It’s What Fiction Is For

There was an interesting exchange on Twitter today sparked by a tweet by Cat Valente. Cat spent yesterday evening going through a slush pile, presumably for Apex Magazine. One one point she tweeted in frustration asking why male SF writers are always writing about prostitutes.

Several answers were offered to that, but the trail I want to follow is one that started when Kev McVeigh suggested that male writers see prostitutes as strong, independent characters. That then led other people (hi Paul, Jona) to note that a prostitute is a much more believable strong, independent character than the “kick ass babe” so beloved of Hollywood and urban fantasy.

Now in one way they are absolutely right, and it is worth noting that the “kick ass babe” is just as much a sexualised character as a prostitute. There’s a definite suggestion here that many male writers can only envisage female power in terms of sexuality. A lithe, athletic girl in a tight-fitting leather costume is not a significant improvement, in feminist terms, on a whore.

The point I wanted to make (and thanks to Kathy Sedia for nudging me into it), is that while this isn’t an improvement, that fact doesn’t absolve male writers from the need to write convincing women characters. It shouldn’t even absolve male writers from the need to write strong women characters.

A lot of my friends express a preference for gritty, realistic fiction, because it is more honest. The real world doesn’t do consolation and happy ever after, let alone sparkly ponies. I have a lot of sympathy with that point of view. But it can also lead you down a very dangerous path. You start by saying you want fiction that reflects the brutal realities of life. That means you need victims, and as women have less power in the world than men they are more often victims. Go too far along that road and before you know it you are writing the sort of fiction that appeals to people whose idea of “entertainment” is reading about women being brutally murdered.

Kudos then to Graham Sleight for mentioning Joanna Russ. The point of speculative fiction is that it allows you to imagine how the world might be different. And feminist speculative fiction therefore allows you to imagine a world in which women are strong characters and occupy positions of power in society, without having to be sexualised. It is a long time since I read an Alyx story, and I don’t have any Russ books here, but I have a sneaking suspicion that she didn’t spend all her time in skin-tight leather costumes.

Writing strong female characters isn’t hard. It just requires a bit of imagination.

9 thoughts on “It’s What Fiction Is For

  1. Imagination and perhaps some thoughtful observation of a variety of real women.

    It’s natural and easy (warning signs) to conflate “strong X character” with “X in position of power.” That is, to think that a strong character is the character who is socially, economically, politically, and/or sexually “in charge.” So the canonical “kick-ass babe” in leather looks like a strong character (and so does the female military commander, judge, chief scientist, CEO, etc.) One of the challenges of writing any strong character is showing that it’s the character, not the position alone, that’s strong….and strength of character often shows most clearly in a position of non-power.

    On the feminist side, I want to show women who do have some power, who are independent, capable, gutsy, etc. I imagine, and want to share, visions of societies that are less sexist than ours, where women have more opportunities to use their talents fully. But on the realism side, I also want to show that “strong” isn’t just about “winning” or “being in the power position.” Some of the women I’ve known with the strongest characters have not been (for cultural reasons) in positions of power or prestige, women who hold together a family or a neighborhood or a school by sheer force of character, but are disregarded elsewhere. My mother, a single parent with no other financial resources, risked her job on a matter of conscience (would not sign a petition against school integration that her boss wanted everyone in the company to sign.) That pretty much defines “strong character” to me. Others have been in those more obvious positions (thinking of Barbara Jordan, one of the first African-American U.S. Congresswomen and one of my personal heroes)…but the character made the strength. Her character multiplied the power of the position alone.

    It’s a good idea for writers to consider a range of “strengths” across the characters they depict, and to beware of showing only one kind of strong person: the alliance of strong character with obvious power. It’s fine to have the strong-minded hero (of any gender), but let there also be the strong-minded (and essential) plumber, babysitter, accountant, obscure whistleblower, etc. One thing I think fiction can do is help readers recognize those moments in their lives when what they do matters–for good or ill– beyond their own bank statement.

    1. I very much agree that being “strong” is not necessarily about being in a position of power. That’s absolutely worth showing. But at the same time I don’t think we should fall into the trap of always writing books in which only men are in positions of power because anything else is “unbelievable”.

      1. Oh, absolutely. No question about that, and I certainly wasn’t advocating presenting only men in positions of power. (I’ve never written a book of that type…I don’t think I could get through it, even as a dystopia.)

    2. I have the inverse complaint about most of the urban fantasy I’ve been assigned to read over the last few years. Three series, all featuring non-sexualized butt-kicking women who are total doormats when not in the middle of combat. Now, all three start with the heroines gaining unexpected new powers, so I’m willing to accept that they’re overcome by events for a while. But when you get to book five, and the heroine is still not clear on the full ramifications of her extra-special powers, and she’s still bumbling through things because she doesn’t have the full background on what’s going on, and various mostly male characters who part of the powerful elite are still giving her vague answers or promising a full explanation sometime next week, and she seems to be fine with this, argh!

      Did I mention all three of these series are by women?

  2. I think there’s a pattern to the development of stereotypes imposed on abject groups. You start with the basic full-on abjection — the black buck Mandingo, the Latino gang-banger, the whore. Then writers realise at some level those are utterly heinous, so they try to create more positive images, but… well, they’re not really that successful.

    Maybe it’s because their automatic approach is to subvert the trope or maybe it’s because the stereotype persists even under a sense that “they’re not ALL like that” (i.e. it’s essentialism with exceptions rather than “there’s no reason to project such a stereotype at all.”) Either way, you get a sort of redemption narrative, I reckon, in the character from X group who’s “overcome” their stereotypical backstory.

    So you get all those black or Latino cops on TV who grew up in the gangs, on the streets. And you get the kick-ass hooker who doesn’t take shit from anyone. And, yeah, the leatherclad babe is just a variant where the origin is slut rather than whore — same thing underneath.

    1. Women are still very much the sex class in our society, therefore it’s a cultural default to think of them in terms of their physical attractiveness and/or sexuality first. I will believe in equality when women are depicted as people before everything else. Until then, we’ll have arguments about how it is totally possible to write a strong character who is a prostitute rather than considering other professions. Note to writers: nothing wrong with being a librarian or a short order cook as potential jobs!

  3. I enjoyed your post very much, Cheryl. I think it is very odd that in this genre (perhaps) it may still be seen as ok to objectify women. It was salutary of Graham Sleight to refer to Joanna Russ. I loved some of her books, and although her position seemed quite far out, it was an antidote to some stuff.
    (Maybe it’s something to do with SF? A legacy of old-fashioned sexism?).

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