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Saturday, July 17, 2010

On honorary men, stereotypical women, and feminized men

I read some great food for thought on writing and gender over the last couple of days. At sfnovelists, Marie Brennan talked about the tendency of writers to attempt to create "strong female characters" by basically writing "men with tits": characters who act like stereotypical men in every way but the plumbing and the name.

In the comments to Brennan's post, someone linked to an article deconstructing the trope of the Hollywood strong female character. This was the bit that best summed it up for me:

I think the major problem here is that women were clamoring for “strong female characters,” and male writers misunderstood. They thought the feminists meant [Strong Female] Characters. The feminists meant [Strong Characters], Female.

(I had mixed feelings on the discussion of hot women ending up with schlubby everydudes. While reading the article, I couldn't deny that the author [I could only find the author's online handle, not a real name] was onto something, but the farther I got into the comments the more clear it became that many of the commenters seemed to buy into the myth that looks were the only component of desirability. As a schlubby ugly guy who's nevertheless pretty decent in a lot of ways ;) I beg to differ.)

I also ran across a rather heated debate on Absolute Write on whether it was okay to write gay characters who conformed to gay stereotypes. One of the principals in the discussion claimed to be a gay male who was stereotypically feminine, and his argument was, as I understood it, that people like him existed and shouldn't be swept under the rug in the name of fighting stereotypes.

I've thought a lot about this issue over the years, because it's something I don't want to inadvertently do in my own writing. I seem to be drawn to characters of either sex who fuck with gender expectations. I'm not the most macho of men, so I like seeing sensitive male characters. I'm also drawn to strong females in life as in art. My male characters tend to be sensitive--am I feminizing them? My female characters tend to be strong--are they just boys in drag? And I've not yet gotten around to writing a gay character, but since my tendency is generally to buck stereotypes, that's a tack I could certainly see myself taking.

I don't have any good answers, but in all three discussions I found online this week, the bottom line seemed to be about characterization. At least some of the vitriol in the Absolute Write discussion seemed to come from the fact that the poster suggested writing gays according to stereotype with no real focus on who these characters were--in other words, instead of allowing their characteristics to grow organically from their personalities, to use stereotypes as a code for "this guy is gay." In real life, most people don't conform that perfectly to a whole set of expectations. They'll conform to some and defy others, and which is which is rooted in their personalities and their experiences and who they are.

Likewise in the Overthinking It article and in Brennan's blog post, the emphasis seemed to come down to making the female characters good characters, not on whether they do or do not kick ass. In particular, my eyes lit up when Brennan cited Firefly's Zoe (pictured) as an example of a good strong character of the female variety--and not just because I have a crush on Zoe. Oh yes, she definitely kicks ass, but she is also definitely a real woman, and not a guy in disguise.

As for my own writing, all I can do is try my hardest to do right by my characters, and think of them as real people who come by their personality quirks the hard way. So far I haven't had any complaints, but when I do, hopefully I'll listen with an open mind.

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