Strong Female Characters in Distress

If – like me – you’re a hopeless social media addict, you may have noticed a shitstorm going off lately in cyberspace under the loose collective term of #GamerGate. I’m not going to attempt to recount the whole distasteful and – sadly – ongoing saga here, but if you’re interested, see the links below. When I attempted to explain it to my husband, his first question was ‘is this a thing on Twitter?’ to which the answer is, yes, it is a thing on Twitter, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have an impact IRL: actual people have been forced out of their actual homes in actual fear for their actual lives because of this shit. A movement which was kicked off by concerns about the ethics of game journalists and developers has culminated in threats to shoot up an entire university campus in order to stop a talk by Anita Sarkeesian – who is neither a journalist, nor a developer. Sarkeesian is a feminist cultural commentator whose series of videos criticising the representation of women in video games has, it’s fair to say, raised a few hackles, and has been raising them since long before GamerGate became a thing. The most succinct summary I can give here is this:

Sarkeesian: The portrayal of women in many popular video games is kinda sexist, and this has troubling implications for the attitudes of those who play them.

Trolls: You’re wrong you stupid lying c%&$ and if you don’t shut up we’ll rape and kill you.

Me (thinks): Yep, those guys have definitely made an excellent argument for how video games definitely don’t encourage violent misogyny.

Sigh.

Anyway, what does all this have to do with little me, back in meatspace? Well, if there’s one conclusion you can draw from the escalating hysteria, it’s this: people care about the representation of women in media. They care a lot – one way or the other, whether it’s the gamer dudes who are screaming someone is trying to take away their T&A, or the critics who are suggesting there should perhaps be more to creating female characters than the jiggle physics. Literary women seem – thankfully – to inspire fewer death threats, but they still matter. They certainly matter a lot to me: from my love for Sophie Hatter, the lead character in Howl’s Moving Castle – a shy young girl who spends most of the book magically transformed into a cantankerous old woman – to the nausea I recently experienced when reading Raymond E. Feist describe an elven princess with the words ‘her terror as thinly veiled as her body’ (sorry, got to take a vom, BRB).

Female characters in fantasy have thankfully evolved a bit from the days of being either largely absent (thanks, JRR) or terrified eye candy. But some writers still seem to struggle – like Patrick Rothfuss, who I heard speaking quite earnestly at World Fantasy Con last year about the importance of women’s representation, yet still couldn’t manage to put any women in The Name of the Wind who weren’t either sexy damsels-in-distress, or the protagonist’s dead mother. Funnily enough, women writers like Robin Hobb or the (by me) recently-discovered Elizabeth Bear usually seem to do a bit better, and it’s their example I’m endeavouring to follow.

In these discussions, you often hear bandied around that most dreaded phrase, ‘Strong Female Characters’ – a phrase which, frankly, makes me want to hurl. Again. Why? Because proper representation of women isn’t all about broads with swords. It’s about the fundamentals of good writing, about thinking your way inside someone’s head, about realistically portraying both weakness and more than one type of strength. Suzanne Collins gets it right in The Hunger Games: Katniss may be a BAMF, but she also has flaws: physically strong, but troubled and awkward, she’s beautifully counter-pointed with Peeta, who makes up for his lack of BAMFiness with emotional intelligence. The point about good characterisation of women is that that you shouldn’t just create a bunch of characters who are ‘strong’ and then give a few of them tits. The point is, you should create a whole cast of characters who are deep and rich and nuanced, who have fully realised personalities, who have hopes and dreams and fears which extend beyond being rescued or which boys they fancy, and then give slightly less than half of them dicks.

Links:

A brief summary of GamerGate http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-intersect/wp/2014/10/14/the-only-guide-to-gamergate-you-will-ever-need-to-read/

Interview with Anita Sarkeesian https://www.rollingstone.com/culture/features/anita-sarkeesian-gamergate-interview-20141017

Fan fiction – under the rock

After a couple of recent Facebook conversations with friends on the topic, I’ve decided to lay down a few thoughts about fan fiction – although it’s quite difficult to write about something so huge, varied and frequently deranged within the confines of a single blog post. Fan fiction is generally little-seen by much of mainstream society, but use the lever of the Internet to lift the rock of the original work and you’ll find a writhing, teeming mass of fanfic creepy-crawlies beneath. Alternate universes, unlikely crossovers, flipped genders, male pregnancies… it’s all there. Quality also varies wildly, from eye-gougingly awful to actually really good (in some cases, superior to the original). Some things, however, are reassuringly predictable – as one of my friends put it, ‘I think I remember where 99% of these fanfics end up…’ ie, with some man-love. I’ve heard a few theories as to why ‘slash’ fiction* has become so popular – something to do with the lack of well-drawn female characters in many works, or women’s desire to write romantic pairings free of gender-based power dynamics, or teenage girls exploring their newfound feelings about BOYS in a safe context, blah blah. Personally I think it’s because guy-on-guy is hot, duh, but that’s just my opinion.

