Writing female characters and the fear of being called a misogynist


Most male writers fear writing female characters do stupid things. Most male writers fear offending female readers, and most female readers tend to get offended when men depict female characters committing even the most trivial errors. No writer wants to offend their readers, and females get offended when a male writer portrays women as anything less than Lara Croft.

The fact is that females buy more books than men, so it is in the financial interests of all male writers to become “enlightened” and avoid the ‘M’ word at all costs. The ‘M’ word is misogyny. Misogyny, as defined by Dictionary.com, is the hatred, or dislike, of women or girls.  This, of course, is the strict definition of the ‘M’ word.  The loose definition, or that which is thrown at any author, be they novelist, screenwriter, etc., is that which depicts a female character as anything less than Laura Croft.

angelina_jolieSome have said that those critical reviews that contained pervasive use of the ‘M’ word may have affected sales of Tom Clancy’s later books. Although I’ve only read a few Tom Clancy books, and I stand open to correction from those that have read a number of them, Clancy has only written female characters in supporting roles. That’s a big no-no in modern fiction. In modern fiction, an author can have a female in a supporting role, but that character is required to be an individual in a seat of authority over the main character. Anything less is perceived by the modern critic as misogynist, anything less is characterized as less than modern, offensive to women, and earmarked as limited. She must also be flawless, she must also be Laura Croft. Writing the line “I don’t understand,” and attributing that line to a female character, can provide an unsuspecting author the death of a thousand cuts from critics and readers around the nation. This constant bashing of Clancy’s work, some have theorized, has resulted in his brand being diminished.

Other critics say that Clancy’s prose was so pedestrian, in its reliance on technical knowledge, that the “one-trick pony” of Clancy’s fiction was bound to see a slide in sales when readers tired of it. If that’s the case, and I’m not saying it is, why has Ernest Hemingway’s cannon been basically burned in effigy by those that rail against its purported misogyny? Reading through the novel The Sun Also Rises, and the short story The Short and Happy Life of Francis Macomber, one has to wonder why so many of his modern peers and critics dismiss his entire cannon as misogynistic?

Are those who dismiss Hemingway’s cannon, the all or nothing crowd that suggests that every female character he ever wrote must be a Lara Croft type character or the body of your work is tainted? Does every writer now have to have every female character out of the house, defined as unilaterally independent and without even the slightest weakness, and never NEVER as a side character to define the writer’s main, male character better?

Misogyny is also defined in current fiction (be it in books, TV, or movies) as depicting a woman who defines herself by what men think of her. In a review of HBO’s Girls, Alyssa Rosenberg says the following:

“(The main character) Lena Dunham is hungry for sex but not grateful for it. She has no need for (her sexual partner) Adam or anyone else to teach her that she deserves to be treated well: Hannah knows that, demands it, and negotiates her shaky way towards it.”{1}

The ironic twist that Rosenberg doesn’t recognize in her review is that the main character of Girls defines herself through men by being anti-male in the manner her character is drawn out. The fact that Lena “doesn’t care” so strongly only shows how much she does care. She reminds one of a teenager that so strongly claims that they don’t care what anyone thinks of them, that any listener knows that this is their primary concern. When this Lena character puts so much effort into “not caring” what Adam thinks of her, she ends up thinking about him all the time. She constantly calls on him for sexual activity, and he only shows up at her place when sexual activity is assured. This Adam character treats her like crap, and Lena constantly puts herself in a position where she’s disrespected. This Lena character is also somewhat unattractive, and this is repeatedly made apparent throughout the show, so the show depicts her as one that can’t be picky when it comes to her choices in men. She’s unhappy throughout the show (as most unattractive women are in Hollywood movies based almost solely on the fact that they’re unattractive) which defines her as an unhappy woman that can’t meet a proper fella to treat her properly.

Some have defined the “traditional” feminist as being an individualist, or an individual that succeeds regardless the hurdles placed before them. Whereas the “modern” feminist blames the male for their subordinate role in a patriarchal society. If we still exist in a patriarchal society, and that’s debatable based on the changes some of us have seen in the workplace in the last twenty years, then the traditional feminist learns the mores of her society, whether she likes them or not, and she then learns how to succeed beyond them. The modern feminist looks at the same mores of society, folds her arms in the corner and decides that “The world stinks!” In modern feminist arenas, such as those presented in the show Sex in the City and the music of Alanis Morrisette, attempts are made to define the modern female in an anti-male world, by lashing out at their mistreatment by men. In the end, however, their material incidentally ends up being so obsessed with how men treat them that they come off sounding more inferior to men than those traditional feminists, the individualists, that succeed beyond them.

