Strong Female Characters, Part 2: Oppression, Oppressors, and Aha! A Plot!

3 Sep

1392346901-0Sorry for the delay – I’m finally getting over that flu, and I basically took three days off to go camping/kayaking. Yes, I was sick for it but the weather’s been beautiful, and I can stand the fresh air when I’m hacking. And I was getting ready to post, and then work called and I can’t say no to the easy money.

I’m not in women’s studies and know very little about other cultures. For the sake of this article, oppression will be beyond gender roles, to the point where a person is effected either fiscally or in some manner that effects their livelihood. For instance, let’s say I get a new chauvinist supervisor that I have to continuously work with. I might have to put up with some comments here and there, but my livelihood is not affected because the union would put a stop to it ASAP. To me, this is not oppression but dealing with a person and the long term effects are not institutionalized. We don’t live in a perfect world, and part of the reality in living in a free multicultural society.

Last year I took a day course and a topic I wanted to bring up was handling the “hard topics” in YA. The instructor basically said, “You can handle whatever topic you want, just don’t get all educational”. I was coming off a night shift, so I didn’t argue as I wasn’t going to be that coherent. I’ve read lots of books that did teach me stuff and some, dare I say preachy, even in ways I didn’t agree, but the writing was good. When I’m that entertained, I don’t notice it’s propaganda the first time.

Anyway, if that when you try to be educational, most of us in that beginner phase of writing can’t handle the most sensitive topics, or at least I couldn’t, because my early writing was about as graceful as a hippo doing ballet.

I think I’ve mentioned it before, but when I read Narnia or Tortall and we got to Obvious Real Life Issues, I was all like “Pfffft… please.” Ironically, Prachett’s Discworld, when I was like a decade older, has lots of those big ideas that I don’t necessarily agree with, but I was busy laughing so I didn’t notice unless they were slapping me in the face.

My argument therefore, is make your writing good enough that it doesn’t backfire as an argument for the other side. An aside is that even if we consider all fiction to be entertainment, no work exists in a vacuum. Hence my reference in the writing class – even if I’m writing silly nonsense, I think I have more of a responsibility, especially if I’m writing towards kids, YA and potentially even special needs adults, to make sure I’m not teaching any really bad lessons by accident.

For instance, even though I haven’t read it nor plan to, the final book in the Twilight Series has a very anti-abortion message in it. Now, I’ll throw out that as a healthcare professional, I don’t judge anybody – I sit on the pro-life side, but let’s not focus on me besides ballparking where I sit on the issue. Twilight brings up a topic that divides people, and to further complicate things, the situation is not normal – for whatever reason, no humans and vamps having done the deed resulted in a pregnancy (or there’s like one other in the entire world…) and as a result it’s killing Bella. This is not what I’d argue as a good argument for your cause, even if the desired result is to make your heroine look like a martyr who really sacrificed nothing.

This is an instance where the situation makes it look like strawman has a point.

And we can’t treat every subgenre the same, either – the historical fantasy genre has a different game than alternative history.

For instance, The Song of the Lioness Quartett fits – it’s set in a fantasy world, very similar to our own, where MC Alanna has to pretend to be a boy to become a knight. The story of Mulan doesn’t fit, she is a historical person(sorta?). Octavia E. Butler’s Wildseed Series almost fits, but doesn’t – yes, characters are being used for breeding. This applies to both genders, even though it could be argued to be worse for the women, it’s not exactly what I’m talking about.

We don’t have to look far back into history to see not only women, but people by virtue of their ethnicity or class being treated like chattel, denied rights, and personhood. This is happening now and I doubt it will stop any time soon – we can go as far as ‘out there’ as human trafficking or as local as domestic abuse. You can go on netflex or youtube and look up documentaries on honour killings or some of the real struggles not limited to gender. And, seeing what I see on a daily basis, you do not have to necessarily leave your neighbourhood. For the sake of this entry, I will not really be discussing oppression towards men, but there is a reality there as well – historically, it was not uncommon to kill all the men, even the children, and take the women as slaves. If you look into the Book of Exodus, Pharoah commanded all the boy babes be killed at a given time to prevent future uprisings.

I think it’s perfectly normal to look at a historical time period and explore maybe what it meant to be a woman in the regency era. In general though, as a reader, I’m going to ask, “Why does this real-life theme need to be explored in an advanced society that can master space travel, eliminated poverty, and has a three day work week?” Unless the point is the utopia’s really a dystopia. The quick answer is window dressing – that you can easily have a plot and basically reiterate what’s been done before. This is when I make the resting bitch face all squinty, because I don’t like it when science fiction and fantasy are treated like shallow genres.

This a real life issue where people are facing much worse issues than being forced to wear fancy dresses. It’s extremely irksome when the heroine doesn’t ‘want’ to wear it, but it makes her look beautiful – in a way, this fulfills the “Oh, she doesn’t know what she wants” and makes her look less in control of her own body. I’ll talk more about this with the next update. What makes me feel for your heroine is the consequences of her actions – if she defies the social order but there’s no real consequences, unless there’s a serious sense of no one taking her seriously and ‘It’s just Sally being Sally LOL” I don’t think she’s showing strength against adversity. If this is about the culture, have real conflict between the characters – maybe have the character wants to chose her own destiny, but feel torn because she feels some sort of obligation to someone she loves.

