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Ladies, Please (Carry On Being Awesome)

Liannan smash
So I was walking home from the new Star Trek movie, which I have previously indicated I found to be awesome. I was pretty surprised by this, as the Star Trek TV shows had not caught my fancy, and expressed this surprise to my friend, who was a fan of the TV show.

SARAH: But now I see I was TERRIBLY WRONG.
GASTON: Great!
SARAH: I'll watch the series now!
GASTON: Cool, we'll have a Star Trek weekend.
PASSERSBY: judge us for these words
SARAH: Sounds good! And I will watch the greatest love story of all time unfold over many episodes.
GASTON: What? Which love story do you mean?
SARAH: The love story of (highlight to see a spoiler from the movie) Spock and Uhura, of course!
GASTON: Weeeell... about that... it didn't so much actually happen as... not happen...
SARAH: That's it, Star Trek weekend is off!
PASSERSBY: judge us for these words

Feeling betrayed that I had been robbed of the awesomeness I was imagining, I decided to go in search of awesomeness on the internet. Surely, I would find much love there!

I did not see much love for Uhura, who I thought was a clearly brilliant and fabulous character. Even in the comments to my parody, people seemed against or indifferent to her.

Of course, I searched and did find love for her, and indeed here is a really great collection of Uhura thoughts, with a spotlight on race and feminism.

But my search made me think some more about fictional ladies, and an audience's approach to them. Now, I have already gone over my thoughts on how girls in fiction are starting out from a tricky place, given that the traditional way women were written is problematic, and you can also go too far in the opposite direction.

But there's another question, and that's the audience: I do think all of us tend to be harder on women, even if the women in question are awesome. This is totally natural - the society we live in has plenty of issues about the ladies, and sometimes we don't even know we're being influenced.

So without further ado, and with Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, Little Women, Harry Potter, my own book because responses to it made me think about these issues, A Great and Terrible Beauty, Dickens, Ilona Andrews and doubtless others mentioned, plus mangled song lyrics because... I may be crazy.

Ladies, Please Carry On Being Awesome - Girls and The Audience's GazeCollapse )

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wavesofwood
Aug. 25th, 2009 10:03 am (UTC)
You are brilliant. Seriously, this. The genderswap game is always going to be a little terrifying- Although it made me think of a kerfuffle in Watchmen fandom a while ago about Always-a-girl!Nite Owl and the rights and wrongs of fetishizing 'weak' attributes (overweight/bookish/introverted) in the female but not the male incarnations. If that makes sense?

I saw harborshore's comment above-- Lyn-Z is so unfairly maligned for being a girl who doesn't sing! Who plays an instrument! While being ridiculously hot! For asking to be referred to as Lyn-Z, not "Gerard Way's wife"! (This last was percieved as 'ungrateful', which, ha, yeah, NO.)

I'm reading Rebel Angels right now and loving it- how is Felicity so amazing? Have you ever read the Chronicles of Ancient Darkness books by Michelle Paver? The last one came out a few days ago, I think. Renn, the male protagonist's awesome best friend is a brilliant sensible female character.
kita0610
Aug. 27th, 2009 03:29 am (UTC)
"(This last was percieved as 'ungrateful', which, ha, yeah, NO.)"

I...oh, HELL NO. WTF.
sandra_lanimil
Aug. 25th, 2009 10:12 am (UTC)
I'm wondering if the prejudice against women is dependent on the gender of the audience/readers. I remember from psychology classes that little girls are much more heavily socialized into negative gender stereotypes by women than by men, and it seems to me that we (we, the girls) are much more critical towards our own gender, not just in fiction, but in real life encounters - or, perhaps I should say we're critical in a different way. The idea of women being backstabbing gossip girls (towards each other) and men being a bit clueless is an obvious cliché (I know guys who are just as bad or worse, in fiction and real life), but the cliché must have come from somewhere; and it's easier to forgive the cluelessness. When girls get judged for being awesome, I suspect it might at least be in part because we tend to assume girls are being awesome deliberately and perhaps even for a Selfish Purpose - while boys often seem to just sort of happen upon the hero role by chance, re: Harry.

(your book was awesome, btw. I'm one of those who have a lot of love for Nick)
ashkitty
Aug. 25th, 2009 10:16 am (UTC)
I admit I didn't like the Spock/Uhura. I do, however, think Uhura is awesome, and my dislike of the pairing does not have anything to do with "making her the girlfriend" or whatever thing. Men and women should both get to have hot significant others and good sex and relationships and whatever.

No, it is two other things, and I will admit them freely:

1. I grew up on the original Star Trek, where the Kirk/Spock relationship is so obvious it's basically the plot of the first movie. They are the godfathers of slash as it exists, and I don't like messing with a classic. So while on one hand I can see Spock/Uhura as they are in the reboot (Spock with his mommy issues I can totally see going for a human linguist, all right) I don't like that they changed something that was pretty fundamental to the spirit of Star Trek. For me, anyway. YMMV.

2. I don't like mushy stuff in my action movies. I don't really care who it's between, I like UST and snarky almost-love but I pretty much lose interest as soon as people are snogging onscreen. I realise that a large portion of the rest of the world is interested in romance and find it a selling point. I and the 12-year-old boy demographic do not.

