and here’s another thing…

June 18, 2014

You know that thing where people say, “Well, how do you write strong/tough/kickass/whatever women characters who aren’t just men with breasts?”  i.e. so-called women characters who are basically men, in female trappings, doing male-type things in the  story.  I guess.

I realized awhile back that I have no idea what this means.  Seriously.  What kind of men?  What kind of breasts?  What does this even mean?  The answer is, it doesn’t mean a damned thing.  In fact, I think it’s nothing more than apologia, another thing feeding into the idea that strong/physically tough women characters are somehow weird and need to be explained, and if you do them wrong you’ll be accused of some kind of. . .I don’t know.  I’ve written before about the discomfort with powerful women we often see in fiction, how they’re often mitigated by being some kind of “chosen one,” or given some kind of traumatic past that explains their current power, or saddled with perceived feminized weaknesses like low self esteems.  What this “not just men with breasts” statement says, I think, is that you’re supposed to somehow temper tough women characters.  Give them something that makes them “not men.”  When you ask, “Like, what?” you usually get some kind of answer like, “Oh, you know, women are more nurturing, they have to be feminine, they have to have something that shows that feminine traits can be strong too. . .”

That is exactly the essentializing bullshit we’ve been trying to get away from.  The minute you start saying things like “Women characters have to be like x, y, z, and shouldn’t be like a, b, c — ” you aren’t writing characters anymore, you’re writing stereotypes.  Don’t do that.

I mean — give me an example of a woman character who’s “just a man with breasts.”  Show me an example where this terrible mistake has been made.  Book, movie, whatever.  Vasquez in Aliens maybe?

Vasquez may be the butchest woman character ever to appear in a genre film — and there’s no mistaking her for a man.  She says so.  She’s a badass who’s amassed an arsenal of skills to deal with the male-dominated world she lives in.  She has a problem with authority, and a take-no-prisoners attitude.  She’s a great character.

Here’s my pick to play Wonder Woman, Gina Carano, in Haywire, where she plays a superspy on the run from a serious double cross.

No one is more physically tough than this woman.  Anyone gonna mistake her for a guy?  Is Mallory “just a man with breasts?”  Oh hell no.

Okay, here’s a character who’s definitely been accused of being too “mannish” or not feminine enough:

OH WAIT THAT’S NOT A CHARACTER THAT’S ACTUALLY MARGARET THATCHER, AN ACTUAL HUMAN WOMAN.  (My apologies for posting a Margaret Thatcher speech, everybody.)

And there we have it.  “Too manly” and “not feminine enough” or “too bitchy” or whatever are intended to be insults levied against actual real world powerful women to detract from their power.

That’s when I realized this whole “just a man with breasts” thing was total bullshit.  Because I don’t think it’s ever been done — it’s just another way to be scared of writing strong women.  Stop saying this, stop talking about it.

Really, seriously — to write strong women, write strong people.  I’m going to list a bunch of character traits:  funny, sly, smart, wise, kind, caring, ambitious, physical, psychotic, manipulative, narcissistic, thrill-seeking, generous, restless, brave, cowardly, cautious, cheerful, optimistic, practical, articulate, calm, elegant, dramatic, loyal, sympathetic, proud, humble, gregarious, stoic, emotional, hyper, gentle, graceful, artistic, restrained, stubborn, aggressive, passive, aloof, clumsy, cruel, curious, anxious, quiet, loud —

Which of those traits are female and which are male?  Bueller?  Bueller?  You should be able to list ten traits for your main characters before ever referring to their gender.  Because those are the sorts of traits that are going to impact the story, and determine how that character responds to the story.

Write people.


22 Responses to “and here’s another thing…”

  1. I loved your take on this. I’ll try to keep it in mind when writing stories.

  2. This is my favorite post yet!

  3. ruthannereid Says:

    This is fabulous. Thank you for putting into words the absurdity of a complaint that’s haunted many authors for far too long!

  4. Thomas Stacey Says:

    Love this post! Especially the last part after the Margaret Thatcher speech, cause you’re right, any number of qualities we give to our characters is going to impact how the character responds to the story, and probably the other characters within the story too.

  5. I’ve always read that piece of advice as being more about writing a female character who doesn’t appear to have had any experience of being female in the world, i.e. has never been discriminated against, harassed, or otherwise treated differently because of her gender, and who seems to be completely unscathed by any of the struggles she might have had to face to get to the (presumably empowered) place that she occupies in the story. Vasquez might be stereotypically (these days) “butch,” but even as written, she’s clearly adopting at least some of her braggadocio *because* she’s a female Space Marine, and she takes a lot of shit because of that status. Conversely, when I think about the phrase “men with breasts” as a criticism of a character, I think of Kate Beaton’s “Strong Female Characters,” i.e. female characters written from an unexamined male viewpoint.

    On the other hand, being myself a cisgender straight male, I think I’m probably more the person being cautioned with the advice in the first place. It’s not enough for me just to swap a couple of sets of genitalia out while writing and call it a day; I have to think about what it means for *this* character to be female in *this* world within *this* story, which means I need to work harder to understand what it’s like to be a woman in the real world, both at the current time and historically. If I’m thinking shallowly about gender, then my characters will likewise be shallow. “Men with breasts” is a crude way to put it, but that’s what I’ve always taken away from it. I don’t think it’s necessarily a caution against writing strong (or physically powerful) women, but a warning to those (like myself) who don’t have immediate knowledge of or access to the experience of female characters to think that writing all of our characters with our own viewpoint is the same as being egalitarian or inclusive.