Now, the quick and dirty with this oppression story is usually the woman warrior – and let’s assume that this chick can genuinely fight, that’s not the issue. Assuming that war isn’t a bunch of sitting in wet trenches, festering wounds, and having your limbs cut off due to gangrene because that’s just gross and it’s my fantasy, dammit.
Violence looks awesome on screen – I’m not in the military, but from my experience, talking with guys and gals who have been, it’s organized chaos on the battle field, and then, when you’re not fighting, it’s shitty shitty camping unless you’re going back to an established base, and even then, it’s not exactly luxury for your average grunt. Let’s keep it to a very PG rating for the sake of simplicity and we assume all battles are the same. Ever be the only girl in your canoe trip and have to use the toilet? Latrines can be a luxury. (Pro Tip – Make her an OFFICER, life sucks less).

If we’re going to be really honest, war sucks and then you have to deal with all the bodies. From the perspective of a young grunt, the idea of his sister being at home, with shelter, with probably some choice in the menu, it seems better than at the very least watching your friends die. Remember what I said about potentially arguing and proving the other side right? If you make the story all about idealized combat and a generic girl power message, it doesn’t really convince the other side of anything other than a, “Can I play too?” who’s likely to run off and tattle to mom when you hurt her feelings. Rape is real, violence and brutality are real – slavery is real. By all means, discuss, but do your research.

I’m not suggesting the Stepford Wife scenario is anything more than a gilded cage, but when you’re deep sea diving, sometime the cage looks great. I’m not saying never explore the theme, there are plenty of situations why it can work. In Octavia E. Butler’s Parable Duology, in the second book the Earthseed Colonists are captured by a Christian sect, their children stolen and they’re forced into slavery with shock collars and the women are raped, despite the fact that the sect clearly forbids fornication.

Why does this work? My guess, is because I am a Christian and I’ve seen how people wield religion like a sword, and while I don’t agree with painting everyone in broad strokes, the point of the Christians taking over the followers of Earthseed was ‘it’s for your own good’ meanwhile, they can’t follow their own rules.

Why should we care about the mentality of the other side? If I create a generic villain who is evil and represses people for no reason, it’s hard to pull off. Yes, these people are real and do exist – some people just like to watch other people suffer, but they’re generally not the top dog who schemes his way to power. If we consider the more Machiavellian method, it’s that it’s easier to control people with fear than love, but that’s a whole other topic. It would really depend on the theme of the novel, but in general, I like a complicated villain because they’re interesting – and with the Earthseed example, the “It’s for your own good” is twisted. I’m forced to not only acknowledged what’s on the page, but use my brain and think, at least to acknowledge they preach one thing and practice another. But not all villains have to be complicated – take a look at the main villain in The Book of Eli – what he wants is power and control. If there’s no sense of the lengths he’ll go to, we can easily create a strawman, or a caricature of what we’re supposed to despise. Don’t develop him, or worse, give the hero questionable morality, then all of a sudden, you get people like me reading your book and asking why we’re cheering for the hero other then the fact that the author has established he’s the hero. Once again, we have the bible as a means of either repression or emancipation – but we see life under the guy without the bible. Imagine if he takes a book of hope, and twists it to his own end.

Regardless of what you believe, we all know that religion can be used to control people and the protestant reformation – among many reasons – was partially a result of the desire for the bible to be interpreted by individuals rather than the church as a whole (once again, big, loaded topic). I’d argue this to be more horrible for the believer than the non-believer. (Oppression is bad when it’s coming from ‘other’; I’d argue it’s worse when it’s internalized and coming from home – consider Prachett’s Monstrous Regiment – in the end, it’s the women who’ve been oppressing the women, the men all kind of go along with it because the highest ranking soldiers are all women crossdressing and being brutal… it’s funny, okay? If you want to read some stuff about gender roles, Prachett touches on it a lot).

What about a villain who oppresses women because of their tempting sexuality? Once again, this would depend on the type of villain in question – if the guy is like Claude Frollo from Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, it’s really more about him being holier than the rest of us and he needs the temptress to be put away. If the villain is more from a Mad Max type world, hording of women might be the same as hording other resources, objectifying women to the same level as water or food, where maybe it’s more about him lording it over other men that he has excess while they have none. This not only depends on what your heroine is up against, but also the theme of your novel. Honestly, the only thing that irks me about this IN FICTION is when the heroine is so beautiful she makes otherwise normal men who wouldn’t act this way redonkulous, but we’ll get to so beautiful it’s a curse next update.

I’m not saying you can’t have oppression story lines work – as I’ve said earlier in this post, people have been oppressed and will probably continue to be oppressed. I’m saying that your hero overcoming a villain who’s not all that either complicated or dangerous is therefore relying on the narration to keep reminding us how awesome they are for it to work. By all means, go to a historical era where lines are not only spread on gender, but on class and religion, but do your research. If you’re able to have the rules as you like them, ask yourself why the rules are the way they are – if you’re pushing any new boundaries. Being honest with your own work can only serve to make the story stronger. Giving us a generic Girl Power! message doesn’t help people like me who are in a male dominated field.

I’ll put another aside her – while most people would agree that things like cooking, sewing, cleaning and managing a household are typically your culturally ‘pink’ jobs, I’m going to point out most dudes in the military I know know how to feed themselves, can sew their own buttons and they can press their pants. When you’re thinking of traditional gender roles, also consider what’s essential skills everyone should know. You can have a traditional homesteading wife who minds the home while the menfolk are away, raising babies, canning produce, and shooting cattle rustlers while not breaking a sweat. A character can be traditionally feminine and strong, and someone can be going against gender roles and can be an awful role model.

Next Up: Part 3 – Dressing Sexy for the Empowerment, where we’re going to get into Beauty as a Curse, and Slut Shaming

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