But frankly, I can ignore it, and fanfic basically exists for this stuff.
darlingfox
Aug. 25th, 2009 08:33 pm (UTC)
I don't like mushy stuff in my action movies. I don't really care who it's between, I like UST and snarky almost-love but I pretty much lose interest as soon as people are snogging onscreen.

This, exactly! I can't count the times I've complained to and with my friends about that. Romance isn't my genre at all, and it annoys me to no end that it's everywhere, even in places it isn't needed.

It's the one thing that annoyed me in Star Trek Reboot, too. Uhura was pretty awesome as a character, and there was no reason she couldn't have been that without the obligatory "there has to be a romantic subplot in every damn movie" thing. I wouldn't have minded Spock/Uhura UST, but establishing it via snogging was a big disappointed bleh.
electrizity
Aug. 25th, 2009 10:36 am (UTC)
Um, I would just like to preface this by saying that I absolutely do not mean to attack your work at all -- I completely agree with this post and I really enjoyed The Demon's Lexicon -- but TDL doesn't exactly pass the Bechdel test either, does it? I loved Mae, but it was very clear to me as I was reading that she was the only female among the main protagonists. Also, if I remember correctly, TDL doesn't have any characters of color, which I will admit I do find disappointing.

Part of the reason I respect you so much as an author is for your outspoken feminism and awareness of social equality issues. I'm curious as to how you consider the impact of your own novel in light of these topics. Once again, I really don't mean this in a hostile way, as I love your writing very much. I look forward to the release of the next book!
sarahtales
Aug. 25th, 2009 01:26 pm (UTC)
I preface by saying no offence taken at all! And then get down to the musing.

I never said TDL did pass the Bechdel test: told exclusively from the point of view of a guy, and a guy who didn't care much about others, it would've been fairly tricky to do so. But I did try to make clear that outside the pretty narrow focus of Nick's point of view, the Bechdel test was being passed - Olivia was talking to Mae about magic, Sin and Merris were talking to each other and Mae about dancing and politics.

TDL is certainly a boy-focused story: it's focused on Nick, and his strongest relationship is with his brother. This is the story as it came to me, and I don't think any of the three main boys could have been changed into a girl. (Jamie would've been the damsel in distress! And Nick would've been downright offensive as a woman or a character of colour, plus what I was trying to do with him - among many other things, naturally - was say, here is this traditional masculine role: few words, into cars and weapons and boy stuff, stoic about emotions to the point of having none, and this traditional gender role - as many roles can - hides and enables something very different and very troubling going on underneath.)

I don't want to eliminate boy-focused stories any more than I want to eliminate girl-focused stories - I think there's a place for both of them. I did not tune into Supernatural and become enraged by there being no Winchester sister, for instance: I knew that the focus was on two guys and was cool with it, but expected there to be girls going around being awesome and integral even if they weren't the focus, as girls being awesome and integral seems to be a natural part of life. An example of what I mean - the Temeraire series by Naomi Novik is also a boy-focused story, and its main focus is on the relationship of a guy and his dragon, but there are awesome girls around a lot - a scarred superior officer and sometimes-lover of the hero's, a young girl trainee, an ex-fiancee who had some very valid points about what she wants from life and why she broke off the marriage, a female captain who is one of the hero's first friends at camp.

So I guess TDL for me and from my point of view fits in with what I believe like that - that a story can have a focus on a guy or a couple of guys, but that is no excuse for not making it clear there are women present in this world, getting on with their own thing, having their own issues, and being in many different ways, awesome. So the leader of the side-of-light-if-ever-things-are-that-clear-cut is Merris Cromwell, the person Nick likes and interacts with as a peer at the Goblin Market is Sin, the demon we see who first expands on what we've been presented about demons and makes it clear it's more complicated is Liannan, and Olivia's crucial mistake was trying to acquire power through a guy rather than on her own terms.

As regards characters of colour, Sin from the Goblin Market is biracial, but I did cut the part where Nick thinks about the fact she and her siblings have different fathers (hers British-Caribbean, theirs Swiss, so they look very unlike) as I thought it interfered with the action at the point where Nick finds out certain things. This means that it is unclear that Sin's biracial, and I freely admit that I should've thought more about cutting or at least made it clear elsewhere: that it didn't occur to me it was now unclear until later is lame of me. But it is clear in book two, so onward and upward, with luck.

Edited at 2009-08-25 10:57 pm (UTC)
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radioactivepiss
Aug. 25th, 2009 10:43 am (UTC)
Oh man, the Harriet thing totally tripped off my Mary Sue sensors, which is absolutely stupid of me. ._. Woe! (Though as an enormous fan of genderbend I am STILL waiting for a Harriet Potter fic that does not immediately make the entire damn plot revolve around facilitating Snape/Harry or Harry/Draco or whatever because the author hates slash. @_@)

This is an excellent post. I may have to recommend it the next time I get into an argument with someone over whether 'Mary Sue' or 'obnoxious' are tossed at female characters too much, because what you say is absolutely true.
silanah
Aug. 25th, 2009 11:00 am (UTC)
I really enjoyed this post and thanks for the essay. I've read the ones you've linked.

