Monday, September 10, 2012

I, Feminist

It should come as no surprise to anyone who's ever read one of my books or spent more than five minutes in my company that I am a feminist. And when I say feminist, I don't mean any of the incredibly bizarre, fanatical, and unflattering definitions others (mostly men) have given that word. I mean that I think women are people who deserve equal right/pay/treatment/education/etc.

When I declare my feminism outright, like when I'm raging about how we're so far in the future we're landing robots on Mars and yet we still don't have equal pay for equal work in this country, people give me funny looks. This prompts me to give them a funny look back, because really, WTF? How can any enlightened person not be a feminist in this day and age? Can you look me straight in the eye and tell me that I'm not a full person? That I don't deserve the right to make my own choices/own land/have my own money? Are you going to tell your mother she lacks the presence of mind to vote? Right, didn't think so.

(And just for fun, the next time you see a lady backing off and saying "oh, I'm not a feminist," ask her if she wants to give up her right to vote. Because you know who got you that shit? SUFFRAGETTES, the most badass feminists ever.)

SO, feminist, not actually a very radical thing anymore thanks to a lot of brave ladies fighting fights that should never have had to be fought in the first place. And I, as a child of this enlightened age who didn't want to let her esteemed foremothers down, set about writing my books with strong female characters who defy labels and break barriers. BOO YA!

But one of the problems of being aware of things like unknowing stereotypes and sexist tropes is that you can get caught in the trap of over thinking. I'm in no way saying we shouldn't think about these things, ignorance never makes anything better, but there is such a thing as going too far in the other direction. For example, when I was writing the Eli novels, I had serious doubts about Benehime's character. Not to spoil anything for people who haven't read the series, but Benehime is... not a nice lady. She is, in fact, a horrible lady who does horrible things in the name of love.

I can't tell you how long I agonized over this. I mean, the woman becoming a villain for a man is one of those tropes I hate. I actually rewrote her parts in Spirit War and Spirit's End several times trying to get her right before I realized I was going about this all the wrong way.

The most important part of being a feminist author is treating your women like real people. This doesn't mean always making them admirable. When I actually stopped and looked back at my books, I realized that in trying to keep Benehime from being a woman brought down by love, I'd hobbled her character.  Once I stopped worrying about whether or not I was being a "good feminist" with her and just let the crazy lady do what she was going to do, the book got so, so, so much better. Because the truth of Benehime's fall is far more subtle and complex than her relationship with Eli, and she had to be free to be every bit as awful as she really was.

As a lifelong feminist and a former English Major who thinks about story a LOT, trying to make sure I'm aware of and avoid common feminine stereotypes is a huge part of every book I write. But recently, I've started to realize that I was trying so hard not to write hookers, victims, or doormats, I was completely cutting out the character possibilities of those spheres. The truth is, characters come in all flavors, and putting something completely out of bounds just because others have done it badly before is just another way of limiting women, and limiting my own stories.

What I'm trying to say is that while it's great, even necessary, to keep my feminism in mind while writing, sometimes you just have to stop worrying about what message you're sending and let the characters be themselves. Just as I define my feminism by saying that I am a person and deserve to be treated as such, so do I show myself as a feminist writer by letting my female characters be themselves, flaws and all. The most important thing is not that they are female, but that they are fully realized characters capable of being whatever they need to be.

In the end, my main goal remains unchanged. I'm a working woman writer trying as hard as I can to tell the best stories possible, all filled with amazing ladies. I do this not because such writing is my duty as a feminist, but because I like amazing ladies. I think they're awesome and inspiring and I want more of them in the world, so I'll do my best to put them there.

And that's all there is to it.


Deshipley said...

"Sometimes you just have to stop worrying about what message you're sending and let the characters be themselves." -- This. This, right there.
As a hardcore character-ist, I try very hard never to stomp on my characters' right to be. Does this mean they end up horrible or annoying or somehow contrary to how I'd rather they'd be? Sometimes, yep. Just like real people. And that's the point.

Ken Schrader said...

Great post! I've got the following taped to the wall above my writing space: "The story is the boss."
(I think Stephen King said that, but I can't exactly remember).

As a guy, I've got *Zero* problem with strong female characters. Several of my favorites characters nowadays are women: Rachel Morgan, Jane Yellowrock, Karin Murphy, Joanne Walker, and, of course, Miranda Lyonette to name just a few (I could go on for a while...seriously...but it wouldn't be right to leave Nico off that list)

Anonymous said...

Glad to know I'm not the only woman who worries about making trope female characters. I also keep trying to force the characters out of the cliche spheres . . . and this is so true that real people have flavor. Forcing the characters never works. No matter how many times you argue with them over how "feminine" they are acting.

Rachel Aaron said...

@Deshipley right on!

@ken most men have no problem with women! And the ones who do... I have no idea. And Nico is in some seriously good company there! Thanks!

Dustin said...
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Dustin said...
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Dustin said...

I think there is something to be said for female characters that obey the roles given by whatever society but do it well.

There's also a difference between being rebellious and being independent. I think that's my dislike stems from for Miranda. She'll do the unsuspected or rash simply to be difficult or improper, not because the situation calls for it but just so she can say she was.

Nico will kill someone if need be but only because its needed. She changes with the situation and thinks nothing of it, yet Miranda will do the bold thing even if there's a simpler, less dramatic way.

But that is all opinion. However I have always had difficulty writing a female character. Not because of the writing, but of the feedback I dread I'll get if I do so poorly. I worry that she'll be too emotional or too flirty or not enough and someone will bite my head off.

I've been told many combinations of how to write the differences of a female character from that of a male one. From "We're hardly different from men" to "Don't just write men with breasts."
I think my dilemma is clear. Any advice? What are some common mistakes that you've noticed.

-Sorry for the multiple posts. No edit and I was feeling a bit too peppy earlier.

Mardel said...

A very long time ago - way back in the 80's I wrote a paper for a class about stay at home moms vs working moms and how they seemed to forget the freedom they had to choose (some of them) and were so busy putting each other down....and basically my ending was that when we stop judging each other by whether we're working moms or stay at home moms that would be when we were truly equal - at least to each other. The same basic premise can be used for any group - when we stop pointing out differences with gay, straight, male, female, etc - that's when we're truly equal. Which of course, includes pay, status, goals, sports, etc.

And of course the same works with how you let your woman be her own character - I love it. :)

You're right also, in that we really have a long way to go - with all of our freedoms and equalities.