlier rage. I might not like Steven Moffat, but Chibnall has succeeded in reminding me that I do like Doctor Who – and that sometimes, I get to have the latter without the former.

(Plus and also: Arthur Weasley and Argus Filch in a single episode – squee!)

Warning: total spoilers.

There’s a lot I want to say about Brave – plot, execution, structure, controversy, characterisation – but before I start all that, there’s something else to be dealt with first: the fact that, with literally one exception, no Disney princess has actual female friends. Instead, they have animals or talking objects, all of whom are either male or androgynous. Snow White and Aurora have forest creatures; Cinderella has singing mice; Ariel has Flounder and Sebastian; Belle has Chip, Lumiere and Cogsworth; Jasmine has Rajah; Pocahontas has Flit and Meeko; Mulan has Khan, Mushu and a cricket; Rapunzel has a chameleon; and now Merida has Angus, her horse. The exception is Tiana, who has a devoted female friend, Charlotte: however, there are still two animal sidekicks (Ray and Louis – again, both male), Tiana herself spends most of the film as a frog, and given the risk Disney perceived themselves to be taking when it came to the inclusion of their first black princess, my inner cynic cannot help but wonder if the reason for Charlotte’s prominent inclusion had less to do with promoting sisterhood than a ploy, however subconscious, to offset possible negative reaction’ to Tiana’s race by putting her alongside a traditionally likeable, non-threatening, blonde girl, who – thanks to the titular frog transformation – actually gets more human, princessy screentime than Tiana does herself.  Even so, the two girls have a loving, important friendship; the only other princess who gets anything even close to that is Pocahontas, who’s shown to be best friends with a girl called Nakoma; but her animals still play a much bigger role in the movie, and after Nakoma effectively betrays Pocahontas – thus fulfilling her narrative purpose – we never see them reconcile, presumably because the relationship isn’t deemed important enough to bother. Even if you stretch really far into the Disney archive and rummage around for other prominent female characters who aren’t official princesses – Megara, Kida, Thumbelina, Eilonwy – the same pattern still holds: all of them have leading men, but even in the absence of animals or other such companions, none has female friends.

Why am I bringing this up now? Because until today – until I saw Brave – I’d never even noticed; but part of the reason I did notice is because, unlike every other Disney princess and Pixar film, Brave is actually meant to be about female relationships: specifically, the mother-daughter bond. And in that context, I suddenly found myself wondering – where are Merida’s friends and playmates? Where are Elinor’s peers? Merida is the first princess without a romantic storyline, and even with all the focus on her relationship with her mother, it still felt telling that both characters existed in a seemingly lady-free vacuum. By contrast, every male character had visible friendships with other men: Fergus with the clan leaders and the clan leaders with each other. It wouldn’t have been hard to have the clan leaders bring their wives, thus enabling Elinor to have a scene among equals and actually act like a person; and by the same token, Merida could quite easily have had a female friend among the servants. At just 100 minutes, Brave is a short film which, unlike Pixar’s other offerings, manages to feel short, in the sense of having skimped on the characterisation. And to me, that missing ten to twenty minutes – the longer Pixar films tend to come in at somewhere between 110-120 – was all the more noticeable for being exactly the length of time you’d need to give either woman some friends and have them talk without competing.

Which isn’t to say I hated Brave: the animation was breathtakingly beautiful, the pacing worked, the comedy had me laughing at all the right junctures, and as far as positive rolemodels go, Merida is lightyears ahead of every other Disney princess simply by virtue of being the first teenager not to end up married or in an official relationship*. It was a good, even solid movie. But here’s the thing: Pixar isn’t known for doing good and solid. They do breathtaking, original, moving, powerful, classic, brilliant, delightful stuff. The only blemish on their otherwise stellar record, Cars 2, can be directly attributed to the meddling, marketeering hand of Disney, to whom they now owe their allegiance and, presumably, their souls. But when it comes to original stories, Pixar is – was – unparalleled. And it angers me that Brave is the film to further break that pattern: not just because it should’ve been so much better, but because the mid-production firing of Brenda Chapman, the original writer/director, will forever leave open the question of whether the problems in Brave were there from the beginning; or whether the decision to give what should’ve been Pixar’s first female-scripted, female-directed, female-inspired movie over to a man who, apart from anything else, had never previously directed a full-length feature, caused the film to reach somewhat less than its full potential; or whether it was a mix of both, and if so, to what extent.

