Confessions of a Former Writer of Sexist Fiction

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In the process of moving to a new state for a new job, I spent a whole mess of time packing up all my stuff into cardboard boxes. This led to the discovery of every writer’s waking nightmare: those short stories and novellas you wrote before you had any idea what “narrative structure” or “scene setting” meant. If you ever want to spend an afternoon alternating between sheer horror and vague retrospective enthusiasm, try reading those notebooks. It’s a trip.

Sometimes, when you take a nostalgic writer’s trip, you discover some things. I found two:

1. A sentence from a totally useless story that I immediately cut and pasted into my current manuscript, because it was perfect and I re-fell in love with it instantly, and

2. The following realization: “holy shit but I wrote a lot of misogynistic patriarchal sexist bullshit between the ages of 13 and 18.”

You want to know what kind of cultural tropes and baggage society gives us? Check out the way you thought about gender roles as a child. No filter, no sociological un-learning, just straight regurgitation of the dominant worldview.

Here are two of the most popular tropes I found myself using over the course of my youthful forays into fiction. The sad thing is, these are not exclusive to children. They’re everywhere: in movies, in TV, in mainstream fiction, in video games, everywhere. And the sooner we start breaking them down, the better shot we’ve got at stopping them.

1. Women as Plot Devices

Uncomfortable truth be told, it seems I’ve always been more comfortable working with male protagonists. I don’t know why this is. Well, I kind of do know why this is. Despite the steady diet of female empowerment my parents and I sought out, from Tamora Pierce (guys I don’t care how old you are go fucking read Tamora Pierce) to Little Women (#JoMarchForever), most media produced in America is phallocentric.

There’s a reason we invoke the Bechdel test as often as we do: because so many things fail it.

You know what the test is: the film must have two or more female characters, both of whom have names, and who have a conversation with one another about something other than a man. Should be a given, right?

Check out this list of which 2014 movies passed and failed the test. Then think about how many of those passing films were billed as “blockbusters” or “must-sees.” How many of them got heavy advertising? How many of them weren’t dismissed as genre films like “young adult” or “teen girl” or “chick flick”? I count maybe ten. And that list has 159 movies.

And this is fucking 2014.

No, this doesn’t make me feel any better about the number of variations I wrote on this story: charming yet disadvantaged male goes through dramatic adventures (piracy, vampirism, the Napoleonic Wars) only to discover that the only female in the story is the love of his life, and that he’ll do anything (kill the captain, commit suicide in a vampire/hunter street fight like West Side Story with fangs, feed the rival suitor to a hungry bear) to obtain her.

Easy Solution: Start telling women’s stories with the same authenticity as men’s.

Obviously, I’m not saying that we should throw out all male protagonists. (#notallmen.) But all I’m saying is that we have to make an effort to even the playing field. Women make up 50% of the world’s population. Asking for a few stories about women who aren’t only focused on marriage shouldn’t be so much to ask, but apparently is.

It’s also worth pointing out that bit parts like scene-setting servants, whores, crowd characters, or personality-less mothers don’t count. Female presence is not the same as female representation. As writers, we need to get as deeply into the heads of the women in our stories as we do the men. It’s especially disappointing to me as a woman that even I frequently did not do this. But it’s never too late to re-correct.

2. Objectifying and Sexually Skewed Adjectives

Guys. Guys. I can’t make you understand on an emotional level the number of times I referred to the female character in the aforementioned nonsense vampire novella’s “emerald-green eyes.” (I know, I know, I’m selling this vampire novella really hard.) I blame this partly on Harry Potter: flip through the series and see if you can find a color adjective unmodified by another adjective. But the sum-total character development I gave this girl was deciding she had “emerald-green eyes.”

Occasionally, “shockingly emerald-green eyes.” Though how this could possibly shock anyone after I’d already written it forty times is beyond me.

She wasn’t the only one to receive this treatment. I’ve read through at least nine stories written between 2004 and 2010 recently, and nowhere in any of them is there a female character of any plot importance who isn’t the most beautiful woman the narrator has ever seen. Statistically speaking, that’s not exactly likely. Worth noting that there are male protagonists, in my writing and elsewhere, who look all kinds of ways. Yeah, I skew toward a type (okay, yeah, I skew toward this type). But it’s not the only goddamned type.

