While the high fantasy and sci-fi genres still seem to be dominated by male authors (with a few notable exceptions, of course), in the urban fantasy world, there are some interesting things going on in that age old gender war. People sometimes underestimate the power and social influence that books and television exert over the world. For instance, before Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the idea of a female hero (not a heroine, not someone who seemed strong until they needed to beef up a macho man and have him swoop in to save her) was unfathomable in the mainstream media. Buffy Summers paved the way for protagonists like Veronica Mars and others who flooded in after her.
I was reading my Twitter feed yesterday, and there was a little trend of hashtags inspired by Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake, entitled Things Anita Blake Taught Me. Here are some that stood out to me:
“It’s okay to have wild monkey sex with more than one man at one time. Rawr!”
“Being a woman — and a petite one at that — doesn’t mean shit. Stand up for yourself!”
“Loving two men is okay.”
“A woman can be tough, carry a gun, be beautiful, smart — can be herself and still have lots of men want her.”
“It’s okay to date men who are prettier than you are.”
“Being a bad ass and being a woman are not mutually exclusive.”
“It’s easier to live in a man’s world if they secretly suspect you can kick their asses.”
“It’s too much of a burden to saddle men with always being the strong ones, just as it’s too much to saddle women with being the weak ones.”
Some people might argue that Anita Blake is oversexualized, but I am going to step out on the edge of the sword and say that she is an empowering figure. How many millions of times have we seen the man with his gaggle of women? How many references to men being more bad ass, more sexy, stronger, more manly for having more sexual partners, yet women are sluts and whores?
The power comes in because writers like Laurell Hamilton and Charlaine Harris are lending a hammer to the glass divider between the sides of that double standard, blurring the Madonna-Whore complex and showing that women can be sexual, can have multiple partners, and still be strong, confident, intelligent, and competent. It’s not the shattering blow yet, but there are cracks appearing, and that gives me hope.
I just read a quite interesting essay entitled “Why Strong Female Characters Are Bad for Women.” (If interested, you can find it here.) I’ll admit it piqued my curiosity. I tend to think a lot about how women are portrayed in cinema and TV, mainly because as a child and young adult, I remember getting very annoyed at all the damseling I saw. In recent years, there have been a barrage of “strong female characters” to enter the silver screen and the boob tube (no pun intended). However, many of these indeed do not fall into the categories of strong characters. I still see damseling pretty much wherever I look. Cute girl + charming/surprising/cliched strength + hero/shlubby everyman/nerdy audience stand-in = girl being rescued by dude by the end of the movie, almost without fail. This is not to say there are no exceptions to this, but…how many times have we seen that scenario played out?
What I want to see — and I think many women would agree with me on this one — are female characters with strengths, weaknesses, and well-rounded, fleshed-out character development. I hope that the women in my writing are three dimensional. God knows I try to make my characters as gritty and true-to-life as I can in spite of the fact that I write fantasy.
Sidebar! Fantasy writers are among the absolute WORST when it comes to this topic. What I see in most fantasy is: big breasted, nearly naked women with swords/bows/guns. Did I mention the nearly naked? Is that necessary? Is it even remotely realistic? I give props to Dragon Age for not only fleshing out the women in the story but um…covering their flesh with appropriate amounts of armor, to the extent that I can look at them without my normal dubious, “And she is protected in battle how?” Not to mention that it’s one of the few fantasy games that allows you to be a female hero and save the world, the world being one wherein women and men are actually portrayed as having more or less equal respect and responsibility. Kudos. The rest of the fantasy writing/filmmaking/graphic novel/gaming world needs to get a clue — women read fantasy too. Unless you’re creating a sequel to Lord of the G-Strings (yes, that is a real softcore porn movie), put some damn clothes on the women. No one but a supreme idiot would try and fight demons half-naked.
One of my biggest peeves when it comes to this subject is that movies seem to be overrun with stereotypes. The one that grates most obnoxiously on my nerves is the Shrew. There are very few films that don’t have one of these in them. You know her. The woman who is constantly portrayed as an emasculating, overbearing, rude, spiteful killjoy who wants nothing more than to ensure that her boyfriend/husband/love interest does exactly what she wants, to ruin all his fun and make him a laughingstock of masculinity. This ball-and-chain stereotype infuriates me. And it’s everywhere. Fannie in Sense and Sensibility (and Lucy Steele, for that matter). Ed Helms’ wife in The Hangover. Natasha in Bridget Jones. I watch a lot of “dude movies.” Because I like them. But I hate when they portray women like that. Yes, some women probably are like that. But not nearly as many as Hollywood would make it out to be.