You made a post recently about what people would like to see more of/read on your journal. This right here flicks my switch and more than anything would encourage me to read your books because I figure if you have this mindset in place already the books must be fair and awesome to female characters...

N
hanelissar
Aug. 25th, 2009 11:11 am (UTC)
I absolutely agree! And *love* your icon.
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shakeityourway
Aug. 25th, 2009 11:16 am (UTC)
Sarah, you are, quite simply, a genius. ♥

Thank you for this; it makes me feel infinitely better about my lack of love towards characters (both male and female - I hold it against boys who do it, too) who only talk about relationships/sex/whatever. I hadn't actually thought about the HP thing, but I think you're right - it wouldn't be as good if Harry were a girl - and that is depressing.
bookblather
Aug. 26th, 2009 06:24 pm (UTC)
Speaking as someone who's read them all, Murphy just continues to get cooler. She has the all-too-rare character trait of "listens to information and makes appropriate use of it," she never hesitates to call Harry on his bullshit, and she is one of the most awesome people in the series.

The Dresden Files, though, does not pass the Bechtel test. Part of this is because it's a boy-focused story (first-person Harry POV), part of it is because it's an action-focused story, and part of it is that we don't seem to see female characters who are friends. I mean, Murphy and Susan get along, and I think Murphy sort of feels protective towards Molly (and it's totally my headcanon that Murphy, Luccio and Charity have coffee once a week and bitch about supernatural baddies/their jobs), but we don't see women interacting with each other much. Also, Harry has a slightly chauvanistic chivalry thing that a lot of my friends read as sexism, at least in the first book.

However, it does have multiple strong female characters (Charity and Molly Carpenter and the rest of the Carpenter girls, Susan Rodriguez, Anastasia Luccio, Lasciel, Maeve, Aurora, Mab, Deirdre, Tessa, to name but a few), not all of whom are on the side of the angels. It's also a riproaring good read.
drinkyoueatyou
Aug. 25th, 2009 12:32 pm (UTC)
So I probably don't have anything intellectual to say. And what with the number of ridiculously awesome comments you receive it would be hard to say something fairly original. But I would just like to say, that as someone who has been reading your blog religously for several years now and has only just decided to comment, this is by far the most fascinating and wonderful post I think I've ever read. I am only seventeen but I've known for a while now that I would like to write (unlikely as I know that probably is but what the hey) and I have always seriously admired your opinions on books and characters.
The female heroine is a common factor in most fantasy/urban fantasy novels, probably because of the target audience and it always seems impossible to create an original character that is as you put 'awesome'. For instance, as much as I adore Cassandra Clare, characteristics of Clary are common in a lot of fantasy novels; the heroine who doesn't have many friends, misunderstood, the one male friend who is so obviously in love with her, gorgeous but never knows it. I love Clary with all my heart. But to be honest, its probably because she is so relateable, or as I kind of think 'want-to-be-relateable'. If you know what I mean. Which is debateable. Because I'm not entirely sure I know what I mean.
I live in Australia and have unfortunately not had a chance to read your book yet. Its killing me but I like to think I can count patience among my good qualities (I like to think this) (Really I have been pestering the shop assistants at Borders for the past two months). But Libba Bray is probably one of my favourite authors now simply because of telling of so many different girls and their relationships between them. I was itching for Gemma and Kartik to get it on under the Tree of All Souls but I was devestated everytime she fought with Felicity. And this I think is one of the key factors. If you are going to have an awesome main charcter, they might not be as relateable as Bella (Mary-Sue) Swan. But sometimes its the side kicks or the minor charactes that can carry a story and make it unbelievably awesome. And in doing so, the main character. For instance Sarah Dessen's novels invovle some of the most unique minor characters I have ever read. An apocolypse obsessed orphan? A music loving boy with serious anger issues? Or the cheerleader that nobody likes? Maybe I'm stupid and wishful but these are the characters that can hold a story. Felicity Worthington case point A.
Anyway, I should probably stop babbling but I just wanted you to know that this has given me so much to think about in character development ways and so on. Women and girls are so underappreciated and stereotyped that its almost hard to understand why an awesome girl might be awesome and not just a bitch or werid. I think this needs to be bridged.
ladyknight1991
Aug. 25th, 2009 12:52 pm (UTC)
ohmygod. i just recommended she read Sarah Dessen and then i scrolled up and read your post. ha:)
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filterpaper
Aug. 25th, 2009 12:41 pm (UTC)
Rage, gender issues! I am constantly thinking about those points when trying to create proper female characters... and constantly consciously guilty of those points too :( Urgh.
ladyknight1991
Aug. 25th, 2009 12:50 pm (UTC)
yay ladies!
i must make a couple of comments
1. i tried to watch Brick...i couldnt understand what anybody was talking about.
2. If you want books that pass your girls can be awesome test
read pretty much anything by Sarah Dessen. there is no fantasy elements but there is always a pretty strong central girl character ad other interesting girl characters around. i would recommend the books 'Just Listen' or 'Along for the Ride'
3. i hope that when i finish my book my characters pass your test.
^_^
courtneysmyth
Aug. 25th, 2009 01:00 pm (UTC)
Here come the girls.....