There’s a reason that an unattractive female protagonist (and not a “you don’t know you’re beautiful” type, a genuinely unattractive female protagonist) still feels like a revolutionary idea.

Women don’t have to be “classically beautiful” to be important. Beauty isn’t the only trait that determines a character’s value to the story. If we don’t spend all our time describing the male protagonist’s jawbones or the way you can see the shape of his pelvis through his pants, we sure shouldn’t be constantly talking about a woman’s body more than about what she’s saying.

Easy Solution: Kill your adjectives with fire.

I’ve become super highly attuned to the work my adjectives are doing. Specifically the patriarchal work. Description is great, guys. I once spent an afternoon doing nothing but drinking iced coffee and writing descriptions of various rooms, just for practice.

But when description replaces your characters’ agency, you’re leaning too far in the “show, don’t tell” direction, and it’s high time for you to come back to us.

Also, please delete every time you describe the color of something with more than one word. Every. Damn. Time. There is nothing wrong with “green” or “blue.” Take it from me, your future self will thank you for it.

I feel a little weird outlining my shortcomings as a writer, especially when I haven’t been called out on it by anyone else. (This is because no one is every allowed to read that vampire epic. It should be clear by now why.)

But I really think it’s important to be honest about the way writing works. Feminism isn’t a banner you take up one day and then never do a sexist thing again. Writing isn’t a skill you pick up at Target and then deploy perfectly heretofore. Both are processes, and both require training and continual sensitivity.

Constant vigilance, even.

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8 comments

  1. Goodness, did this description take me back! Less so to my own juvenilia (not that it was less derivative and stereotyped) but to a brief period in the ’90s when I was teaching literature to high school students. The textbook selections for Victorian poetry were horrendous–I may like Browning’s “My Last Duchess” as much as anything else from the period, but not when it’s just the first in a series of poems all suggesting, or outright declaring, that the narrator murders some woman he “loved.” Made my skin crawl. I regret still my inability, as a very new teacher (also young and female), to help those young people see the sexism in these works. Or at least not in any ways that they were willing or able to express–almost all my students produced writing in response to this material that itself replicated the violence or sentimentalized the sexism, or both. (I hope any of those kids that continued writing into adulthood grew out of it, as you are doing. As I hope I am doing. As all of us need to be doing, with fervor and vigilance.)
    Thank you for sharing!

    1. Ah, those wacky Victorians… Giving us patriarchal complexes and screwing up our love discourse, all these years later. I have the same problem with Gothic fiction: skin-crawling, and not in the way they meant.

  2. So true, constant vigilance indeed! decolonizing our minds and our bodies from patriarchal conditioning takes time and effort. Thanks for sharing your awareness about the way you used to write women. Very insightful and generous.

  3. I’ve got my share of regrettable material floating around out there that I’d like to make go away (including a “humorous” bit about nude photo leaks from about 4 years ago… it was meant to be satirical, but one can’t really tell in retrospect). We live and learn.

    Nowadays I’m working on a fiction project with female protagonists, none of whom is described or viewed by other characters as traditionally attractive. I’m not endeavoring to be revolutionary, just authentic and relatable.

    1. The sad thing is that oftentimes being authentic, relatable, and non-biased is a little bit revolutionary… Best of luck with your fiction. I’m currently launching into a story featuring an ensemble cast of a young man, a middle-aged woman, a woman whose age is either sixteen or four hundred, and a zombie priest. None of whose appearance is remotely important. I like to think that this is progress.

      1. I think I’ll want to know what the zombie priest looks like. Classic Romero zombie? Walking Dead zombie? El-cheapo drive-in movie voodoo zombie?

        Or…

        are you inventing a new zombie?

        1. I’m thinking it will be hard to differentiate him from a normal living human being, except when you shoot him through the chest he kind of just looks at you with this disappointed look on his face, like he can’t believe you tried to be that obvious, and he expected better from you. There may also be a distinctive smell. I don’t know. It’s still kind of in flux 🙂

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