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.