jdbl: (Default)
[personal profile] jdbl
I was going to write this in a an email to [livejournal.com profile] hhw, but then I thought it would be better to go ahead and post it for public consumption. The aforementioned [livejournal.com 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.

Date: 2007-09-01 09:23 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] amonitrate.livejournal.com
here via metafandom. This is interesting for me to think about, because Zoe and Scully are two of my favorite female characters. And it's the reason I was annoyed at the spinoff of Highlander - "Raven" - because it took a female character whose agenda was purely her own - Amanda - and turned her into a character whose agenda was the man's - her cop friend Nick. I didn't see all of Raven, so I may be wrong, but the eps I did see turned me off from the show for just this reason.

But the Mulder/Scully and Mal/Zoe dynamics (in a non-romantic way) are more complex than man's agenda/woman supporting. As yousaid. Because for Mal and Zoe, they were both fighting a war, and in a military organization which is hierarchical. So Mal was above Zoe as far as the hierarchy went, and I'm fine with that because Zoe made her own choices. She wasn't fighting the war because Mal told her to; she followed his orders because he was a good leader. I don't see that as anti-feminist at all.

And Mulder/Scully is such an interesting and complex ball of gender wax. You've got a male character who ends up rescued by the female character far more often than vice versa. You've got a touchy-feely-emotional believer who's male paired with a rather stoic at times, hard science, skeptical woman. It is complicated with the fact that Mulder was often a dick who didn't share info with his partner and would run off half-cocked (either very masculine or very feminine depending on how you look at it) but somehow I always got the impression that had nothing to do with Scully's status as a woman and more to do with Mulder's lack of trust of anyone breathing.

I could go on, but I've just confused myself. Very interesting topic though.

Date: 2007-09-01 10:22 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] mgsmurf.livejournal.com
It is an interesting problem, how to make a female character strong, real, able to hack it in a tough world and yet not too manly. Not sure I've figured it out either, but about half of my characters are females and possibly more than half of my protags are women. There's often no reason why a female character can't be the POV so often I just chose to make them it. (Though I just revised a SF story and realized every character was male, think I must make one or two of the minor characters female).

Date: 2007-09-01 11:35 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
...People are complaining about Scully now? That's it, some people need punching.

Via metafandom

Date: 2007-09-02 12:07 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] la-vie-noire.livejournal.com
'Men with breasts'? I think there is little more sexist than that comment.

I'm just commenting to say I'm so with you on everything.

Date: 2007-09-02 12:31 am (UTC)
alias_sqbr: the symbol pi on a pretty background (Default)
From: [personal profile] alias_sqbr
I went to a really interesting panel at a recent con about the attitude of feminist theorists and writers to science fiction and science. The impression I got is that most feminist writers tend to be arts majors who like thinking about relationships and are sick of the way the male sf writers and scientists denigrate/ignore anything associated with women, as well as the arts and their sort of writing. Which, fair enough, but they respond by denigrating all things associated with men, like science and action, in both research and writing. Leaving no place for women who want to write about, say, what it would be like to be a woman in a future army, or use sf as a tool to actually explore what the future might be like using scientific ideas rather than as a metaphor. Or female arts majors who want to write about space opera. Or female hard science majors (like me :))

I guess this sort of conflict is an unavoidable consequence of centuries of women being told that (a) They were only allowed to do certain things and (b) Those things had no value. The fight against (a) means women fighting for the right to do "masculine" things, but the fight against (b) means women fighting for the appreciation of "feminine" things, and it's hard to be involved in either fight without rubbing the wrong way against the other.

Date: 2007-09-02 02:48 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] executrix.livejournal.com
In "Normal Female Interest in Men Bonking," M.Fae Glasgow said, "I already have a strong female role model...it's called a mirror." One reason that I write more about male media characterrs than about female media characters is precisely that media usually offers us men who are more interesting than real ones, and women who are a LOT less interesting than real ones.

