Just a Girl

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.

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  • EMoonTX

    First off, congratulations–you managed to take this in a different direction than the one I was thinking you were headed, and surprise is always a fun trail to navigate. Thanks for an interesting post.

    One of the things that has surprised me all along, as a writer of epic fantasy with (sometimes) a female protagonist (and sometimes not) is the degree to which people who haven’t even read it make assumptions about what it is, what the protagonists “represent,” and by extension what I think about gender from what is in the book they haven’t yet read. The ones who have read it usually do better, but not always (not if they come at it with a thick Book of Rules in hand, and interpret by their rules something that wasn’t written by their rules.) The commentary on the science fiction has many of the same biases with regard to a character’s gender. Although I do find different assumptions between women’s commentary and men’s commentary, I have found both to be pretty rigidly determined by a particular gender-based set of assumptions. There are of course exceptions (important ritual disclaimer there.) Many readers, male and female, just read the books and read them well.

    But as you said, when people base their conclusions (including about the author’s views on All Women or All Men or All This Race or All This Religion or All This Political System) on one character, they’re doing it wrong. (OK, I admit that Ofelia in Remnant Population does convey a lot of what I think about the worth of working class old women of color who lack much formal education. But she’s more herself than that.) A character is not a symbol but a person…someone who’s intrigued the writer enough to follow that character around, climb inside her or his head, see what’s going on, and then write about it. When I look back at the characters I’ve written, none were created to fill a menu (one from column A, two from column B, one from C, three from D) but arrived in my head with their resumes already filled in. I had to work with what I got.

    • Erin Lindsey

      I’m actually surprised by how many people do seem to bring that big Book of Rules to their reading experience. If you tackle a book with a rigid set of expectations about what you’re going to get, aren’t you setting yourself up for disappointment? Isn’t it better to take a book on its own terms? If you don’t like it, fine — but at least you gave it, and yourself, a shot.

      • EMoonTX

        I wonder if it starts with how kids are taught to read books (rather than just taught to read and then turned loose in the vast garden of stories.) As an early reader I had a head-start on reading books just for pleasure before hitting that level in school, but there was an emphasis on “What does this [thing/person/event] symbolize? What is the hidden meaning?” that seemed to imply writers had a list of such things to be ticked off, and readers were supposed to go on a treasure hunt to dig them all out. I could do it, but–as someone who’d already started telling stories–I couldn’t imagine how that would work from the writer end. Of course, maybe kids aren’t taught that anymore.

        • Erin Lindsey

          That might well be part of it. I think another aspect is perhaps
          particular to genre fiction, which is often subjected to a pretty rigid
          set of “rules”. The fact that we feel obliged to have categories as
          specific as “steampunk” and “flintlock” suggests that readers are often
          basing their reading decisions on quite a narrow set of expectations,
          and can become quite annoyed when those expectations aren’t met. That’s
          hard for those of us who don’t write with a specific sub-genre in mind,
          because we’re necessarily colouring outside the lines.

          • EMoonTX

            Good point–the marketing decisions we’re urged to make, on categorizing our work, may actually work against us as readers make assumptions about what should (and shouldn’t) be in each narrow definition. I used to argue that I’d like to see all fiction shelved alphabetically and let readers explore, because a good story can be in any genre (or sub-genre.) Someone who thinks they don’t like urban fantasy might find that they liked *this* urban fantasy and someone who thought they liked *only* urban fantasy might find they also liked one particular writer’s cozy mystery series and someone else’s military SF.

          • Erin Lindsey

            I hear you. Recently, I did a guest post over at Pornokitsch on rethinking genre in which I suggested, albeit in a tongue-in-cheek way, that stores should shelve books according to worldview. “Excuse me, could you show me to the nasty, brutish, and short section, please?”

  • E.L. F.

    I’m always entertained by folks who spend their time analyzing such things…whereas my goal is to enjoy a good story. I think that everyone applies their own paradigm to what they are reading, and some waste far too much time trying to impute a meaning to promote their own agenda. Nice post, thanks for the insights.

    • Erin Lindsey

      Wanting to enjoy a good story sounds to me like the perfect approach to reading. :)

  • Peter Moore

    I think the best advice on writing believable female characters I’ve ever read was recently written by Kate Elliott on the Tor blog. To reduce it to it’s most basic; “write woman characters as people in all their glorious human complexity”

    • Erin Lindsey

      I did see that post, and largely agreed with it. It’s certainly how I strive to write female characters. The issue I’m addressing here, though, isn’t so much about writing female characters as reading them — and especially, analysing and commenting on them.

      Writing a complex, flawed female character doesn’t inoculate you from the sorts of criticisms I’m referring to above; if anything, it seems to attract them, somewhat paradoxically.