A to Z: Women

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Women. No, not like that. Well, OK, maybe a little like that. Sometimes. But not always. And only about the one I married–look, can we get on the topic at hand here? OK? OK.

But seriously…I’ve been thinking about women as characters in fiction. This has been brought on by a number of things, such as some online discussions I’ve read, but a bigger factor has been reading George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, and by far the biggest factor was writing Princesses In SPACE!!! (not the actual title), in which each of my three main characters is a female of differing age: one is a full-grown woman, one is a teenager, and one is an eight-year-old girl.

Why did I choose three females? In the case of the two young ladies, I wanted a pair of leads, but I didn’t want to do the brother-sister thing, because that’s been done a lot. The older woman came along later; she was actually a character who was intended to play a small role, near the beginning of the book, mainly to facilitate some exposition, but as often seems to happen with characters of mine, this one decided to stick around. For, like, the whole book. But hey, that’s OK. She’s pretty cool.

I liked the dynamic of these three characters, but it was at times a struggle for me to write them in a way that I felt somewhat convincing as women, and I think that’s because I’m a man. I didn’t want to write three men in the bodies of women. Did I succeed? Well, I don’t know yet. I hope so, though.

(And no, I didn’t take Melvin Udall’s advice on writing women.)

What I really, really, really wanted to avoid was writing women as passive creatures, people to whom things happen, and people on whose behalf others act. I didn’t want a bunch of rescue sequences, featuring strong male characters coming to the rescue of a damsel or two in distress. Nor did I want super-powered heroines who were super-active. I just wanted real people. (Who are Princesses. In space. Reality’s a tough nut to crack, sometimes.)

I’ve mentioned, in my posts on George RR Martin’s books, that I’m troubled by the depiction of the female characters in his universe. Some are active, some are passive…but all struggle mightily against a world dominated by men, a world in which men will tell spirited women, “What you need is a good raping.” I recently read this article that takes Martin strongly to task for his depiction of women:

WHERE WILL YOU END UP IN MYSTICAL DRAGON LAND? If you are an unmarried woman, it is 100% certain that you will be raped or experience attempted rape (4/6: Arya, Sansa, Daenerys, Brienne). If you are married or engaged, there is a 75% chance that your husband or fiancee will beat or sexually assault you (3/4: Sansa, Cersei, Daenerys). If you are an adult woman who exercises authority, you will be killed (Catelyn) or imprisoned (Cersei), because your attempts to exercise said power will backfire (Catelyn, Cersei). If you are a child who exercises authority, you will not be killed or imprisoned, and will be seen as competent (Daenerys). It helps if your subjects are cultural Others, in which case your superiority is assumed (Daenerys). As with all female children, however, you will be sexually assaulted (Arya, Sansa, Daenerys). If you have a traditionally male role, with traditionally male skills, you will merely be threatened with rape (Brienne, Arya); if you are traditionally feminine, or occupy a traditionally feminine role, attempts to sexually assault or beat you will be successful (Sansa, Cersei, Daenerys). If you are the rare character who is an adult, occupies a position of authority, exercises power, and has not been sexually assaulted or beaten by her partner (Catelyn), don’t worry: You’re not getting out of this story alive.

VERDICT: George R.R. Martin is creepy.

Ouch. And while I’m enjoying the series, I honestly can’t argue with a whole lot of this. Now, my problem continues to be the fuzzy line between depiction and approval; I’m not comfortable drawing conclusions as to George RR Martin’s level of sexism based on these books. But I do find a great deal of the treatment of women uncomfortable or downright distasteful. It could well be that he intends this because he’s depicting a world that’s hell for women, but is he planning to develop this world into one that is better for women by the end? Or is this just the way it’s going to be? Time will tell.

In my own writing, I’m unlikely to go the Martin route because I’m just not terribly interested in sex as a matter of literary exploration. In this my work is more likely to be like JK Rowling’s than GRRM’s. I hope to write a number of books featuring the adventures of these characters, so I imagine that sex will have to come along at some point. But I’ll probably handle it subtly and offscreen, or so I hope.

A week or two ago I saw this photo on Tumblr:

A pretty large debate fired up over it. I personally found the picture deeply distasteful, and not just because it plays cut-and-paste with one of the most iconic photographs in history. I disliked it because I don’t like what this suggests about Superman, and I don’t like what it suggests about Wonder Woman. It suggests to me that Wonder Woman is just waiting for a man to come along and sweep her away, and it further seems to imply that the only man suitable for Wonder Woman is Superman, which seems odd because everyone knows that Superman’s ideal woman is Lois Lane, a normal human. I find this picture incredibly creepy because it displays Wonder Woman as submissive.

I’m not terribly interested in submissive women, or passive women, as fictional characters. (And probably not as people, either.) I want to write women who are agents of their own action, women who may need others sometimes but who can gets things done on their own. An occasional rescue is OK, but so is an occasional rescuing of someone else. And I want my female characters to think. None of this should sound odd, because that’s what I want of pretty much any character, male or female.

I really hope this post made sense.

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4 Responses to A to Z: Women

  1. Roger Owen Green says:

    It made sense.
    You are a good man.

  2. New York Erratic says:

    Loved this post! Read it last night and have been thinking of it since then.

    Trying to keep it "comment" rather than "blog post" length: I think that actually writing a woman as "a man on the inside" is actually a pretty good way to handle it.

    The best way that you can do that and appeal to women is to make her REALLY like a man. Clarice from "Silence of the Lambs" is a lousy character to women. She's too robotic, doesn't find pleasure or interest in anything and never has any emotion whatsoever. She never laughs or really gets angry, either.

    In contrast, Major from "Ghost in the Shell" has a sense of humor; has interests, hobbies and questions outside work; and has a fully developed personality.

    I could go into a whole, huge long thing about "women/ getting neurotic about sexual assault in novels/ how creepy IS GRRM?"

    Two short points that sum it up pretty well:

    – Terrible, terrible things happen to all the male characters as well. Admittedly not rape or sexual assault, but male sexual assault very rare in literature

    – If you think GRRM is creepy, I have four little words for you: "Lifetime: Television for Women." I don't know if you've noticed, but in chick things getting beaten/ raped gives you superpowers.

    On the image: part of it is the whole "Is that sexual assault?" Technically that kiss in NY WAS sexual assault but… c'mon.

    Part of it is also "Who Superman is" and "Who Wonder Woman is." Replace the image with Batman and Catwoman and it totally, totally works.

    Finally, if I remember correctly, Superman and Wonder Woman HAVE had a "thing" before. If I remember correctly – and I'm not sure because I don't have the comic or the book anymore – but in "Kingdom Come" Wonder Woman and Superman have a "thing."

  3. Pearson Report says:

    Well written "W" post. As a self-reliant woman, with a fully functioning brain, I appreciate your desire to write woman as capable of fending for themselves. (which I feel I do quite well).

    I also support your desire to not follow in GRRM's footsteps with your depiction of women in your writing – "creepy" says it all.

    Thanks for participating in the A to Z Challenge.

    Jenny @ Pearson Report
    Co-Host of the Blogging from A to Z Challenge.

  4. Ben Varkentine says:

    Marston's a bit creepy, too, but later writers have done a much better job of making WW a woman who can fend for herself.

    Some of those writers are actually women themselves–who would have thought it?

    I especially recommend Gail Simone's run. I believe it was her who coined my current favorite definition of DC's "trinity:"

    You want a meteor moved? You call Superman. You want a mystery solved? You call Batman.

    You want a war ended…you call Wonder Woman.

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