So, I’m pretty new on the SFF scene. By and large, I don’t have strong opinions on most of the longstanding debates the genre community loves to mull over. But let me tell you, there’s nothing like writing an epic fantasy with a female protagonist to throw you face first into the boiling, often belligerent discussion of gender in SFF.
At first, I just observed from the sidelines, taking it all in and trying to keep an open mind. Lately, though, I’ve become increasingly conscious of a particular pattern, one which depresses me and annoys me in equal measure, and I feel the need to comment on it.
I’m not talking about the Big Debate here — whether authors are under some kind of obligation to represent women (or any other under-represented group) in their fiction regardless of the type of story they’re trying to tell. I do have views on that, but they aren’t the subject of this post.
I’m talking about the way we discuss female characters, and what they supposedly represent. I’m talking about the fact that female characters are necessarily assumed to represent something.
It bothers me. A lot.
Let me start here: I’m not a huge fan of the Bechdel Test. (All right, all right – put away your pitchforks and torches and just hear me out.) I think the Bechdel Test does as well as any boilerplate benchmark could, but I have a problem with boilerplate benchmarks. I can think of plenty of stories that don’t pass the Bechdel Test that I would classify as not only satisfactory in their portrayal of gender relations, but downright important. In some cases, the fact that the woman is the lone example of her kind, surrounded by men, is in fact the whole point. Using the Bechdel Test as the sole means of assigning “pass” or “fail” on gender is lazy. (Also, if taken too literally — “the President is a dude therefore two secret service women discussing an assassination plot against him doesn’t count” — it becomes absurd.)
Secondly, why do we still — still! — feel obliged to analyse every female protagonist down to her toenail polish? To scrutinise and dissect her as if she’s an exotic specimen from an alien land? To assign Great Meaning to her every word and deed — not just as a character, but as an ambassador of her sex? We don’t do this with male protagonists. Why? Because the hero isn’t a symbol of all humanity.* He’s just a guy. When we analyse his actions, it’s as an individual, in the context of his specific circumstances. His every move is not presumed to be a commentary on gender relations.
And what gets me – what really depresses me about this – is that it’s most often the people pushing for better representations of women in fiction who are most guilty of this. The very people decrying stereotypical portrayals of women are the ones generalising about women, or the author’s attitudes about women, through the actions of a single female character. Don’t they get why this is wrong? Just because this woman is insecure doesn’t mean all women are insecure. Just because she struggles to be taken seriously doesn’t mean all women do, or that men don’t. It means she’s an individual with flaws and idiosyncrasies. It means she’s human.
Also: having a female character cry, or experience fear, or any other type of “weakness” is not only fine, it’s recommended. To the extent that such things are more common with female characters than male ones, this isn’t a shortcoming in the way women are portrayed, it’s a shortcoming in the way men are portrayed. Human weakness is real. The fact that heroes (especially fantasy heroes) aren’t allowed to express that as often as they should is a shame. It doesn’t mean we should replicate that mistake with heroines. When we do, we end up with a Mary Sue and dear God RELEASE THE HOUNDS! (Gary Stu is totes fine, tho.)
What I want to say to these people is this: If there’s a pattern among the female characters, then by all means – fire away. But if you’re basing your conclusions on the actions of a single character, you’re doing it wrong. You’re asking authors to walk an impossible tightrope, whereby every female character has to be a shining example of her sex – but not too shining, please, or she’s a Mary Sue.
This does a disservice not only to authors and the art of good storytelling, but also to women, because it discourages nuanced, diverse portrayals of women in the genre. And isn’t that what we want?
Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, folks. And sometimes a girl is just a girl.
*I’m adding an asterisk for those pedants out there who feel tempted to point out the handful of examples where the hero is, in fact, a symbol. Yes, these examples exist. And are entirely beside the point.