Aug. 30th, 2007

jdbl: (Default)
I was going to write this in a an email to [ profile] hhw, but then I thought it would be better to go ahead and post it for public consumption. The aforementioned [ profile] hhw sent me a link to Sarah Monette's blog mostly because Sarah's blogging about all the Due South episodes starting from Ep 1, and DS is my newest obsession. (Yes, I am newly obsessed with a show that's been over for ten years. Go figure.) I'm really enjoying Sarah's commentary on DS, which I find really interesting and largely apt. She's been saying some very interesting things about the ways that the show builds myth and then intentionally undercuts it, which I agree is one of the most charming things about the show. So I was digging around a bit on her site this morning, having gotten up far too early and having a lull between appointments. I am trying to keep myself from wrecking my sleep patterns by taking a nap, but my body is not at all happy about this doctor's office at 8am thing. (I had to have a corn removed. When did I become elderly, is what I want to know.)

Anyway, I ran across this essay of Sarah's, Still Seeking Chloe and Olivia, which talks about the difficulties of writing strong female characters who are independent of men. I agree with Sarah that "the first obstacle standing in the way of writing strong female characters is that, even now, seventy-seven years after Woolf wrote A Room of One's Own, the great mass of tradition is against it." One of the things that is most annoying to me about popular culture is how much most female characters suck. And I agree that a large part of that suckage is the narrative dependence on men. I want female characters that have: 1) a strong will; 2) competence; 3) a specific agenda of their own; and 4) complications and darknesses. This is basically what I'm looking for in a male character as well. (Also, being hot doesn't hurt in either case, because I'm a shallow bisexual slut.) The problem with most female characters is that they almost always lack 1, 2, and 3, and frequently lack 4, unless they are a villain. Often the female character's agenda revolves around the male protagonists' agendas. Even characters like Scully or Zoe on Firefly (whom I adore, and let's stop for a moment and admire the hotness, shall we? Ahhhh.) or that woman on Stargate whose name escapes me at the moment because I hardly ever watch it, who are strong-willed, competent women are supporting characters whose job it is to advance the agenda of the male protagonist.

This is where I start to disagree with Monette, though. Because I don't really mind the supporting character thing. I think to a large extent, Zoe and Scully have taken Mal and Mulder's missions as their own agenda. In Zoe's case, I think that her agenda and Mal's basically always coincided. In Scully's case, she gradually adopted Mulder's agenda as her own. But just because it was Mulder's to start with, doesn't mean that it's any less hers now. She didn't take it on because of Mulder, per se. She took it on because she saw value in it, that what he was seeing was real (to some degree or another), because she was curious initially, and then because she believed that opposing the alien threat (whatever that threat was - let's not even get started about the plotting on that show) was the right thing to do. The introduction of the romance bothered me because they handled it poorly and because Chris Carter sucks. But the actual relationship between them seemed inevitable to me, not because it was a man and a woman working together, but because *they didn't have anyone else*. The show painted the characters into an emotional corner where they had only each other to trust, and there was no room in their lives for anyone else. You couldn't introduce a love interest into that situation without profoundly altering the balance of Scully and Mulder's relationship, and given that they were both hot, sex was bound to follow. It struck me as profoundly realistic. This is also why love relationships between male partners in these buddy shows also strike me as profoundly realistic and why I'm always wearing my slash colored glasses when I watch something like Due South. Scully didn't seem any more dependent on Mulder at the end of the show than she had been since the second season or so, and Mulder was just as dependent on her. There was an emotional bond there, but she was defined by her relationship with Mulder only in the same way that she was defined by her relationship with her work, and he was defined by his relationship with her in the same way.

I think to say that the Scully/Mulder relationship is a failure of feminism is to imply that somehow women are only strong and independent when they are not in relationships with men. While I'm all for wymmyn only spaces or whatever floats the boats of people, the fact is that most women do live in relationship with men (and most men with women). Even the most radical lesbian separatist has a father, brothers, sons, male coworkers. While I sympathize (and agree) with the notion that we need more portrayals of pure friendships between people of different genders, and that often women in narratives are stuck with no purpose other than to be love objects to men, I also think that strong female characters can exist even in relationships with men. But I would like to see a lot more balance, so that there were more narratives with female protagonists who have strong supportive male secondary characters. But on some level, I think that change takes time, and that it's good that we're getting our Zoes and Scullys now at least, because we didn't have that much not so very long ago.

