On Strength, Catsuits, Bodies, and Personhood: Strategies For Men Writing Women

Today’s article follows on the completion of my first novel manuscript, The Season of the Plough—a work which, as it’s been pointed out to me, centers on a “strong female character.” I wish this weren’t noteworthy. It wasn’t because I had a particularly strong feminist agenda—or, while I do have one, it wasn’t because I was deliberately trying to mobilize it. But the fact that someone considered this worth mentioning has prompted the following meditation on men writing women.

To no one’s surprise, the transgressive act of men writing women has proven much more difficult than men writing men, or women writing women, or women writing men. But to my surprise, at least, the act of men writing and understanding female characters continues to be harder and less successful than, say, men writing about characters who are dinosaurs, or wizards, or alien beings from the planet Krypton, or trash-talking raccoons, or self-aware computers, or Cthulhu, for that matter.

Men can write all these characters with relative ease, it seems. But give them a female character to write, and half of them buckle under the pressure of what is, or ought to be, a comparatively easy assignment. If the mind of a ten-dimensional Elder God from the hoary depths of a timeless void beyond the stars is somehow less alien and unfathomable than the mind of a fourteen-year-old cheerleader, or a forty-year-old single mom, or a sixty-year-old female state governor, you are either a closet sexist, or a R’lyehian cult leader. (either way, you are probably not the kind of person for whom speed-dating is a roaring success).

I take the old adage “write what you know” to mean, “don’t write it until you learn about it.” There is an argument from a different branch of feminism that we can never really internalize what it’s like to be on the underside of our privilege. But if that argument holds up to scrutiny (I’m not sure it does), that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Those of us who write vampires and werewolves and aliens with depth and resonance should be able to manage a person of alternative gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation. If you can write a child or an old person while in your 30s and 40s, you ought to be able to write someone with different junk from you, if you are at least halfways observant and especially if you ask some questions of real flesh-and-blood women and listen to what they have to say.

Why, then, are otherwise brilliant men so bad at this sometimes? Let’s look at what some prominent, if problematic, male writers have to say.

I have, in my office, a medium-length list of quotations from men who self-identify as feminists, allies, or somewhere along the feminist-ally spectrum. On one end of the sheet is this gem from Joss Whedon, from his 2006 award speech for Equality Now:

“So, why do you write these strong female characters? …Because you’re still asking me that question.”

And likewise, from George R. R. Martin in a great 2013 interview with my fellow Canadian, George Stromboulopoulos:

GS: “I notice that you write women really well and really different…where does that come from?”
GRRM: “You know…I’ve always considered women to be people.”

Here, in their combined framing of the problem, we can see a few of the key details. First and foremost among them is the ongoing trend of men’s female characters not to be “people,” in Martin’s words. This is happening to such an extent that it’s noteworthy, worthy even of a reporter’s question, when they are.

Naturally, this isn’t always the case. There are enough laudable counter-examples throughout the speculative and geek-genre worlds to keep the #NotAllMenners yelping in protest for a while. There are hundreds of very fine and worthy examples of men writing strong women, like Neil Gaiman’s Coraline, or Star Trek: The Next Generations’s Beverly Crusher, or Terry Pratchett’s many witches, or Peter Beagle’s Amalthea, or Rob Tapert’s Xena: Warrior Princess. I’ll go out on a limb and add Stephen King’s Annie Wilkes to the list: being the “good guy” is by no means a prerequisite of being a strong female character. Just to show how far back they go, let’s remember Frank Baum’s Dorothy & Ozma & Glinda: Baum himself was an early feminist—a sympathetic husband, son-in-law, and ally to some of the early suffragists, lest we forget.

I could go on finding great examples of strong women written by men. That’s not the point. Fishing for counter-examples does nothing to gainsay the fact that there’s a serious, rampant and institutional problem, in the same way that most people in America know a dozen women Bill Cosby hasn’t drugged and raped. Say this with me: Counter-examples do not invalidate a trend.

If anything, these counter-examples should be used to hold us accountable: strong female characters like these, sprung from the minds of men, deployed by the hands of men in their own narratives, are proof positive that men are capable of writing women just fine: at least, If Stephen King and Terry Pratchett can do it, then the rest of us have no excuse. Hell’s bells, even the last truly great bastion of traditionally sexist masculinity, the mighty James Bond film series, has given us a deep and profoundly interesting character in Dame Judi Dench’s M. If Bond can add strong female characters, anyone can.

