Posts Tagged ‘Female’

Recently, N. K. Jemisin wrote an excellent piece on the limitations of womanhood in fantasy.  Together with Kate Beaton’s take on Strong Female Characters, Kate Elliott’s discussion of gender and culture, and Overthinking It’s analysis of why strong female characters are bad for women, the essay illuminates an increasingly problematic disjunction in our treatment of femininity. The success of feminism means that women can now choose to live beyond the confines of their traditional roles; but despite/because of that freedom, there’s a fearful sort of disparagement reserved for women who still elect to be wives and mothers, or who shoulder the bulk of domestic duties. As though, somehow, feminism has made all such occupations redundant; as though a perfectly equal society is one in which nobody ever has to get married, give birth or do the washing-up. Doubtless there’s some who’d call such a world Utopia, which is fair enough. But here in reality, being a stay-at-home mother isn’t the same as being anti-feminist, and the definition of a strong female character is not exclusively one who eschews domesticity – or love, for that matter.

Commenting on Jemisin’s post, one woman remarked:

“Sure, the romance narrative is helping sell the books, and I freely admit I eat that stuff up, but… reliance on that central romantic narrative undercuts female power pretty dramatically. The entire story basically becomes a failed Bechdel test, even if it passes technically.”

Which is another way of saying that romance in narrative is innately anti-feminist. Frankly, it’s a sentiment which terrifies and chills me, not least because of the way in which it echoes the historical discrimination against working women who dared to get married. Find a man, this logic went, and you loose your credibility: married women should be (or are, depending on your preferred flavour of sexism) incapable of devoting time, effort and intelligence to anything other than marriage itself, and therefore can’t be trusted in the workforce. The modern version is subtler. In this scenario, women shouldn’t (or don’t, depending on your preferred flavour of feminism) need men to fulfill them; positive depictions of male/female romance contradict this tenet by linking happiness with heterosexual  romance, and are therefore anti-feminist. To be clear: the overwhelming preference of our culture for embedding marriage as the standard Happily Ever After is still problematic, as is the marginalization of happy non-hetero love and the idea that singleness is always the same as loneliness. What I’m objecting to is the idea that being romantically involved with men is, by itself, enough to undermine the feminist worth of female characters.

Imagine a group of macho men disparaging love as ‘chick stuff’ and an affront to masculinity, calling their married friends pussy-whipped and questioning the manhood (not to say intelligence) of any man who changes his lifestyle for the sake of a woman; the whole ‘bros before hos’ nine yards. Ugly, right? Then imagine a group of modern women disparaging love as a means of patriarchal control and an affront to feminism, calling their married friends submissive backsliders and challenging the feminist cred (not to say intelligence) of any woman who changes her lifestyle for the sake of a man; the whole ‘housewives and breeders’ manifesto.

Yeah. Still ugly.

To wax briefly lyrical, love is the great leveler: if you don’t lose your dignity at some point during the process, then I’d contend that you’re doing it wrong. Sometimes, and as treacherous an idea as it might seem to our sensibilities, loving another person does fulfill us in a way that nothing else can; nonetheless, love is not our only means of fulfillment, nor even – necessarily – the most important. Love is unique; it fascinates and enthralls. As countless narratives from Harry Potter to Pride and Prejudice have been at pains to point out, neither love nor loving is a weakness. Which isn’t to say that love is never destructive, ill-conceived, fleeting, hurtful, wrongheaded, violent or stubborn. It can be all that and more – but the saving grace is, it can also be exultant, glorious, unexpected and gleeful. Contrary creatures that we are, it can sometimes even be all those things at once. To quote e.e. cummings, whose wisdom in such matters is unparalleled:

‘and being here imprisoned, tortured here

love everywhere exploding maims and blinds

(but surely does not forget,perish,sleep

cannot be photographed,measured;disdains

the trivial labeling of punctual brains…’