Run, Jim Eyre, people would cry!

So funny.... I just yelled that out to an empty house - 'RUN, JIM EYRE!' - and the back door is open so I'd say my neighbors heard me shout that too....


And I like how you brought up Supernatural... It's true, there are few amazing women that stick around in that show (I still love it, but you're right) unless you count Ruby, as she a the demon who is out to help the greater good and is no longer evil, but she's not empowering or a particularly strong character. The whole show centers around Sam and Dean's womanizing skills with a little bit of paranormal and random one-liners thrown in. Where are the women??! Where is the real romance?? Dean falls in love with girls every other episode then there are extensive sex scenes, Sam says "You love her, don't you?" Dean grunts "Yeah..." and then two episodes later, he's with another girl, the first one forgotten about. *shakes head, dismayed*)

Girls often get given out to for being affectionate towards guys and accused of being many, many things that you can't write on the Interweb as they are too horrific to read and are not PC at all... But when guys do it they either become known as players, or they're just noted to be good with girls. It's the subject of many novels and proves that women are still stereotyped, even in a society where stereotyping is a cause for people to be called out on. And yet we all do it. We stereotype, and we show that novels frequently fail the Bechdel test. (I've just been thinking about my own novel, and I can't remember if it fails or not...)
Yet do you notice that novels we read - and write! - that have girls dealing with their problems and how they would appear in social situations if this was real life

The femme fatales, the ninja ladies, the shy girls, the chatterboxes, the ones several guys wanted, the ones none of the guys wanted, the heroines, the sassy sidekicks, the girl the hero fell in love with in one episode we never saw again, the girl who wanted a guy she didn't get, the girl who was with a ton of different guys, the girl who was devoted to her job, the girl who was into other ladies, the murder victim, the tomboy, the feisty redhead, the dumb blonde

Women are forever shown to be complex and deeply troubled, and we take the fall for it. We are found to be at fault for listening to our feelings. Men on the other hand rarely discuss their feelings. Take Harry Potter - in the sixth book, wasn't it mentioned that when he saw Ginny kissing Dean he felt as though a monster was building up inside him? (I would quote that but the book is upstairs and I am downstairs...) He didn't express that he had feelings for Ginny, whereas if he had been Harriet Potter, she would have gone off and told somebody - perhaps her best friend Hermon Granger, the smart, bookish, intuitive boy - that she felt that way and the novel would have taken a completely different turn. I think.


I am not a feminist, (In any way, shape or form) I just agree that novels would be differently perceived if the main characters happened to be female.

Well, I will tell you. Through the medium of SONG. ..... I wanted to sing that song from The Sound of Music - 'Doh, a deer, a female deer, ray, a drop of golden sunnnnnn......' - when I read that....

~ Courtney Smyth
jiffy_pop
Aug. 25th, 2009 01:32 pm (UTC)
Re: Here come the girls.....
I am not a feminist (In any way, shape or form)....

Why on earth not? You're a woman, aren't you?

Re: Here come the girls..... - ashkitty - Aug. 25th, 2009 04:25 pm (UTC) - Expand
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boojumlol
Aug. 25th, 2009 01:14 pm (UTC)
This made me think of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One's Own, one of my favourite books ever. I must quote, sorry.

It was strange to think that all the great women of fiction were, until Jane Austen's day, not only seen by the other sex, but seen only in relation to the other sex. And how small a part of a woman's life is that; and how little can a man know even of that when he observes it through the black or rosy spectacles which sex puts upon his nose. Hence, perhaps, the peculiar nature of woman in fiction; the astonishing extremes of her beauty and horror; her alternations between heavenly goodness and hellish depravity - for so a lover would see her as his love rose or sank, was prosperous or unhappy.

However a lot of the books that fail the Beschel test are written by women, which is a little sad. With regard to romances, there are now quite a few series based on female families/friends. My favourite is Lisa Kleypas’ Wallflower series, where, in between conspiring to find one another husbands, the women play rounders in their underwear and gossip.

I am also less inclined to enjoy books without women. It's one of the reasons I didn't like Kerouac's On the Road. Ok, there are woman, but they are presented almost as a necessary evil - the important relationship is the one between the men. When the women become friends the men regard it with suspicion, as some kind of female conspiracy. My friend tells me I missed the point of the book. *shrugs*
ashkitty
Aug. 25th, 2009 04:32 pm (UTC)
Okay, there's a thing about On the Road. Which, by the way, you are totally legitimately allowed to not like! But it is a basically autobiographical story from the POV of someone who has no idea in the world how to relate to women. It IS about the relationships between men, because those were the relationships he had that he understood.

Someone asked Gregory Corso once about the absence of female Beat writers, and he explained that they did exist--but the times were so different that they ended up being commmitted to institutions, or killing themselves or ODing on drugs. It was not an easy time to be a women and go against the grain and I think that's reflected in Kerouac a lot; not that he wants to make a statement about it but that he just doesn't get it.