I suppose that my reaction to the essay is somewhat spurred by writerly guilt. My current novel features a male protagonist, the charismatic genius type, who is surrounded by supporting women (and a few men). My first novel had a female protagonist in sexual relationships with two men and a woman and a strong friendship with a third man. That book was really about the sexual relationship between the protagonist and the antagonist. Well, it was about the protagonist working out her emotional issues via her relationship with the antogonist, primarily. I always felt a bit guilty that the sexual relationship with the secondary woman character wasn't more important, but that was just how things worked out in the emotional world of that book. I suppose I feel like I *should* be writing Chloe and Olivia (which is the underlying assertion of the essay, really) but I have these other things that are just more interesting to me, perhaps because of internalized sexism, but perhaps because I have more friction around my own relationships with men than I do with women, other than my mother. And the male protagonist in the current novel has some mother issues which are akin to my own.

I mean, this is all really complicated. In my current novel, I'm working out a lot of ideas about gender roles and masculinity, as well as a lot of ideas about parenting from the point of view of the grown child. My protagonist's father is a big part of the novel, and his mother is also tremendously important though not appearing in the book. I don't think switching his gender (which I have considered) would change his relationships with his parents much, but it would make the explorations of masculinity much more difficult, and introduce a weird vibe into the book. Because a lot of the theme of the book concerns image vs. reality, his pirate image vs. what he's really like, his confident appearance of leadership vs. his internal doubts, if you make him a woman, suddenly it calls women's ability to lead into question. Or it muddies the waters at least.

And that brings me to the line that seriously pissed me off in Monette's essay: "But it isn't feminist to write about men with breasts." What the fuck does that mean? I have never understood this idea. People talk about how some female writer's men are just girls with dicks, or that men don't write real women. This is so essentialist, it makes me want to tear out my hair. I don't even understand what the criteria for this are. Is a "man with breasts" a female character who is stoic, independent, a hard case? What's the difference between someone like that and a female character that I want to read about? Because that sounds pretty fucking interesting to me, if she's three-dimensional. And if she's not, then a two dimensional male character with the same attributes wouldn't be any more interesting. My pirate protagonist is a bit of a drama queen and considerably "girlier" than many of his female pirate supporting characters, and *way* "girlier" than his mother. By this I mean that he can be emotionally volatile, vain, prone to histrionics in his head at least. Does that mean he's a chick with dick? Is his hard-case mother a man with breasts, then? How is this kind of construction doing anything but reinforcing the stereotypes underpinning the very sexism that Monette decries? At the same time, he's also a kick-ass fighter, an engineering genius, a gifted leader (which he gets from his mother), a gifted improvisational actor (which he gets from his father), and a tactical genius as well. (And he's an overblown Romantic hero type, too, obviously.) It's certainly a sign of the sexism of the way we understand gender roles that these more active qualities are considered "masculine" but if I were writing him as a female his mix of qualities would be just the same. The character wouldn't be that different, actually; he'd just *mean* differently because of the sexist social context in which I'm writing.

Monette says "While Modernism allowed realistic fiction writers to write stories in which "nothing happens" (i.e., the action is not what we have been trained to consider meaningful), SF is still heavily plot-oriented. It doesn't have very much space for stories that aren't about Saving The World, and has even less space for stories about characters who aren't Heroes. Which leaves one with a choice. Either try to make room in SF for women's stories or make room in SF stories for women." I'm all for expanding the boundaries of what counts as SF, believe me. And I'm interested in reading stories that are more internally focused, for sure. But to say that stories about heroes and action are by definition not "women's stories" is to lock women out of the world of action. It is to lock them back in the bedroom and the parlor and say that they have no place on a gunship. And maybe no one, male or female, really has a place on a gunship in a fair universe; I'd agree with that. But I'm also interested in stories about violence and how to cope with violence from both ends of the pointy stick. To say that women can't wield the pointy stick as well as be a victim to it seems both sexist and patently incorrect. It seems to me that women have exactly the capacity for violence that men do. They just haven't had the opportunity to exercise that capacity much. I'd say that levels of aggression vary across individuals, but to imagine that women aren't aggressive and can't commit evil is to willfully ignore the existence of Condi Rice and Margaret Thatcher (and Lynddie England), just to name a few recent examples. Basically, SF just needs to be a bit more realistic in its gender mix, in my opinion.

None of this is very well constructed, I'm afraid. I'm just thinking out loud. I just get so tired of this mars/venus claptrap, this essentialism that people just seem to swallow these days without thought. It doesn't reflect my own experience, nor the experiences of many of the people that I know. It strikes me as damaging and blatantly untrue, but there seem to be very few voices piping up against nowadays. Consider this one feeble little peep, at least.


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June 2008


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