Random genderthought moment

28 Mar

Okay so! That was a wild ass week, but I survived it, and had a good fucking time while I was at it.

I also slept for like 20 hours when it was over. I regret nothing. And I have a long and rambly thoughtpost for you, now I’m back.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, I have been keeping up with things in my own magpie way, which mostly involves twitter and tumblr, since I can do them on the fly while I’m actually doing work. (Not so much editing, occasionally writing, but promoing is a definite twitter and tumblr friendly activity, I find.) An interesting but unsurprising pattern began forming last week when I saw Ro Smith’s comments on the Stardust movie via tumblr:

I really like Stardust, I just want to see the film where there’s a really pretty guy who’s enslaved by the lead character and whose one strength lies in emoting reallyhard, who is only valuable to others when in love and happy, and who falls in love with the woman who started their relationship by an act of domination…

Which is something I’ve always thought about Stardust. I actually do like the book and the movie (very, very different animals), but the fact is that it feeds into something that makes me desperately uncomfortable about lit in general at times. As she says: even though it’s otherwise very entertaining, and in a world where it wasn’t echoing a history of vast gender bias along exactly these lines it wouldn’t be problematic at all. Yvane is smart and capable and Tristan is sweet and kind – I want to be swept up in their love story, but at the back of my mind, there is always this.

And that’s my problem exactly. I think that was the day Jodi emailed me to let me know Scripped had been recommended to the Tiptree panel (not a nomination or a shortlist or anything — just, they’ll read it, which is super cool) so it was kind of extra weird, because Scripped is what it is for that exact reason. But I’ll come back to that.

Today I saw an NK Jemisin post, There’s no such thing as a good stereotype, linked via Corinne Duyvis’s twitter, and it brought it back to the forefront. That one is talking about the “strong female character” type–which for the record makes me stabby. I will never forget back in like 2005 when I first queried a much, much longer, terrible version of Liam, and was told, “People want kick-ass heroines, not literary-minded boy-vampires!” I threw up in my mouth a little, thinking of what “kick-ass heroine” usually means, and that post precisely nails my reasons why.

Obviously, I love women who kick ass–both metaphorically and physically. But yeah. When a character is wholly defined by qualities that all fall into the “stereotype” category, a writer has officially stopped trying.

Related side note: for this reason, I was really annoyed with the Starz TV show Spartacus: Blood and Sand, which a bunch of friends convinced me to finally watch two weeks ago and to which I am now addicted. The women who were “strong female characters” were backstabbing and hateful toward each other, while the “strong male characters” often formed bonds between them as friends, brothers, even lovers, that were achingly awesome. There was all kinds of meaningless orgiastic girl-on-girl, zero orgiastic guy-on-guy (hey, I’m all for exhibition sex, especially when it’s so historically relevant, but dude, treat it right). The message, though unintentional, was still encoded: women are back-biting snakes who exist to compete for the affections of men. Men, on the other hand, though oftentimes complete dicks, can also be capable of such depth and bonds of emotion that they will die for another man (or a woman, but yeah, we’re talking same sex here), in the right circumstances.

Goddamn, it’s like reading Sir Thomas Malory’s woman-hating Lancelot all over again. Or, wait, half of the shit from antiquity. Nevermind, that’s another blog post.

So yeah, there were some kick ass–and not in the physical way–women, but… they were stereotypes, for all that. And the men, who so often exhibited stereotypical qualities themselves, at least had moments where they got to break those molds.

Even Lucy Lawless naked couldn’t distract me. Guys, this is bad. And only one of the issues with that show, but whatever, it’s effectively softcore and arterial spray and I love it for all that. Um, as Liam will prove, I am the last to judge badly on the basis of softcore and arterial spray.

Season two, Spartacus: Vengeance, blows that out of the water–it’s been much better about it, with the women characters operating on much more than jealousy, lust, and betrayal and being genuinely strong as opposed to catty and mean more often than not. (I haven’t seen the prequel season they did in between, Gods of the Arena, so I can’t judge there.) Cheers to the excellent writing team for stepping up their game hardcore. My point, however, is that though there are many, many other issues there, that one bugged the shit out of me with the first season because it is everywhere in our culture. Everywhere to the point that there are people of all gender identities who actually take it for granted. Many little girls grow up thinking that boys will make better friends because girls are hateful and backstabby because this is what they are fed from childhood.

Um. No. Nonononono. (Also, this is why My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, is the best thing ever. I’m not even joking. It’s brilliant. Thanks again, Corinne <3)

Now, as both Ro’s and NK’s posts suggest, there is nothing wrong with having a hateful backstabby woman character or an emotionally powerful but ultimately submissive girl-hero. Especially when they’re not utterly defined by these things, as Yvaine, just as an example, is not, or when those things are explained as the nuanced and strong characteristics they truly are, as a submissive or supportive (not the same thing!) personality really is. I love many, many novels with these types in the spotlight, because that is not all there is to these characters, and other types are presented alongside them.

I don’t generally have my heart set on a gender identity, be it binary or not, when I first think of a character. But this all made me think, as I say, of Jonah from Scripped. (Me me me–sorry, told you it’d come back to this.) I guess if you’re familiar with him, it won’t shock you to hear that I actually plotted the thing with him as a young woman. The reasons he ended up a man will be kind of obvious after the above rambling, but I’ll lay them out and try to go light on spoilers:

1. I had it in my mind that the female fairy, Sela, must be the kidnapper/captor/torturer. (Yes, I like her best, it’s true.)