So here’s the plot in brief: Princess Merida, a headstrong young lassie and peerless archer, chafes under the expectations of her mother, Queen Elinor. When Elinor announces the time has come for Merida’s betrothal, her daughter reacts with disbelief and anger, despite the fact that, as a princess, she would presumably have known this was on the cards. However, on learning that her suitors, the eldest sons of the three clan leaders,  must compete for her in a contest of her choosing – a contest whose wording specifies the entrants must be the firstborn child of a clan, not the firstborn son – Merida chooses archery and, in open defiance of Elinor, enters and wins the right to her own hand. An argument ensues; Merida slashes a tapestry of her family, literally cutting her mother out of the picture; Elinor retaliates by throwing Merida’s bow on the fire; and Merida flees into the night, leaving Elinor to pull the (still intact) bow from the flames and clap her hands to her mouth. Lead through the forest by magic will’o the wisps, Merida stumbles on a witch’s cottage and ends up with a magic cake, the purpose of which, rather nebulously, is to ‘change her fate’ if she feeds it to her mother. What actually happens, once she returns to the castle, is that Elinor turns into a bear. Mayhem ensues as Merida first sneaks Elinor out of the castle, then goes in search of a cure, eventually finding out that unless she can ‘mend the bond torn by pride’ before the second sunrise, the spell’s effects will be permanent. Interpreting this to mean that the slashed tapestry needs to be stitched up, Merida and Elinor the Bear reenter the castle, only to find themselves stymied by the presence of the clansmen. Merida distracts them with an apology and, following Elinor’s pantomimed instructions, a solution that the old tradition of forced marriage be abandoned. This is greeted well; the men head to the cellars; and both Elinor and Merida get back to the tapestry. But, of course, things go wrong again: Elinor is spotted, a bearhunt ensues, and Merida is locked up. From here, you can probably guess the ending: Merida escapes, stitches up the tapestry and, after a climactic fight scene, manages to place the tapestry around Elinor’s shoulders before the sun comes up – but in the end, it’s not the stitches that break the curse, but Merida’s apology for her behaviour. Cue the human restoration of a less strict, more sympathetic Elinor, and that’s a wrap.

Well, almost: those who’ve actually seen the film will notice I’ve left out any reference to the monster bear, Mordu, whose origins and defeat ostensibly serve as a combination of backstory, motive and framing device. You’ll also notice, however, that the above synopsis makes sense without it – which is actually part of the problem with Brave, albeit a comparatively minor one: that it actually has two separate plots, which, while technically interrelated – Mordu turns out to be an ancient prince transformed by the same spell Merida uses on her mother – are nonetheless so distinct both thematically and in terms of execution that it’s possible to describe the film entirely through reference to one without mentioning the other. It’s slipshod scripting, and while I wouldn’t go so far as to call the Mordu plot tacked on, it’s also extremely predictable, devoid of all Pixar’s usual unexpected yet sweetly cathartic gracenotes. There’s nothing at the end you couldn’t have picked at the beginning, and if you haven’t guessed the Big Reveal by about the halfway mark, either you’re not really paying attention or you’re probably not old enough to see the film unaccompanied. Again, this isn’t a cardinal sin – it’s just way below Pixar’s usual standard of excellence.

