Unless you’ve been living under the Internet equivalent of a rock lately, you’ll know that the portrayal of women in media is a big bone of contention among many. Not just in video games, though that has been the big focus thanks to the minds behind GamerGate. In general. Portrayal of women in media is a minefield of stereotypes and people getting their backs up because more than ever they’re being told that they should stop being so narrow about their treatment of women.
This stuff blows up. It makes news. It’s starting to make news channels now, TV and newspapers and their Internet equivalents. The explosions are starting to get way more attention, and this is good because the more attention it gets, the less it can continue unchecked. People are watching. People know.
But if the explosions are what get attention, then it should be said that the grumbling in back alleys doesn’t. And while it’s not a new argument, it’s one I started to see crop up in smaller ways in a dozen or more low-key places these days, and it’s really getting on my nerves. And that is this: Those lousy feminists aren’t leaving us the ability to write ANY women!
By the supposed rules these grumblers claim feminism has lain down, you can’t write a woman who’s not in charge of her sexuality, because then you’re not being fair to women who really like sex. And you can’t write a woman who is strongly sexual because then you’re just making her a sex object. And you can’t not write any women at all, because then you’re just being unbalanced in your representations. You have to get it just right, not too little and not too much, or else you’re just being a horrible horrible man who should die in a fire.
Are you seeing the problems with this argument?
Well, first of all, nobody’s saying those things. Different people have said them, sure, looking at things from different angles, at different times, and different situations, and if you assume those are the laws of the land then sure, there’s a problem. But nobody’s actually saying you have to strike the absolute perfect balance or else you’re horrible, while at the same time pretty much saying that there is no perfect balance. To assume that’s what everyone wants is like saying that because a restaurant one day served me soup that was lukewarm, and on a different day a different restaurant served me ice cream that had melted, then thus I am a picky eater who will only eat things at exact temperatures.
Second of all, did you notice those ‘rules’ only have to do with sex, and subsequent nonexistence? Yeah, that’s just a touch problematic right there.
Here’s what it actually comes down to. Many women are fed up of having their only representation in popular media be either a sexual conquest for a hero, or a someone in trouble who needs to be rescued. Or both. And before somebody points out to be any number of characters who don’t fit that stereotype, I’m going to ask you to stop right there. Using that as a way of saying the problem doesn’t exist is like saying America doesn’t have a problem with racism because they currently have a black president. One exception does not disprove the rule.
Overwhelmingly, this is what women get relegated to in video games, in TV and movies, and yes, even in my beloved books. I’d love to say that the problem exists less in book form than other forms, but to be truthful, I think that’s more of a sign of the kind of books I read rather than some representation of a whole.
But despite the Internet’s current focus being on the issue of women in video games (where it is painfully prevalent, given that there’s a common but mistaken idea that the overwhelming majority of gamers are men, or that only men play ‘real’ games and women just play sims and puzzle games and maybe if you’re generous, RPGs so they can have a nice story to focus on instead of the ‘real’ fun of blowing up aliens all day long), it’s definitely evident elsewhere. I’m going to use one of my favourite TV shows as a good example: Supernatural.
This show’s issues with women are pretty well known. And when I first started watching, I thought it was going to buck the trend. In monster-of-the-week episodes you’d see men who had to be recused as often as women, women who knew how to use guns when their boyfriends didn’t, women who would rush into danger to save themselves and those around them. It looked promising. I was impressed.
Then the show wore on, and it became obvious where the problems were. If you were a recurring female character on that show, you had limited options. You were either evil, a romantic interest, or going to die without the show’s typical resurrection machine bringing you back. In one very memorable event with a mother-daughter competent knowledgeable demon-hunters, you were going to die in a sacrificial blaze of glory so that the main men could escape and continue to save the day.
I still like the show. So much. But I’m not going to pretend that it doesn’t have problems with the treatment of women. Hell, some of the actors have even publicly spoken out against it. It’s not an unknown problem. The point is that it is a problem. You can’t just hand a girl a gun and claim she’s a great example of a strong female character and claim you have no problems treating women fairly if what you’re going to do in the end is kill them off, make them evil, or make them a sexual or romantic conquest for the main man/men.
So to the people grumbling and grousing about how ‘the rules’ are so restrictive that you can’t write any women at all without being shat on, consider this: maybe the problem isn’t the evil women who want to take control of or shut down your creative process. Maybe the problem is that you can’t write for beans. Maybe the problem is that you have no clue how to write a women without her glorifying a man.
Consider this: Does your story involve a woman being rescued by the male lead? Yes? Then why? Can the story happen perfectly well without the rescue scene? Then why is it there to begin with?
If the story needs a rescue scene, then okay. You get a pass. But when I say needs, I don’t just mean something flimsy like, “If he doesn’t go to rescue her, he won’t be in a position to find out info from stupid guards who are talking about stuff they shouldn’t, so he won’t know to do something else later on.” That doesn’t get a pass. Aside from being really sloppy writing, what you basically did was turn a person into a plot device, something that exists only to get the man what he needs. Can he find out this info some other way? Yes? Then do that instead. If you really can’t think of another way to accomplish that info-getting, then I strongly recommend you take some creative writing classes.
