A few years ago, I tried to read Ivanhoe, by Sir Walter Scott. I made it about halfway through before the roaring anti-Semitism finally drove me to fling the book at the wall, never to be resumed. I still don’t know how the story ends, but once I’d calmed down enough to think about it, I was struck by the difference in characterisation between Rowena and Rebecca, and what that particular contrast still says about the way we write women in fiction. Rowena, as Ivanhoe’s beloved, is meant to be the personification of all the feminine virtues of Scott’s period – beautiful and pure and obedient and yearning – while Rebecca, reading between the very broad lines, is someone we’re meant to root for despite her Jewishness without ever liking her best.
Except that, for precisely this reason, we do; but even though he wrote her that way, Scott doesn’t seem to realise it. Rowena never reads like an actual human woman because she was never intended to be one: she is, quite literally, a platonic ideal, and that makes her dull and lifeless in addition to being passive. But because Rebecca has to work to even be seen as a person in the first place, she’s much more fully human than Rowena ever is. Rebecca fights; she wins admiration by her actions, by sinking her teeth into the story and demanding to be seen: she has rough edges and strength of character, she’s narratively active, and as such, it’s impossible not to like her.
Here is what I took away from Scott’s treatment of these women: Rowena, passive and set on a pedestal, is what he thought women should be, while Rebecca, active and human, is what he grudgingly acknowledged women were; or could be, at the very least, if they actively tried to overcome the handicap of their gender.
And thus the question I ask myself, when examining female characters on the page or screen: is this woman a Rowena, or a Rebecca? Meaning: has she been written as an ideal, so defined by what the author wants her to do – usually for a man’s benefit, or to benefit his narrative (which classification, I hasten to point out, applies equally to female villains, who benefit the hero’s narrative by being Evil Because Cartoonish Misandry And/Or Incompetence) that she doesn’t come across as an actual human being? Or has she been written as a person, comprehensive and flawed and possessed of agency, even or especially if it makes her seem unlikeable or imperfect?
Slowly but surely, we’re getting more Rebeccas. But most of the time, for a very long time, Rowena has dominated.
There’s this feeling I get, whenever I read a Rowena-heavy story. It’s a physical sensation, a sort of ephemeral chill that sinks into me with every male-only page, every chapter where women only exist to fill in the edges of stories that are really concerned with men. It feels cramped, like I’m crawling into some metaphysical box, and the older I get, the less comfortable it is, and the sooner I have to pull out again, the narrow confines chafing across my shoulders. It feels small in those stories, as though there’s no room for me there. I feel the same way about heteronormative storytelling: the more aware of myself I become, the more conscious of my own identity, the stronger the impulse to scream at books that don’t so much as acknowledge my existence. I feel a similar level of disgust about whitewashed stories, but being white myself, that visceral, squeezing element is missing – it’s an intellectual outrage, rather than a personal affront, and while it still makes me angry, I can’t pretend it’s the same thing. Not, to be perfectly clear, because I think the absence or stereotyping of POC is somehow less important; rather, it’s the difference between seeing your best friend punched in the face, and being punched yourself. Both assaults are utterly unacceptable, but one blow you feel secondhand, and the other in the flesh.
In 2010, I went to see the film Buried, which is shot almost entirely from the perspective of someone buried alive in a small box. It made for an intensely claustrophobic viewing experience: even knowing the camera wasn’t going to suddenly cut to a different scene, you still expected it, still wanted it to, and the lack of variation swiftly became a physical itch, a writhing unease and discomfort.
That’s what homogeneous storytelling feels like from the other side, when all the characters like you are either Rowena or stereotyped or absent altogether: claustrophobic. Go away and watch Buried, and whatever else you think of it – I hated it for reasons that had nothing to do with the cramped perspective – at least you’ll learn what it’s like to read a book or watch a show where part of you keeps waiting for the POV to leap to something new, something other than unrelenting sameness, only it never does, and all you feel is the tension caused by the absence of innovation.
Like being buried alive.
I’m sick of the Sad Puppies.
Look: let’s be honest. The Puppies, by their own admission, aren’t interested in stories about people like me, or the stories of other people who aren’t like them, or stories which feature political arguments other than their own. There’s something fundamentally paradoxical about their hatred of diversity: they seem to think of it as a box-checking exercise, some arbitrary, unrealistic obsession with describing impossible, or at least implausible, persons – but at the same time, they clearly believe such individuals not only exist, but do so in vast, conspiracy-carrying numbers, because who else do they think they’re arguing with? The real world, according to Puppy gospel, is being steadily overrun with politically correct SJWs who are all queer or black or female or disabled or – gasp! – some dread combination thereof, and because they resent this tyranny, they don’t want to encourage it by acknowledging those demographics in fictional stories. This doesn’t stop them arguing, in the face of all evidence to the contrary, that their stories are really reflective of the real world, even though their daily lives (they claim) are defined by a ceaseless political struggle that their fiction never reflects, partly because it’s meant for entertainment purposes only (they say), but mostly (one suspects) because the only actual struggle they’ve experienced can be better described as a personal failure of empathy, viz: why the hell would anyone want to read a book about her?
“Her” being Rebecca, both literally and metaphorically. The Puppies are agoraphobic in a genre otherwise defined by sweeping claustrophobia: they want to stay in the buried box with the dwindling air supply, while the rest of us are desperately clawing to get out, away from them and into the sunlight. We want to breathe, to change the scene, and they’d rather we suffocated wholesale than let us.
Here’s what fanfiction understands that the Puppies don’t: inversion and subversion don’t ruin the story – they just give you new ways to tell it, and new tools to tell it with. Take a platonic relationship and make it romantic; there’s a story in that. Take a romantic relationship and make it platonic; there’s a story in that, too. Take a human and make her a werewolf; take a werewolf and make him human. Don’t try and sidle up on hurt/comfort like it’s something you’re ashamed to be indulging in; embrace the tropes until you have their mastery. Take a gang of broken souls surviving the apocalypse and make them happy in high school; take a bunch of funny, loving high school kids and shove them in the apocalypse. Like Archimedes, fanfic writers find the soul, the essence of what makes the characters real, and use it as a fulcrum on which to pivot entire worlds, with inversion/subversion as their lever of infinite length.
Without order, nothing can exist; without chaos, nothing can evolve. So the saying goes, and so it is.
A tip for male writers: if your female characters never defy your expectations – if they never surprise you, never throw a wrench in your plans, never successfully beg a greater share of the story and your attention than you’d initially planned on giving them – then you’re not really writing women. You’re giving us Rowena, not Rebecca; over and over and over.
Be wise to the difference.