Sarah Rees Brennan (sarahtales) wrote,
Sarah Rees Brennan

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Ladies, Please (Carry On Being Awesome)

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.

If He Was A Girl, Even Just For One Day

I certainly have seen girl characters who were too perfect: who were beloved by all, beautiful (though they always thought their mouth was too wide or possibly their bosom too generous), and eventually elected queen of the universe. (Sometimes literally.)

Let us think of the Question of Harry Potter. I do not mean to bag on the character of Harry Potter: I am very fond of him.

But I think people would be less fond of him if he was Harriet Potter. If he was a girl, and she'd had a sad childhood but risen above it, and she'd found fast friends, and been naturally talented at her school's only important sport, and saved the day at least seven times. If she'd had most of the boys in the series fancy her, and mention made of boys following her around admiring her. If the only talent she didn't have was dismissed by her guy friend who did have it. If she was often told by people of her numerous awesome qualities, and was in fact Chosen by Fate to be awesome.

Well, then she'd be just like Harry Potter, but a girl. But I don't think people would like her as much.

Thinking it over, there are a lot of male characters who are super popular, who fulfill a good few of these criteria. And yet, thinking about it as Male Character being a girl, you feel differently about it. I think Petra Pan would get more flak for being mean and selfish than Peter Pan ever did. Heathcliff is generally better liked than Cathy, even though Cathy has no history of animal cruelty.

Edwina Rochester would be Loathed By All. The older, not terribly attractive, super rich woman who almost lures the dude into a false marriage? Run, Jim Eyre, people would cry! Never dream of looking back!

If Laurie from Little Women were Lori who lived next door to a house full of brothers, and who gave up her interest in the dark, bookish, less attractive brother and decided she'd always loved the much hotter brother with less personality really? I know a lot of people don't much fancy Laurie and Amy's romance, but I haven't seen a lot of people dislike Laurie: I do think Lori would attract more hatred.

And some of that is of course because the character would be intrinsically different if they were a girl. But some of it's because we're more prone to judge girl characters harshly: we're suspicious of them when they're awesome.

She's the Girl All the (Bad and Otherwise) Guys Want

We're suspicious of girls when they're wanted.

Uh, if I may, I'll segue briefly into an example from my own book, it isn't necessary to have read it: I have two characters. Let's call them Character A and Character B. (Those are not their names. Those would be terrible names.) They're both important characters: they're both attractive and confident about their attractiveness. For most of the book both of them are too busy for romance, but occasionally both of them forget that.

There are four main characters in the book: Characters A and B among them.

In the case of both Character A and Character B, each of these has two of the three other main characters attracted to them. (The character who remains in each case is related to the character in question, and thus not that likely to be attracted to them.) In the case of Character A, various minor characters are also attracted. A puts A's attractions to use more frequently than any other character: such uses include making out with people to get stuff, and being half-naked and expecting to get stuff.

The reasons for this are simple. Character B is cute and knows how to work it. Character A is the bombshell head-turner of the group, and knows how to work that.

Character B is the one who gets called out for having too many people fancy B, who's seen as responsible for other people's attraction to B, who's seen as using people's feelings and provoking their feelings. Nobody ever tells me Character A is too attractive.

Character B's a girl. Character A's a boy. I can't help but feel there's an unconscious bias going on there.

Of course, we've all seen fiction where every man within range is slain by a single glance from the lady's eyes, and sometimes it totally is excessive. But there are also a lot of guys ladies go nuts for in fiction: see Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, subtitle 'Harry Potter, A Lot of Ladies Would Like To Hit That,' Edward Dazzle Me Harder Cullen, and The Name's Bond James Bond.

But it's the boys wanting the girls that seems to cause the most ire... directed towards the girls. And why's that?

I Don't Like Your Girlfriend

So lots of books have romances in them. As well they might: romances are interesting! I won't lie, I always assume evil will be defeated and am pretty engaged with who will get with who.

And there often exists a romantic rival lady in a romance, or even other ladies around who might be seen as the romantic rival, and they're often hated inside and outside the text as vile and unworthy and unattractive.

'Right, Little Miss Picky' you might say unto me at this point. What do you want from a romance, then?

Well, I will tell you. Through the medium of SONG.

A song called Kathleen by Josh Ritter begins 'All the other girls here are stars... you are the Northern Lights.'

And that is what I like. That's more romantic. If the hero isn't presented with a scheming evil diva from hell with no redeeming qualities and a taste for puppy blood in her Cheerios and you, if there are a lot of awesome girls around, if they're smart and funny and great, and the hero still picks the heroine, if he thinks she shines the brightest, is the awesomest of the awesome...

Well I think that's pretty romantic.

After all, if a girl's torn between two or more guys in fiction, often those two or more guys will be fairly awesome. Why should the other ladies be any less awesome?

There's also dislike for the heroine, often because she doesn't reciprocate a preferred guy's feelings. We've all wanted people to get together who never did get together (Jo and Laurie, for me, for one) but girls are seen as culpable for not liking a guy, sometimes, in a way that guys just aren't blamed for in the same way. Which I think is down to a perception of ladies' hands as being given away by someone else, as naughty women being temptresses and good girls being meant to go for the right guy. And a little bit down to girl readers putting themselves in the heroine's place.

Women are not prizes. And it's really easy to see them that way: when I was sixteen and reading LJ Smith's books (and loving the hell out of them, I might add) which are heavily focused on boy/girl/boy love triangles, I always passionately wanted the girl to get with the boy I liked best.

