Strong Female Characters Part 5: Tokenism and Final Thoughts

2 Oct

I’ve been trying to give both specific and generic examples in the past few posts. Obviously I can’t go into everything – and I don’t want anyone to think that if they wrote something I kvetched about it is a ‘I hate it I hate you graaaargh.’ It’s more of an in general rant, but there’s stories that use cliches and they’re deconstructions, or the writing is that good that I don’t care. It’s like the Bechdel test – failing doesn’t mean that the work sucks. The movie Gravity fails, but there’s just not that many characters in it. It’s when we see patterns consistently forming, that we have something to argue against. Being a Disney Princess isn’t a big deal, but when the only occupation is ‘princess’ some of us will get bitchy. I don’t mind the “Lego Friends” sets because all the lego eventually ends up together in the same bin. (Tough the pink Rebelle nerf guns did irk me…)

Having one character encompass what is ‘ideal’ is downright challenging. Not only do they need to be flawed, they need to be ‘acceptably flawed’ which is a rant for another day.

This past summer, Avengers: Age of Ultron took flack with Black Widow’s character, because her story arch summed up as love interest for Bruce Banner, saying she too is a monster because she’s been sterilized. Now, no one’s going to come down on anyone having a love interest or facing infertility – but, when she’s really the female face of the movie (I can hear you – Scarlet Witch was in it too!) the character has some enormous boots to fill – not only being a character in a superhero movie, but also being one of the characters who fights against the bad guys. I know that not all criticism is legitimate, but let’s say you’re a little girl sitting in the theatre – you are excited because you finally get to see a female superhero fight on screen. Pretend she’s diminished to the classic love interest role, because all women really like romance novels and they’re here to see who hooks up with who, not because they like superhero movies. It’s a mite insulting. Personally, I got more bitchy about Tauriel from the Hobbit movies – not that one female was created to somehow balance out the sausage fest – lots of stuff was in there that wasn’t in the books – but her role was the hypotenuse in a confusing sort-of-not-really-love triangle between her, Kili, and Legolas. The issue isn’t about Black Widow or Tauriel wanting to be with men(?) or why it didn’t work out. It’s about what we see across the spectrum. (Look, it’s a woman! PAIR HER!)

And not to go back to the whole sad puppies thing, but it’s not an indicator that someone is male or female because they keep a cool head in battle or that they’re intuitively nurturing. I don’t want my hero to always be the same only in a different costume. We know we’re going in for a different heroic personality when we pick up a Wolverine or a Spiderman comic. A different flavour of hero or heroine can greatly determine not only the tone, but the outcome of the same sort of plot.

I don’t mind tokenism, where maybe it makes sense that women are in the minority. I’ve written stories where there’s only one female and a bunch of men, and vice versa. I didn’t watch The Last Airbender, (hadn’t even seen the show before the movie came out) but I could tell – by looking – everyone was supposed to be Asian or Inuit. There’s no reason for “inclusivity” to include white people other than Hollywood is not as progressive as it claims to be.

But back on the topic of women, my main suggestions are variety, and think about their relationships with other women. And the reason for the disclaimer above, is, “Obviously – if your theme is about how hard it was to be Queen Elizabeth” a theme of isolation might work. But if you’re writing a “She’s so awesome – all the other women suck next to her” that’s not exactly an empowering statement, and it’s ignoring the hardships faced by real women struggling against actual social injustices.

Want your sword swinging hack and slash? Fine – Have the ladette, and have your lady of war. If they exist in the same universe, they don’t have to be friends – they don’t even have to like each other – but maybe if you have more than one work, you should have a novel where women aren’t in competition or spiteful just because. Want your epic space opera? Fine – have your space princess with a forced-marriage plot, but maybe have a pilot or a mechanic who is not regulated to her chromosome pairing and who isn’t paired off just because (or have the princess end up ruling alone and have the hero and the wrench wench skip off into the next galaxy).

