This week we’re discussing gender roles in popular culture. It’s a topic near and dear to my heart (and my writing) for a number of reasons.
It’s fair to say that I’m known for writing female characters. Spider-Girl, Annah Billips from Gingerbread Girl, Black Widow… and a host of others. I enjoy the hell out of writing female characters for two main reasons. First… I simply enjoy the hell out of women. It may possibly have something to do with my theory that women are pretty and smell nice. And another reason I like writing female characters is because it’s a step outside my comfort zone. I’m male. When writing a female character I have momentum from the very beginning, because I start by entering what is, for me, a fantasy world. I’ve no idea what it’s like to be a woman. Well, I have some ideas. Men and women are amazingly similar after all, and even some of our dissimilarities need to be tossed out when writing in the role of the opposite gender. One BIG mistake that men make when writing female characters is to make women relentlessly female. A big mental check-mark I have in my head is the “bathroom” test. Men and women pee differently. We do. But if I’m writing a female character, and I write a line of, “She went to pee, which she did by sitting down, because she is a girl and that’s how girls do these things,” … then I’ve failed as a writer. I’ve written a female character from a decidedly male perspective.
In writing, once a gender is established… it’s often best to leave it alone. A woman does not need to walk to the door with a decided roll to her hips that a man would not have. She just walks to the damn door. Likewise, a man does not need to reach out for a cup of coffee, all the time grunting, thinking about football, about how hard it is to follow a map, and how much he believes he could beat a tiger in a knife fight… the way we guys are always thinking.
Much of my writing to date has been done in comics, in a field where gender roles are very established, and they’re frankly not established very well. I’ll go on record as saying I’m not fond of balloon-sized breasts in comics, yet that is the way that most female characters in comics are depicted. When I first starting scripting for comics, I would put in directions to the artist to keep breasts no larger than normal sized. That didn’t work. That just meant the art would come back with women having breasts only equal to the size of their heads, as opposed to twice the size. So I began putting in notations that the women should have normal-sized breasts, and then add that I meant “normal” as in the real world. That didn’t work either. I eventually reached a stage where I would say that the women were entirely flat-chested. No breasts at all. Not even “A” cups. Zero. Flat. Nada. With those directions in place, I now generally get back illustrations of women in the C-cup range, which I can live with. I suppose what I’m saying here is that, in comics, women are seen in a very definite way: as pretty objects to look at and admire from afar, before getting down to the business of being a hero.
Women in comics, and in genre fiction, films, etc, are far too often just caricatures of female body parts. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m entirely in favor of beautiful women, it’s just that I don’t need to have a constant reminder that a particular beautiful woman has a really nice rump or a particularly fine chest. Really. Honestly. I got that. I wrote that down in my notebook, right after my notation on mammoth-punching. I keep hoping all this will change… that comics and other entertainment media won’t need the constant titillation factor anymore, now that the average person can amaze themselves by finding their weight in porn with a few clicks of a button. With the internet at our command, do we really still need a leg shot from Supergirl in order to make our day? Can’t we have a character bit instead? Maybe something about who she is, what she believes in, what she wants for dinner, the identity of her favorite painter, the identity of the one villain she wishes was a hero, and the one hero she wishes was a villain, so she could punch the crap out of them? Wouldn’t all of that be a tiny bit more interesting than the 1,697,453rd gust of wind that blows up her skirt and shows a bit of her panties? No? Well, hell… then let’s just move on to the other way that women are depicted in most fiction.
As tied up hostages.
Yes, sir. Nothing says “strong female character” like being tied up, which is the other standard role for women in a lot of genre fiction. Also, “victim in alley” is a good one. Always room for new players in that role. These are a few of the roles I try to avoid in my own writing. It’s honestly fairly easy to do. Just give characters a sense of… character. If you, as a writer, start to think about the reasons why characters do something, what the end goal of a man or a woman might be… then the character starts to live on the page. Again, I think it’s often important to forget the gender while writing. Men and women want many of the same things. Money. Power. Sex. Love. Mixtures of them all. Men and women might have different definitions of what some of these mean, but the goals are similar. And we might have different ways of achieving our goals, but that doesn’t mean that each and every step on the journey needs to be feminine or masculine. It can just be about a person. Pure and simple. A person. That’s perhaps the most important aspect of a gender role in fiction, the fact that we, as authors, are very rarely writing about a gender; we are writing about an individual person. And an individual deserves to be treated in just that singular manner.