That being said, I’m not about to issue a blanket indemnity for each and every romance ever written. Just as many real-world relationships are abusive, one-sided, airheaded and/or undertaken for all the wrong reasons, so too can narrative relationships turn toxic. The vital point here is whether the author intended the relationship to be positive or negative or somewhere in between, to what purpose, and whether or not they’ve succeeded. In this as in so many things, your mileage may vary; but more of that shortly. Assuming momentarily that adherence to feminist canon must always be the rubric by which we gauge the narrative success or failure of fictional relationships (it’s not, but that’s another post entirely), failure on that count isn’t the same thing as failure overall. By which I mean: a story which deliberately chronicles the ups and downs of a negative relationship is not automatically anti-feminist. But wait, you cry: weren’t you asserting only moments ago that positive relationships were the problem? Well, hypothetical reader, I’m glad you asked me that, because the sad fact is that some proponents of this view will have you coming and going. Negative hetero relationships are called anti-feminist because, nine times out of ten, they show women being mistreated by men, which – yes – is awful, but frequently on purpose, which is to say, the mistreatment is written deliberately to raise exactly this point; which is to say, a point that some commentators – not many, but enough to notice the pattern – persist in missing. But positive relationships are still called anti-feminist, too, because isn’t it just so contrived and backwards and cliche that a heterosexual woman might fall in love with a man, or want to? Why is it even necessary?

Look, you got me: it’s not necessary (or at least, not necessary to everyone). That doesn’t make it irrelevant, and it certainly doesn’t make it unrealistic. I mean, dragons aren’t necessary, and they’re still fucking awesome – but hey, if you don’t like dragons? Maybe read a unicorn book! Or something.

This is why I get irked when novels – or more specifically, their romantic plotlines – are reviewed in line with this somewhat warped version of feminism. To directly refute the Jemisin commenter, you do not fail the Bechdel test by having your heroine fall in love, even if it’s with an awesome, powerful dude; but perhaps you do fail at writing a feminist heroine if, for whatever reason, love turns her into a doormat and her love interest into a douche without any indication that this is, in fact, suboptimal. Similarly, to play something of a strawman argument – and without wanting in any way to suggest that lesbian relationships aren’t legitimate, beautiful, awesome things – having your heroine fall in love with a lady does not automatically make her more feminist than if she falls in love with a dude; so why would heterosexuality prove a feminist handicap? So often in these debates, I feel like narrative context becomes optional in assessing a story’s merits; we get hung up on whether or not the heroine is making the same choices we would under the same circumstances when the whole point is that the story’s not about us.

Returning finally to the subject of strong female characters, then, wives and mothers of any kind are no more anti-feminist than kickass warriors in skintight leather with multiple sexual partners are the feminist ideal. Suggestions to the contrary may well be a fault of terminology; despite appearances, the strong in strong female character doesn’t refer exclusively to physical attributes, but rather to strength of character – interesting, three-dimensional ladies with a range of capabilities, backgrounds and interests being, for my money, a far more workable and compelling definition than just ladies who can fight. But then again, I’m happily married, so I guess that means my life fails the Bechdel by default.

Rats. And I felt so strong, too.

As keen readers of this blog will have had occasion to notice, the most recent season of Doctor Who has not exactly met with my approval. That being so, and with the marvelous advent of A Doctor World to inspire me, I decided to rewatch the whole new series – Eccleston, Tennant and Smith – with an eye to understanding the show’s development. Right now, I’m midway through Season 3, and in keeping with the seriousness of my self-appointed task, I’ve been taking handwritten notes on the structure, themes and byplay of every episode. Specifically, I’m interested in the depictions of female characters. How much agency do they have? Are their odds of survival comparable to that of their male counterparts? How do they die, and under what circumstances? Are they villains or allies? Do they rescue other characters as often as being rescued? How many episodes pass the Bechdel test?

