Women in Fiction, Part Two

On Monday, I posted an interview with one of my favourite Indie authors, Lindsay Buroker. The focus was women in fiction, and when I first wrote up the post, I thought of dividing it into two posts so I could comment on it without making it too long. But Buroker was so great I didn’t want to break it up–so we’ll discuss the ideas today instead.

There were some great comments in the last post, so let’s look at those first. The common theme was that Buroker’s lead character, Amaranthe, is able to stand out as a strong woman despite being surrounded by men. In fact, there are fewer female characters in the series compared to men, which is reflective of the society/World Buroker has built.
I’m of two minds about this: on the one hand, being surrounded by men and rising above them as a natural leader helps make Amaranthe a strong character. There’s a juxtaposition that works very well to highlight her qualities, and it’s mentioned several times that she lives in a male dominated society (though it’s obviously changing). In this sense, having a strong female character means something more–she’s strong in the face of patriarchy, in spite of it.
The flip side is that this juxtaposition only works because of the generally male oriented society in which we live. Amaranthe stands out so well because we don’t always expect a strong female character. In a real world example, it’s often news when a woman is elected to public office, because it’s normally men who fill that role. But the fact that it’s news is bothersome to an extent, and shows the inequality of the system. Highlighting a woman’s strength of character because one would normally expect a man in that role betrays a certain prejudice–we shouldn’t need that opposition to celebrate a woman’s strength. But it’s a double edged sword: if we don’t highlight that comparison, people won’t necessarily take note of it, and nothing changes.

I don’t mean this as a critique of Buroker’s characterisation of Amaranthe, of course–it’s not the author’s fault, and as noted in Monday’s interview, the character wasn’t written as an explicit feminist commentary. And, really, this is where Buroker should be applauded most: Amaranthe isn’t a strong female character because that’s a statement the author wanted to make–she’s strong because that’s who she is. I think that is the kind of strong female character we need in fiction–books, movies or otherwise. Strong women who are written that way without pretence, who are paragons just because they are. I think there’s a certain “societal expectation” sometimes that women should be  vulnerable or emotional and that men should be stoic and heroic, but those are imaginary lines that should be crossed more often.

Another great example of this kind of characterisation is J. M. Ney-Grimm. Her Norse-flavoured tales feature many strong women, and in fact the main culture portrayed in the books is a matriarchy. Again, it’s obvious that this isn’t done to make some sort of feminist statement, but because that’s what Ney-Grimm wanted to write. The genuine intent for both authors was to write the story they wanted to tell, and the fact that they end up with such strong female characters is just icing on the cake.

I think this is the kind of characterisation of women we need more of in literature and entertainment. Which brings me to my next point: the way women are generally portrayed in fiction. As Buroker says in the interview, strong characters often come off as bossy or super-heroic–there doesn’t seem to be much middle ground. The polar opposite–as seen in the new Star Trek movie–are women who are ostensibly powerful or intelligent, but end up needing to be saved by the male protagonists. Or, worse, women treated as sex symbols. There’s a particularly gratuitous scene in Star Trek where Carol Marcus is shown in her underwear for no reason (except to demonstrate that Kirk is a lascivious womaniser). J. J. Abrams has admitted that the scene was unnecessary, attempting to defend it by pointing out that Kirk is shown barely clothed as well. The missed point is that this contributes to Kirk’s character, while it does nothing at all for Marcus. This kind of sexualisation “for the sake of it” is rampant in entertainment, enough that it’s not always seen as a problem. Of course, this is a generalisation, but I don’t think it’s too far off the mark.

In the end, this is a very large issue with many layers and ramifications. I’m by no means an expert, and couldn’t pretend to come to any conclusion here–but I think it’s certainly worth the discussion. I think that writers like Buroker and Ney-Grimm are well on track in the way they represent women, and should be seen as examples to follow. And, really, that attitude should extend to homosexuality, race, age, and what have you–people are as they are, and their differences shouldn’t be the reason for their character, nor exploited as a statement. Of course, it’s a lot more complex than that, but it’s a start.

So, what do you think?


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