Part of the problem is their use of a traditional three-act structure, something their films have otherwise either actively subverted or avoided altogether – it’s an old-school Disney structure, in fact, and one that’s much less endearing than it is clunky when deployed sans the usual bridging musical numbers. Which isn’t  to say that Brave suffered on that count, but rather to point out that, as it’s the only non-musical Disney princess film, it’s conceivable that the imposition of a narrative structure that’s more usually fitted to Disney musicals – and I am going to say imposition, because I honestly can’t think of any other reason why Pixar would choose Brave, a film that already represented a departure from their norm, as the vehicle for a structure they’d previously eschewed, except that someone from Disney put their foot down – undermined a premise, to judge by what happened to Brenda Chapman, in which the studio already had less faith than usual.

More egregious in terms of error, however, is the fact that the main event – Elinor being turned into a bear – effectively hinges on an idiot plot. When Merida meets the witch, not only does she fail to explain the specific manner in which she wants her mother ‘changed’, she doesn’t stop to ask what the spell she’s been given will actually do. For a heroine who’s otherwise painted as intelligent, clever and resourceful, this is really a facepalm moment, and a massive oversight in terms of characterisation. It would be one thing if the witch were actively deceitful, lying either out of either malice or mischief; but instead, and seemingly for no better reason than to shoehorn in a few extra gags, she’s simply doddery, betraying zero awareness of the notion that her customers might not want to turn into bears. Never mind that her workshop is full of bear-themed carvings, which would seem to be something of a giveaway: it literally makes no sense that Merida would simply accept the magic cake on trust, without any attempt to properly uncover what its effects will be. The fact that, having established what the magic cake does, she not only leaves it in the kitchen but encourages her baby brothers to go inside and eat whatever they want only compounds the idiocy, cementing the fact that, in this instance at least, the desired plot outcome – more bears! – apparently trumped the need for consistent characterisation.

Which brings me to my single biggest problem with Brave: Elinor herself. Both early on and in flashbacks, we see her playing with the infant Merida – a loving, creative, supportive, attentive parent. Yet when we meet her during Merida’s adolescence, she presents as strict, staid, traditional; even nagging. We’re never given any insight into why she’s changed, nor given the impression that her stern facade is a mask she wears for Merida’s benefit. Like the bear spell, it’s seemingly more a function of necessity than of characterisation: Elinor needs to be antagonistic to Merida, and therefore she is, no matter how much dissonance that creates between her past and present selves. Crucially, we’re never encouraged to sympathise with Elinor in this state, and it’s noteworthy that even Merida, when thinking of Elinor’s good points, returns to memories of childhood rather than anything more recent. There are, however, plenty of gags at Elinor’s expense once she’s in her bear-form, and while I’ll admit to laughing at some of these, the bulk didn’t sit easily with me, particularly as so many seemed to be based on the absurdity of Elinor’s attempts to retain her human – but specifically dainty and feminine – mannerisms, despite Merida urging her to be more bear-like. In that context, it felt significant that Elinor’s real transformation – her sympathy for Merida – only happened once she started behaving like an animal and, as a consequence, having fun. Literally, that’s the comparison: the posh queen learns to empathise with her tomboy daughter, not by seeing things through her eyes, but by learning to disregard her own femininity in favour of behaving like a beast.

And that grated on me, not just because I resent the implication, however unintentional, that tomboyishness in girls can be reasonably compared to animalism, but because it made the reparation of Elinor and Merida’s relationship wholly one-sided. Elinor learns to respect Merida for who she is, but we never see the opposite happen: no sooner does Merida try and accept the betrothal than Elinor concedes her point and prompts her to speak against it, and while that’s certainly the right decision, we don’t see Merida adopting any of her mother’s positive beliefs and behaviours, either. The closing scenes are all of Elinor doing Merida-stuff – riding, adventuring, wearing her hair loose – but not of Merida studying to be more like Elinor, and the implication becomes, not just that femininity is inferior, but that Elinor was wholly in the wrong to begin with: the bear spell is Merida’s fault, yes, albeit by accident, but  everything up to that point is essentially put on Elinor. And for a film that’s meant to be about the mother-daughter bond, it bugged me that the ultimate conclusion was that feminine mothers ought to be more like their tomboyish daughters, with the latter being preferable to the former. Similarly, the fact that Elinor’s transformation from antagonist to ally happens at a point when she can’t talk means that we never hear her side of things, or understand what’s prompted her change of heart as she sees it: Merida gets to give a speech about everything she’s done wrong and how she’s misunderstood her mother (despite the general feeling that she’s been in the right all along), but we never hear Elinor give the rejoinder, either to make her own apology or to explain her new beliefs.

