Lately I’ve been going down a rabbithole of reading writing blogs, because as any writer can tell you, writers love to procrastinate and reading what other people have to say about writing is an excellent way to do just that while still pretending you’re working.
Writing blogs are usually written by people I’ve never heard of, most of whom have published a single e-Book or two (I’m not criticizing, it’s better than I’ve done, just saying they’re not exactly highly accomplished critical darlings) and who, on the whole, I vehemently disagree with. Although I’ve found a few I really liked in the detritus (Writing With Color and Springhole.net are both worthy of your rabbithole time, my fellow inkstained scribblers) most of them have been quite forgettable.
One of the blog posts (a series, actually) I read without immediately striking from memory was all about writing female characters that aren’t offensive to women. This series, written by Patricia Penn, is somehow associated with the “Men Writing Women” Twitter account, which if you’re a Twitterer, you should follow (of course in addition to following me, atomickristin) because it’s hilarious and insightful, and if you’re a writer, particularly a male one, you should follow because you don’t want to fall into the literal booby traps so many have fallen into before, describing your female characters as a pair of unusually shaped breasts with a tuft of striking haircolor attached to the top.
Penn’s series of essays is called, perhaps obviously, Guide to Writing Women for Men Who Don’t Want to Offend Them and there are many, many things to like about the series. I do recommend reading it not only for men but women as well, particularly if you’re a woman who just feels alienated by modern literature and you can’t quite understand why. Also check out my essay On Glorious Bastards which is a much more humorous crash course in the same subject.
But, and you knew there was a but coming didn’t you?
There is this thing some feminists do, in which they make these very emphatic statements that seem true like this one: “Femaleness is not a personality trait.” The reason for this statement, which is very clear if you read Patricia Penn’s full essay which I strongly suggest you do, is that it sucks when a writer creates 10 dudes and then one lonely woman in a fictional work and the woman has NO OTHER defining qualities or characteristics other than sporting two XX chromosomes.
But like so many emphatic statements that seem true at first, upon further reflection “femaleness is not a personality trait” ends up not to be true when extrapolated generally. While Penn is quite right, it certainly sucks when male writers reduce women to a pair of titties and a decent attitude to differentiate them in a crowd of otherwise assholish dudebros, I violently disagree that femaleness is not a personality trait. Femaleness absolutely IS a personality trait. Maleness is a personality trait as well. We’re just more used to seeing maleness in fiction so we see more manifestations of what maleness looks like in a variety of people and situations.
Therein lies the rub. Character traits are MALLEABLE. You can have one wisecracking character be very different from another wisecracking humorous character – like Rosanne vs. David Addison from Moonlighting, for example – and yet they are still BOTH wisecracking humorous characters. A straight man can be Dana Scully or Jerry Seinfeld or Giles from Buffy. The Simpsons once had a funny joke where someone showed up for a casting call to play an idiot and the casting director differentiated between the panicky idiot from The Poseidon Adventure vs. more of a duh-duh idiot. You can have a male character and another male character who gives off a slightly different vibe and then some other male character with an unique energy on top of still more male characters each of them different than the last, ad nauseum (see: The Expendables). Having lots of male characters does not mean that being male is not a character trait. Maleness is a trait, it just manifests in a variety of different ways.
Character traits are like Pokemon abilities, you can have a Pokemon that has lots of different traits in differing amounts and combinations. For example you could have a Pikachu that is high in agility, high in speed, low in attack. Likewise, you can have a fictional character that is high in femaleness, high in badassery, low in bitchiness, and end up with Wonder Woman (who I am told is like, so super duperly feminist or whatever).
You CAN, absolutely CAN have a piece of fiction in which there is only one badass, there is only one wiseacre, there is only one straight man, and yes, indeedy-do, only one woman and not have it be weird or wrong in any way. There are plenty of real-world situations where a woman finds herself alone among a group of men and it’s completely unremarkable and not even remotely sexist.
In fact I’d even say there are by far and away more scenarios both real and fictional (various workplaces, organizations, teams, bands both musical and of brothers, adventure squads, military units, wagon trains, schools for witchcraft and wizardry, etc) where one woman is dropped down smack dab into a right passel o men for some reason or another, than where there’s only one badass/wiseacre/straight man since most characters have some traits in any of those directions. Yet no one complains when there’s only one “official badass” (Jayne, lookin at you here) even though most of the people on Firefly are pretty badass in their own unique ways.
Some women, and I count myself among them, actually prefer hanging with the gents and I have since I was a youngish-type person. (Trust me, I was in the League of Ordinary Gentlemen for a brief time and it didn’t bother me in the slightest; indeed, I preferred it to the more anodyne Ordinary Times). Men make sense to me in ways that women do not and thus I tend to gravitate towards them to such extent that I gave birth to 4 of the little jerks, dooming me forever to be a chick in a crowd of dude-liosity.
Contrary to what Penn claims in her essay, a situation in which there’s a woman among a group of men is unremarkable, and completely inoffensive UPON THE FACE OF IT provided there is a legitimate reason for her to be there, be it necessity or by choice. Even if her femaleness is her defining feature, it still is not remarkable or necessarily offensive. Sometimes a Seegar is a Seegar (that was an advanced placement pop culture reference, An Officer and a Gentlemen, if you were wondering.)
Although treating femaleness as a personality trait can be done badly/thoughtlessly/misogynalistically and certainly often is, it isn’t fundamentally offensive in and of itself. And having one female character in amongst a bunch of dudes isn’t sexist any more than having only one dude at most working in an Old West whorehouse is. An Old West whorehouse tended to be a predominantly female environment other than the clientele, of course, and while I can envision one or two dudes working there – a bouncer or maybe a lone homosexual prostitute – any more than that starts to strain belief (how much, you ask?? keep reading!)
