On Badass Female Characters and Telling the Truth through Fiction



The only way you can write the truth is to assume that what you set down will never be read. Not by any other person, and not even by yourself at some later date. Otherwise you begin excusing yourself. You must see the writing as emerging like a long scroll of ink from the index finger of your right hand; you must see your left hand erasing it.” --Margaret Atwood, The Blind Assassin

I've shared the above quote with my students many times as a way of encouraging them to open up in their writing, to take risks, and to speak the truth as they currently understand it. 

This is indeed risky stuff. When we speak the truth, we may be wrong. Our truth may be incomplete or misinformed. We discover this as soon as we speak the truth to someone who disagrees with us or sees a different truth.

I thought about this quote after I received feedback from my agent regarding my work in progress. She likes the story but is concerned about the depiction of the female characters. The female lead is often at the mercy of a bullying, overbearing male character. Other women are placed in dangerous situations in the story. My agent said she wanted to see more "badassery" from the female characters.

I totally understand this, and I appreciate her feedback. I need to hear such feedback. It challenges me as a writer. How do I remain true to the story but fulfill the need to show "badass" female characters? It also challenges me as a man: How do I understand my own attitudes toward women and know if I've "crossed the line" into demeaning portrayals?

This is an important question because, in the modern age, the depiction of women in fiction is a highly controversial subject--as well it should be. For too long, women have been relegated to subservient roles and sex objects. The depiction of women as strong, capable, and independent is relatively recent in popular culture. Bloggers and critics are all too quick to pounce when any portrayal of a woman comes across as demeaning or a return to the limitations of the past. 

Yet going too far in the other extreme--portraying women as badass for the sake of being badass--reduces them to stereotypes or archetypes. It ignores the individual personality the writer often tries to bring out of the character: someone with flaws and short-sightedness and even selfish aims. Real women can have all of these traits and yet still be loving, strong, capable and independent. So can real men. 

In fact, the depiction of men in our culture has also come under scrutiny. Few men would object to the stereotypical portrayal of a man as an action hero--guns a-blazing, muscles ripping, running, jumping, protecting the weak, and beating the bad guys. Yet this stereotype does as much harm as the stereotype of women as subservient sex objects. I know this because I grew up being exposed to both stereotypes and confused as hell.

A Personal Reflection

I grew up in the 1970s--the era of Women's Lib. Fueled by pop culture depictions on Star Trek and in comics, I embraced the ethos that women were just as good as men, could do anything they wanted, and deserved to control their own destinies. Yet this depiction was at odds with the reality to which I was exposed.

The two most powerful female presences in my life were my mother, a traditional housewife, and my aunt, who went through a messy divorce. My father was certainly in the picture, but he was quiet and unassuming; he kept his opinions to himself, even when asked. So, much of my understanding of male/female relationships came from my mother and my aunt. I don't wish to denigrate them in any way--they were wonderful, loving women--but I also want to honor the spirit of Margaret Atwood's quote, above: writing the truth as if no one (not even me) will read it.

Based on my mother's and my aunt's views, men were disappointments. The "typical man" cheated and didn't do what he was supposed to do. Men didn't listen. They didn't buy the right things at the store. They couldn't be trusted. Granted, my mother and aunt had good reasons to feel this way: their own father was an alcoholic who suffered a debilitating stroke at age 53. Their mother took care of him for the rest of her life. Given these real experiences, it's understandable that they viewed women (personified by their own mother) as saints and men as devils. Growing up in the Catholic church, I speculate, buttressed these views.

All of this confused me terribly. As an adolescent male, I grew up thinking I was a loser from the get-go--based on my gender. Some men were given a pass, of course, but I could not be the strong, confident, dashing hero like Captain Kirk, Clint Eastwood, or John Wayne. So, where did that leave me? I found my own role models in comic book characters such as the Legion of Super-Heroes and the Avengers. These men and women had no time for romance or even relating to each other (except on professional or otherwise superficial levels); they were too busy fighting Mordru and Thanos, making the world safe for democracy, etc.

Which would have been fine, except that, as adolescence progressed, I discovered there was a reason men and women spent so much time together, fell in love, and vowed to spend the rest of their lives in matrimony. Sex. Enter religion again (or, rather, my warped indoctrination into it): Sexual attraction was a no-no. If a boy looked at a girl the wrong way, God would send him to hell. Extreme depictions from some quarters of the Women's Lib movement didn't help. If a man flirted with a woman, he was sexist slime. And as a young teenager, I was trapped in that confusing realm of thinking girls had cooties yet wanting to spend time with them. The boys and girls I knew were no help. Teenagers of either sex are merciless when they spot weakness or confusion. Bullying, I guess, helps them deal with their own weakness and confusion.

My Ace of Hearts is Missing

One of the classes I teach has introduced me to Dr. Carol Dweck's concept of Growth and Fixed Mindsets. These are closely related to the concepts of Creator and Victim Mindsets. The upshot of these theories is that we can't control the deck of cards we are handed in life, and everyone's deck is incomplete. But we can control how we respond to challenges and obstacles. For a long time, I saw the experiences of my childhood from a Victim Mindset: Someone did something to me, whether intentionally or not, and their actions ruined my chances of having a happy life.

Today, however, I choose to see my experiences through the lens of Growth/Creator Mindsets. My upbringing was not perfect, but it gave me certain tools--a perspective, a desire to write, a sensitivity toward the experience of others--to help me navigate my path in this world and help others navigate theirs. 

The depictions of the female characters in my WIP are not perfect. The depictions are likely as flawed as the characters themselves. The same, I suspect, holds true for the male characters. But it is through having these flaws--both in how we depict characters as reflections of ourselves and in how we truly are--that we can have a conversation, writer and audience, and learn more about ourselves through learning about each other. 

The nature of my WIP challenges my own conceptions of sexuality and gender roles. I hope it challenges the reader's, as well. There is a lot of truth in how the female lead is depicted--both good and bad. She's based, in part, on my aunt, after all.

Art credit: https://openclipart.org/detail/233697/black-cat-on-motorbike

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