Brave, then, is not an aptly-named film in any sense of the word. The theme isn’t bravery – either martial or emotional – but empathy and love. Merida is definitely a compelling heroine, and as I’ve said, I enjoyed the film; but despite the animation, it’s ultimately more Disney than Pixar, with all the pitfalls that assessment entails.

 

*Technically, this is also true of Pocahontas and Mulan; however, both of them get properly paired up in sequel movies.

Responding to my post on default narrative sexism, commenter Kevin Veale reported the following incident:

It also reminds me, sadly, of a thread yesterday where an RPG author posted a question about how to shift cultural dynamics about gender in an RPG setting. The thread then proceeded to implode with a bunch of bullshit where people were citing other examples where authors had tried that as “bullshit” because “They’re doing unrealistic stuff purely to create a bizarro world where it’d be cool if women were cavalry,” rather than the listed intent of said author to create a different gender dynamic.

Being both a geek and a ladyperson, this phenomenon is one I’ve encountered many times before, and always felt frustrated by – so much so that I’ve decided to upgrade my response from comment to post.

The sort of incident mentioned above is sadly common in geek culture – a blind and subtle species of sexism-as-normative wherein any attempt to reverse established gender dynamics is written off as a nothing more than cheap attempt at novelty by virtue of the fact that the audience either didn’t expect it or doesn’t see the utility of it. Back when I first started playing D&D in highschool, I remember the pleasant feeling of shock and surprise when, on opening the handbook, I found that all the pronouns used to describe the hypothetical players and characters were female ones. When, seconds later, I remarked on this fact out loud, my then-boyfriend instantly expressed his irritation at it, saying something along the lines of, ‘They’re only doing it to seem cool and politically correct.’ And being sixteen, I instantly found myself agreeing with him: partly because he was my boyfriend (alas!) but mostly because it genuinely did look weird – by which I mean, of course, that I’d never seen it done before. And because I had no grounding in feminism at that point, and even though it had made me feel validated and welcomed as a girl geek just moments earlier, I took up his stance both then and for quite a while afterwards: that switching up the gender pronouns was just an arbitrary, pointless thing people sometimes did to look hip. Whereas, of course, the point was right there in my initial reaction: to make girls like me feel happier playing D&D, and – though it failed with my group of friends – perhaps to make male players more thoughtful and less judgmental when it came to women in general.

As far as I can tell, straight male geeks in particular tend to adopt this position – that is, Random Girls = Bad – for any of three main reasons:

1. Geek culture is so overwhelmingly dominated by images of hyper-sexualised women (anime, maquettes, comics, video games) that even though female characters are frequently shown to excel in traditionally masculine roles across all such media – as mechanics, hackers, warriors, engineers, gunsmiths, leaders and pilots, for instance – their visual, physical sexiness (and, frequently, costuming) is designed to signal that these attributes, rather than being markers of competence and equality, are instead intended as, essentially, masturbatory aids on par with their physical assets: the fantasy of hot women made even hotter by their (to the audience) unrealistic-yet-droolworthy possession of masculine skills. This is why fanservice, unrealistic bodies, ridiculous costuming and wildly impossible poses are so very, very frustrating to female geeks and feminists: because ninety-nine times out of a hundred, their sole utility and relevance is on the level of sexual exploitation. And though most straight male fans are self-aware enough to realise such bodies are meant as unrealistic fantasies, many still have a disturbing tendency to take the logic further, concluding that if women with ridiculous bodies and costumes are unrealistic – and if, given this fact, it’s similarly improbable that women who look, dress and act like that would actually go about their jobs that way in the real world – then logically, real women must not belong in those professions, because the idea that they might do is itself part of the fantasy.