2. I had no problem with a woman capturing a woman, and said woman experiencing what amounts to Fairy Stockholm Syndrome–pretty much the whole point of the book–as a result of coming to understand and eventually love her captor.

3. I did have a slight problem with said woman-captive regaining her freedom (that needs air quotes, see also: you can never go home) and self as a result of an independently thinking man’s interference and help.

4. I also had a huge problem with said woman obsessing over… well, with how it ends, which I’d rather not say because that defeats the purpose, but let’s just say there’s a lot of lack of agency going on with Jonah at one point.

I sincerely couldn’t bring myself to write a woman in that situation. There wouldn’t have been anything wrong with it, and I’m sure she would’ve been just as interesting and infuriating as characters go. But that’s all I ever saw, growing up, and I didn’t want to do it over again. It didn’t make a single bit of difference to the plot itself, to the story, to the end result, whether that character was a man, woman, or genderqueered.

But it definitely changes the way it affects the person reading it, which is the most important half of the equation. I chose male because it didn’t rub my sensibilities the wrong way–and because the character was amenable, admittedly. (The bisexuality was non-negotiable, but hey, no complaints.) And though that might seem totally arbitrary, it’s the thing I’m happiest about with that book. And, to bring it full circle, what made me happiest about someone recommending it to Tiptree, because I was like, “Holy shit, they totally felt me, there!” Which is what every writer secretly wants more than anything ever, so yay.

So okay, now I finally come to the point: do you all ever catch yourself thinking about this stuff when you write? I love it; I mean, I feel like the whole point of writing is to question these societal constructs, subvert and challenge them by playing with expectations through fiction. I love this kind of shit, and I know I’m not the only one.

But I know some people will be annoyed by the idea, say it shouldn’t matter, or something to that effect, all of which is cool. I’m just interested in the opinions of the people who actually check out this blog because, well, that means I check out theirs, and I know y’all are smart. So hit me.

If you like.

Oh, and just for the record, I know I don’t get this shit right all the time. But I’m having a good time trying.

7 Responses to “Random genderthought moment”

  1. Ro March 28, 2012 at 3:14 am #

    Well, I know it won’t surprise you for me to say that, yeah, I think about this all the time. It’s something I struggle with quite a bit, actually, as I know I’m prone to make the main character male (a fact which I discuss a bit in my post on protagonist gender in books/films/TV etc. I’ve reviewed: http://serenitywomble.wordpress.com/2012/03/18/stats-gender-in-reviews/). I find it fairly hard to change the gender of main characters once the character is fully formed in my head, which is a problem, but I often manage to catch myself with other characters and ask ‘why couldn’t this character be a women?’ and change their gender when I realise the answer is ‘no reason at all’.

    On the other hand, even though I do have a lot of male protagonists, I always look to challenge gender stereotypes. Not just for the sake of it, but because sexism hurts men as well as women. I like to explore the sides of men that get left out of most fiction. There are men who want kids and love, men who are emotionally weak, or whose strength lies in their emotions etc. etc. We should get to see those men, too. In the current novel I’m writing the protagonist wants a real relationship from the ‘love’ interest, but she just wants to be friends with benefits. Both these things happen with men and women – some men want love; some women find love too complicated, don’t want to define the relationship, are commitment phobic (there’s a lot of me in that) – but you will never see it that way round in a Hollywood film.

    I want to write to present the world as I see it, not through the distorted lens of stereotype. So, yeah, I think about this all the time.

    • Katey March 29, 2012 at 11:21 am #

      You know, I’m glad you brought that up because I almost went into my own gender disparity and why it happens. Which is, as you point out, totally related — but also allows for certain gender-challenging fun in other ways: Not just for the sake of it, but because sexism hurts men as well as women.

      Both these things happen with men and women
      And that’s one that particularly fascinates me, because I’ve actually had that happen to me multiple times with men. I remember being 21 and like, “Why the hell doesn’t any guy just want to fuck around?”

      These things are true, not distorted, as you say. Awesome! Although yes, I am not surprised by your awesome. I just like hearing more of it :D

  2. Pat March 28, 2012 at 8:51 am #

    Well sheesh, NOW i’m thinking about it! I know I do make a concerted effort to smash stereotypes, but now that I’m examining that…I’m not sure why I do it. Is it to make the characters more interesting (I hope so), or is it an unconscious bit of political correctness (I suspect so)? I finished a story not long ago with a lead female ass-kicker who plays surf guitar and has a fondness for classical philosophy. I happen to think those traits make her awesome, but I gotta wonder if I crafted them to appease my sisters, mom, wife, etc. Hmmm….

    • Katey March 29, 2012 at 11:22 am #

      I think both of your possible reasons could be kinda products of the same thing, so that makes sense to me! I mean, challenging weird “accepted” types is always making for more interesting characters, so why not?

      Also: surf guitar and classical philosophy… love it :D

  3. TJ March 28, 2012 at 11:53 pm #

    Should be no surprise considering my RPP stories, but yes, gender’s always a consideration for me on some level. It really has to be if you want fleshed out and realistic characters. That’s my $.02 anyway.

    • Katey March 29, 2012 at 11:23 am #

      That was why I was so glad you were willing and wanting to answer that question for your mini-interview thing. Love love love your take, TJ!

  4. C.E. Hyun April 1, 2012 at 8:56 pm #

    Hey Katey, excited to see you’re liking Spartacus! LOVE the show. I definitely recommend you see the prequel, Gods of the Arena. I thought it had the best characterization and the most interesting women (Melitta was my favorite) and female relationships/interactions/character arcs. :)

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