If you haven't read it, though, there's a book by Joyce Johnson (a really amazing writer who was Kerouac's girlfriend when On the Road came out) called Minor Characters that really does the perspective of a Beat woman really well. It's autobiographical too, and she gets to the heart of some of the sexist dilemma, like when she had an illegal abortion and the doctor made her keep her shoes on in case someone caught them, or when she first met Kerouac and bought him dinner (now we'd go, uh, isn't he kind of a loser? but for her a the time, being the one to foot the bill for the guy was liberating). Anyway, if you didn't like OTR you might like MC better. :)
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jiffy_pop
Aug. 25th, 2009 01:28 pm (UTC)
That's interesting because most of your male characters I've always found to be feminine-minded.... basically I always thought you had strong women standing in the place of your men-- for example, in your HP fanfiction, Draco was your girl and Harry was your boy..... Draco had depth and quirks and Harry was more of a male stand in for his/her fantasy-- a guy who's devoted and always willing to put up with his lover no matter what.

Your fiction is geared toward female fantasy, but it still puts the "male" in the forefront, despite the fact that "he" is more relatable to me as a female. I feel that female authors in pop-fiction are prone to alter male-characters to fulfill lusty-desires just as much as men do..... and so that makes the male bias in fiction/media today... almost excusable.

True, women still have more interest in male characters with weighty roles and strong personalities, but that's only as long as they choose to remain passive in the media, the backseat riders in the story, as tradition has dictated. If women were more commonly in the forefront of novels/movies, the depth of their male counter-parts, I believe, would be severely diminished.....

The whole point of pop-fiction isn't to present realistic characters and believable plots.... It's to present characters that are exaggerations of what we secretly want to be and want for ourselves.

Women want to be loved unconditionally, so we create characters like Edward from Twilight..... Men want to be admired for being strong and brave, so they create Mary Jane from Spiderman. The fantasies in pop-fiction in and of themselves are sexist. And there's no way of altering that. If you did, your reader base would be cut by half (at least), and you would be writing what is known as (good) literature.
sarahtales
Aug. 25th, 2009 02:01 pm (UTC)
Well, I would like to leave aside fanfiction as they're not my characters, but I've always thought of the boys I wrote as boys, and the girls I wrote as girls. I don't like stereotypes on either side, or thinking that any mindset or way of behaving or thinking makes anyone a girl or a boy. Everyone should get to have depths, or they're badly written characters.

The whole point of pop-fiction isn't to present realistic characters and believable plots.... It's to present characters that are exaggerations of what we secretly want to be and want for ourselves.

I disagree with you. I also do not see the distinction you are making between popular literature and 'good' literature - Shakespeare was the popular scribbler of his day, and he's usually seen as fairly good literature. (Not that I am making any claims to be Shakespeare!) I do not care about characters or plots unless I find them to be somewhat realistic or believable, and thus will not enjoy them. And I have never wanted to be a fictional character. So I think you may be generalising your own reading experience, here.

If women were more commonly in the forefront of novels/movies, the depth of their male counter-parts, I believe, would be severely diminished.....

I don't think that women being awesome would diminish guys being awesome any more than I think other women being awesome would diminish the heroine's awesomeness.

Women want to be loved unconditionally, so we create characters like Edward from Twilight..... Men want to be admired for being strong and brave, so they create Mary Jane from Spiderman.

Again, I really think you're generalising. I care a great deal more about the content of my character than about some dude loving me. And if my experience as a reader/writer/consumer and a girl is so widely different, I think it's legitimate to think a lot of other girls see things differently - and guys as well.

Edited at 2009-08-25 02:05 pm (UTC)
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thegreatmissjj
Aug. 25th, 2009 02:16 pm (UTC)
I have so much love for this post that I'm not sure I can coherently respond to it. Nevertheless, I shall try!

First, have you read the Smart Bitches' book BEYOND HEAVING BOSOMS? It has a large section on heroines that's really comprehensive and intelligent that I think applies to all fiction, not just romance novels. (Incidentally, I'm not a fan of romance novels. I am, however, willing to be converted---I just haven't found one I liked yet.)

Second, problems with female characters in fiction are two-fold: 1) heroines in romantic storylines (whether or not the book is a romance) and 2) the nature of female relationships with other females. A book with all men and no females (main characters, that is) usually indicates it will be about "male" topics: war, existential crises (ugh, I hate novels about male ennui), etc. Add a female character and immediately there is tension because now there is the expectation on the part of the reader that a romantic storyline is about to occur.

I'm not being harsh on romance, but I think part of the "problem" of women is the entire romantic aspect. The expectation that the female will end up with someone---anyone is pretty strong. Because women read more than men, the problem of identification/competition with the heroine occurs, especially in stories where love is a significant element. The hero can get away with being a terrible person because 1) he isn't expected societally or fictionally to be one-half of a couple or 2) as the object of desire, he can be anything because the heroine is expected to end up with him. As the object of female desire, a man can get away with lots of terrible behavior because it's all washed away under the guise of "he does it to protect me!" (a good example is Edward Cullen---"he stalks me because he loves and wants to protect me!").

Now for the other part of the "problem": books with excellently written female friendships are wonderful...

...but often designated as women's fiction.

