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So I was reading a book the other day, and in it was a heroine who described herself as plain and unappealing and unlovable. Fine by me, I thought, and waited for her to change her mind. She did seem to feel better about her looks because a boy liked them. I waited for something else: she ended the book convinced she was nothing much.

I closed the book with a slam and thought 'What--what--what is this?'

But I knew what it was.

A while ago, Karen Healey wrote a post asking women to say positive things about themselves - it was shockingly hard to write positive stuff about myself without adding qualifiers: saying 'I'm quite' or 'I'm a bit' or 'But of course not as good as...' Because if I did, people wouldn't like me. I wouldn't like me. I wouldn't be likable, if I said I was good at something.

People write these heroines because they think the heroines won't be likable, if they like themselves.

This is the stuff people have in their heads. And by people, I do mean mainly women. (Which is not to say guys can't be insecure--many are--and guys can't have their heads messed with by the world--all do.) But arrogant guys are often seen as attractive and lovable, described as cocky: them being confident about themselves isn't seen as an awful thing across the board. I don't see guys saying 'I can't relate to Spiderman/Miles Vorkosigan/Iron Man/Sherlock Holmes, no sir, not for me, too awesome!'

Women can't think they're pretty--because then they'll be awful. But they can't not be pretty, because then they'll be awful. In the series of books by L.J. Smith, The Vampire Diaries, Elena Gilbert is a happy, popular, beautiful, totally confident girl who is stunned when a boy doesn't like her. In the TV show, they changed Elena to a girl who's sad and recently bereaved, no longer terribly interested in popularity, who's quit cheerleading--specifically because they thought people wouldn't like the Elena from the books. I really like the show, but that bothers me a lot. I remember when my second book came out, some people said they were glad the heroine was less confident than she seemed in the first book. Some people thought she was still too confident: when the third book came out, it was the other heroine who thought she was too pretty.

There are all sorts of reasons people use to talk about how people shouldn't like girls.

There's ladies being annoying.

There's ladies being 'Mary Sues.' Zoe Marriott recently wrote a post on Mary Sues - which is an excellent post I agree with completely. Also, if you want to check the comments, there is a, uh, frank appraisal of my own appearance, which is an example of the way people discuss real-life ladies, let alone fictional one. It's fairly mild, too, which is why I'm linking it--I don't think I could have linked or laughed about it if it was vile, and I have seen people say absolutely vile things about the appearance of female writers. (I've heard people say absolutely vile things about the appearance of females, full stop, of course.)

The whole business of self-insertion in a narrative worries me a bit. I don't have to relate to a character to like her, or him. I also don't want to put myself in books. I don't want Mr Darcy to kiss me: I don't want to be in Pride and Prejudice. I want Elizabeth Bennet there. I love her, I love reading about her, I love the particular relationship between those specific characters. And yet if people do want to imagine themselves in narratives, it makes me sad that 'thinks she's awesome' is a barrier to them.

Ursula LeGuin said "We read books to find out who we are. What other people, real or imaginary, do and think and feel...is an essential guide to our understanding of what we ourselves are and may become." But what do people find out from books with girls who don't think much of themselves? What do they think they find out about themselves, or the women they know, from those books?

I hesitate to say any of this because I don't want to see any specific fictional lady lambasted for being insecure: loads of people are insecure. And readers naturally criticise girls for anything: that's my whole point.

I am not saying that all girls in books or real life should never be insecure. I know I'm insecure about a bunch of things! And I have loved an insecure fictional lady many times. Sophie in Diana Wynne Jones's Howl's Moving Castle doesn't think she is anything special. Then she gets turned into an old lady, storms a wizard's castle, and realises the things she assumed were true aren't true. And she loves and is loved by a great guy, but that's not the only thing going on with her, or the only thing that helps her to the realisation. Then there's Elizabeth Bennet, who knows she's smart and pretty. Bianca of The Duff doesn't think she's as pretty as her friends, but she knows she's smart and she is never afraid to show it or to stand up for herself. There's a spectrum, and that's how it should be: girls who start out thinking they're not awesome, girls who think they're awesome at certain things, girls who aren't sure what they are, girls who think they're generally awesome.

