Women in fiction can be tricky things for writers, especially male ones. Every individual, regardless of gender, is a creature of nuance, and unless you want your work to be regarded as lacking substance, easily disposable and the sort of thing no publishing house will get near with a ten foot pole, your ladies are going to need just as much development as the gentlemen. But there is definitely a wrong way of doing it. Or them, if you want your discussion to become kinky.
Gracing the top of today’s post is the feral and beautiful face of Tyrande Whisperwind, from the Warcraft universe. When she and her people were first introduced in Warcraft III, they were depicted as a semi-Amazonian society, where the females hunted, fought and provided for settlements while the men healed, dealt in the arts and acted as spiritual guides, when they weren’t hibernating. Tyrande, a high priestess, rode a giant tiger into battle and, despite being mated to the world’s most powerful druid, wasn’t the sort to be pushed around. To this day, the quote that will always define her for me is “Only the Goddess can forbid me anything, Malfurion!”
Unfortunately, this depiction of a strong female leader didn’t hold up over time. Richard Knaak has, through several of his novels, chosen to take Tyrande down a slightly different path, that of a somewhat meek woman not entirely comfortable in her own skin whose identity is completely entwined with that of her husband. Let’s leave aside, for the moment, that fact that night elves do not marry – they choose mates privately and don’t make a big deal out of it. According to Knaak, Tyrande’s more of a “teenybopper”, either waiting to be rescued from one peril or another, or wringing her hands shyly while the men (more than likely Rhonin and a couple others) sort out how to fix the issues of the day. This isn’t helped by the fact that a lot of role-players take their night elf females in exactly this same direction, watering down the uniqueness and draw of their entire race as far as I’m concerned.
This is starting to sound a bit like that complaint I had about the Baroness.
The thing that really irked me about the Baroness’ derailment in the G.I. Joe movie was the apparent necessity to not only have her secretly being a “girl in love” but also mind controlled. First of all, just because you have a female character doesn’t mean they need to be defined by a relationship to a male. Tyrande suffers from this at Knaak’s hands, as I mentioned, but I see it everywhere, even in good works like Inception. Granted, in that work, Mal is actually a projection of Cobb’s unresolved feelings and guilt over the loss of his wife, so it’s more a case of him being defined by his relationship with her, but it can be interpreted as this sort of problem as well.
G.I. Joe, though, has no wiggle room. Everything that made the Baroness interesting, clever and fun to watch was never real to begin with because (a) she never stopped loving that unemotive dull-surprise-faced Duke for whatever reason and (b) she was being manipulated and brainwashed by Cobra’s malevolent doctor. The worst part is that for most of the film this was barely eluded to, even if eagle-eyed viewers could see the penny on the rails long before her character’s train hit it. It was going in a cool direction before it jumped the tracks. She wasn’t uninteresting, meek, submissive and just waiting for a male to take her away, unlike other supposed “heroines” I could mention. But after the changeover she might as well have been walking next to Edward Cullen instead of Duke.
So let’s take a look at a girl done right.
Kick-Ass introduces us to Hit-Girl. Instead of being defined by her relationship with her father, she turns it around and defines that relationship herself. And when she’s on her own, she doesn’t fall apart. You won’t catch her wringing her hands in dismay or wondering what to do next. She takes action. She does the best she can with what she’s got. And she does her own way, woe be to anybody stupid enough to be between her and what she’s after.
I hesitate to call her a “role model” due to the violent, foul-mouthed way she goes about doing things, but once you get past the bloodshed, there really is a lot to admire about Hit-Girl. As a male writer, I often find myself struggling to ensure I deal with female characters fairly, neither watering them down to the point of being uninteresting or inflammatory to potential female readers, nor amping up their sexuality to sell more words. I mean, I like a good-looking woman as much as the next red-blooded straight guy, but when it comes to works of fiction as well as real relationships, there’s got to be more to her or I’m likely to lose interest. You enjoy eating cheesecake in the moment, but how often do you remember eating it a week or a month later, unless it was really, really good?
Give me a few more examples of either extreme. Lay on me what sort of things you’d like to see girls in fiction saying, doing and being. What’s overdone? What isn’t done enough? I just want to ensure that, in my hands, girls are done right.
When it comes to writing, of course.
September 13, 2010 at 11:31 am
It’s by experience that those male authors lauded as feminists for their portrayal of strong female characters nevertheless tend to sadistically submit those characters to torture, sexual exploitation and debasement, and violent death. See: “Women in Refrigerators Syndrome” (http://www.unheardtaunts.com/wir/) or anything done by Joss Whedon ever. 😉
September 13, 2010 at 11:36 am
David Eddings is great at female characters. Many of my favorite characters come from his books. If his females are dainty, wispy fainting things, it is because they are consciously designed to be. And these characteristics never belong to the leading ladies.
Polgara in particular is my favorite. If you get a chance, definitely read “Polgara the Sorceress”. Although a companion to The Belgariad and Mallorean series, you can read her book without feeling lost.
The other women in The Belgariad, The Mallorean, Elenium and Tamuli series are incredibly well-crafted.
