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.