I just don't want to read about fictional girls who can't think they're awesome. I don't like reading about those characters and I don't like the mindset that produces them. The fictional girls I'm talking about aren't meant to be depressed (I'd like to see more actually-depressed characters in literature: they can be heroes too)--they're meant to seem normal, and likable.

I do not want to read about girls who think they're worthless. I do not want to write about girls who think they're worthless. I do not think I'm worthless.

Nobody has to like a girl, fictional or otherwise. But words like 'annoying' or 'Mary Sue' are both used as shorthand for 'girl I want to dismiss.' We've all read about characters who seemed overly perfect, or who had flaws the narrative wouldn't admit were flaws, and those characters are irritating. But I've seen just as many fictional boys like that as fictional girls (with the caveat that boys tend to get more pagetime, so they get more explored) and those boys don't get seen in the same way. As I was saying on twitter a couple days ago, I want characters to be flawed and awesome: I want them to be flawesome.

Talking about girls in this way is not useful. It just helps along the mindset that girls can't be awesome, the lie all girls get told, whispered in their ears over and over again, all through their lives.

It is not true. It never was. No person, or book, should ever have told them otherwise.

To borrow a phrase from Jeanette Winterson: 'Trust me. I'm telling you stories.' They're full of lies, but not about the important stuff.

Comments

( 210 comments — Leave a comment )
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nataliewhipple
Aug. 4th, 2011 10:02 pm (UTC)
Um, YES. To all of this.
sarahtales
Aug. 4th, 2011 10:06 pm (UTC)
*beams*
swan_tower
Aug. 4th, 2011 10:03 pm (UTC)
James Bond is awesome. Jane Bond would be called an insufferable Mary Sue.

Screw that, sez I.
sarahtales
Aug. 4th, 2011 10:06 pm (UTC)
I totally forgot about James Bond, the ultimate Mary Sue. Whoops!
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ailbhe
Aug. 4th, 2011 10:06 pm (UTC)
Awesome.
sarahtales
Aug. 4th, 2011 10:09 pm (UTC)
Thanks!
helenin
Aug. 4th, 2011 10:07 pm (UTC)
You are consistently right about things, Ms Rees Brennan.

My real qualm with the Twilight books was how self-hating the character of Bella Swan was. Realism is when characters are both flawed and awesome, just like girls (and boys) in real life. If YA is for teaching readers about the world, it should teach girls they can be great. Because they are. *firm face*
sarahtales
Aug. 4th, 2011 10:12 pm (UTC)
The issue of readers being able to 'self-insert' with a heroine worry me - I don't want me in Pride and Prejudice, you know? I want Elizabeth Bennet! But likewise, lord, I don't think to myself 'she thinks she sucks--just like me!' So it's a problem either way you slice it.
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hanelissar
Aug. 4th, 2011 10:14 pm (UTC)
If my internet had legs I would be giving you a standing ovation. But it is sadly disembodied so you will have to imagine it! *standingly-ovates you and this post and all the awesome within*