2. Having realised that the depiction of women in games, comics, collectibles and anime is meant as part of a tailor-made fantasy, many straight male geeks, somewhat unsurprisingly, have become aware of something else: that as said fantasy has been explicitly created for and subsequently targeted, marketed and sold to them, there must be someone out there whose goal is to exploit – and subsequently profit from – their sexual desires. Rather than undertake an intellectual exploration of the relationship between sex, gender and advertising in a capitalist system, however, a disappointing number of these geeks make a different and altogether more prejudicial leap: that the presence of women in an otherwise male-dominated environment can be directly correlated with the efforts of corporations to take their money. Their willingness to pay for the product in this equation, whether pre-existing or not, is immaterial: women, and particularly sexy women, have become a red-flag event. Any attempt to insert women into a setting previously devoid of them must therefore come under immediate suspicion. Women are a cash-gathering exercise, the go-to weapon in some cynical marketeer’s arsenal to help Company A more readily collect the hard-earned monies of geeks everywhere; booth babes being a case in point. After all, straight male geeks are very aware of their own negative sexual stereotyping: the fact that they may conform to it at times doesn’t make it any less offensive when it’s being used to exploit them – and the fact that it is used exploitatively is why the sexy female character problem exists to begin with.

But that doesn’t excuse their knee-jerk reaction to and blaming of women themselves: sexism and the system are at fault, not women as entities. And yet, the niggling suspicion of straight male geeks that girls are just there to take their money ends up tarnishing not only legitimate, unsexualised instances of female characterisation, but the efforts of actual geek girls to be taken seriously. All girl gamer group? Yeah, they’re just a novelty act – we’re only meant to like them ‘coz they’re pretty. Girls reading comics or playing video games? Hot, but they’re probably just doing it so boys will like them. Girl geeks in costumes? Total attention whores – they just want men to throw money at them. The same thing happens in music circles, too, among other places. All girl rock band? Fuckable pop-moppet posers – they only got signed ‘coz they look good on a poster. And on, and on, and on.

3. Genuine incomprehension. This is the kindest blindness – a benevolent sexism found in straight male geeks who have nothing against women, per se; it’s just that, all unaware of their own privilege, they’ve never had to think about sexism or exploitation or anything like that, so if the issue comes up offhand, they’re unlikely to see the utility in trying to make women more visible, or to change the way they’re depicted – and if there’s no utility, why do it? After all, women have the vote now, right? And equal opportunities and laws and stuff? And it’s not like anyone’s forcing them to play video games or read comics or watch anime or whatever, so why is it our problem if they don’t like how it works?

Depending on the personality of the geek in question, any conversation after this point can go one of several ways. The most positive, assuming both that you have the time and inclination to explain sexism in geek culture from first principles and that your interlocutor is willing to listen, is that they realise the problem exists and see the utility of female inclusion. The most negative will devolve into angry defenses of the status quo along the lines of the points raised above, with (if you’re very unlucky) a side-order of genuine misogyny thrown in. I mention this because, while the first two points follow fairly specific trains of thought, the reasons for ignorance are wide-ranging; as are potential reactions to the prospect of enlightenment.  Nobody likes to be told they’ve been complicit in something they might otherwise hold in contempt, and particularly not when you tie that complicity to the things they love most, no matter how significant the connection is.

And this, really, is the crux of the problem. Thanks to several decades’ worth of abuse and mockery from the mainstream, geeks as a culture are used to seeing themselves – ourselves – as underdogs. This creates a false sense of certainty that, being outcasts together, we can’t possibly be discounting, belittling or abusing anyone, let alone other outcasts, in the way that we ourselves have been discounted, belittled, abused. Which premise rests squarely on the demonstrably false assurance that people never become what is done to them; that no victims ever become perpetrators. And as I have said again and again, intentionality only takes you so far, and it isn’t very. Intend all you want to be a responsible driver – but if you run someone over by accident, they’ll still be just as dead.