I’ve been keeping half an eye on the whole Gamer Gate hatefulness, as anyone with passing interest in games and an internet connection is wont to do. Needless to say the responses are extreme, unhinged and determined by a medium where the illusion exists one can say what one likes without consequences. That medium being the internet, of course.
There is one medium where the writer is still held accountable for what one says, in the text itself, or the reader’s interpretation of it. I’m talking about novels, of course.
2014 (and many years before it) has seen hot debate around the issues of women in publishing, and women characters in books. One of the aspects of the topic is discussion around women characters who possess some modicum of agency (or lack of), and that fictional women fall prey to being just another reward at the end of the quest, or a victim that spurs the male protagonist to avenge her. And, of course, some novels just don't really contain women characters at all.
I recently wrote some answers to an interview and the question of ‘strong female characters’ reared its head. Cue eye roll. I’ve come to hate that expression as it seems to suggest that it’s unusual for ‘female characters’ to be ‘strong’. ‘Strong’ is a misnomer here. The problem is not that female characters lack strength, either of spirit or arm, but agency, a powerlessness to change one’s own circumstances and the environment around them.
It was while I was writing my response that I realised the problem is not whether these characters are ‘strong’, whatever you claim to think ‘strong’ means, but the fact we treat fictional women in genre as something unusual. Women, fictional and real, are people, just as men are people. This process of othering, of making women seem mysterious, unfathomable and to all intents and purposes alien, is like a cancer at the heart of thinking about character.
‘Every character should want for something, even if it is only a glass of water.’ So sayeth Kurt Vonnegut in his eight rules of writing. Note he doesn’t say ‘Every straight, white, male character should want for something, even if it is only a glass of water.’ Nor does he say ‘Every strong female character should want for something, even if it is only a glass of water.’ Kurt Vonnegut just talks about characters, regardless of genitalia, sexual orientation, whether they’re the protagonist, supporting cast or one of the extras (I can’t help but think in film terms).
This kind of thinking around gender in genre requires a maturity of the male reader to admit that he has been a willing or unknowing party to the insidiousness of the male gaze. This thinking requires the male reader to think of female characters as something other than romantic sub plots, victims who serve no other purpose than to indicate the world is ‘gritty’, or to provoke the protagonist into action. It also requires writers to reflect on their own work and face up to the quality or dearth of women in their own stories.
Regarding my own work, I can admit I used the damsel in distress trope in The Boy with the Porcelain Blade, but also that I tried to subvert it. My first novel has been out in the wild since March and I realise it has problematic elements. I’m not sure how I’d change these, but I am keen not to repeat them.
I hope, as a community of fans and writers, we all strive for a higher standard. It’s not beyond the realm of the Fantastic to imagine stories where men, women, people of colour, and gay characters all receive attention.