It’s this latter question which has occupied most of my thoughts. How heavily should I rely on it? Though undeniably useful, the Bechdel is far from being the ultimate arbiter of narrative – or even feminist – success. Passing it does not, for instance, guarantee that the female characters in question are three-dimensional, believable human beings, nor does it protect against thematic sexism. Pass or fail, however, the results are always interesting – not just because of what they say about particular stories, but because of how the test itself reflects our culture of storytelling. At first glance, it’s utterly trite and obvious to point out that every day, everywhere in the world, human beings pass the Bechdel: after all, half the human population is female, and in accordance with the fact that we are all (as it were) named characters, the overwhelming majority of our conversations, if transposed to a narrative context, would pass. And yet, despite the obviousness of this fact, a disgusting number of movies, TV shows, books and plays all fail. Looked at as a purely narrative problem, it’s a disconcerting dissonance with reality. Looked at as a human problem, however, it’s a travesty.

As per Gail Simone’s observations on women in refrigerators, there are any number of reasons why individual writers might choose to structure a story such that there are no female characters, or only one female character; or why, given the presence of two or more such women, they don’t have occasion to speak to one another; or why, if they do, it’s only about a man. The limit of the Bechdel is the ease with which its detractors can argue – correctly – that the inclusion of women characters who talk about things will not automatically improve a story: not on a thematic level, if the point is to allay concerns about sexism, and not on a narrative level, if the point is to fix a plot. The failure of this objection, however, is that it willfully misconstrues the inclusion of women to be meant as a panacea. It’s not about instituting what amounts to a storywide affirmative action policy, because the suggestion has never been that women, by themselves, make stories better, or fairer, or anything other than stories with women in them, just as stories which lack women, or contain few of them, aren’t innately inferior. Rather, the point has been to ask why, if we believe our society, culture and ethics to be egalitarian – and, more, if we personally support these ideals – our stories say something else.

Consider the following hypothetical instance of a film centered on the adventures of a male lead, Guy, and his female love interest, Gal. Already, Gal is defined by her relationship to Guy: because the narrative fulcrum rests on Guy specifically, Gal’s presence is justified by her participation in his story. (There’s no reason why this scenario can’t work in the reverse without changing the genre – and yet, how much more common is it for stories with female love interests to be action-oriented adventures, while stories with male love interests are billed as romantic comedies?) Thus, Gal’s only investment in the plot comes through her association with Guy, making it much more likely that he, and not she, will take the lead in future plot-oriented conversations – after all, it’s Guy who needs answers, while Gal is just there for the ride. Obviously, that’s a simplification of matters: in save-the-world plots, for instance, the ultimate stakes affect everyone, while personal survival is a pretty strong incentive for even the most reluctant, dragged-along love interest to sit up and take an interest. Assuming Guy and Gal encounter other women in their travels, either as villains or comrades, there’s every reason why Gal might talk to them, and they to her.

Except, more often than not, they won’t – which is where we hit the gender snag. Because in instances where Guy is the protagonist, Gal’s character development matters less than his: not because she’s a girl (or at least, we hope not) but because it’s his story, and any conversations which don’t include or mention him are going to be viewed as extraneous to the plot. Ignoring the false economy of a storytelling style which jettisons secondary character development in the name of streamlining – and ignoring, too, the fact that female love interests are so deeply ingrained as an action movie archetyps that their very presence can feel like last-minute shoehorning – this puts considerable pressure on any fem/fem conversation to be relevant to the action; and if the writer wants to really showcase Guy’s intelligence, strength and resourcefulness, then having two other characters think up a plan, chart a course of action or otherwise save the day will only serve to undermine his specialness. Throw in the necessity of keeping Guy and Gal together for most of the plot – you can’t kindle sparks if the flints don’t touch – and just like that, you’ve practically eliminated any opportunity for Gal and Gal2 to have a conversation. Trying to force them together would just be another sort of shoehorning; and anyway, what does it matter? It’s just a story.