Now, there’s a trap in the wording of that stock phrase—Strong Female Characters—and a ton of male writers (even, sometimes, the mighty Joss Whedon) fall into it. There are a whole lot of men who take this term literally. The common trend that starts to appear when we juxtapose Strong Female Characters like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, River Tam, the Black Widow*, and countless other non-Whedonverse Strong Females (Lara Croft*, Nikita, Xena*, Leeloo*, Beatrix Kiddo, all of Charlie’s Angels*, Catwoman*, Aeon Flux*, Tauriel, Elektra*, Silk Spectre II*, the uncomfortably lolitish Hit Girl*, Trinity*, Selene*, and on and on and on), whose only common trait is that they do violence to men and look good while doing it.

Who are we really fooling here? I’ll mention that asterisks indicate characters who do most of their male-ass-kicking work in BDSM influenced, body-hugging catsuits made of leather or latex, or other costuming that basically amounts to fetish undies:

Pamela Anderson’s Stripperella*, the purest platonic ideal of what many people think a “strong female character” should look like.

Before I get an outcry from people whose genuine feminist icons have been lumped in here with the pure Stripperellas, I’ll mention that a handful of these characters (Buffy, Xena) operate as fully-realized, complex and interesting female characters irrespective of their impressive ability to hurt people. Likewise, there are a number of other strong female characters for whom physical badassery is a defining trait who don’t make the “Stripperella List.” Consider, for example, Sarah Connor, or Ellen Ripley, neither of whom have time to stand mugging at the fourth wall in their high heels as a room of expendable male thugs writhes on the ground in pain. These women are strong female characters. But not because of their body count. As a popular campaign against male sexualized violence reminds us, strength is not for hurting.

You can argue (quite convincingly, I think), that women have a little more leeway than men when it comes to violent heroism: “punching up,” you might say, extends to literal punching as well. That’s fine. But there’s no getting around the problem of men (and some women) who over-literalize the phrase Strong Female Character. Calling a female character “strong” because she’s good in a fight is like calling Adam West’s Batman a “rich narrative” because it’s about a millionaire and partially set in a mansion. It’s a pretty gross misunderstanding of what we’re trying to achieve with the term—and in the case of the SFC, a self-invitation to allow cat-suited, Striperella-style repressed dominatrix fantasies to stand in for the serious effort, empathy, and humility it actually takes for men to write women well.

So how do we know we’re looking at a strong female character, without at least one oversexualized fight scene, staged like a gangbang in which the only thing we reverse is which side does all the banging? [Insert glib comment here about the Black Widow “finishing off” a whole roomful of men.] There must be a better way.

Considering women to be people, in Grrrrr-Martin’s words, is actually a fine start. This means, to a certain extent, relying less on the face-saving device of women who grow up in alien inhuman circumstances—or at least doing away with the belief that this gives us leeway to make them alien and inhuman as a result. Let’s have done, for now, with genetically engineered test-tube Mata Haris bred since birth to master highly impractical and ineffective martial arts. Let’s avoid women who are psychologically damaged because they don’t know what True Love is until the hero shows her.  Above all, let’s stop assigning strength to our female characters exclusively in terms of what kind of strength looks sexy to us.

One exercise that has been helpful for me has been to write every character, male, female, or everything in-between, from an entirely asexual perspective. Not “sexless” or “genderless,” mind you: if you need a birth-mother in your story, she’s going to be (at least biologically) female. But let’s put aside what we know of how babies are made for a minute. Every time you begin to work up a new character,  the very first thing you should do is (temporarily) remove all trace of sexuality from that character. You aren’t allowed to put that sexuality back, not a shred of it, until you’ve made the character mentally interesting to yourself.

If you are a straight man with poor impulse control, it may help to consider what a Futurama-style conversation with your character’s severed head might sound like. Take away the body, take away everything that they do, and you take away not only all the problems of the gendered body, but also the lazy-writing shortcuts that come from defining people by things they do rather than who they are.

No catsuit, no guns, no backflips. The isolated mind of a Charlie’s Angel. Who is she, really, and why is that person so interesting?

This pays the best dividends with female characters, because it forces us to think about them in deep and character-based ways—as thinking people rather than an assortment of action set-pieces. You can even use it for romantic comedies: turn a few rom-com protagonists into a head-in-a-jar, and see which ones are actually interesting human beings, and which ones are profoundly empty. It’s a fun game.

But it’s also a useful strategy for any character frequently defined as a person “of action.” We know James Bond shoots and screws and spies and tuxedoes his way across the globe. But what do you get if you keep his head in a jar for a while? You get the deep, fully realized Bond we see in Skyfall, a character who’s more thoroughly fleshed out than any previous Bond, even if you prefer Sean Connery’s performances to Daniel Craig’s. You get someone who’s interesting even when sitting still.