The subject of gender in Firefly is a very complex one though...I mean, if you look at how Mal, Book, Jayne, Simon, and Wash perform masculinity, it's easier to say that they're not even playing from the same rulebook than to try to assess who's winning. And Serenity wouldn't be space-worthy even as often as she is without Kaylee--do we measure Kaylee's gender performance by her frilly pink dress or her wrenches and soldering iron?

I'm not entirely out of sympathy with Monette's statement. As Shaw said, the difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves but how she's treated, and as long as women are treated differently from men, this will be part of the background against which every woman develops. Within a particular family, for example, it's likely that the girls will be treated differently from the boys, which will have an effect both on their choices (whether to conform or dissent) and how likely they are to achieve them--but not all the sisters, or all the brothers, will be identical.

Date: 2007-09-02 05:31 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] kaesa.livejournal.com
Here from Metafandom; I've been dealing with similarish issues in planning for writing.

If I write her getting kidnapped by her anarchist vampire ex and saved by a group of her friends, including feats of blatant heroic idiocy on the part of her male friend/love interest, it's not that she was kidnapped because she consistently overestimates herself and the bait was designed with her in mind and blah blah, no, it's because she's a girl.

But if said friend/LI is being tortured by her mom's hired law enforcement and she rescues him because she needs him to help her steal a top-secret research project, she's a damned Mary Sue.

Can't she just be herself? I want her to be herself.

(Incidentally, I'm always interested when I read about someone who can change their OCs more than slight backstory alterations -- I suppose, objectively, I can, but it's always uncomfortable and never ends well.)

Date: 2007-09-02 06:32 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] were-lemur.livejournal.com
I've started to think that the term Mary-Sue has expanded far beyond the point where it's a useful criticism. Which is unfortunate, because the original meaning -- a character who was too good to be true -- is something that I at least have had to watch out for. ;)

In a lot of ways, it's a reflection of our society's ambiguity toward women, especially strong women.

Date: 2007-09-02 06:43 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] kaesa.livejournal.com
See, I still like the term -- enough that I've done elaborate RP plots involving Mary Sue parodies -- but as an OC- and obscure-canon-heavy author, I do feel like I have to worry about it when I write Rowena Ravenclaw, or Someone I Made Up saving the day more than when I write Hermione saving the day. (Of course, part of this is because Hermione's story of being kickass is already written -- everyone in the fandom knows it -- but I'm writing the story of this other character being kickass, and I have to offer proof that she's not unrealistically kickass.)

There's also the issue of female villains. Apparently, having strong, independent female villains is an indication that one sees ALL strong female characters as evil, and not an indication that women can have the same weaknesses as men.

Date: 2007-09-05 06:01 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] were-lemur.livejournal.com
Sorry I wasn't so clear; it's not the term I object to, as the expansion of it to cover pretty much any interesting OFC. And sometimes canon characters, as well, if they're being "too kickass" for the taste of the accuser reviewer.

I don't do very many OCs -- especially females -- because I am paranoid about the whole Mary-Sue thing. I started a story years ago with a strong secondary OFC, and got one absolute smack-down of a review because of her. This despite the fact that I'd been careful to show her as screwing up, being outsmarted by the main (canon) character ... stuff like that. Also, the main (canon) character didn't like her at all; a typical reference to her was "that opportunistic idiot." (That wasn't the reason I haven't worked on that fic in years. I knew good and well she wasn't a Mary-Sue, despite the reviewer. But I kind of lost the thread of the plot.)

The issue of strong female villains is a whole nother can of worms. One that makes me want to headdesk every time I hear it. Though I know where it comes from; when I was in my early and mid-teens, all of my female characters were good, too. As a feminist, I wanted to believe that all women were good -- despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

(FYI, I write both fanfic and original fiction.)

Date: 2007-09-06 12:00 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] kaesa.livejournal.com
Yeah, agreed. (I also get VERY sick of people who say things like "if you want to write about OCs, write ORIGINAL FIC." Because I have to wonder what they do when their canon's creator(s) decide to introduce new characters.)