All of which is, frankly, bullshit. Characterisation shouldn’t be the sole privilege of protagonists. Male heroes don’t require a monopoly on good ideas and snappy dialogue to be viewed as heroic – and if you think they do, you’re probably part of the problem. Women shouldn’t be token characters: I love a good, sassy romance as much as the next person, but there’s a profound difference between a love interest whose only investment in the plot is their attachment to the hero, and a fully functioning character who develops into a love interest. As for the age-old argument about some eras, professions and settings being necessarily male dominated, I put it to you that if Deadwood, a well-researched, historically anchored show about life in a lawless town on the American frontier can pass the Bechdel test with ease, then any film the sole premise of which is Shit Gets Blown Up should be able to do it backwards and upside down, particularly if the setting constitutes a departure from everyday reality in any way, shape or form. Which is another way of saying that if you’re willing to break the established laws of physics and human endurance such that the male hero can get blown up, tortured and beaten shortly before running approximately ten miles at top-speed during a thrilling laser gun battle, you can probably stretch to having a female character whose capabilities extend beyond the rigours of looking decorative.

Unless you think women shouldn’t really have key roles in action movies, in which case, see above, re: being part of the problem.

All of which brings me to my sudden inability to think of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth as a realistic fantasy world (which sounds like a non sequitur, but bear with me). I’ll be brutally honest: watching the How It Should Have Ended clip for The Lord of the Rings has not done wonders for my perception of its plot, such that when I sat down this evening to watch the extended version of The Fellowship of the Ring, I found myself wanting to yell at Gandalf to just GO GET THE FUCKING EAGLES. But as I tried to settle into the narrative, I kept asking myself: where are the women? I don’t mean Arwen, Eowyn and Galadriel, who are all wonderful characters despite their lack of screen time: I mean, where are the wives and sisters and mothers? Why, when the succession is so important, is neither Faramir nor Boromir married? Where are the wives of Denethor and Theoden, the mothers of Arwen, Eowyn and Frodo? Why are so many races – the Ents, the Orcs, the Uruk-Hai, the Goblins, the Dwarves – drawn as if they were all male? For a setting which is otherwise so rich in cultural and historical detail, this reads as a serious problem. It’s not just that the trilogy fails the Bechdel test; it’s that the lack of women means we have very little idea of how that society treats them, beyond the basic, obvious knowledge that there must be wives and sisters and mothers of some sort, even though almost every woman in a position to occupy such a niche is either conveniently dead or mysteriously absent. And when, in The Silmarillion, Tolkien does venture to write female characters, it’s almost always in a romantic, devotional context: women who died to support their brothers or husbands, or who were pursued against their will, or who tragically fell in love with someone they shouldn’t (or couldn’t) have.

Which is where I start to wonder if the absence of female characters in Middle Earth is less a species of exclusionary sexism than it is a tacit acknowledgement on Tolkien’s part that, for all he was trying to write a magical, romanticised version of the medieval period, he didn’t know how to do so in a way that would benefit his women the same way it did his men. The happy resolutions to the lives of Luthien, Arwen and Eowyn all hinge on partnerships with men of their own choosing, men with whom they are genuinely in love; and yet a scholar of Tokien’s standing can’t have been unaware of how rare an occurrence that would have been, historically speaking. Perhaps, then, the wives and mothers of so many characters are absent as a preventative against the acknowledgement of exactly that problem; of the fact that one can believe in the restorative magic of feudalism and the aesthetic stylings of chivalry for only so long as one either postpones the question of women’s happiness or takes its existence for granted. As compassionately as Tolkien paints Eowyn’s desire for glory, and as determinedly as he makes Luthien the saviour and rescuer of Beren, the latter stance seems less likely than the former. But in dodging the issue, he undermines the story – because while his male characters are allowed to ask questions about their purpose in life, expressing bitterness at their circumstances and feeling haunted by unwanted duty, he cannot dare let the women do likewise, or else the whole myth of Middle Earth’s glory would come crashing down around him. The elves, conveniently enough, are exempt from this dilemma, presumably on the basis that if everyone in a given society is granted magical supremacy, immortality and eternal beauty as a matter of course, then unhappiness as a result of imposed gender profiling probably won’t be an issue. But humankind are not, which is why, despite how well-drawn she is, Eowyn’s fears are masculinised: her biggest concern is being denied a chance at battle, and not that Theoden or Eomer will see her married off, even though the structure of Tolkien’s society dictates that one must be at least as distinct a possibility as the other.

