Friday, January 10, 2014

Like a Girl

Masculine: Of, relating to, or suited to men or boys

Feminine: Of, relating to, or suited to women or girls

(Both definitions taken from the Merriam-Webster online dictionary)

I used to love the show Revenge. I watched the first season after seeing Stephen King recommend it in an issue of Entertainment Weekly. I was planning on watching one episode at a time, stretched out over a couple of weeks, and ended up marathoning it until I was caught up and had to deal with the agony of watching in real time.

On of the things that I loved about Revenge was that Emily Thorne was not a Nice Girl. She was focused and cruel and didn't care who she hurt as long as she got her revenge. She used people. She ruined lives. And she didn't care - or if she did, she didn't let that stop her -no matter who they were. I was so excited to see a show that let a female character be like that.

And then they turned her into a Nice Girl. She started worrying about hurting people. She got a boyfriend, and he started helping her with her revenge. Worse still, she needed him to - all the skills that she had in the first season somehow disappeared. She was no longer a Fury, she was the princess who needed saving. Because, you know, girl.

It sounds like I'm angry that they made a female character act like a girl. I'm not. Emily Thorne acted like a girl from day one, because that's what she is. I'm angry that they took an interesting complex female character and turned her into a helpless stereotype. There's a difference.

You throw like a girl. You hit like a girl. That was such a pussy move. You're such a little bitch.

I write stories that tend to have a lot of women and girls in them. I don't usually consciously think about femininity when I write them. My goal is to write characters that are complex and interesting. Some of those characters that are women are going to engage in traditional ways with traditional markers of femininity at some times. Some aren't. 

But at the same time, I do think about the prejudices that are associated with the feminine a lot when I write. It's the inverse of what Chuck Wendig is talking about when he says this:

"Once you say: “THIS is masculine,” it’s hard not to say, “THAT is feminine.”

That can get toxic pretty quick. Particularly for those folks — a lot of us, really — who don’t fit really nicely into one slot or the other. Fiction can teach us things and if it teaches us that masculinity is XYZ and we’re a man who fits X but maybe not Y and Z, where does that leave us?

How should we feel?"

(Go here for the full entry on Chuck's blog. It's a really thought-provoking piece.)

In a vacuum, there's no problem with the terms masculine and feminine. The problem is when we start hanging values on the ideas associated with them.

I'm so glad his parents finally cut his hair. That kid was really starting to look like a girl.

Buffy was supposed to fix everything. She's the Chosen One, that's what they do, right? The cute blonde cheerleader who wanted a boyfriend, and to wear a pretty dress at prom, and who could kill the monsters in that pretty dress and heels. She was the Strong Female Character who still looked and acted like a girl.  
And so people started writing stories about Strong Female Characters who were Just! Like! Buffy! They could kick ass, too! And punch things! They were as good at the guys! Because punching! Except, as Neil Gaiman points out, that's sort of a willful misdefinition  of strength in those circumstances:

"It's worth pointing out that people, unfortunately, misunderstand the phrase 'strong women,'" Gaiman said. "The glory of Buffy is it was filled with strong women. Only one of those strong women had supernatural strength and an awful lot of sharpened stakes. And people sort of go 'Well yes, of course Buffy was a strong woman. She could kick her way through a door.' And you go 'No, that's not actually what makes her a strong woman! You're missing the point.'"

(from here)

We are taught, as writers, to make our characters into real people. To write them as well-rounded, with flaws and failings as well as strengths and abilities. And as readers, we know when a writer has failed, when they have written a stereotype, instead of a person.

But we need to be careful, as both readers and writers, to understand the difference between "this character does not read like a well-rounded person" and "this character does not fit my ideas of how a man or woman should be." We cannot let our ideas of traditional femininity and masculinity get in the way of seeing people as people, no matter how they are written. No matter how they are.


  1. I felt the same about Revenge. All of a sudden... they introduce this boyfriend...! And she needs his help!! I don't know if you watched Alias, but that was even worse. Season 1 - strong, ass-kicking female spy lead character. As the show progresses she no longer wins fights. Suddenly her boyfriend bails her out time and time again.

    I enjoy depictions of strong women/girls but it sucks that they rarely last long. Homeland, for me, is an example of potential for demonstrating great strength of character in a different way than "kicking in doors" - there are moments of power through struggle. But they have her break down crying too much (in my opinion), and all the guys around her refuse to have faith in her no matter how often she is right, which irritates me after a while lol

    I think Good Wife is cool, actually. Lots of different sorts of displays of feminine power, interacting/ struggling with a very patriarchal setting. Love Kalinda!

    Anyways, thanks for the blog : )

    1. The Good Wife is one of my favorite shows, and for a lot of the reasons you mention - fantastic complicated characters across the board.

  2. Way back in the 70's I think it was, a book was published in Australia called, 'Damn Whores and God's Police.' It was about how women were perceived in the convict era. Women were either whores or religious do-gooders, and nothing in between. The centuries since that time (the convict era, not when I read the book!) have blurred the boundaries between these two (false) polarities, and created a few more stereotypes, but for the traditional entertainment industry, very little has changed.

    Hopefully, in a decade or two, ( or five) we'll look back on these times as the last gasp of a dying mentality.

    1. Perhaps this is overly optimistic, but I do believe it will change - as creators write characters, rather than stereotypes, and as audiences demand the kind of complexity that reflects actual people.

  3. Oh Revenge disappointed me so much. That Boyfriend and the depowering of Emily that came in his dreadful wake!