There is nothing wrong with women's fiction, of course. Two of my favourite books are women's fiction: Anita Diamant's THE RED TENT and Margaret Atwood's THE ROBBER BRIDE. It comes down to the fact that girls will read "boy books" in addition to their own, but boys will not. I adored Libba Bray's A GREAT AND TERRIBLE BEAUTY because she writes female friendships so well (Fee! I &heart; her to bits), but I couldn't for the life of me get my brother to read it. (He's 13 years old.) He didn't want to read about "girly" stuff. I, on the other hand, was completely fine with such "boy" YA books as Gary Paulsen's THE HATCHET and Jean Craighead George's MY SIDE OF THE MOUNTAIN when I was his age.

Is there a solution? I'm not sure. I'm trying very hard to think of a book in which there are both male and female characters, but there is no romance. As much as I love a good love story (and I do), romance does tend to color our view of how men and women ought to be portrayed.

My two favourite heroines are really wonderful until love introduced. For instance, Lyra Silvertongue. In THE GOLDEN COMPASS/NORTHERN LIGHTS, she is AWESOME TO THE MAX---until Will comes along in THE SUBTLE KNIFE and then suddenly she becomes rather passive. Flora Segunda from Ysabeau Wilce's FLORA SEGUNDA is also amazing: cranky, irritable, clever, spirited---and then the [spoilers ahoy! highlight to read] romantic element with Udo comes in and suddenly I'm weirded out.
ashkitty
Aug. 25th, 2009 04:36 pm (UTC)
I'm trying very hard to think of a book in which there are both male and female characters, but there is no romance.

This happens in a lot of YA lit? Think Diana Wynne Jones--very little romance, if any at all, and good, talented, funny characters of both sexes. I think it might be because she's writing for a younger market than romances are targeted to. I don't know. I'm really just not a fan of romance, I guess, period. Except in fanfic, where it's most of what I read...weird, ne?
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jansenist
Aug. 25th, 2009 02:18 pm (UTC)
How do you think the gender-flip would work in your own HP fanfic, in relation to your main characterisation/s of Draco Malfoy? (Trying to think of an obviously feminised version of 'Draco', but 'Draca' sounds more like something you'd pour down the drain for blockages...) My own sense is that a charming, vain, cocky, charismatic topdog Slytherin girl, utterly assured of her own sexual charisma, and taking other lesser characters' adoration for granted, wouldn't have been so generally liked by your readership. (Might have been received as rather more like a HP Heathers...?)

But (as a former slasher in a long-defunct fandom), I do think that m/m slash written mostly by young women (which often utterly fails the Bechdel test) still has a lot to say about femaleness and female sexuality, even if says it fairly covertly, using men's bodies as sort of fictional masks. (Which is of course a problem in itself in various ways.) With some of the immediacy taken out by virtue of not writing about girls, I see a lot of slash exploring issues that confront young women - sexual awakening, fears about loss of virginity, the mechanics of sex and who to have it with, the acceptability of darker sexual fantasies, power etc. (Not to mention mpreg and the various Legolas/ Gimli LOTR fics which seemed very often to be about worrying about perceived levels of sexual attractiveness! And occasionally about body hair.) I have a vague sense that the absence/relative absence of actual women, and the bodies society continually urges us to judge ourselves and other women by, can be freeing, even when it looks from some angles like internalised misogyny.

None of this entirely germane to what you were saying, but maybe worth bearing in mind that female-authored fan fiction, particularly m/m slash, which has no female characters, is not necessarily as unconcerned with women as it seems to be...?
sarahtales
Aug. 25th, 2009 02:25 pm (UTC)
Well, I do not like talking about my fanfiction as a) not my characters so full comment on their personalities can't be made by me, and b) it is down, and I do not wish to deal with requests for it/people wondering what it is and so on.

On a wider scale, you may well be right about fanfiction exploring issues that confront women in a space that feels safe and thus it's terribly valuable.

On the other hand I do feel that just because a story has a gay relationship as its focus (whether it's fanfiction or not) that's no excuse not to have women in the world of the story, being present, being awesome, being concerned with their own affairs. Because that's how the world is.
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birdhousefrog
Aug. 25th, 2009 02:53 pm (UTC)
Great post...and what a lot of comments! Really thought-provoking. Loved it. Vickie tweeted it and here I am.

Oz
novemberhour
Aug. 25th, 2009 03:33 pm (UTC)
This post is excellent, and I thank you for it. I actually did rec The Demon's Lexicon to my sister 'because there are siblings! and magic! and it is in London!' because those are things we like, as in a recipe for a favorite cookie. Because of this recipe we also like Supernatural, which I resisted for a long time because I thought it would be a show about pretty boys who couldn't act, which it turned out, it isn't.

I agree with the many commenters here who have noted that Supernatural's fans have issues with the ladies on the show, who are generally awesome (whether they are ultimately evil or good). If I have a complaint about Supernatural (okay, apart from Eric Kripke's painful confusion about paganism), it would be that the writers DID pay attention to the fans, and often hustled awesome ladies off the center stage and into the wings.

I think Supernatural fandom also suffers from another problem that has been addressed here, and that's the inability of people to imagine themselves in a role outside that of their own gender. People have a tendency to identify with other people who have the same set of naughty bits. There isn't a consistent lead female role in Supernatural, and consequently when someone comes along to fill the position, a certain portion of female fandom feels threatened. Some also feel female characters threaten the Epic Love Story of Sam & Dean, but that's a whole other discussion.