You are always so excellent at taking things which I think but can never accurately express so as to convince others of their truthfulness and conveying them so spectacularly that there's nothing to be said apart from 'Why yes, this is the truth. Now can we all realise it world/the internet specifically?' And I love it, and I love you and I love this post and I sort of want to give it to everyone I meet ever who thinks they have a right to hate on any female character (or real life female!) for any reason so ridiculous as 'she's too awesome/pretty/ugly/boring/interesting/plain/every adjective ever because heaven forbid anything be considered good within a woman'.
sarahtales
Aug. 4th, 2011 10:25 pm (UTC)
Thank you very much. ;)
dgjamie
Aug. 4th, 2011 10:16 pm (UTC)
You know I read you talking about this on twitter the other day when I woke up, gorggily agreed and then got on the tube to work, cracked open new book for journey, and immediately found a girl dissing herself for how useless she was next to siblings. And amazingly she was thinking this while quite literally in the middle of doing some Epic Katniss style shizz that a useless person would definitely not be capable of. And I literally facepalmed. Or more accurately I facebooked (as in My head just conked into the pages while on public transport, nothing to do with social networking). But yeah, as someone who basically makes book buying decisions on the BAMF levels of female leads I totally agree with this. Not to say my favourite girls, the Kat Bishops, Sabas and Tris Priors, of the book world, don't have their insecurities and issues but they don't let them overcome their awesome. Bring on the Katnisses and Katsas of the world!
sarahtales
Aug. 4th, 2011 10:19 pm (UTC)
Well, at least she was doing some epic Katniss style shizz. ;)
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tommyrotter
Aug. 4th, 2011 10:17 pm (UTC)
This is a really nice post, and makes me think of what Tamora Pierce wrote earlier today that deals with the media and the media's views on women. The tricky thing to remember is that nothing exists in a vacuum, and so if it is constantly presented in fiction that girls have to think of themselves as inferior/undesirable/etc in some way, it's going to inform those who read it that that is how they should be viewing themselves.
sarahtales
Aug. 4th, 2011 10:22 pm (UTC)
Thank you for the link--I often wonder why I have not yet built a willow cabin at Tamora Pierce's gate. Obviously, I've made some very poor life choices.
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Hannah Kilpatrick
Aug. 4th, 2011 10:22 pm (UTC)
This, completely.

I actually read that Zoe-Trope post an hour ago, and may or may not have exclaimed aloud over the inclusion of Mae. Yes, I can see you in Mae. However, I can also see you in, well, Nick, Jamie, Alan, Seb, random other bit characters and every single bit of prose whether it relates to a character or not. Which leads me to suspect that whoever labelled Mae a MS did so because, well, she was the only female character in the central four, and happened to be a strong one. This doesn't mean everything about your writing is Mary-Sue. It means that I recognise your ability to have interesting, involved thoughts that are not necessarily Mary-Sueish.

And yes, I have seen that expression used far too often over the last year in relation to characters for whom it simply doesn't make sense, and this post (having a larger sample group than I ever had) helpfully explicates the trend. Even some - honestly, I can see the argument with Harriet Vane, as there are pretty enormous points of similarity between her and Dorothy Sayers, but Sayers thinks about it and uses Harriet to explore in fictional prose (fictional prose which remains effective, be it noted) concepts and arguments which are fascinatingly relevant to her era, especially re. educated women with their own opinions. And every time I re-read Gaudy Night (in particular), every two-three years, I see very different things about Sayers' relationship to the culture in which she lived. That is not cheap character/author wish fulfilment.

And yes, I know what you mean about 'no one will like me if I like this, this and this about myself'. We are bombarded nowadays with simultaneous 'Make your own lifestyle! Believe in yourself' and 'Improve yourself! You will never be perfect unless you buy this product and adhere to this objective!' and, well, against that, the ideals of common courtesy which state that one doesn't just force oneself on everyone even if (one aspect of) common commercialism says one should...

But yesterday? I realised just how many different academic disciplines my thesis covers (english lit, philosophy, mediaeval history generally, archival close analysis, manuscript studies, latin, old french, middle english, cultural studies, religious studies) and in how many contemporary critical arguments it engages (self-identity re. time, chronicles as literary texts rather than just sources of information, interaction between aristocratic classes and local religious institutions re. composition of history, use and shaping of saints' stories, etc, etc) and actually managed, for a moment, to step back and think - wow. Pretty awesome, really. For a masters thesis.

Then, of course, I was back to 'but this paragraph could be BETTER'. For that is the way this works.

Pardon the rambling. Ignore the bits that don't make sense. This is what happens when my brain has been fed solid thesis-crack for two weeks straight with no reprieve from the computer screen. Filter at leisure.
sarahtales
Aug. 4th, 2011 10:24 pm (UTC)
I am sure your thesis is awesome!