But no: nobody's owed a lady's love. Ladies, not awarded to the most deserving. Ladies are to be judged independent of guys: again, let's play flipping genders. Guys' romantic choices are held against them way less often - Dickens's David Copperfield has a hero who marries demonstrably the wrong girl for him when the right girl was there all along, but I've never heard anyone hold it against him.

I Get By With A Little Help From My Friends

So, there's this thing called the Bechdel Test. I have handily looked up a definition of it for you!

Test is in three parts.

1. It has to have at least two women in it
2. Who talk to each other
3. About something besides a man

Here is an awesome link about both the complexities of the Bechdel Test and also giving a ton of examples of awesome fiction with ladies' friendships in it. It is COOL and you should read it. This essay will be here chillin' and waiting for you when you're done.

However if you don't read it, or if you don't read all the comments, part of mine is a recommendation for Ilona Andrews and her series, which takes apart a feature of a lot of books: the kickass woman who's surrounded by guys. The books (which start with Magic Bites) start with the heroine Kate being like that and then shows us she's like that because she's been raised in a terribly, legitimately messed up way, and as the series goes on it slowly ceases to be true. Awesome minor female characters are around being awesome, and Kate acquires a best friend called Andrea, who's very into guns and romance novels, and an adopted niece.

That is awesome, and I trust I do not need to tell you why. Andrea and Julie make me love Kate and the books so much more.

I don't mind some things not passing the Bechdel Test: there's reasons for some things not passing it. But a LOT of fiction doesn't pass it. I've recently been really dismayed by reading a bunch of books where the heroine apparently has no friends, or seems to actively dislike her friends (tons of mental bagging on them) or is at least totally prepared to dismiss her friends the instant Mr Right comes along and then friends can either talk solely about Mr Right with her or hop it.

Which doesn't endear me to the heroine, who then seems like a pretty sucky friend. And which certainly does not help her be the Northern Lights. There should be other ladies around being stars!

These books make me think, this one lady being validated by the approval of the dudes, being different from the (ew) other ladies. What's wrong with the other ladies? Why does she need to be so drastically different? I don't like seeing fiction where it seems like all girls except for the Chosen One has cooties.

I've had to wash the taste out of my mouth by reading Eloisa James's romance novels: many of her serieseses...eses are based on the bonds between ladies, notably the Desperate Duchesses and the Essex sisters books. As they're straight romances and historical, marriages and menfolk are on these ladies' minds. But I always get the sense they legimitimately care about each other, that they have things to talk about besides dudes, that they're interested in each other - and seeing a heroine be interested in someone who's not her love interest makes her a lot more interesting to me.

No Woman, Quite A Lot of Cry (At Least From Me)

I get a lot of people assuming I like Supernatural when I haven't watched it in years, and never more than a few episodes off and on. I assume this is because there are demons and brothers in the book what I wrote, and the show also. But no, not a Supernatural fan, ever since I realised there was never going to be a female character who was awesome and stuck around for a while.

Which is not to say people are wrong for liking Supernatural - everyone's hot button is different. I like Gone With the Wind, while some of my friends can't deal with the race issues. I like Anthony Trollope.

ANTHONY: Feminists are ladies who has gone CRAZY.
ANTHONY: No, no, wait, I'm not done. Do you know why they went crazy?
SARAH: Anthony, why are you hurting me. Anthony, I ONLY WANT TO LOVE YOU.
ANTHONY: Because nobody has MARRIED them. LOL!
SARAH: *weeps*
ANTHONY: Oh little lady you know what you need.
ANTHONY: Wrong answer. Right answer? A MAN.

I totally still love Anthony Trollope. There is no judgement here.

Nor does it mean I will be sad if people relate my book to Supernatural. People relate stuff to other stuff: it is the nature of fiction. I do it myself all the time.

SARAH: So you should read Libba Bray's A Great and Terrible Beauty because it is like Harry Potter.
PATIENT FRIEND: There is a lady in a corset on the front.
SARAH: Um yes. Well like Harry Potter if Harry Potter, Draco Malfoy, Blaise Zabini and Neville Longbottom were all girls living in the 1800s and wearing corsets and having illicit midnight swims and trysts with gypsies and going to school.
PATIENT FRIEND: ... Magic school?
PATIENT FRIEND: This does not sound like Harry Potter AT ALL.
SARAH: Well, there IS magic in it.

I believe I have strayed from my point, though I like how I've strayed since it brought up A Great and Terrible Beauty which features lots of awesome girls, and awesome female friendships, and never any fighting over a guy. My point is, I'd like to watch a show with two attractive brothers and a focus on horror movie examples of the week mixed in with a road trip through America. Who wouldn't? But I can't enjoy something without ladies in it.

It makes me feel icky: it makes me think the people who made the show don't like ladies, or the people who enjoy the show don't like them. And I don't think either of those things are true: probably people don't want to get girls wrong, because it's easy to get girls wrong, or they just kind of overlooked it, because it's easy to do that.

And I don't mean to pick on Supernatural especially here: it is just an example. There are a lot of shows, and movies, and books like it, and I mostly don't enjoy them. I've kind of given up on detective noir because I've seen women float through it, be evil or killed or both, and never stick. Women being evil or killed or both is why I didn't much like the movie Brick, which lots of my friends like: which is a very good movie.

My point is, people will enjoy books and movies and shows more if ladies are in them being awesome. (I know I will.) And people will enjoy them more if they maybe take a step back, examine their prejudices, and relax into accepting that they're awesome. Even if some girl characters are missteps, even if some of them you just will never personally like because tastes are subjective, it's worth doing to have them, and it's worth trying to love them.

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.
Tags: essays

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