I think criticism is inevitable – but, I also like to think that as readers, we can be smart enough to recognize that we don’t want works with female characters there to fit a quota. I never think about who’s being a good role model and who’s representing, because I typically just make them be human if they’re meant to have much development. For instance, when I wrote Naguset, she’s Micmaq, which I had to research, but she wasn’t the first aboriginal woman I’d written. I didn’t care about making Aoife a pain in the ass, because I’d written characters like Fiannait already. I say don’t get scared to criticize things, even if you’re in the minority, because I think it’s all well and good to like something, but it’s more important that, if you’re going to internalize something, that you can think about it, talking about what you did and didn’t like.

All About Meeeee

I kind of wanted to talk about this topic once I had more stuff published, but I’ve been such a coward and my head hasn’t been in editing and ‘finishing’ things the way it should have been, especially in the last three years. It’s hard to explain exactly – if I were to analyze myself, I’d probably argue that creative works, such as writing or painting, helps me deal with stress and writing helps organize my thoughts. Putting stuff out there – at least for me, is not only handing out ammunition, but it’s another sort of stress to know what you say and what people want to read into your stuff. I can’t control other people, and quite frankly, I wouldn’t want to. I like it when people critically analyze things, and while I don’t expect a book report, I can also figure out who’s genuine, and who’s not, usually by reason.

Final bit – on the publishing side I got nothing but guessing as to why less women write or submit their stuff to publishers then men, ergo women representing X amount of published work compared to their male counterparts. In my experience – well, let’s just say I don’t orgasm over grammar texts and sometimes, I really wonder why I keep at it. I mean, I was writing novels in junior high when most of my peers were all like, “I’m working on a short story” and now people look at me like I have two heads when I tell them I manage about a 100k novel every year plus some shorts.

Maybe compared to other endeavours, writing’s not encouraged, and my guess is that trying to be a novelist is not exactly practical when you’re struggling to get into the middle class. Sure, you might get lucky, and if you have genuine talent and business sense, you can probably make a decent living doing what’s in demand. For me, I’d rather keep my creative works creative and not suck out all the energy writing technical manuals or paint-by-number books. I’m not putting down people who can and do – at one point, I tried to get into ghost writing, but it wasn’t practical for me needs at the time. I think the publishing landscape has changed and it’s possible to do the niche thing, but, as said above, I’ve never been the person who is really good at catching my own bullshit. I’ve edited a lot (mostly mine and RJ’s; I’m more of a content whiner than going through his stuff with a fine comb, though). I have a degree in English and I’m better than the layperson, but that’s akin to saying “Well, I drive the ambulance sometimes for 5+ hours a day, I must not be a completely awful driver.” Do anything long enough and you become less sucky at the task.

There’s a lot of competition out there and I gave up believing hard work = success years ago. If you have to work two jobs and care for X,Y & Z, I think it’s normal to prioritize and maybe put writing on the backburner until things calm down. I never did, but I also snuck journals into my waitressing aprons and I edited a printed copy of ToO in the back of an ambulance during practicum. For some people, they say they wake up at five in the morning (and I say when you work until 2 in the morning and you’re getting up at 7 to go to your other job, screw that). My own experience, though, is that once you have gotten to a place of establishment, you can stop writing when you can ‘fit it in’. My first job as a paramedic involved on call – basically think 96 hours designated to being on truck. We weren’t busy and rarely did the tours run us ragged. I then had 96 hours off – and even being at work, it was the most spare time I had since I was about 15 years old because I only had the one job, no school, and no family commitments. Granted when the pager sang, I had to drop everything and go, but until I got the dog, I could keep housekeeping to a minimum.

I say, if you enjoy the writing, even if you can’t commit to it full time, keep at it. It may not be good enough or no one likes what you’re doing, but I’d rather have a bunch of unpublished stuff I like than a bunch of stuff I can’t stand. I used to think it was a matter of hard work, but part of me has redefined success. I know I need to be less of a chicken-shit and stop ruminating, but I also know how unforgiving readers are, so I need to get the quality up there first.

That last part was a bit tangenty and more of a rant, wasn’t it?

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