That's ridiculous! I have read some fics where the Mary Sue is a fuckup, but everyone loves her because of it. Then, I also enjoy reading fics where people have justifiable grudges against each other, rather than happily getting along immediately or one bunch of canons being OMG MEANIES. Possibly the reviewer interpreted it as an OMG MEANIES fic without thinking?

My main problem with writing villains used to be that they were cardboard and cackling, but now it's more that I always end up feeling bad for them and then I have trouble permakilling them, because the trouble they cause is so much fun.

(I do too -- actually, I somehow accidentally stumbled into writing something that could be taken as either OMG FEMINIST or OMG FEMINISTS ARE BAD last NaNo.)

Date: 2007-09-07 06:11 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] toshfraggle.livejournal.com
"I don't do very many OCs -- especially females -- because I am paranoid about the whole Mary-Sue thing. I started a story years ago with a strong secondary OFC, and got one absolute smack-down of a review because of her. This despite the fact that I'd been careful to show her as screwing up, being outsmarted by the main (canon) character ... stuff like that. Also, the main (canon) character didn't like her at all; a typical reference to her was "that opportunistic idiot." (That wasn't the reason I haven't worked on that fic in years. I knew good and well she wasn't a Mary-Sue, despite the reviewer. But I kind of lost the thread of the plot.)"

That's all but word for word why I stopped working on (and posting) a fic a long long time ago. It's in a fandom where the only female characters that would be young enough to give a crap what my main character was doing were really quite mary sue-ish in the series itself. I wanted to give a lot of depth to this person he didn't like very much, and she was a big honky plot device, and heck--I didn't want him to turn against people that he had liked in canon. Hence, original character. Unfortunately, fandom's so dead set against it that I finished the story myself (and it was pretty damn good) and just never posted it.

Date: 2007-09-03 03:37 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] elgrey.livejournal.com
Here via [livejournal.com profile] metafandom. I find what you’re saying fascinating. I never thought of Scully as being someone who adopted Mulder’s obsession because it was Mulder’s, but because it came to fascinate her as much as it fascinated him, and I also always thought of them as equals. Agree completely on the romance between them seeming inevitable, because the show went out of its way to show that this was the only other person around who knew what they knew, went through what they went through, and they were occupying all available space in each other’s lives and left none for a romance with anyone else. (I have a rant about writers writing male friendship characters as occupying all available space in each other’s lives and then just throwing a token female in from time to time to assert their heterosexuality but that’s for another time.)

Sam Carter (the woman on Stargate) definitely had her own agenda for going through the Stargate, as did all of the team: Jack to gather military weaponry, Daniel initially to look for his wife and learn about new cultures, later just to learn about new cultures, and Sam was the one interested in the gate technology itself, and in gathering scientific technology (as opposed to military technology), while Teal’c wanted to free his people from the oppression of false gods. Sam also had her own storyline of the possession by a second consciousness through having the memories of Jolinar (although, alas, they never did as much with it on the show as I would have liked).

The ‘man with breasts’ thing is irking me on all kinds of levels because it seems to argue that a woman is something that can be narrowly defined, and that men also can be narrowly defined, and never the twain shall meet. I think there is already a problem with women on TV being presented in a very limited palette of colours. The myth of women as patient, enduring, and faithful seems to be perpetuated across the board as if it were a truth, to the point where any deviation is condemned as unrealistic, and yet the biggest male-female problem of most of the women I know over forty is not their husbands or partners leaving them for a younger woman, but persistently still hanging around years after their wife's or partner's interest in them has waned and she has suggested it might be better if they went their separate ways. (The ‘He just won’t *leave*!’ problem.) If a woman on TV were to be written with exactly that attitude, despite feeling totally realistic to me, would her behaviour be deemed as somehow ‘male’ and inauthentic as a consequence just because such an attitude is untypical among TV women although entirely typical among real ones? (Samantha Spade on 'Without A Trace' is one of the few female characters on TV who actually rings true to me.)
Page generated Sep. 25th, 2017 02:28 am
Powered by Dreamwidth Studios