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The Male-or-Female Thing

As a writer, you've got a 50/50 chance of getting it right.  And you're always going to be wrong.



At least, that's how it feels at times.

When I was in Kirk/Spock fandom, somebody wrote a review on one of my stories.  The subplot was that a crewman had a silent crush on Spock, who was already bonded to Kirk.  The reviewer asked, as a side comment, "When there is a competing love interest, why does it have to be male?"

I replied in the next issue:

That's a very good question and one that in the years since writing the story I've even wondered about myself. I don't recall my thought processes at the time, so can't say for sure what prompted me to make Lt. Parkers a man. It could be that I actually thought I was being somewhat original at the time. However, regarding fandom's tendency in general to make most competing love interests male, I think it has to do with the ladies of K/S wanting to read about men. It seems that whenever a K/S story has a strong female character, it is immediately disliked (even if she isn't a love interest). I know of some fans who automatically label a story a "Mary Sue" if it contains a major female character, no matter how intelligently that character may be written. To be honest, I think it's probably one of those unpleasant little hypocrisies of K/S. Many of us claim we like K/S because it represents a completely equal relationship, but we tend to not want women to have equal status in those same stories. Perhaps we subconsciously see them as competing with us— the female fans of K/S.

I'm glad I have that to look back on, because I don't think I would have given anywhere near as intelligent a response now, or even ten years ago.

Fans, and especially slash fans, really did detest female characters.  And, God forbid, if a woman had a large, positive role in a story, then the story was sneered at for being a "Mary Sue" story, where the author was assumed to be inserting herself into the narrative, in the guise of an all-powerful, all-knowledgeable, can-do-no-wrong character. And yet... even if the female character wasn't the least bit all-powerful, or all-knowledgeable... if she was a "good guy" and female, then the story was automatically labeled a Mary Sue by disgusted fans.

So, to not be viewed with disgust, one had to make original, positive characters in a story male.  Which meant, if they were going to be any female characters at all, they needed to be bad ones.


I'm relieved that my SH short novel Phantoms is so well received now.  It certainly took a while.  Who the heck wanted to a long story, where Marianne Owens, from the episode "Ballad for a Blue Lady?" had a major role? Ick.

When I was in The Sentinel, somebody reviewed one of my stories for Crack Van.  She had mixed feelings about reviewing it, because while she obviously thought it was a good story, she also thought it was misogynist.  After all, the two main females in the story, Jim's ex-wife and Blair's mother, while not bad people, weren't exactly presented in the most positive light.  Having the story characterized as such was ironic to me, since I had felt for years that slash fans in general were misogynist.  And now I was being called such.

Slash fandoms had a hard time finding a middle ground between "Mary Sue" and "misogynist".  As a writer, your best bet was simply not to have any female characters.  But then readers start wondering why everybody is male.  You can't win when it comes to the male-female thing.  You're going to piss off 50% of the readership, if a female character is at all noticeable in a story.

When I was near the end of my time in SH fandom in 1999, I had an idea for an intense, dark, involved story, though of course the ending would be happy.  The main villain would be female.  I ultimately decided not to write it, because I didn't want to hear all the crap about it being degrading to women, or that X percent of the readership wasn't going to read a story where a female had a major role.  I don't remember what the story was about, specifically, but I still remember parts of the climax I had in mind.

I do think fandoms have matured a lot about the female thing.  It seems to me that younger fans aren't so hung up on it.  It doesn't jar them as much to have somebody female around.  In fact, modern fans don't appear to have the knee-jerk, frothing hatred toward women in the episodes that past fans did.

But it's still navigating dicey waters to include a female character who is more than just window dressing. Or maybe not.

Sometimes I wish I didn't have such a long memory.





Comments

( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
hutchynstarsk
Apr. 9th, 2013 09:09 pm (UTC)
You could always write that story as original. There's less knee-jerk reaction against female characters in original fiction, IMO.

Honestly I think people in fandom still hate female characters more than we ought to, and sometimes struggle to write good ones. It's complicated, when it shouldn't be. A character is a character, right?

That said, I was able to write my long-drawn-out breakup of a marriage between Hutch and his wife when I was fairly new to fandom. I look back and think, "Boy, I could've done a better job of that, not to mention made it much less heavy-handed!" But nobody hated on me for writing a female character, and I had a lot of fun getting into her head, both the good and bad. Mostly bad, I guess. ;) But it was fun and something I needed to write at the time, I think.
starwatcher307
Jun. 18th, 2013 04:02 pm (UTC)
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Hi. I know this is way old, but I just found out CF is on LJ again, and I'm going back through her posts. I wanted to comment on -- sometimes struggle to write good [female characters]. It's complicated, when it shouldn't be. A character is a character, right?

True, a character is a character, BUT, as writers, we usually don't have much to work with. In general, TPTB spend a lot of time developing the characters of the male parts of the cast -- we know background, likes, dislikes, other people in their lives. Female parts of the cast, OTOH, are [a] fewer in number, and [b] developed in a very limited fashion.