I was very happy to have Mae included in that post.
(no subject) - Hannah Kilpatrick - Aug. 4th, 2011 10:31 pm (UTC) - Expand
claris
Aug. 4th, 2011 10:27 pm (UTC)
this is why I hate Twilight.
Everything up there could easily be inserted into my trademark rant re: why Bella is the worst thing to happen to the topic of womens' self-image in the last thirty years.

I have actual issues with Stephanie Meyer & really just want to send her a big plaque that says, "Like a fish needs a bicycle, b*tches." because omg, HAVE SOME SELF-IDENTITY OUTSIDE OF YOUR BOYFRIEND.

However, it's possible I overreact. A little.

;)
~ Claris
www.heroineaddict.me
sarahtales
Aug. 4th, 2011 10:36 pm (UTC)
Re: this is why I hate Twilight.
I liked the end of the Eclipse movie where Bella says turning into a vampire is not just about or for Edward. Made me smile!
shadeofdusk
Aug. 4th, 2011 10:34 pm (UTC)
Thank you. This is something that drives me nuts and you explained very articulately why. And you know, I hate it that I feel the need to tell my friends in real life "Stop it you're pretty". Having fictional characters induce that urge isn't going to make for an enjoyable reading experience.
rockinlibrarian
Aug. 4th, 2011 10:35 pm (UTC)
I saw Zoe Marriott's post the other day-- didn't respond there, as I'd just popped on from elsewhere and felt self-conscious (does this tie back to what we're talking about?)-- but I was SO glad to get that definition of Mary Sue cleared up. That has bugged me since I first heard the term.

I'm glad you point out that you're not talking about people who are actually depressed. I've had serious self-esteem/depression issues most of my life, so this kind of negative self-talk is VERY familiar and realistic-sounding and definitely relatable to me. But yes, I expect a heroine who feels that way at the beginning of a book to discover otherwise by the end. You bring up Sophie, for example, who I adore SOOOOO passionately that she's my #3 Top Literary Girl-Crush (I touch on some of these topics there actually), and that's really WHY I love her so much: because she starts OUT all mousy and then rather believably (if you discount the whole curse thing) grows into this person whom it is absolutely impossible to mess with. And then, less dramatically a change, the book that means the most to me in the course of my life is A Wrinkle in Time, which has Meg convinced, at first, that she is a "monster," the completely worthless one, the freak; and the fact that EVEN SHE has a part to play in the Cosmic Battles of Good and Evil, that there are some things only she can do-- that has meant ever so much to me growing up (and as a grownup, too). Who are these characters who don't discover that they're awesome? It seems to be that they're missing an important character arc. That was the arc I wanted the most in my stories. I really DIDN'T want to read SO much about a character who already thought she was awesome (though I was a big Nancy Drew fan), but she'd better LEARN she was by the end. That was the point of a story.
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crystalc13
Aug. 4th, 2011 10:38 pm (UTC)
Thanks or the great post. What I think a lot of people don't realize, is that a female who knows and ACKNOWLEDGES her own awesomesauce is infinitely more interesting to read about than one who weeps and belittles herself the entire duration of the book. Furthermore, of course there will be something of the author in the book. I mean, hello? They're the AUTHOR. They wrote the book.
queenmaggie
Aug. 4th, 2011 10:46 pm (UTC)
I don't ever want to read other people's Mary-Sues. They just don't interest me. I want to read my own Mary-Sue and keep her hidden (thankyouverymuch) because she's my own imaginary perfect me.
sarahtales
Aug. 4th, 2011 10:52 pm (UTC)
I don't really like the term Mary Sue, because I've heard it used for so many girls it's become meaningless. Perfect characters of either gender are not very interesting, I agree!
redzolah
Aug. 4th, 2011 10:51 pm (UTC)
Oh!

Well, you've gotten your own back on me - if the mention of Mae in my post made you blink, your link to my post nearly made me swallow my own tongue. Thank you kindly. And once again - so sorry about the comment trail nonsense (I know it's not *technically* my fault but, well, you know. Eugh).

Zx
(Deleted comment)
sarahtales
Aug. 4th, 2011 10:55 pm (UTC)
Yes! I love to get the feeling I'd recognise characters - that there's a lot of there there.
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