A Facebook friend shared “I hate Strong Female Characters,” a great piece about gender equality and entertainment. Sophia McDougall writes,
When I talk about this, people offer synonyms; better, less limiting ways of saying the same thing. What about “effective female characters”, for instance? But it is not enough to redefine the term. It won’t do to add maybe a touch more nuance but otherwise carry on more or less as normal. We need an entirely new approach to the problem, which means remembering that the problem is far more than just a tendency to show female characters as kind of drippy. We need get away from the idea that sexism in fiction can be tackled by reliance on depiction of a single personality type, that you just need to write one female character per story right and you’ve done enough.
McDougall draws on film and television to expose the problem with strong female characters, but literature has its own issues – as Kameron Hurley identifies in “‘We Have Always Fought’: Challenging the ‘Women, Cattle and Slaves’ Narrative“:
…the moment we re-imagine the world as a buzzing hive of individuals with a variety of genders and complicated sexes and unique, passionate narratives that have yet to be told – it makes them harder to ignore. They are no longer, “women and cattle and slaves” but active players in their own stories.
Because when we choose to write stories, it’s not just an individual story we’re telling. It’s theirs. And yours. And ours. We all exist together. It all happens here. It’s muddy and complex and often tragic and terrifying. But ignoring half of it, and pretending there’s only one way a woman lives or has ever lived – in relation to the men that surround her – is not a single act of erasure, but a political erasure.
Populating a world with men, with male heroes, male people, and their “women cattle and slaves” is a political act. You are making a conscious choice to erase half the world.
As storytellers, there are more interesting choices we can make.
In my opinion, there are counterexamples out there. Shows like Firefly, Scandal, and Once Upon a Time come to mind, and George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series is rife with “strong female characters” who are as complex as their male counterparts. However, I see what McDougall and Hurley mean, because I see it in my own writing.
Yes, I was a Gender Studies major. Yes, at some point I considered pursuing my PhD in Gender Studies. And yes, I am a feminist. Yet I still perpetuate gender inequality with my manuscript.
My protagonist is a female. Cassandra is driven, intelligent, and witty. She’s a strategist. Cassandra compels others to action. In every way she can, Cassandra fights with conviction and skill.
With my primary character grouping, she currently makes up half of the women. The male-to-female ratio among my primary characters is 4:1.
The other major female character? Well, she’s meant to deconstruct the Virgin/Whore dichotomy, so female sexuality is front and center with that one.
I finished writing my manuscript almost a year ago. I’ve been revising it since, trying to get it to a point where it’s “ready” (I’ll know it when it happens, okay?). In that time, I’ve realized that some things just don’t work. I haven’t been able to put my finger on it, but I think know now.
Internal and external conflicts center on elements of equality and identity; when your female perspectives are drowned out by a variety of male perspectives, it’s hard to present an equitable story. There are a range of male identities, in a slew of occupations. But the female voice, despite its dominance page-wise, is still weak and one-sided.
There’s a great story here, and clearly it’s still emerging. So as I’m revising, what else can I do? I can’t just put in extra women; I can’t add unnecessary characters just so the reader hears more female voices. I can’t see throwing random women on the page as anything other than a disservice.
I decided to continue revising, paying attention to close attention to gender and sexuality. Until I figured something out, I could at least make sure my existing characters were complex and well-written. I noticed some flaws right away. Rebecca had always been written as a delicate, gentle woman – but that didn’t mesh with her background. I expanded her history (within appropriate limits for the story) and modified her appearance. She’s more than just a wife and mother; she is a dynamic, bold woman.
Then I came up with the “Orlando Option.”
I’m not going to find literary interstices and squeeze female characters in. But if I’m going to deepen my characters, why shouldn’t I consider gender changes as part of that process? There are men in my manuscript who aren’t as layered and nuanced as I’d like them to be. What if I’m tapped out writing them because they’re men?
Look, I get it – I don’t want to “add women and stir,” and I can see how this might seem to be the same thing. To me, it isn’t. I’m dealing with a handful of characters that I’ve written and can’t take any farther except to Mandyville. “Maleness” doesn’t add anything to their story, or the story as a whole. They don’t have to be male to be interesting or compelling; making them female offers them previously unavailable opportunities.
I’m dealing with identity here – and relationships change dramatically and for the better when gender dynamics shift.
So far, it’s working. This manuscript is getting closer to “ready.” And the active players in my narrative have plenty to say.
How do gender perspectives inform your narrative? How might they shift to tell a different story?