"There is difference and there is power. And who holds the power decides the meaning of the difference." --June Jordan

Saturday, April 7, 2007

Feminism Friday: A Litmus Test for Writing Female Characters

I love the idea and wanted to get in on the rapidly spreading movement to blog about feminist issues every Friday (which I first learned about from Thinking Girl and from Finally Feminism 101), and I've been dying to share and comment on the beautifully worded wisdom of Karen Healey, the author of the feminist blog, Girls Read Comics (And They're Pissed!). Karen gave a voice to every female who's ever been annoyed at the representation of female characters in anything (not just in comic books) when she wrote this post as a step-by-step guide for male comic book writers who wish to include female characters in their work. I totally recommend reading all of what she has to say, but I'm going to list her major points below (words in italics are Karen's):

When you're writing a female character, consider these things:

1) Is she the only female character in your magnum opus?

Seems simple enough, right? Don't make her the token female. Don't fall into the trap of the Smurfette Principle, or add a token April O'Neil just to balance out the masculinity of the Ninja Turtles.

Karen adds to this point:

Is her position within an ensemble cast "the girl"? As in, you have "geeky guy", "strong guy", "goofy guy" and "the girl"?

Having only one female within a group of characters sends the message that male is the norm, and that female is something else. Or that this particular female just happens to have what it takes to be included among the males, but that this is not typical. And this lone female character has the burden of representing all females - as if there is only one way to be female and many different ways to be male.

2) Does she talk to other women?

3) ... about something other than a man?

We womenfolk do have other interests and concerns, you know.

Karen's next point is probably my favorite:

4) What is she wearing?

Karen says:

Is it appropriate to the climate/society/personality/powers/financial circumstances/occupation of the wearer, or at least as appropriate as what the men around her are wearing? Is she wearing it for herself, or for her readers?


If you find yourself saying things like "But she just won't be as sexy in cargo pants," stop and ask yourself a) why you think your female lead character must be sexy and b) whether this is a character design imperative for your male characters (and why not?).

Understanding this argument is pivotal when it comes to realizing that all women are, at all times, living their lives under a "male gaze". In the vast majority of female representations, this seems to be the number one priority. No matter how strong, how independent, or how autonomous the female character is, to have value, she must still be beautiful. She must be attractive at all times. She does not get to be a hero or a protagonist if she does not have some sort of feminine desirability. She cannot be overweight. She cannot be older than mid-twenties. She cannot suffer from a disability that interferes with her desirability. She absolutely cannot be flat-chested. She cannot be taller than her male co-characters or more muscular, and she must be wearing considerably less clothing.

As an example, I had a discussion with a few friends recently who couldn't seem to understand why I have always been annoyed over the weird metal bikini Princess Leia wears in Return of the Jedi when she is being held captive by Jabba the Hut. While they saw no harm in it, I saw it as a pathetic attempt to sexualize a character that had no reason to be sexualized (aside from the mere fact that she was female, which is apparently always permissible and to be expected). That ridiculous outfit (which actress Carrie Fisher was forced to lose weight to wear) had nothing to do with the story, but was used to create a fantasy for a heterosexual male audience. And this is precisely why such a vast majority of female comic book characters are drawn (by male artists) with giant breasts complete with always-erect nipples (see Karen's Is it Cold in Here? Or is That Just Me?) and dressed in either barely-there or -super-tight clothing.

I could go on about that forever, but on to the next point:

5) Was she/is she going to be raped?

I could write a whole novel on this topic, but luckily, Susan Brownmiller already did that for us. Go read Against Our Will. Also pick up Inga Musico's Cunt: A Declaration of Independence and read what she has to say about how rape scenes occur in one out of every eight Hollywood pictures.

6) If she objects to sexism, make sure it's actually sexist.

I think a corollary to this argument should also be: If she responds to actual sexism, frame the situation so that she is able to be taken seriously. Does anyone else remember Jessie Spano from Saved by the Bell? Her constant frustration with sexism was basically used to either make her look uptight, or to give Slater an opportunity to make one of those oh-so-cute misogynist wisecracks. A few examples:

Jessie: Slater, haven't you heard of the Women's Movement?
Slater: Sure..."Put on something cute and MOVE it into the kitchen."

Jessie: Slater, since we're together, I think we should share the household chores.
Slater: Sure, you cook & I'll eat.

Jessie: You macho pig.
Slater: Oink oink, baby.

7) "I hit boys!" is not a strong feminist statement.

Karen uses a specific example to illustrate this point, but the general idea is that making a female character act like a male stereotype is not inherently feminist, and not necessarily a positive thing.

8) Are misogynistic situations presented uncritically?