And that’s why I’ve lost my faith in Middle Earth: because I cannot reconcile Tolkien’s aesthetic mood of beauty, nobility and contemplation with the necessary ugliness and bias of male-dominated feudalism. Which explains why I’m such a fan of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, adapted recently to the HBO series A Game of Thrones: all the history and pageantry is still there, all the chivalrous words and noble aspirations, but we still get to see the women – their desires, struggles, success and persecution – without recourse to either convenient absenteeism or rosy-lensed love. Call it gritty fantasy or nihilism if you must, but no matter how pure and glorious your ambitions, it’ll take a lot to convince me that a standard medieval setting will lack the problems of forced marriage, rape and battery – or worse, that these things don’t matter – just because you choose to emphasise chivalrous conduct.

So, to recap: if you find yourself steering clear of female/female dialogue because:

a) women have no place in your story;

b) it doesn’t feel plot-relevant;

c) you don’t want to develop your female characters; or

d) the women might question the logic of a world you want your male characters to enjoy,

then I would humbly suggest that you are, in fact, part of the problem. Which is why the Bechdel test matters: not because all stories need women, but because the manner of their absence shouldn’t contribute to a culture of inequality.

The year is 1991; the setting, my kindergarten classroom. I am not quite five years old, and if this isn’t my very first day of school (memory being understandably hazy about such things) it’s certainly sometime in my first two weeks. Our young class has spent the morning seated on the floor, and now our teacher, Mrs Pallier, tells us all to stand up and find a desk. There is no seating plan; the ‘desks’ are actually conglomerates made of four or so smaller tables, big enough to seat about eight students each. Despite our newness, groups of friends have already started to form – one such being the cadre of boys who, by Year 6, will have become the male half of the popular crew. They pick a desk and sit down together. I don’t have a group yet; the boys, though, are interesting, and there’s a spare seat at their table. I go to take it, but no sooner have I sat down than they all leap up again, yelling about the undesirability of girls, and run to colonise the next desk down. This leaves me with a choice: either I can stay where I am, feeling hurt but pretending I really did want this particular chair, or I can follow them and see what happens. Desks are starting to fill up, after all – they have to sit somewhere. More importantly, though, I’ve discovered a secret power: I can make the boys run, and even though I really did want to join them, thinking of it as a game – one where I’m in charge, the chaser – is easier, less hurtful, than staying still and accepting their rebuff. And so I get back up, and follow them again.

What happened next is hazy. I couldn’t say whether I won or not, if I claimed a seat at their table or ended up somewhere else. But I remember the choice, and the thoughts preceding it, with clarity.

I mention this because there’s been some recent discussion about the perception of women SF writers within the industry generally and their relationship with feminism in particular, and when it comes to the assertion that such authors are given less credence, less prominence and less publicity than their male counterparts – when I am presented with the image of women writers chasing after acceptance in a male-dominated area – the first thing that always springs to mind, or rather the first memory, is the image of a table of five-year-old boys in shrieking fear of Girl Germs. It’s not just this debate, either: earlier this year, there were questions asked about the feminisation of epic fantasy, and more recently VS Naipaul has asserted that women writers are “unequal” to him. Unclenching one’s teeth sufficiently to talk about this latter case, there’s something interesting to unpick in Naipaul’s claim that:

“I read a piece of writing and within a paragraph or two I know whether it is by a woman or not.” 

