Sarah Rees Brennan (sarahtales) wrote,
Sarah Rees Brennan

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Ladies, You Are Awesome (Just Admit It, Quit Fronting)

I know it has been a while since I started waggling my arms around yelling 'Ladies in books! Let us SPEAK of them!' but today that time has rolled around again.

I am afraid I am also going to have to talk about my own book a lot, with spoilers! Which is not to say that I think I am the One True Feminist Icon for this age (sadly, far from it) or that my book is without any of the unconscious weird things that end up in everyone's books. But, I can speak for my own feelings in a way I cannot speak for anyone else's. As I have not yet been dipped in toxic waste and gained the power to read minds.

Also a lot of the responses to girls in my book has made me think more about the responses to fictional girls in general. So I find them a good starting place.

I would also like to say that I love young adult books. It is my genre, and I will be discussing it! (Though not exclusively.) It is awesome that it's a girl-dominated genre, too. It's unusual to have a boy narrator in YA.

There are still all sorts of problems with them. There is the problem that a lot of said girls are concerned with their dreamy boyfriends and nothing else. (Which is indeed a problem: as someone who definitely lost a ton of readers by writing about a family drama with some romance rather than a romance, believe me I know.)

If someone said, Sarah, I am in the mood for some fabulous lady-centred books! I could not recommend my own. I would say, Come back in a few years, I hope to have something for you then! In the meantime, take Margaret Mahy's The Changeover, Diana Wynne Jones's The Time of the Ghost, Justine Larbalestier's How To Ditch Your Fairy, Karen Healey's upcoming Guardian of the Dead, Saundra Mitchell's Shadowed Summer, Malinda Lo's Ash, Holly Black's Valiant and Alaya Johnson's upcoming Moonshine and you know, get down with your bad self. They are all extremely good. They are also books I'd classify as lady-centred (a girl's point of view, who cares about a lot more than her boyfriend and has issues unrelated to him, and girl side-characters as well).

Now, sometimes books have ensemble casts full of boys and also girls, and sometimes they are likewise awesome. Like Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games and Cindy Pon's Silver Phoenix, which are alike in that both have a great heroine whose relationships with boys gets the most page time, but who also have several important ties to girls and aforementioned great heroine.

And then there are books who are boy-centred. I would count the Demon's Lexicon trilogy among them - for me it does expand into an ensemble cast and the second and third books are from a girl's point of view, but since the running thread of the trilogy is about Two Brothers and Their Relationship, and the majority of the main characters are boys, I think we shall leave it there.

However this does not mean that boy-centred books do not have to have girls in them who are important, because no books in the world should be dismissing half the world. (Just like the girl-focused books I mentioned above have many excellent guys in them. ) Since that is gross and insulting and also means the books are not as good as they could be, which is a shame. We should be able to read anything and not have it contain insulting terrible things, but since such is not yet the case: without further ado here are some boy-centred books which I think also have good treatment of ladies.

Naomi Novik's Temeraire series is a boy-centred book: the two main leads are boys. (One is a fine gentleman in a cravat. One is a dragon.) She's obviously thought about women in it, though: carved them out a place in the dragon corps very specifically, has an awesome scarred officer lady, a plucky girl trainee, a naive young captain lady, and a girl who lives in normal Napoleonic-era English society and has to make her own decisions based on the life she is confined by, independent of her feelings for a guy.

Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan series, starring Miles Vorkosigan, lunatic accidental leader of a mercenary team in space. Which at first consists mostly of dudes, and Miles's strongest emotional tie seems to be to his killer bodyguard and his killer daddy issues. But he does have a childhood friend turned fellow mercenary, and the most awesome mother of all time. About whom there are prequels. And women crop up more, and more. Being people. Refusing to marry Miles all over the place! And once, proposing to him.

L.K. Madigan's Flash Burnout is a boy's point of view, with a strong boy friendship - which is also about being wanted by two girls. A nice situation in theory, but very complicated given that girls are individuals, and have needs and problems our teenage narrator doesn't fully understand. It doesn't work out well for any of them: they all emerge with dignity.

Holly Black's White Cat, which has a boy narrator and is deeply concerned with his relationship with his two criminal brothers, but which also has an extraordinary heroine, a fascinatingly terrible mother, and all the ladies have agency and quite obviously lives independent of guys. I can say no more because! It is not out until May.