Just about every book written after 1992 contains female characters that are depicted as stronger than men, smarter than men, and more independent than men. I wouldn’t say that women are inferior to men, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t do incredibly stupid things too. We all do, but writers can’t depict this truth if they hope to generate sales, develop a following, and receive critical praise, because they all fear being unilaterally dismissed by the ‘M’ word.

The question that I’m sure many readers are asking at this point is if you know that women are more sensitive to how they’re portrayed, and you know that they buy more books, why would you purposefully set out to offend them? The point is not that I want to offend anyone, it’s the idea that I now have to comb through my material to find any sentence that could possibly offend a female, or a critic, if I hope to make a sale. It’s also this idea that I have to change every general pronoun I may have from a “he” to a “she” or a “they”. Ok, I don’t have to change them all to “theys” as long as the “shes” I have are equal in proportion to my “hes”. Thank you. That is so liberating. It’s also this idea that the ‘M’ word has become so loosely defined that all female characters now have to be flawless, Lara Croft type characters or the writer will be labeled as a misogynist. The point is that while we do still have free speech in this country, our stories are slowly progressing to inoffensive milquetoast through peer pressure.

If a writer wants to write a risky, challenging piece of social commentary in their fiction that’s fine, as long as it only offends members of group A. Group A in this scenario contains the white male demographic … or is listing them in such a manner misogynistic, racist, and xenophobic? Let’s transpose the words and call them a group to avoid offense. So, let’s say that you can offend a group of people, because those people have generally shown that either they aren’t offended as easily, or if they do get offended that offense doesn’t show up in bottom line sales figures.

The problem is that writers have to have bad guys (errr people) to define their good humans. Writers, particularly those writing stories, also have to have some sort of conflict between good and evil, so it’s recently become advisable that your bad homo sapiens be Caucasian males, and your good homo sapiens be those of a descent other than Caucasian, preferably of the female gender. One preferred good person duo in modern fiction, and movies, is to depict a member of the subfamily of the Homininae, the Hominidae, otherwise known as the Homo Sapiens hominid, be that of the Caucasian persuasion, and a gender that is female, battling alongside a member of the Homo Sapiens of African-American descent against the male Homo Sapien males of Caucasian descent. That way no one gets offended, or if they do get offended it doesn’t show up in bottom line sales figures.

Another problem that I have with these very specific, politically correct parameters is the predictability they place on storytelling. I know, for instance, when a conflict arises between male characters and females characters, the female character’s rationale will always win out … for current and/or future sales. I know that when a female provides a method through which the two of them can escape conflict, the female’s advice will always be proven correct, even if she appears to be initially incorrect. I know that the male will eventually realize that his chauvinistic attitudes are what landed them in their predicament in the first place, and if he would just listen to the female he wouldn’t keep running into the monster of the story.

It used to be 180 degrees different I know. I know that 1950’s era movies depicted the female as a screaming, hysterical child that needed to be slapped every once in a while to arrive at a rational state of mind, and that wasn’t right either. I’m sure I would’ve been screaming about the misogynistic parameters I was forced to portray back then, but it flipped in the modern era to such a degree that most male writers are afraid of portraying even the smallest transgression against women. It’s tedious is what I’m saying, it’s limiting, and it’s becoming cliché.

A solution that I propose is that we allow all of our characters to be equally flawed, stupid, and inconsistent. Most readers think flawed, stupid, and inconsistent characters are funny, because those characteristics add definition, and they allow the reader to better identify with the characters. Apparently female readers don’t identify with these flaws anymore. Apparently they only want Lara Croft-type characters, and anything less is insulting to their gender. The thing of it is, women always tell me that they’re tougher than men though. They tell me that the grit and temerity it takes to get through childbirth and various other events of life, just makes women stronger than a men, but when the most venial depictions of a female character’s flaw can lead them to a letter writing campaign, a boycott of the author’s work, and a total dismissal of everything a writer has done previous to that venial depiction, it leads me to wonder which gender has the stronger constitution in the long run?

{1}http://thinkprogress.org/alyssa/2012/05/29/491372/lena-dunham-girls/

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