    (On the other, other hand, you have odd situations like Tina Belcher from “Bob’s Burgers”, where by some accounts the character was originally written as a stereotypically sex-obsessed-yet-sex-naive 13-year-old boy and was swapped to female at the last minute, with some fascinating and, to some, empowering results. And on yet another hand [ye gods, what Lovecraftian monstrosity are we dealing with here?], there are clearly going to be those who will shout down any sort of physically strong or personally dominant woman as being unfeminine, which is massively unhelpful and, of course, the point of the whole blog post. Which I guess just means the whole thing is really complicated.)

  6. matt Says:

    The things that make gender really different, generally do not enter into sci-fi and other fiction. No one I have read talks about morning wood, boob discomforts, specific bathroom adventures or cyclic biological stuff. ( well, shaving is mentioned in passing) Some authors do catch the male roving eye and weighing typical of noir detective stories. I’m less aware of specifics of the female equivalent in my reading. The most often it is assigned gender roles which impose specific limits on characters – rather the Thatcher issue of “non feminine” behavior vs empty helper/ sexbot/ “frail”.

  7. bannog Says:

    Ah, the “Ms. Man” complaint. “Despite you putting women in your story, you just took a man and put boobs on him, so it doesn’t count, you’re still a misogynist arsehole and I will keep complaining until…” When exactly?

    Sod that.

    I write women – I write LOTS of women. And not to get any pats on the head for it, but because I ENJOY writing women. Though having said that, it is starting to get a bit old to be told over and over again that my girls don’t exist.

    At the Redridge Chronicles and the Algernon Expeditions, most of them are pretty kick-ass, with a few dedicated non-combatant women, who I use as Voice of Reason, or Caring Mother. My girls shape-shift into bears to bite people’s heads off. They shoot lightning and thunder from their fingertips. They complain about the ooze getting in their hair. They drink vile liquor distilled from skethyl-berries and engine oil. They love their boyfriends or girlfriends to bits. They like the cool rain falling on their faces. They knit woolly hats for their friend’s youngest daughter. With a bobble on. They have the best sniper rifle money can buy and know how to use it. They won’t move of a morning until they’ve had their coffee with half the sugar pot in it. They are as real as I know how to make them, and you won’t find an ornamental bimbo among them. Some of them are complete bitches. Want to make something of it? They are every bit as alive as my boys, and if that still doesn’t suit you, then I can suggest a whole range of directions for you to sod off in.

  8. bblackmoor Says:

    YES. I hate that phrase every time I see it. As if only male characters can be strong, or stubborn, or athletic, or bloodthirsty, or protective, or sexist, or whatever else this stupid “men with breasts” phrase means.

  9. Fantastic! I was looking through submission guidelines for short fiction the other day and came across a site that said they wanted strong women characters, but not the type who have never cried, and they went further into it than that, listing traits that would make a “real” female character. But they listed too much. And the never cry thing irritated me, because…I have to have my female character cry because someone thinks she’s supposed to, and that’s what makes her a woman? I’m sure they didn’t mean it that way, but it just struck a chord and has irritated me ever since. If my character wants to cry, I suppose she will. But that isn’t a requirement of a female character. Weird thing to rant about, I guess, but it was just too specific for me.

  10. Xanthor Says:

    Reblogged this on 42 Webs and commented:
    Another reason why I love Carrie Vaughn

  11. Lex Says:

    You are so on the money with this.

    The only characters who are men with breasts are non-/pre-op transmen. And they’re men. Sure, putting breasts on someone doesn’t make them a woman, but more importantly all women are women regardless of how stereotypically feminine they are.

  12. carriev Says:

    Thanks for all the thoughts and comments everyone!

    I ended up coming down with a spectacular cold yesterday and so wasn’t around to chime in as much as I should have been. Gonna go back to bed right about now… Blech.

  13. Rose Beetem Says:

    Shannon Lawrence: Ergh. I’d bet good money that they have never listed guidelines like that for writing strong male characters…though it might be enlightening/aggravating to see what they would be like.

  14. Ellu's Blog Says:

    I am not a nurturing female, I am girly/feminine in a lot of ways, but I don’t ever want kids. I’ve felt that way for 20+ years, but people still tell me because I’m a woman, I have to want kids and I will change my mind. It’s sad that it’s ok to stereotype gender when it’s not OK to stereotype anything else.

  15. carriev Says:

    Ellu — yeah, exactly! I was on a panel where someone started the “Well, women are more nurturing…” line, and I’m afraid I rudely interrupted her saying, “Wait a minute. No they aren’t. *I’m* not.”

  16. Kendall Lovely Says:

    Fyi –I just shared this on my feminist group page on facebook. Great post. 🙂

  17. David Bowles Says:

    I think this situation can be partially summarized by the fact that Wonder Woman STILL doesn’t have her own movie, but we have Marvel films about a talking raccoon and one about **Ant-Man** planned.

    The writing of a powerful female character just seems beyond the comprehension of mainstream American media sources.

  18. carriev Says:

    There was a Reddit threat awhile back (I’ll never be able to find the link) where Mary Robinette Kowal called someone out for being more willing to read a book with a robot monkey main character than a woman main character. Yup, that’s exactly where we’re at.

  19. David Bowles Says:

    But we DO have a strong female sci-fi character: Honor Harrington. /snark

  20. brucearthurs Says:

    Dafydd ab Hugh’s HEROING is the book that always comes to mind when the idea of a female character being “a man with boobs” gets raised. It wasn’t so much that he gave his main character male characteristics, as that he gave her stereotyped male characteristics. It would have been a bad character even if written as male.

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