As you can see I think all these books are awesome too. (I also think said books are awesome because sometimes readers will gravitate towards boy-centred books, perhaps because they have issues about girl-centred books, and then the girls being cool in that series will make them more receptive to other books in which there are ensemble casts or girl-centricness.)

So I already have two essays about girls in books, and our responses to same: Ladies, Please! and Ladies, Please Carry On Being Awesome. If you have not read them, do so, for they contain many of my points! Reasons why girls are awesome, and reasons why people might be biased against them.

After examining how boy-centred narratives are much more awesome for having girls in them, I also have some stuff to say about the excuses people make for why they don't like the girls or how the girls are not awesome. (Yes, sometimes these excuses are known as 'reasons.' But I see them so often, I begin to think of them as 'excuses.')

I Add A Disclaimer Here: Not liking some girl characters, including one or all of those written by me, does not mean people are prejudiced! Some people (for instance) don't like Mae, some don't like Jamie, some don't like Nick, and so on. Dislike away! But I still do feel that these reasons are used often enough that they're worth examining.

1) One of the very strangest to me is 'Maybe the writers do not like their girls as much as they like their boys?' I just don't believe many writers feel that way. I love mine. There has never been an instant of time in which I did not love them as much as the boys, and now since reading the responses people use about all female characters, and which they naturally use about mine too? She's too perfect/kind of a ho/just not as well-written/not necessary to have her there at all/too awesome for me to relate to/maybe the writers don't like them as much/she should be more 'something'/girl characters are constrained by the writer existing in a sexist society/not as well-developed as men. Well, in a protective fury, there are moments I love the girls much more now. But from the start, as much. Of course, as much. It would be bizarre not to! Most writers write their character because they love them. So thinking about why said writers love them might help other people love them too!

2) She's Too Perfect. I see people say this while talking about how they also don't like the girl's flaws! I remember someone telling me Mae never made any mistakes. When I said blankly that she fell off a roof due to being kind of a rash dumbass taking pride way too far, that didn't count. Sin's also too perfect, despite the fact she appears in one chapter and - among other things - goes 'People with disabilities, gross! I'm out.' In that case, Jamie is definitely perfect as well.

3) She's kind of a ho. Everyone gets to make out with whoever they want, people. Unless they have made a prior commitment to someone else, it is only their own business! Also, make sure you hold up guys to the same standard of morality.

Also: girls should be judged by their romantic relationships to dudes alone! Really, now?

4) Not as well written. This is a judgement call I cannot make for people. I can only put up my hand and say, same amount of effort put into writing each character. I presume this is a general-writer-thing rather than a Just-Crazy-Me-Then thing, unlike the fact I survive on thirteen cups of tea a day.

5) Girls Are Not Important to the Plot: I have heard this said about Mae, that Demon's Lexicon could have been done without her. It is not true. She is the instigator of the entire plot. (She is not the protagonist, however. I've heard that, too, that she's the main character and the book is about everyone wanting to date her. I... don't know what to say about that!)

If she had not come hellbent on a mission to save her little brother (as I may have noted before, ladies on rescue missions, I find awesome. Gentlemen on rescue missions, I like too! But it happens quite a lot more.) then a) Jamie would have died b) Mae herself or her mother would have got possessed in turn c) Nick would have found out about himself in an entirely different way, which might have gone considerably worse, leading to things like d) Alan's death e) Nick's enslavement f) the world being conquered by magicians. Alan is a good manipulator of events and people, but he doesn't instigate anything. (Which is not to say that he's useless. Obviously he also has a lot to do with saving the day. So, for that matter, does Olivia. The day takes a lot of saving!)

6) Too Awesome For Me To Relate To: Honestly this just makes me want to cry. Girls are awesome, often! Boys are awesome, often! I don't actually often relate to characters, so I may be missing the boat on this one, but most days I can look at myself and think 'room for improvement, but not at all bad.'

Even today, when I am writing a blog post instead of going to the bank. While wearing, I will conceal nothing from you blog readers, a pink ruffled dressing gown. Very girly. And awesome: it's fuzzy. (And my six-foot-four weights fiend brother bought it for me, because he thought it was awesome.) You are probably awesome, girl reader! You can relate to the awesome all you like. And you are probably awesome, boy reader! (I know my brother is.)

