Thursday, October 15, 2009

Went to Writer's Group Yesterday, but This isn't About That

In fact, it's about women. The ladies (and here I imagine Maira Bamford saying, "I'm a lady-ist") of fantasy, books, movies and television.

A couple of months back, Sarah Rees Brennan (author of YA UF 'The Demon's Lexicon') posted about the inequality between male characters and female, opening with the idea "What if Harry Potter were Harriet Potter" and ending around the TV show, 'Supernatural,' about demon-hunting brothers (similar premise to her book), which lacks awesome chicksthat stick around.

Today, Justine Larbalestier (author of YA fantasy, most recently 'Liar' and 'How to Ditch Your Fairy') wrote about some reactions to the female protagonist of 'Liar,' Micah, in her post "On Hating Female Characters." There's this idication that some readers hate female characters more than male characters, or if Char. X is male, his behavior is more acceptable than if Char. X did the same as a female.

Larbalestier mentions some characters--a male would be considered "hot" and desirable to readers, while a female in the same situation is a "slut." In both posts, one of the biggest distinctions seems to be made in how male/female characters deal with romantic/sexual relationships and attraction. One commenter proposes that male protagonists aren't as "depth-y" as female characters, and Harriet Potter would be seen as Mary Sue-ish. Others examine the possibility of female characters being judged more harshly, because they judged in relation to the male characters.

Brennan offers a multitude of examples, how characters might elicit different reactions from readers if genders were reversed (Laurie-->Lori in 'Little Women,' for example), and discusses her own work, with two characters who use their attractiveness to their benefit and the different responses because they're opposite genders.

It's good stuff, and Brennan breaks down the Bechdel test. [Tangent: The Bechdel test is for movies, books, TV, etc., and has three parts--does it have two women; do they talk to each other; about something other than men?--What I find interesting every time I hear about it or see the test mentioned, is that no one ever says exactly what it means when a movie or book fails the Bechdel test. Sure it's bad, and there are bad gender things going on, but people also seem quick to point out, rightly so, that there are good books and movies that fail this test./Tangent]

These posts bring to mind the novel I was editing this summer. It's urban fantasy, with a female protagonist and a number of male and female characters. When I first wrote it, bringing pages to my writer's group in five page chunks (as per our rules), they didn't like her. The group was mostly women and the protagonist was curt, stubborn, and resisting the call to action (IMO), but they saw her as bitchy for no reason. Some of that was learning to be clear about character motivation, but I still feel they were too harsh on her. At the time, my mind kept jumping to the tv show, House. He's grumpy and sarcastic and pushes everyone away, with seemingly even less reason than my protagonist (who had been running away from the fae for years, and pushed people away so as not to bring them to the fae's attention, 'don't get close to them and they can't get hurt'). At least/Especially in the first few seasons.

I ended up softening her character a little bit, but more than changing her behavior, I focused on making her motivations clearer, so her "bitchy" actions wouldn't be dismissed as her being unlikeable. But it jarred me a little, how vehemently they disliked her in the beginning, and it confused me that a male character with similar behavioral ticks was thriving on television (I know I love 'House').

This isn't a romance-related example, but I see this problem that Brennan and Larbalestier point out as cropping up in a variety of situations, not solely romantic. I'm not certain exactly why this is. Larbalestier says she has no resolution, because she actively writes to present females as atheltic and males as fashion-conscious, and break down gender steroetypes, but this perception still seems to show up in people's responses to her books and others'.

I don't have a resolution either, except to make my female characters as three-dimensional as I can, give them believeable motivations and let them exist outside of gender stereotypes -and- outside of their relation to the male characters. (My protagonist for the novel I mentioned has, until this point, avoided dating altogether, and romance is about as far from her radar as anything. I wanted to write an urban fantasy that didn't rely on a romantic subplot.)

I'll leave you all with Brennan's words in the post, because they make me smile and feel good:

"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."


jjdebenedictis said...

With shows like Supernatural, I think the fact that the female audience members tends to dislike the female characters might be partly because the male leads are so attractive.

My pet theory is the female viewers see the male characters as sexual quarry, which leads to them thinking of the female characters as competition, which leads to a knee-jerk negative reaction toward those female characters.

If the male leads weren't so handsome, I really wonder if the female audience would be much more receptive to the female characters on the show.

writtenwyrdd said...

This dichotomy is socil, and exists in the perception of men and women. And, oddly enough, it often seems much more judgmental and harsh in criticism BY females OF other females.

Working in a predominately male field for years, it is also apparent that what I am called on the carpet for is bizarrely different from what men coworkers get called on the carpet for. I'm talking winks and nods at guys for doing outrageous things, and I get raked over the coals when someone complains because they didn't think I was polite enough because I didn't "smile like I meant it." (And that's not an exaggeration.)

It's cultural, and it's still ongoing, just like the glass ceiling is still barring lots of women from high-paying jobs and executive roles.

Things change slowly, and I am feeling like in the last decade adn a half they have started rolling backwards somewhat. It's really disturbing to someone who grew up with the 70s and the fight for equal pay and equal rites etc. to see people starting to think that way once again. *shudders*

Sabrina said...

I remember reading, years ago (and I wish I could recall where, but alas, I do not), an article that literally drew comparisons between how men and women were viewed in the workplace. Where a man would be considered assertive, a woman was called pushy. A man is agrresive, a woman is bitchy. And so. In the long list, the women were (almost?) always associated with a more negative connotation. They were bitchier, more emotional (in a bad way), an cutthroat than the male counterparts.

I wonder if our sciety is still steeped in that, or a similar, viewpoint and is now (has been?) leaking into people's perceptions of male an female characters.

I don't know. I've never specifically noticed doing this myself, and I really hope I would notice if I did.