All that said, there are some remarkable women out there in fiction-dom. If you ask me, the one that started it all and paved the way for strong characters (female) everywhere was Buffy Summers. I’m possibly a bit biased on this count, seeing as how Buffy is one of my favorite shows/characters of all time, but before Buffy the Vampire Slayer came about, you would be hard-pressed to find a female hero. In fact, if you can think of one, I’ll give you a cookie. Not heroine. Hero. The one who saves the day. The one who doesn’t have to damsel to get a man.
Buffy is flawed. She is not perfect. She is selfish at times, overprotective, stubborn, and a bit holier-than-thou. But she risks her life (gives her life twice, for that matter) to save the world, to save her friends. Her character grows and changes thoroughly throughout the show’s seven seasons. She struggles and triumphs and falls short sometimes. But she gets shit done. And she kicks ass. Sometimes she does so in baggy overalls and unattractive sweats. Sometimes she gets the shit kicked out of her. Sometimes she’s bloodied and bruised and not so hot. She is a hero. And she’s a woman. The other women on the show are also strong characters with three dimensions. So I applaud Joss Whedon and the writers for blazing the way for female heroes. Joss has explained the Buffy creation by saying that he was sick of vapid blondes who would run upstairs and get killed off within the first fifteen minutes of a movie — he wanted to see a woman who could not only hold her own, but was capable of greatness and heroics.
The Bride from the Kill Bill movies is also a very strong character. Sure, she’s Uma Thurman and hot, but she also cries and gets beat up sometimes. She struggles. She keeps fighting. She saves herself. Go Quentin for that one.
Another new favorite of mine is Veronica Mars. She’s clever, relentless, brave. She’s also cynical, distrustful, and overly sharp at times. She gets into trouble, but she gets herself out of it.
It’s not that there aren’t examples of strong characters who happen to be female out there. it’s just that they seem to get lost in the shuffle of the Megan Fox’s of the world. The damn damsels who are given a couple traits mainly to make them more appealing to the male world and then set up to fulfill the rescue fantasies of said males. The icing on the cake for me is when I see a “strong female character” who has been set up to be strong and badass for the whole movie only to be suddenly put in peril and saved by some everyman — clearly a gratuitous gesture. You’d never see Superman suddenly powerless, only to be rescued by that nerdy girl who lives down the street. Male heroes don’t have to damsel 99% of the time — so why should the female ones?
Anyway, all that said, I’m just going to keep writing my characters to be people I would want to know. Not characters who would make me want to headdesk.
last night i was given a writing prompt. writing to me is catharsis. it’s how i get my feelings into some semblance of order. i feel deeply, keenly. my feelings are very seldom muddy. i feel heart-rending sorrow and boiling, burning rage. bubbles of effervescent joy and the quiet whispering calm of peace. i feel.
sometimes i feel pain. i feel the slice of a knife through my psyche, feel as it separates layers of my cushion, as it exposes me raw, bleeding, battered and bare. i don’t feel this kind of pain often. the last time i felt it was about a year ago.
the timing of this writing prompt was oddly appropriate. i won’t share what i wrote here, because frankly, it’s a bit too much. a bit too close to home. but i will share an insight that came to me during the process.
if you’ve read my blog, you know that i wrote a while back on beauty and the beast, and the cycle of abuse. you can find that here. i wrote that using beauty and the beast to describe abusive relationships is a flawed metaphor, and i explained why. i realized something today as i wrote, though. the disney classic does contain a perfect example of a real abuser — and he’s gotten away with it.
this abuser is a standup guy. the town worships him. he’s tall, dark, handsome–a strapping young man who everyone thinks is lovely. even maurice, belle’s father, mentions him to her as a possible suitor. she, of course, doesn’t like him. we get a few hints about his true character–when he accosts belle in town and snatches her book from her hands, he turns it upside down with a grimace. belle is an intelligent, well-read woman. she’s strong, fiery, and independent. she has opinions and a mind of her own. she values her books–they’re her window to the world, to expand her mind. to her, they’re priceless.
he drops it in the mud.