From the point of view of a writer, fanfic is an interesting conundrum. On the one hand, it’s a fun way to get started as a writer, and a while back I did actually start developing some Harry Potter fanfic into a fantasy novel. This book was subsequently abandoned and I’ve since written only wholly original stuff, but there have been some high-profile cases of books which started life as fan works eventually becoming published in their own right – ‘The Mortal Instruments’ series (Potter), ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ (Twilight), and ‘Temeraire’ (the Aubrey-Maturin series). On the other hand, it must be a bit weird to see your beloved world and characters getting mashed around by some ham-fisted and possibly drunk amateur scribbler. Robin Hobb compares the experience to seeing a family picture photo-shopped to put everyone in compromising positions, and other writers have expressed their horror at discovering first-hand that Rule 34 (‘If it exists, there is porn of it – no exceptions’) does indeed have no exceptions. And in the worst case scenario, there can be legal wrangles which end up destroying part of the author’s copyright, as happened to Marion Zimmer Bradley. This is why most writers, even if they tolerate the existence of fan fiction, make a point of not reading any, especially if they’re writing an ongoing series – things can get very messy if a subsequent installment has a resemblance to a previously-published fan work.

What’s my attitude? Well, Patrick Rothfuss was completely delighted when he discovered some slash based on his books (and it’s pretty well written too, in fact), considering it proof that he had truly arrived as an author, and I think I’d agree with him. Fanfic, after all, is evidence that your story has affected someone. Even if they hated it. So they felt the need to bring your dead character back to life, hook him up in a three-way with Harry Styles and Wolverine, and then get him pregnant by both of them at once? Well, why not eh – in the happily delirious world of fan fiction, anything is possible.

Links:

Patrick Rothfuss’ blog, with his delight at finding some slash: http://blog.patrickrothfuss.com/2008/02/yes/

A summary of the Marion Zimmer Bradley case: http://jimhines.livejournal.com/507999.html

Robin Hobb’s blog, with an excellent summary of the case against from an author’s point of view: http://web.archive.org/web/20051124223715/www.robinhobb.com/rant.html

 

 

*the term ‘slash’ derives from writing the names of the couple with a / in the middle, as in ‘Kirk/Spock’. It has nothing to do with the guitarist from Guns ‘n’ Roses. Although, if you were wondering, yes, Slash slash is available. These days, many fandoms create cute portmanteau names for couples instead, like ‘Johnlock’ (very much not to be confused with John Locke) or ‘Merthur’. Or ‘Slaxl’.

Book Club

I’ve realised lately that, for somebody who professes to love literature, I don’t read nearly enough books. Partly it’s the fault of the myriad other demands on my time, of course, but it’s also partly internet addiction, for which there’s really no excuse. I’m trying to tweet less and read more, both in and out of my chosen genre of fantasy. So here I am, on the, er, internet, to share with you a quick review of some of my recent reads.

1) Within a Budding Grove, by Marcel Proust (Vol. 2 of In Search of Lost Time)

My 2013 reading project is to work my way through this colossus of literature, one of the longest novels ever written. I got through volume 1, Swann’s Way, fairly quickly, but I have to admit to struggling with the second book (different translation, which may not have helped). It’s not a book which makes it easy for the reader. There are many passages of wonderfully evocative description waiting for you – if you can wade through the endless pages of repetition as the procrastinating protagonist agonises over afternoon tea. Meanwhile the plot progresses at a pace best described as geological. Think I may take a break before tackling volume 3.

2) One Day, by David Nicholls

I haven’t finished this one yet but I’m very much enjoying it so far – the first book in a long time I’ve felt compelled to continue reading whilst walking up the stairs. Not perhaps the most original tale, although the structure of showing a snapshot of the main characters’ lives on every 15th July over the course of twenty years is pretty neat. But originality doesn’t matter so much when you’ve got such a well-written and sharply observed story, and it’s one of those rare books that makes you feel you actually know the characters. It’s like I could invite Emma and Dexter out to the pub tomorrow night; I’d get annoyed at some of their foibles but I’d still be happy they were my friends.

Edit: I finished reading it. Devastated.

 

3) World War Z, by Max Brooks

So I could have illustrated World War Z with a picture of a rotting zombie. But, well, you know...

I could have used a picture of a rotting zombie. But, well, you know…

Second time of reading this one: the first time round I devoured it greedily, like the living dead on some glistening entrails. This time I’m reading it more slowly and savouring the saltiness of the satire. I love the way Brooks uses the device of the zombocalypse to poke fun at just about every nation on earth (the Israelis with their huge anti-zombie fence, the South Africans dusting off their dodgy apartheid-era emergency plans) and mercilessly lampoon modern life. There’s a sequence comparing the jobs people did before and after the titular war which is a bit too close to the bone: the man who previously did a meaningless corporate job now gets more satisfaction from sweeping chimneys. Not sure what I’m going to make of the movie but the original book comes highly recommended.