September 13, 2010 at 2:16 pm
This is a post that pops up often and I always think the same thing. How about writing a complete, deep character that just so happens to be a woman? Or take it and apply it to skin color/religion/nationality/sexuality.
I know, I know. I’m over simplifying things.
I have seen it go completely on its head in The Hunger Games. One of the male characters actually serve no purpose than to be saved by the heroine. You know, found, nursed back to health, and his hand held so he can get out of the games alive. I like to call it Princess Peach Syndrome – and it turns out it’s just as annoying when it’s applied to dudes.
September 13, 2010 at 2:23 pm
It’s a challenge, to be sure, because we live in a sexist culture, so it’s hard not to write in a sexist way. I find that my first drafts (and I am a staunch feminist) are riddled with sexist bullet-holes.
Even the title of your post “Doing Girls Right” is difficult. If I wrote something called “Doing Boys Right” – you would probably assume that I was writing about male children. But the word “girls” often refers to adult women as well as female children. I’m not saying this to accuse you of being sexist – on the contrary, I think it’s great you are thinking about this – I just wanted to show you how even our language is structured in a sexist way, something that makes it an incredible challenge for the author.
There is something I’ve heard illustrators say that I think is applicable here – draw what you see, not what you think you see.
This idea, that we communicate what we see out there in the world, the character traits, flaws and heroic natures of people we know, rather than the sexist, racist narrative that is everywhere in our culture, is something that has meaning for me. It means that the author has to look past the usual narrative about people and try, best they can, to write the truth, even if what they are writing is fiction.
September 13, 2010 at 5:50 pm
I’m glad you’re writing about this, though I have to say, Kate and J.R. up there both covered most of the ground I would’ve. 😉
The one thing I’d like to see more of is women in fiction who have a primary purpose that not only isn’t about a relationship to a dude, like you said, but even more, is also totally not about appearing sexually available to a character (or the audience). I like to point people to this post: http://www.overthinkingit.com/2008/08/18/why-strong-female-characters-are-bad-for-women/
The thing is, even when we see competent female characters with agency… the need for hotness is still absolutely primary. I wanna see more not-hot women in fiction!
September 13, 2010 at 8:41 pm
I say portray them however you want.
I deeply, deeply, believe that, while well-meaning, the so-called feminist movement is doing more harm to young women than the media.
They encourage young women to shift the cause of their self-esteem issues to an external source, relieving them of all responsibility to actually examine their psyche and find where these negative feelings are really coming from.
I also feel these battle against a “male-dominated society” just reinforce the stereotypes, and implicitly confirms the idea that as a woman, I’m easily swayed by images in the media, and therefore need to be protected from them.
Rather than trying to change the world, shouldn’t we focus instead on our children, and teaching them the difference between media portrayals and reality?
September 14, 2010 at 8:16 am
But as the great Oscar says, Catherine, life imitates art.
The stories we tell ourselves about the world are the way we see the world. How do I know what New York is like? I’ve never been there but I’ve seen it on TV.
There have gotta be good role-models for kids of both genders to look up to.
September 14, 2010 at 8:48 am
@Jen. I agree. But there plenty of both, in spades (just a few women in fiction: Princess Leia, Polgara, Mara Jade, Hermione, Ehlana, Elena from Uncharted, and others. Real Life: Natalie Portman, Emma Watson, Taylor Swift). And besides, shouldn’t our kids have real heroes? Not ones from fiction or the media, but people that exist in the real world?
Instead of allowing your child to buy into the celebrity worship rampant in this country, why not introduce them to a real doctor who does humanitarian work? Volunteer workers? Firemen? Policemen?
September 14, 2010 at 5:20 pm
Popped in here from Chuck’s article about death of the critic…and you write a great article. Funny thing is…I didn’t intent to comment as I was thinking I needed to stew and fester a bit over the topic. But then I started reading comments – Kate Haggard’s in particular. And two thoughts instantly came to mind.
1) Samus Aran. Now I’m going way back now…really far back to the original Metroid. It’s somewhat unfair of me to throw the character into the mix, because it’s not like the classic game had a storyline or a plot of much depth…but it had at its core a crazy concept. A bounty hunter trying to eliminate the world of space pirates….fun concept. And you’re playing this character all along…and you don’t realize until the very end when the helmet is removed that….that she’s a woman?!? It really does very little for the storyline…but that’s the point. It just stomps on your prejudices (bounty hunter = man)
2) A woman I used to work with used to talk about how she took the term, Bitch, as a compliment. Her logic was that if you take all the traits that make a woman a bitch…you basically described a powerful man who happens to be a woman. It’s not that black and white, of course…but there is some truth to it.
So I wonder…does the gender of your character affect the character development? Even in a love story, it barely matters. Sure, it impacts your descriptions and possibly some of the struggles one might face. But with respect to what defines your character’s personality…I’d say that it matters less than you’d think.
September 14, 2010 at 6:10 pm
@Travis – First of all, thank you.
Secondly, that’s kind of the point I was making here.