7) She should be more kickass/patient/understanding/strong. All perfectly relevant criticisms! But, I see them levelled at girls more to the extent where what I hear is 'like a boy.'

8) The Sexism, it Exists! We are all undone, undone!

There is a feeling that because sexism exists, writers are hampered in their writing of women, and therefore said female characters are necessarily limited.

Well, I mean, yes. It does exist. We've all noticed.

There are also issues with writing people with disabilities, people of colour, people who are gay. There are even issues with writing straight white guys, because they too live in a world where inequality exists, and this affects them too! All these issues! That's why it is impossible to ever write any characters at all. And so all my writing goes like this 'the void... BLANK PAGES ... the void... BLANK PAGES.' It's very deep.

Oh no, wait.

So - yes, I am confined by my desire not to be sexist. And not to be racist or homophobic! And this applies to all my characters. Not just the girls. Or the gay ones. All of them! Until I write a book set in a strange Everyone Is Equal Utopia, and let us face it, probably that won't work out well. (See George Orwell's Animal Farm, a book about lots of animals trying to live in happy equality on a farm without humans. You can assume it does not end well from the fact it has left me with a life-long distrust of pigs.)

Anyway, I will now descend into further analysis of my own novel. Okay, so one of my favourite scenes in my book is this one. (Nobody else has ever mentioned liking it at all, though I did once read it out once to an adult audience who laughed a lot! So it's entirely possible the scene is terrible.) My hero is lying about being deeply seasick. My heroine has come down to check on him and make sure he doesn't choke on his own vomit (ah, l'amour).

Since the hero is a) physically helpless, b) prone on a bed, and c) discussing his lack of dating experience the question of innocence comes up. Being aware of classic romantic traditions through a) them both existing in this world, b) the hero's brother being a fiend for costume dramas and c) the heroine being a keen reader, they then have a little dialogue in which Mae expresses the idea that it's no fun if someone's not going to fight and Nick proceeds to explain that he is extremely reluctant to make out yet finds her wicked ways oddly alluring.

In a world which has a bunch of issues about people going around being girls, being boys or having sex, I managed to have a lot of fun with something kind of problematic!

Similarly I get to do things like the Chosen Vessel of the Future of Mankind strikes back, a boy whose driving motivation is taking care of a baby he brought up, a shady businesswoman who is ultimately on the side of right, and the real boy (the muscular, into-cars-and-ladies, man of few words) not being a boy - not being a human being at all.

(Conversely, as I've said before, if I'd written Nick as Nicola - someone very strong, someone who didn't attach much emotion to hooking up, someone who wasn't in touch with her feelings, well, that would have been great. Until the end when I said 'Ha ha, that girl, the one you don't see enough? Of course she's literally a demon. No human girls are like that, you should have known!' Which would have been gross, and a betrayal of the girls who connected with that character.)

I write all characters with a bunch of issues dancing around my head. I never get to be irresponsible - that's bad writing. I still have fun doing it: I love writing them all.

9. She's not as well-developed as the boys. Again, this is pretty much a judgement call, though sometimes characters develop Over Time. I would be totally foxed if Jamie didn't exist here. For Mae isn't as developed as Nick and Alan, just like Arthur isn't as well-developed as Mae: she doesn't get as much page time. But she does get the same amount of page time as Jamie. Mae likes: books, homework, the idea of Sumerian, Goblin Markets. Jamie likes: jokes, other people doing his cooking, maybe not magic. I just do not see Jamie dismissed as often as Mae! Not that I wish to see Jamie dismissed, mind you!

The summary of all these tangled thoughts is this: all kinds of books can be awesome, and one of the most important factors in their being awesome is to try and write all characters in them as individuals, and with respect.

With that in mind, do think of all the reasons not to like women that are applied to fiction, and every time, do try to think about whether it's a reason or an excuse. Also, name me boy-centred, girl-centred and ensemble cast books where girls are done right!

For my part, I will keep trying too!
Tags: essays, year of lexicon

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  • Shut Up, Ladies

    Originally published at Sarah Rees Brennan. You can comment here or there. It made me so sad to see, in an article about Jane Austen, that even…

  • Ladies, Don't Let Anyone Tell You You're Not Awesome

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