October is drawing to a close, and National Novel Writing Month is upon us. Which means that some members of the Beatdown Brain Trust might be trying their hands at noveling, with the jaunty scarves artfully thrown over the shoulder and the good seat in the coffee shop and the endless Internet browsing loops and the WHAT DO YOU MEAN I HAVE TO WRITE SOMETHING? At some point you may find yourself creating a character who is a Lady.
Once upon a time I tried my hand at creating female characters. I assumed that my female characters would have the infinite variety of actual women, that not desiring them sexually would make me immune to drawing two-dimensional caricatures of femininity. And I failed. I failed abysmally. I failed by assuming that a lifetime spent reading fiction had prepared me to see women in stories as anything other than plot devices. Looking back, I can see how those sections of the work sagged as I created flimsy cardboard cutouts and expected them to do the work of fully-realized people. I worked at it for a long time. I have gotten better.
But luckily for you, The Rejectionist and I are here to school you in the various problems with female characters in the wordpapers of the mindstories, which are many. Enjoy!
REJECTIONIST: So! WHAT MAKES A DEVELOPED LADY CHARACTER, Garland? And I don’t mean boobies.
GARLAND: Oh, gee, I don’t know. She should have an internal life, apart from the ways she interacts with The Dudes? She should have her own goals and aspirations?
REJECTIONIST: You make it sound so simple! But clearly, it is not this simple, or else we would not have quite so many books about The Ladies and their endless quests for Shoes, also A Man To Marry!
GARLAND: Clearly Ladies are only really important and alive in the years after they get breasts and before they get married. After that they just become the mother of the male protagonist, baking pies and giving advice.
REJECTIONIST: Or else, in this modern era, they fight international crimes while looking super sexy all the time, and are defined by their inability to have meaningful relationships with other human beings. Other than lots and lots of hot hot sex, throughout which their hair never gets mussed and they never develop anything so unsightly as emotional attachments. Which is, you know, super feminist. You can tell the feminism of a book by the number of dudes who want to have sex with the hot empowered lady character.
GARLAND: Because no matter how little institutional power women have, they’ve always got that vagina to fall back on. THE VAGINA! IT’S LIKE A BUSINESS MINOR!
REJECTIONIST: THE VAGINA TAKES US PLACES, it truly does. And yet somehow, despite this panoply of fictive options, I feel strangely limited when reading a lot of modern novels that have ladies in them.
GARLAND: I’ve read so many books about Men who live their lives apart from the rest of society, walking the streets at night, staying in their little apartments, FACING THE EXISTENTIAL DESPAIR OF THE HUMAN CONDITION. But I’ve never read a book like that with a female protagonist. It seems like female characters aren’t just limited by the depth of their character, but also by the questions they are allowed to interrogate.
REJECTIONIST: Well, ladies don’t have very deep thoughts. They get so distracted with their baking. But I think even if a novel does have ladies interrogating the existential condition etc., it gets received as being a novel about that lady doing lady-things. If a novel has a man pondering the same questions, it is a great work of transcendent genius. Because ladies have Emotions, whereas men have Insights.
GARLAND: One thing that I utterly hate that reinforces this idea is that scene that crops up quite a lot where the male character realizes that a female character has an internal life of her own, and he’s blown away by this startling revelation, his world is turned upside down, etc. And we, the readers, are supposed to be very proud of the author for having realized that Ladies are people too, even when they aren’t baking or having sex.
REJECTIONIST: Oh yeah, I read that book, too! Male writers do not by any means have a monopoly on producing shallow and poorly drawn female characters. But male writers definitely dominate the field of Critically Acclaimed Literary Masterworks, and so those same tired ideas about the ladies get reiterated to the point where people don’t even notice them anymore. I recently read a Masterwork by one such great man, the title of which I shall not mention here but I’m sure you can guess, and there were points where I was shouting out loud in a rage–like, dude, have you ever even TALKED to a lady? Because it is so clear from reading this book that YOU HATE THEM. This text, it PULSATES with hatred. I wrote a while ago about my complicated relationship with Michel Houellebecq, a profoundly misogynist writer whose work I love. Someone tried to make the point that he was just a misanthrope, and I would counter that by saying it is certainly possible to hate humanity in general and women in particular, and those are two very different kinds of hatreds.
GARLAND: Hating people may or may not be acceptable, based on your belief in their capacity for kindness. Hating women, specifically, ignores all the ways in which Dudes can really and truly suck. OH THAT BOOK. Well can you blame him, really? I mean, women are either flat, boring emotional wrecks or unknowable mysteries. Because men are interesting and important, and women certainly must be complicated enigmas for men to be so interested in them. And the dudes! They are not ashamed to admit the power that women have over them! So sultry and seductive and unknowable. And they never once pause to consider that making women out to be mythic sex goddesses is just as reductive as making them fainting waifs. It is still about the male author and his obsession, and so totally not about who she is as a person in the real world. This whole series by Kate Beaton is perfect, but the fifth comic really needs to be read by every dude who wants to write about women.
REJECTIONIST: Oh I LOVE her. And yes, exactly. This umbrella of the removed, cynical, astutely misanthropic Novelist serves as a cover for a whole bunch of pernicious shit. Such as: it’s fine to promulgate sexist/racist/homophobic caricatures in the Novel, because the Novelist doesn’t hate women/people of color/queers, he just hates Humanity. And of course lots of ladies really are harpies or quasi-underage sexy exotic (read: brown) nymphos who die conveniently in a car crash so the forgiving male character can reunite with his stupid, cheating wife. So the Novelist has free license to people the Novel with those caricatures, since the Novelist is writing about how much humanity sucks. Any kind of critique trying to point out specific apparatuses of hatred gets met with OH YOU PC BITCHES AND YOUR COMPLAINING! He’s just writing about Human Nature!
GARLAND: And this has created a cultural milieu where these ideas have become so deeply entrenched that any writer who doesn’t subscribe to them is “The Other” and we are led to believe that misogynistic horseshit is the default and that anything that deviates from it lacks verisimilitude. And since all of these rules about what is true to life and what isn’t were laid down decades ago by older, white male authors of a certain generation, it is called “the literary tradition” instead of “white male author fantasyland” and anyone who doesn’t participate in the fantasy is an outsider.
REJECTIONIST: Outsider? Oh, you mean a Vagina! So, by default, within those critical parameters men are always going to be writing about Humanity and women are always going to be writing about Ladies and Their Tiny Concerns. And you know, a person just gets so tired! I would honestly like to stop HAVING this conversation, it is a conversation that EXHAUSTS me. I do not wake up every morning thinking OH YES UNIVERSE ANOTHER DAY IN WHICH I WILL BE CONTINUALLY REQUIRED TO ASSERT MY PERSONHOOD INCLUDING IN THE REALM OF THE IMAGINATION HUZZAH! And then I finish yet another Great Novel where by the end I feel like the Novelist has basically taken a doody of lady-hate on my head, and ask myself, Self, have we gotten ANYWHERE? This is a conversation about literature the ladies have been having publicly since Christine de Pizan smacked down the Romance of the Rose in the year fourteen hundred. CAN WE MOVE FORWARD PLEASE I DON’T LIKE THIS VIEW.
GARLAND: And one way to move that conversation forward is to talk about Ladies and Dudes who write well-developed, interesting female characters. SO! Send us the titles of books like that so that we may praise them, in a semi-regular, if-we-get-around-to-it, you’re-not-the-boss-of-us fashion! IF WE FEEL LIKE IT. And maybe we can start having a different conversation.