Consider this: Does your story attempt to circumvent the whole “women are weaker than men” stereotype by giving her a weapon, psychic powers, etc, but she still needs the man to rescue her? See above for the problems with that, but add on a dose of, “Why did you give her strength only to take it away?” Because what you did there was even more painful. You gave her the ability to be awesome, but took it away at convenient moment so that, once again, the hero could accomplish hero things. She became a thing, a means to an end, and ceased being a person.
Consider this: Is your main female super hot, legs from here to tomorrow, a great body, outstanding with martial arts or some weapon, all guys want to sleep with her but she won’t give them the time of day, but oh, when she gets to know the leading man, she gets all gooey for him and totally wants to sleep with him? Dude, what the hell? You basically just use the woman as a marker of standards to prove that your male lead is so awesome, even the pickiest of women want to get in bed with him. At that point, it doesn’t matter so much that you made her awesome. What matters more is that you dipped your toe into murky waters and threw her into the growing pile of stereotypes that so many people, women and men alike, are trying to stop!
“But,” I hear some of you say, “You don’t get it. I wrote a character like that, and my main male character is misogynistic, but see, she exists to show him that women can really be awesome and shows him the error of his ways.”
You wrote a women that exists for the sole purpose of improving and advancing a man’s development. Do you want applause for this? To be hailed as some great visionary writer who will bridge the gap between the sexes?
It’s actually not that hard to write good realistic women in any form of fiction. If you really want to simplify it to the most basic and easy way to tell if you’re writing a character in an unsexist way, do the following: Say, “[Character name]’s purpose is: [fill in the blank]” For all your characters, male and female alike. And if you find yourself with a lot of lines like, “Joe’s purpose is to defeat evil because he’s the Chosen One,” and “Jane’s purpose is to marry Joe because their baby will be the host for all human evils,” then there’s a problem. You’ve made your female character’s purpose in the story entirely dependant on the male’s. If they have no other purpose in the story than to prop up or advance the male in some way, then you’re doing it wrong. And when you’re answering this question, don’t just stop with one event. It’s not enough to say, “Jane’s purpose is to unearth an ancient tomb and activate an artifact that starts the apocalypse,” and stop there when the rest of the story is “…so Joe can stop it.” Can she have a story independent of the males around her? Then great! You’ve got yourself a better beginning than so many other writers out there.
The problem isn’t that the damsel-in-distress and romantic conquest stereotypes exist at all. It’s that they’re used so often that it’s practically become the status quo. When it’s seen as normal to reduce half the population to a couple of tropes, there’s a problem with portrayal. And if you honestly can’t think of a way to not reduce your female characters to those tropes, then, as I said, the problem isn’t the narrow confines feminazis are supposedly giving you to work within. The problem is that you can’t write well.
And the blame for that doesn’t rest on the shoulders of the people who are sick and tired of seeing hundreds and hundreds of women written that way.
So instead of grumbling about the fact that you’re supposedly not allowed to write the way you like to write anymore, spare a moment to think about why you like to write that way. And spare another moment to consider that nobody’s actually telling you that you have to stop writing that way. What they’re telling you is that they don’t want to see it, they won’t keep buying it, and if you want to keep selling your books, your screenplays,your video game plots, you might just have to try something new. They’re not making you do anything. They’re telling you what a new market demand is. If you can’t supply, well, that’s not their fault either. When a product loses sales, it does no good to sit in a board room and gripe about how it’s all the fault of your customers, that if only they’d just buy more of your product, this wouldn’t be happening.
Well, yes, that’s true. If you only look at one very tiny perspective that doesn’t allow for a significant fraction of the whole picture. The reason they’re not buying is because you’re not selling anything they want to buy anymore.
People tell me all the time that if you want to make money from a creative endeavour, you must have some business sense too. And this is true. It’s not enough to make an awesome product. You have to market it. You have to advertise, you have to convince people that they want to give you money in exchange for your product. Otherwise, you’re not going to be making any money. Simple as that. Econ 101 (or so The Simspons have explained to me): money is exchanged for goods and/or services. If you’re selling stories, you have to make sure that somebody’s going to want to read them enough to hand over the cash.
So if you’re ignoring the market demand and continuing to churn out a product that sold well in the past but that more and more people are saying they don’t want anymore, what good does it do to complain that fewer people are buying? People are telling you they want less sexism. Selling more sexism isn’t the way to counter that.
Clearly, the product still sells. But less than it used to. Because society marched ever onward, people who were silenced are finding ways to find their voices, and those voices are getting heard more and more often. And judging by the reactions commonly seen online, daring to tell suppliers that they don’t want more of the same product is freaking dangerous. Imagine if Coke issued death threats every time you drank a Pepsi. Or vice versa. That shit doesn’t fly! That’s what’s being done, though, sad to say. The status quo is having a bright light shone upon it, and examiners are finding that what’s there needs some polish and repair and outright change, and all the little creepy-crawly bugs inside the machine are afraid of losing their homes. But when your home is rotting around you, clinging to the remains and biting the hand that wants to show you how to live in a better place isn’t the voice of reason. It’s the voice of rabies.