Misogyny, like racism and homophobia, exists. There's no reason it can't make an appearance in your work, but it shouldn't be endorsed by it.

Beautifully put.

And finally:

9) If you're a man, consider getting a female feminist pre-reader.

Ding, ding! We have a winner!

If you're a guy, you have male privilege. This is not your fault. However, even if you're a feminist, your privilege may well be blinding you to parts of your work that might be offensive or dumb. (The link is mine. Not Karen's.)

It makes sense that what seems like common sense to us might be something that never even occurred to someone else, especially when that someone is male, and especially when that someone has been exposed to and mostly influenced by a body of work that represents a dearth of positive, realistic portrayals of women. This means that the compassionate male who seeks to write a real female character who is untainted by harmful stereotypes has an obligation to seek out some critical feedback on his work from someone with a feminist consciousness. Or to at least follow guidelines such as these.

I love Karen's post, because it lays it out so clearly. If this information was common knowledge in and better understood by heterosexual-male-comic-book-subculture (and in the media at large) we would no longer have to sigh, throw up our hands, and say we forgive them for knowing not what they do.


tigtog said...

Great post, Tracey. Beautifully laid out.

Tracey said...

Thanks! I didn't realize you were the writer of the Feminism 101 blog until I looked at Thinking Girl's site. I love that blog, so thanks for writing it.

DivineLavender said...

This is wonderful....perfect!

Who will listen?

I did.

Kareem said...

Unfortunately in Hollywood, there is only one writer I can think of that actually keeps this in mind:

Joss Whedon.

Hopefully others will dig this up, and keep it in mind when writing female characters.

Send this to Eick "Bionic Woman." The show blows.

Anonymous said...

I like most of what you wrote, but I don't necessarily agree with what you wrote about Star Wars' Leia. I think that sexualizing of Leia was absolutely necessary at that point in the story. Think about how she was portrayed before and after that incident. No where else did she come across as that blatently sexual. At that point, Jabba the Hut was deliberately trying to humiliate her, and what better way than to make her a dancing girl? By trivalizing her to nothing more than a body, Jabba tried to break her spirit. No, it didn't work, but that doesn't make it any less of a technique.

Yes, the fan boys drooled. Yes, people on the set could see all the way to Egypt (as CF once said in an interview). However, from a story-telling perspective, it was a natural move given the other characters involved. What could humiliate Solo more than to have this woman that he loved be made into a mockery, esp. when he knew how strong she was. How much could the sight of her being that downtrodden be for the other characters?

It was an offensive sight to see Leia in that outfit, but that was the point. *shrug* Storytelling often offends. It's part of its charm. :)

(BTW, I am female. :) )

Anonymous said...

In general, I agree with what you (and Karen Healy) write and will use these tips in the future, but I am reminded of a delimma that relates to #4. Some years back, I wrote a story that featured several characters who worked in the tech industry, one of whom was female. She was a kind of frumpy, slightly overweight, generally plain woman who always wore jeans and t-shirts, although this didn't factor into the story at all. It's just who she was. A woman who read the story, though, was disappointed by this. She said it was troubled by my story's assertion that only plain or unattractive women would work in tech.

Evil, Evil Man said...

The whole "Wo-man" argument seems to contradict everything you want. First there's an issue with damsels in distress, then there's a problem with female characters who have no semblance of feminity to them (I.E. Scully), and then they're allowed to be women but they can't fall in love with the main male protagonist...

Isn't rejecting a female character because they're "too manly" or adversely, embracing a good female character (which is a myth obviously) because she fits into a "WOMAN STRONG!!!" mold only further entrenching these ugly stereotypes and worse, segregating what a woman IS capable of.

I agree, there are badly WRITTEN female characters (IMDB Megan Fox's career) but that's not to say that a woman can't be a mechanic. A woman can't be a tomboy. A woman can't fall in love and have kids if she so chooses-


Because this is about what the feminists want for her, right?

I think perhaps the key to writing any good character (regardless of gender, ethnicity, age) is layers. Motivations, goals, characterizations, and most importantly flaws.

Times are changing. Just as many kids who root for Joss Whedon seem to think Bella Swan is a magnificient female rolemodel for abstinence- which is sad, but true. Feminism is an ideal, but doesn't speak for the status quo, and neither does any blog post author or commentator.

Miriam said...

I started a story blog on the Jumping in blog. I wish i had known about these tips before.

Very useful!

Anonymous said...

Is she going to turn out to be a lesbian after the major character falls for her? Seems to happen a lot. Gets the writer off the hook for the need to include her in future episodes.

fab40 said...

Very good opinion

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