Or take Superman, for instance, the ultimate “man of action,” a guy so completely defined by what he can do that when he stops doing it there’s often nearly nothing left. If you put Kal-El’s head in a jar and had a three hour conversation, what would come out? The humble, lovable Kansas farm boy he’s always been? Or the tortured, psychologically hollow alien from the Henry Cavill films? (Either is a good answer, as long as there’s reason for it other than Grimdark Sells—but that’s another complaint for another day).

A helpful complement to something like the Bechdel test—the test of whether (1)two named female characters (2)talk about something (3)other than a man is the following, which I guess I’m going to call the Maynard Test because I need the publicity: Is your story one in which (1)a named male can talk to a named female (2)about something in her life that doesn’t involve him (3)in a way unrelated to sex or otherwise achieving his own personal objectives?

Talking about how they’re going to get out of the cell doesn’t count. Talking about what the idol will do if it falls into the wrong hands doesn’t count. A brother and sister talking about whether to put their Dad in an old age home doesn’t count. These things already concern the man already. Talking about what kind of stuff a woman is doing at her workplace counts – but not if the man also works there, and not if he’s only asking as part of a seduction effort or other subterfuge. He has to really want to know. He has to find her interesting.

Note that none of this presupposes a character is asexual. Once you’ve succeeded in making the talking head-in-a-jar interesting, you can put that stuff back, or not, as you choose. You then have the added advantage of generating realistic sexual attitudes based on the real details of a complex person’s life and character. It’s okay for Martin’s Brienne of Tarth to develop feelings for Jaime Lannister, or to tell that little backstory about boys taunting her in a dress, or even to have a moment of damsel-in-distresshood in the bear pit at Harrenhal. By that time, being in a difficult situation from which a male rescues her is not nearly as reductive for her as it is for, say, Princess Toadstool.  For Princess Leia, there’s a dramatic race between exploitation and feminist assertion, as the gradual but sure development of her complex character is interrupted by various kidnappings and slave bikinis, but never supplanted or derailed by them. As a result, she’s a fairly controversial character. Likewise, in “deep geek” culture, the Black Widow, whose 51 years in comic books* have been marked, at times, by a far meatier and more complex character than we get in the Hollywood catsuit.

[*since Tales of Suspense #52, natch!—Ed.]

It’s not unusual in the world of the comic-book serial that an initially-exploited female character should eventually, even quite organically, develop depth and interest and “realness” of the sort we really mean when we say “strong.” First, the readership of those books is not so one-gendered as we’ve been led to believe; and second, the titillation of the sex object only holds the male reader’s attention for so long. How many different ways can you tie up Wonder Woman? Lots, apparently. But Wonder Woman creator William Marston, another feminist ally who wrote women well, had much more in mind for her, and the character comes back time and again to her full depth in spite of the reductive tendencies against which her writers perpetually fight (and sometimes lose) many battles.

Thus, to the dirty little secret that has so far evaded Hollywood: the male public is generally ready, eager, hungry to accept strong female characters, but only on condition that those characters are genuinely interesting and fully realized in ways beyond the sexual and the violent. Titillation is everywhere, and will not do as a substitute for depth any longer, and male writers who skimp on the genuine and difficult work of divorcing the things that make women interesting from the things our reptile brains want from them are taking an unsustainable shortcut. Writers like these are the reason that Elektra tanked in a market where even Daredevil turned a healthy profit. Writers like these are the reason Stripperella can be momentarily clever, especially when it’s tongue-in-cheek about its own meta-exploitation, but can’t support a second season.

Finally, note the following, gents, and note it well: the absence of meaningful female characters is a misdemeanor of bad writing. But the presence of disposable female characters ought to be a felony. I’ll say it once and hope it’s quoted: you can have a good story without women, sometimes, just as you can have a good story without men, but a story with disposable female characters is, itself, a disposable story.

There are some stories that don’t have any women in them at all. That’s fine. Saving Private Ryan is pretty much an all-male movie for reasonable reasons (note: there are actually six female characters in Saving Private Ryan, if you count Dorothy Grumbar of Bizarre fame as “Old French Woman”). Stories with no women in them can exist, and be meaningful to men and women alike. Consider The Hobbit, a book which has inspired generations of young girls as well as boys, and didn’t (in print) need an over-literalized Strong Female Character (complete with a rapey damsel-battle replete with Kili’s white knightery) shoehorned in to do it.