It’s an argument I’ve encountered elsewhere: that women just write differently to men, that everything from their subject matter to their sentence structure and word choice sets them apart. It’s a breathtakingly flawed assertion, and yet so fiendishly simple that, like most such lies, it is easily believed, repeated and socially countenanced. Ignoring the fact that this is an unquantifiable, personal claim hinging entirely on anecdotal evidence, how often do we read anything without seeing a name attached? Almost never, would be my guess – unless, of course, you’re someone in charge of vetting anonymous submissions to an academic publication, which is by no means irrelevant to the topic at hand. Surely, if Naipaul is correct, the flaws which distinguish women’s writing and ideas from those of men will be present in any type of writing, and not just works of fiction? If so, wouldn’t the publication records of academic journals with a policy of anonymous submissions – or better yet, journals which had recently switched from named submissions to anonymous submissions – be the perfect venue to test the theory? What about studies assessing the difference a male or female name makes to the reception of a single piece of writing?

As it happens, such data and studies do exist – bur rather than confirming Naipaul’s assertion, what they show is that switching to anonymous submissions increases the number of female-authored articles accepted for publication in academic circles. Take a moment to appreciate the significance of that finding. By removing a writer’s name – and, by extension, their gender – from the equation, more women are being published. This is all that changes. For obvious reasons, blind submissions will not translate as a solution to the bias in literary circles and awards: books are published with names on the cover, and even in the case of novels we’ve not yet read, there’s still a strong chance that we’ll know who the author is. But when, for instance, Gwyneth Jones expresses a wish to have used a male pseudonym for her earlier feminist works in order to have bettered their success, rather than criticise this as a betrayal of the sisterhood, we could perhaps extrapolate that the same biases which afflict academia are just as omnipresent in the fiction/SFF world, and that wanting to avoid their ill-effects is entirely understandable.

In the same Women’s Hour segment where she expressed that opinion, Jones went on to say:

“If you’re a feminist, it’s much better to be a man, with the science fiction public.”

It’s an inflammatory suggestion, but one which seems all too sadly in keeping with the bias against women. Reading through the reactions of Jones, Timmi Duchamp and Cheryl Morgan to the Women’s Hour interview, much of what’s being discussed is the idea that the US and the UK have different notions of feminism; or that writers from these countries do; or that these particular writers do; or some combination thereof. As a recently expatriated Australian, I don’t know enough about the differences in feminist practice on either side of the pond to contribute to that debate. What I take away from this particular conversation, however, is the fear that simply being a woman SF writer, regardless of the actual content of one’s books, is enough to see those works branded as feminist by readers who have no interest in feminism – a misapprehension which ineluctably forces the writer to argue that their gender ought not stand in the way of their writing. Thus, the author is forced to speak out as a feminist – thereby reinforcing the perception of their works as feminist writings – only because this was already assumed to be a foregone conclusion. And so we go round, and round again, until it’s easier just to pretend to be male feminist, the way George Sand once did, than to confess to being a female one.

What a squeamish irony that is: that even feminism is more palatable when espoused by male advocates! Presumably, this is because women, as the movement’s primary beneficiaries, are seen to have more of a personal agenda in putting it forwards; whereas men, who are casually assumed to gain nothing from its success, and are vindictively assumed to lose everything, are seen to be more objective. If male feminists become passionate in their writing, then it is a rational passion, commendable for its intelligence; but if women feminists do likewise, then they’re guilty of pushing a personal, politically correct agenda, or of being angry, hysterical writers. Obviously that’s a provocative statement. Obviously we want and need male feminists: I am by no means suggesting that the feminism of men is less important, less relevant or less meaningful than the feminism of women. But I can and will criticise those members of the public, be they feminist or unfeminist, male or female, who find feminism to be more palatable when it comes from men; because if you think men are intrinsically more lucid on the subject than women, or think women can’t be trusted to speak dispassionately about it, then you’ve probably missed the point.

Back in 1991, I chased the boys rather than be ignored by them, and some time over the next seven years of primary school, they stopped running and became my friends. Regardless of genre, authors in the fiction world – like children in a playground – have no recourse to anonymity, no ready means of stripping names and faces away, to let our words stand on their own bare merits. Instead, we must take the harder road: to actively consider the principles of equality, to hold ourselves accountable for our own biases, and to continually question whether or not we’ve truly overcome them.