An important part of writing IMVVVVVHO, is realism. Some things are things, some things are not things, and a thing that is a Definite Thing is that there is way more likely to be a woman working with a bunch of men than a man working with a bunch of women (at least in the types of exciting life and death scenarios we all love to see in our fiction). In some arenas, it’s just more realistic that there would be one lone woman than several women being present. If we as writers want our readers to suspend their disbelief and come along with us on our magic carpet rides of imagination, we kinda have to take reality into consideration whether we want to or not.
To give an example, in the movie Predator, a crack team of military tough guys, all male, stumbles onto a lone female guerilla fighter in the Central American jungle, which seems much more possible to me than them stumbling onto three female guerillas, a hot one, a smart one, and a funny fat one (is this really any less stereotypical when they do it this way just because there’s three gals instead of one of them, FFS???) Come on, it’s true, we all know instinctively it’s true, there are going to be far less military tough guys and jungle-dwelling guerillas of the female persuasion than male ones, and it doesn’t matter that some people don’t like it because we all know instinctively that it’s true. There are believable fictional scenarios and then there are unbelievable fictional scenarios and I prefer to eschew the latter in favor of the former.
To change that dynamic in Predator would be like a movie where people are shopping for wedding dresses and there’s a hurricane and they get stuck in the bridal store while the hurricane rages outside and IDK, maybe there’s a serial killer on the loose or something. You know and I know there’s gonna be only one dude in there max, the poor schmo who got stuck holding his girlfriend’s purse, and of course the serial killer will be a dude because we don’t live on Fantasy Island. In that scenario, PurseHolder Kevin being a male is just as much of a personality trait as Anna the Female Guerilla being a woman is in Predator. This is not wrong or bad, it’s just fucking factual!
So now back to the “how much is this gonna strain belief” thing I mentioned earlier.
Penn follows this “we need more women in stuff cause being female is not a personality trait” logic so far as to call for there being female Hobbits in the The Hobbit and making Rocket Raccoon a woman in Guardians of the Galaxy. In the NAME of femaleness not being a personality trait, she calls for male characters to be turned female – seemingly with no other changes to their persona. Later in the essay she does that whole thing where she challenges male writers to write male characters and then just change their names to women’s names and change nothing else about the characterization.
But here’s the catch. Genderbending characters makes NO SENSE, zero, none, nada if femaleness doesn’t mean something. Something tangible, something that actually, actively affects human action, reaction, and interaction – aka a personality trait. If femaleness is not a personality trait then why does it even matter if there’s a lack of representation of female characters?? We all should be able to relate to a boy just as much as a girl if there is nothing inherently different about femaleness, amirite?
Now, I would like, very much like, as in, you have no earthly idea how much I would like this to occur, to see more fiction written by women, for women, and about women, featuring women from a variety of walks of life other than “the hot chick” and “the computer whiz” but this is NOT THE WAY. It is not the way to simply cram interchangeable characters some of which have boobs (or teats I suppose if we’re talking about Rocketina Raccoon) into a work of fiction and then feel we’ve struck a blow for feminist representation without changing anything fundamental about the character (and in Penn’s defense, this is not what she was intending to say at all, it’s simply me following the implications of what she was saying to the furthest extent of the law because I’m an asshole that way).
This is STILL SEXISM! If anything it’s grosser and wronger than regular plain old unremarkable sexism cause people put so much goddamn thought into it and still came up rolling the Snake Eyes of Sexism.
You know why it’s still sexism? Because it’s negating the existence of femaleness as an Actual Thing That Exists and saying instead “People aren’t male, they aren’t female, they are just genderless entities some of whom crack wise and others of whom play by the rules and all these things manifest themselves exactly the same regardless of what is between their legs.” If that’s the case, again I ask, in that situation what difference does it make at all if we have boy characters and girl characters if “boy” and “girl” are nothing other than hoo-hoos and cha-chas, KWIM? What’s the fucking point of calling for more female representation at all if women are just betittified men?
And isn’t it just about the most unsurprising thing ever that this negation of gender in fiction is morphing into a universal character that is basically male by default?
Female characters in 2019 are expected to fuck like a dude, drink like a dude, act like a dude, think like a dude, feel like a dude, punch like a dude, scream at the sky like a dude, normalize the behavior of dude after dude after dude whilst simultaneously painting natural and normal female behavior as crazy, weird, and extreme.
It’s bullshit, yo. Men and women, ON AVERAGE, act differently just like Rattata and a Ponyta do. Whether it’s PC or not, gender IS something that affects human behavior and as writers, representatives of all that is real, we should be ready, willing, and able to take that on in all its glorious chaos. It doesn’t mean that gender is the ONLY thing that matters, it doesn’t mean that there are not numerous exceptions to the gender “rules” (rules is such a hard word – how about trends? tendencies? possibilities?) that writers should try to encapsulate because, you know, it’s kinda in our job description to do that sort of thing, representing reality via art.
It’s what we do.
Thus, I hereby give you, the Dude Writers of the Universe, permission to ignore the undoubtedly lovely and certainly well-intentioned Patricia Penn. Take those stories you were writing with your adorable intentions of not being misogynistic assholes, as if you ever could, stories in which you wrote male characters and then called them Charlotte, Scarlett, and Margaret, and had them fucking lots of dudes, smashing beer cans against their heads, and burping the alphabet, and turn them back into Chuck, Scooter, and Mongo, let them have their testicular adventures and send them on their merry and masculine way. Regardless of what Patricia Penn will tell you, they aren’t women. They ain’t never gonna be women no matter what you do.
Because femaleness IS a personality trait.