Men, resist the urge to tokenize. If your story is genuinely about four men in an open boat, or twelve angry men on a jury, don’t add a disposable tokenized woman because you feel you ought to. That’s not true feminism; it’s pandering to demographic, and that causes more sexism than it solves. But you will find that unless you are very deliberately steering around women because you’re afraid, you will have to write some eventually, because half the people in the world are women. And when you do, they must be people with whom, and about whom, you could have an interesting conversation. Even without catsuits. Even without scissor kicks. If she can beat up a room full of men twice her size, that’s not enough. Her head-in-a-jar must be interesting to talk to, with or without the rest of her.

On that note, I’d take it as a kindness if you aimed for an appropriate level of body-type variety too. Supergirl gets a pass because the yellow sun gives her freakish strength—but in general, if your heroine’s punches land like Ronda Rousey’s, you’re perpetuating harmful stereotypes if she has arms like Miranda Kerr.

No body shaming: all bodies are individually beautiful. But one of these beautiful women has honed her body for high-fashion underwear modeling, and one has honed her body for professional fighting. And male illustrators sure love to confuse the two.
No body shaming: all bodies are individually beautiful. But one of these beautiful women has honed her body for high-fashion underwear modeling, and one has honed her body for professional fighting. And male illustrators sure love to confuse the two.

Women’s bodies are, and ought to be, different. They, like women’s performative sexuality, ought to develop as a natural and organic function of that wonderful conversation you had with their interesting head-in-a-jar personality before you started writing, or drawing, or casting them.  Until you know what’s in their head, you shouldn’t have any idea (or care) what they look like below the neck.

Let’s go back to the X-Men, for a moment. Let’s take them all and put their heads in jars, and look at the bodies that are left. First, the men: putting aside the mutations and unusual colouring, how confident are you that you could separate, at first glance, Xavier’s skinny atrophied body from Cyclops’s semi-chiseled dadbod, from Colossus’s massive Schwarzenegger frame, from Wolverine’s squat hairy body (apologies to Huge JackedMan, but the canucklehead is 5’3″), from Beast’s massive double-wide block of pure muscle, from Nightcrawler’s slender, ab-tastic emo-kid physique? Even with their heads off, I suspect you’d do pretty well if you had the remotest idea who those characters were.

Now for the women: without costumes or heads, how well would you do telling Jean Grey, from Psylocke, from Rogue, from Emma Frost, from Kitty Pryde, from the Dazzler, from…

Without venturing too far into a Mallrats-style obsession with superheroes’ junk, a little palette-swapping in the personal grooming department is just about the only way to tell these assembly-line comic-book fembodies apart. On a superhero team known, perhaps more than any other, as an allegorical celebration of young people’s difference and diversity, you’d expect better than the unrelenting sameness of these figures. But at least there are multiple interesting female characters on the team, even if body diversity is not yet equal opportunity. And ultimately, in spite of what feels like the usual cookie-cutter physicality, the richness and head-in-a-jar diversity of these women as interesting people comes through. The shape, the costuming, the surface exploitation all play second fiddle to the depth, individuality, and fundamental humanity of the character. This is why George Lucas’s Princess Leia is in truth a stronger female character, even when she’s chained up in a slave bikini, than Kurt Wimmer’s Ultraviolet will ever be, no matter how many faceless, underpaid policemen she murders in her crop top and impractical heels.

I don’t know if what I’ve written here will be of much practical use, except as a manifesto to myself to keep doing my best to enforce gender fairness in my writing. My manuscript for The Season of the Plough, now that I’ve proofread it, contains a perfect Bechdel-Maynard score of 6: it not only contains women who are real people, but also men who treat  them like real people. That, too, is important. And it’s one of the things we often forget about when we’re trying to shoehorn in a token scoop of surface-feminism to satisfy a demographic.

This stuff isn’t easy. It shouldn’t be. If it seems suspiciously easy to do, you’re probably not actually doing it. But it’s something we have to think about as writers of privilege, writers with an immense responsibility to use our hegemonic powers for good. With great power comes great responsibility, after all—a message wise men have long passed on to guys at risk of becoming douchebags, ever since a troubled young Peter Parker heard it from his Uncle Ben. It’s a hard lesson to learn—one that can take a long time to fully internalize—and one that he might not have fully got his head around without the continued support of the elderly widow who has served since 1962 as his poor single mother, born without any special powers into an insane world of absurd aliens and mutants, and determined to make a life of happiness and virtue for herself and her young ward, whatever else might come.

This article is dedicated to “Aunt” May Reilly Parker, another female character created by two men—Stan Lee and Steve Ditko—way back in 1962. She is, for my money, one of the strongest female characters ever to come out of the massive juggernaut of modern mythmaking that is the consumer-geek industral complex. All without catsuits. All without backflips. All without that power to hurt people that men have too long misread as synonymous with strength.

You go, girl.
Aunt May: my favourite strong female character in all of comics.

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