In The Sentinel, for example, we know a lot about Jim, Blair, and Simon, considerably less about Joel, Henri, and Rafe, and way less about Cassie, Megan, and Rhonda.

And the numbers are unequal, too. In TS, we saw only one female detective -- Megan -- among four males (not counting Simon and Joel because they weren't exactly detectives). Cassie and Rhonda were outside the 'detective' designation. In SG1, SGA, H50, we see teams of three men and one woman -- and TPTB seem to consider that good enough because it's not all men.

As a fanfic writer, the highest praise I can get is, 'you really stayed true to their character', or 'their voices were spot-on'. The female cast barely have voices to stay 'true to', so it's tough. Some people are adept at filling in a blank slate, others -- not so much. (Personally, that's why I write fanfic instead of original fic; I already "know" these characters so well.)

Yes, there's some 'hating on' aimed toward female characters in fandom, which I really don't like. It seems to me that, even if writers want a woman out of the way to bring the male characters together, they could at least find a neutral reason instead of trashing on the woman.

*shrug* But what we usually see on the screen is women characters being minimized, if not downright denigrated. Unless fanfic writers are aware enough of feminist theory to recognize and fight against this status quo, they tend to write within the societal expectations that we're all exposed to. And society constantly tells us that woman are "lesser", "incompetent", that they "get in the way", that they "babble" instead of having good ideas... I could go on and on.

In my own writing, it bugs me sometimes that I concentrate so much on Jim and Blair, but those are the characters that speak to me; I have no urge to write a Megan or a Cassie story. But if Megan or Rhonda happen to have a walk-on scene in my story, I make sure they're presented as competent and part of the team.

So, yeah -- whole lot of issues about writing female characters; I think it will take a long time before we see noticeable changes for the better.
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hutchynstarsk
Jun. 21st, 2013 07:37 pm (UTC)
Ooh, I love your thoughts on this! I was talking recently about how irritated I get when the female characters (particularly on the Sentinel, which is what I was currently watching) were written so poorly. I had a huge rant and everything, so I know where you're coming from. *nod*

I mean, I really enjoy male characters, and I generally prefer writing male characters, but I like there to be some women who are awesome, too. For me, I actually prefer if the addition of female characters is not focused on romance, just having women who are interesting, competent, and "real" characters, not eye candy or someone to look down on. I have less patience lately for shows that don't offer me that. Life's too short, you know? :-)

Thanks for the comment! :) Always nice to hear what people think about this!

Thanks for replying to my thoughts! :)
starwatcher307
Jun. 23rd, 2013 09:22 pm (UTC)
Part 1
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Way long... let's see if it fits in one response, or two. (Or three?)

how irritated I get when the female characters (particularly on the Sentinel, which is what I was currently watching) were written so poorly.

I'm firmly convinced that, in general, men don't know how to write believable women. They haven't updated their internal scripts since they were 12 years old (when everything 'girl' was 'icky'), and women have only a few, limited roles -- [1] love interest and/or a reason for the male character to act (girlfriend is injured / raped / killed and man goes on revenge rampage), [2] a way to create problems to solve (white knight riding to rescue), [3] evil villainess to be overcome, or [4] simply as a foil for the male character to play off his awesomeness against. (Like a female 'straight man' to a male comedian.) There may be different places to draw the lines, but you get the idea -- not much scope for a female character. Even if the woman is competent (say, scientist with brilliant new technique), it's got to go wrong so the man can fix it.

And it's not just TV/movies; I know comic-book fans frequently post about their dissatisfaction with the way women superheroes are portrayed, how powerful they're allowed to be, and how few there are compared to male superheroes. Books as well -- the women in James Bond, for example, are mostly eye candy and sex toys. (I read several of the books in my early 20's; can't stand the movies.) And an example I remember vividly -- in 1972 or 73, my college library acquired a special collection of early SF, including the complete works of Edgar Rice Burroughs. I read all the way through the two-dozen or so "Tarzan" books. Now, I was barely aware of 'feminism' as a movement, although I grew up feminist by default; I knew damn well I could do anything I could put my mind to just as good as any boy. I noticed that, as much fun as the books were -- campy, but I overlooked that because of when they were written -- Burroughs didn't write Jane very well (in the few books he included her). But while reading one of the books, I nearly threw it across the room. Jane and several friends were flying to meet Tarzan in Africa when their plane went down. Jane knew Tarzan would be coming to rescue them, so she set out to keep her little group alive until he arrived -- set up a kind of tree-house to keep them out of the paths of animals, showed them how to get water, what plants were good to eat, managed to kill small animals for meat (maybe by trapping; I forget the details). All in all, she was competent and secure in her abilities, and handling herself well for five or six days... until Tarzan finally found the stranded group. She fainted into his arms with relief, then was useless -- USELESS! -- for the rest of the book, while Tarzan completed the rescue and got the group back to 'civilization'. I remember ranting to some friends: did the man never have sisters, or women-friends, to know that women were more than decorative lumps of flesh?! The way Jane, as a woman, was depicted was extremely unpalatable, even before I recognized the general trope.
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( 4 comments — Leave a comment )