I think I would like to see not only more ladies being awesome, but also people being able to identify with characters they like regardless of gender. I'd like girls to watch Supernatural and enjoy the brothers doing their brotherly thing, and I'd like boys to be able to read A Great & Terrible Beauty and identify with a bunch of kick-ass girls at a girls' school. Why is this so difficult?
sarahtales
Aug. 25th, 2009 03:57 pm (UTC)
Totally: like my Libba Bray recommendation, vague relations to other stuff work - I think you're onto something with the recipe thing.

It is interesting to see how audience reaction shapes television shows and long book series...eses, sometimes for the better (the shift in focus on Gossip Girl was from a relationship between a bad-girl-gone-good and a poetic loner boy, to the relationship between two scheming, insecure criminal masterminds) and sometimes for the worse. And then there are movies and standalone/contained short series books, which necessarily can't be so influenced.

I agree with you on the identification thing, and I know not why it is difficult, but it is sad it is!
terra_lilly
Aug. 25th, 2009 03:37 pm (UTC)
I'm reminded of a previous post on your journal discussing awesome female characters ^_^.

As for Star Trek in particular, I LOVED TOS Uhura. She was classy, in so many ways (Granted it's been a while since I sat down and watched the TV series, but I remember that being my impression of her).

nuTrek Uhura I didn't like so much and it took me a while to figure out why, especially since everyone else I talked to thought I was crazy for feeling that way. I think my biggest problem was that nuTrek Uhura was just SO awesome she felt a little . . .one dimensional to me. I'm hoping they'll give us a little more perspective on her character in the next movie.

The new Star Trek led to a conversation between a friend and I about women in science fiction (particularly in movies and television). We ended up discussing all of the awesome ladies of Firefly and we agreed that one thing that made this campy scifi show great, was that it focused every bit as much on the female characters as it did on the males. Also, while there was romance, the ladies went around doing a whole lot more than mooning over their SO's. Not to say other scifi shows don't do this, but Firefly stuck out for some reason.

As for great female characters, I have a list of all of my favorites from just about every genre you could think of. Unfortunately, it's way too long to post. :)
sarahtales
Aug. 25th, 2009 03:51 pm (UTC)
Yep, is a companion essay, which is why I linkied to the other one in it. ;)

I don't really know much about TOS Uhura, though what I know I like - was there extra awesome given to the new one aside from (I think) her job being more important?

A list so awesome would be lovely to read: post away, or link, or anything you like!
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(Anonymous)
Aug. 25th, 2009 04:20 pm (UTC)
Veering into television for a moment...
On the subject of imagining male characters as being female take a look at the original Battlestar Galactica series from 1978 and the 2003+ reimagined version. Several of the main characters were switched from male to female between versions. It has a really interesting impact on the dynamics and the way you consider the characters that goes way beyond the changes in tone accounted for by the 25+ years that seperate the versions.

Its interesting to note that "strong" female characters (in a lot of texts, not just BSG) are generally hyper-masculine or super-mums. Where's the non-reproductive female superpowers? They exist in real life but it always seems to be a struggle to have that portrayed in fiction in any form.
(Anonymous)
Aug. 25th, 2009 04:36 pm (UTC)
This essay made me realise quite how much of a dick Character A is. Perhaps the difference in attitudes is a hangover from Help Soiled Goods double-standard era? The reaction to his behaviour in that respect is Oh You Silly Boy, while the reaction to her is more Quick Someone Find A Contract.
As many people have noted, a lot of it seems to be to do with the idea that a male protagonist's viewpoint can be enjoyed by guys & ladies, either because it's considered to be universal (the industry isn't anywhere near as male-dominated as it used to be, but is still perceived as such, forming a vicious circle, alas)or because female (and assuming primarily straight) audiences tend to go easier on protagonists they fancy as opposed to protagonists who are similar enough to identify with and then grate when they don't do thinks the way we would.
Genderfipping is the most fun ever. A good benchmark for weeding out the frankly creepy, too. But I would cheer on Jim Eyre to go back! The power-play was good in the original, I like to think it'd stand up. Edwina Rochester would be mental and kickass, just in a whole different way, and it would be hilarious. StJoan would be a complete stereotype, which is interesting.

Please keep doing these deep thought posts in among news & excitment & parodies! They never fail to be amazing and bring up all kinds of musings.

~Halkyon
charon47
Aug. 25th, 2009 04:40 pm (UTC)
I think a lot of women suffer from lack of self esteem and body issues and that makes female characters who go around being beautiful and awesomer than everyone else almost threatening. Personally I just can't identify with that kind of character- I've always been shy and geeky- and therefore reading about them either depresses me or bores me to tears. Male characters are more neutral in that respect and it becomes more about that character's personality as opposed to anything else. Given today's pressure on women (and men too) to look good and the resultant rise in body issues/eating disorders/etc, I've often wondered if this could account for the rise in slash fic's popularity amongst women- romance can exist without any sexually threatening character being involved.