“he,” of course, is gaston. he thinks belle should be thinking of more important things — him. marrying him, and having a family. nevermind all that silly stuff like reading and intelligence. she just needs to cook and pop out a few kids. he’ll do all the thinking for her.
she goes home, wiping her book off. through the rest of the film, gaston’s character shows through more and more. he tries to alienate belle from her support system (which consists pretty much only of her father) by having maurice committed to an insane assylum. he attempts to strip her of her power by forcing her to bargain with him. her father’s freedom for hers.
belle does make such a bargain–but she does that of her own accord. she makes it with the beast so her father can go home. i think that the beast definitely has some character flaws — his blustering intimidation of belle is decidedly abusive, but unlike gaston, the beast shows that he can change. he shows that he wants to be a better man. gaston, on the other hand, is haughty, arrogant, and cowardly. he can’t feel like a man unless he makes others feel small. belle is the strongest woman in the village — he thinks that if he can conquer her, if he can tame her, then he wins.
but he can’t. he tries. he fails. she’s stronger than he is.
the odd thing to me is that the beast bears the brunt of the criticism of this movie. granted, there are some crappy things that he does, but by far, the most insidious character in this film is gaston. but he’s the “bad guy” anyway, so he just escapes the wrath?
children probably ought not to get their morality from disney movies, but it disturbs me a bit that gaston’s main flaw in the film is chalked up to his attempt to kill the beast — a flaw through which he falls to his untimely but appropriate death. his real flaw, to me, is his poisonous character. the way he tries to beat belle into submission by taking away her power. she willingly gave herself up to save her father by volunteering to stay with the beast — that is a mark of her courage, not the beast’s perfidy. but gaston attempted to take, take, take. to destroy. and that is unforgiveable. gaston is the true nature of a beast.
I’ve been doing a lot of thinking, and I decided this warrants a post. I had a couple conversations in the past few weeks that have given me an extraordinary amount of hope for the future of male-female relationships, and I think it deserves some dialogue…or, because no one reads my blog, some monologue.
I’ve been discovering that the new wave of feminists for the 21st century are…male. This is not to say that female feminists are a dying breed–I don’t think we are–but just that the new generation of men, specifically the current 18-30s, are reconstructing traditional gender roles in a way that I think will prove to hugely impact the way men and women relate to one another in positive ways.
They believe in equality. That is the truest, most sincere basis of feminism–that men and women should be treated as equals and be granted equal opportunity. And they believe this because they have been shaped by the earlier waves of feminism–they take it for granted that men and women are equal.
They abhor violence toward women. Whether it is rape, spousal abuse, or emotional/verbal abuse, it isn’t okay with these guys. Really not okay. In fact, they speak out about it vehemently and passionately.
They are opening up about their own issues of mistreatment. Abusive wives and girlfriends definitely exist, but instances of physical and emotional abuse of men are usually either unreported or simply dismissed. This new generation is speaking out, and rightfully so. Equality is equality, for all people. And violence and abuse is unacceptable, regardless of who perpetrates it.
They are opening up, period. They express themselves. They tell how they feel. They ask for help. They are thoughtful and tender and kind. They are protective and gentle and honest when they are conflicted.
They believe that women’s sexuality is beautiful and vital. They want to please their partners. They see women’s sexuality as something valuable, something important, and something fascinating. They see it as a strength, and they respect women’s confidence in the bedrooms.
The words “whore” and “slut” have long been the only ways of describing women who have had multiple sexual partners. Men are “players,” but women are “sluts.” The staggering difference in connotation, even on a purely etymological level, is one of the remaining barriers in women’s equality in the sexual realm. I recently came across a new term, made popular by a song–and it holds a connotation much more similar to “player” than “slut.” The term is “maneater”–and while it might sound negative, it’s usually spoken with a modicum of the respect given to “player.” I have to say, I’m pretty content with that.
These men are hands-down amazing. They are hugely impressive. They believe in partnership–and I think that they will have more successful relationships than their predecessors.
To all of you 21st century men out there–you are awesome.