'Sexually threatening' are not quite the words I want, but I can't think of an alternative right now!

A really interesting article! And you've made me realise what's been bugging me about female characters in some books (especially fantasy and film noir). Thank you for that. :)

Sorry, this isn't very articulate! I hope it made sense. :/
sarahtales
Aug. 25th, 2009 04:52 pm (UTC)
Is identification necessary to like a character, though? There are lots of characters I like and don't fancy or identify with.

I am interested in how many people do find identification necessary, though, and cudgelling my brains as to how we can have awesome female characters (not 'awesomer than everyone else' on all counts, because that is lame, but awesome, and awesomer than everyone else at some things) and have people identify with them.

I think what I do is imagine a lot of characters as friends, or interesting acquaintances: that way works for me. I have a ton of beautiful, brilliant friends - I have a beautiful, brilliant sister - and adding imaginary ones to the list works for me. (Though then one does end up having a ton of imaginary friends, and having to answer questions in certain circles...)
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shewhohashope
Aug. 25th, 2009 05:16 pm (UTC)
The femme fatales, the ninja ladies, the shy girls, the chatterboxes, the ones several guys wanted, the ones none of the guys wanted, the heroines, the sassy sidekicks, the girl the hero fell in love with in one episode we never saw again, the girl who wanted a guy she didn't get, the girl who was with a ton of different guys, the girl who was devoted to her job, the girl who was into other ladies, the murder victim, the tomboy, the feisty redhead, the dumb blonde. There was never anything wrong with any of them.

It's worth it to recognise that we're all okay. We were always okay.


<3

I hate Supernatural kind of a lot, and actually do judge people for liking it. And regarding your book - or the half of it I read before it got stolen - I liked all the girls, including character B (I won't lie, Sin is my favourite) and would have liked to see more ladies.
sarahtales
Aug. 26th, 2009 07:56 pm (UTC)
Your book got stolen? That is awful! I am really sorry. In the name of justice and righteousness, would you like me to send you a copy? I mean, I do have spares.

And hey, Sin is a good favourite to have. I am writing her point of view for book three and really enjoying myself, so currently she may be my favourite too. ;)
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anya_elizabeth
Aug. 25th, 2009 05:21 pm (UTC)
I am all for the Uhura/Spock and I think it's doubly awesome if there was Uhura/Spock intent in the Original Series that got network-tossed, argh. But I cannot love her. Or at least, I haven't been able to shake off my initial reaction. And my initial reaction was: holy shit woman EAT A PIE.

This is a common occurrence for me when it comes to Hollywood girls, but in this instance it was especially notable because for a split second, the image of Original Uhura was transposed over New Uhura in my mind's eye, and New Uhura came up lacking. Literally. It seemed to me that New Uhura had paid for her sex life and spunk in flesh. And this does not seem to me to be terribly feminist. Old Uhura, even with the lack of romance, made a huge statement against the inequality and injustice of the time. Newhura? Not as impressive, not at all.

And of course there's the fact that Zoe Saldana seems to be lacking much of the charisma Nichelle Nichols possessed. Perhaps if I hadn't been weaned on Star Trek I would have seen her differently, but otherwise? Film Uhura is meh.

Maybe we need to bond through the medium of fanfic.

In any case, my apathy towards Newhura is sort of irrelevant. Because I still totally agree with this essay. <3
sarahtales
Aug. 25th, 2009 05:27 pm (UTC)
I too was a bit concerned about how thin she was, until I learned Zoe Saldana is a dancer: I've known a lot of dancers built that way, so I stopped worrying about her possibly being unhealthy, which is indeed how a lot of Hollywood girls look to me.

And it is hard to concentrate on loving them, when one is worriedly thinking about fetching them a chair and a sandwich! So I see what you mean on the whole. I also would find it cool if there were more ladies with back in movies and TV shows and books.
anison
Aug. 25th, 2009 06:15 pm (UTC)
Having recently read your book, I feel compelled to confess that I disliked Character B. I felt extremely guilty for it, since I adore your essays on female characters, but there I was rolling my eyes every time she did something. However, it wasn't the use of her sexuality that bothered me (I actually had to think hard to remember an example of her working her cuteness to her advantage), it was her know-it-all, I-can-do-everything attitude in the face of people who were clearly more knowledgeable and competent than she was. (In my defense, that's a personality trait that I find incredibly annoying in people in general, not exclusively ladies. It annoys me just as much when Harry Potter does it.) But either way, Character B was an essential part of the story and I am interested in her development in the future, hopefully toward more knowledge and competency and fewer petulant shows of self-reliance at inopportune moments.

By the way, I absolutely loved the book and cried embarrassingly at the dramatic climax.
sarahtales
Aug. 26th, 2009 08:01 pm (UTC)
I am so pleased you liked it, thank you for telling me!

And you know, naturally B is meant to be a hopefully realistic person, and thus as likely as any of them to be disliked for character traits she actually has. She is bossy, and does have a fake-it-till-you-make-it attitude, just as surely as A has anger management issues, C is a crazy liar and D is a cowardy custard. All of them will be disliked by someone, and that makes perfect sense. ;)

Edited at 2009-08-26 08:08 pm (UTC)
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