Monday, March 17, 2014

Let's have more than just "kickass," please!

My son has started reading a book where the protagonist is a young girl who is a pirate. And boy, is she tough. She can fight, drink, swear, etc. etc. and he finds her delightful. This is all well and good. But we see so many kickass girls these days. And while they represent progress in the fight against entirely male-centered stories, they are only one part of the picture.

I have spoken before about how a strong character is not necessarily a violent one. I firmly believe that the battle has not been won when we allow women to take on "male characteristics"* - because until "female characteristics"* are also valued in all kinds of characters, feminism still has an important job to do.

*These are stereotypes, of course. It's shorthand, and highly inaccurate, to call toughness/roughness "male" etc. These views are nonetheless common.

In my writing right now I am exploring some female characters who fall in different places relative to these stereotypical views.

Kitano Naoko, from "Suteta Mono de wa Nai (Not Easily Thrown Away)," (Clarkesworld 90) is a Gothic Girl cosplayer. She's not kickass, though - that's not what her story is about. Kicking butt won't solve her problem - just as it won't solve a lot of tough real world problems like the one she's facing. She needs patience, self-knowledge, a trust in her ability to make good decisions, and the ability to accept the possibility of failure without being destroyed by it. I'm convinced, though, that she finds strength by the end of her story, and a greater understanding of her relationships with the people around her.

Hub Girl, from the forthcoming "Mind Locker," (Analog July/Aug 2014) is a slum kid and hacker in a world where the internet is in your head. She's got a lot of attitude, swears a lot, and has to put on a brave face because she's surrounded by people she can't trust. She's not a big person, though, and when she fights physically she tends to lose. She protects herself with her ability to hack into other people's systems if they threaten her. She also leads and coordinates a large gang of kids. I suppose you could call her kickass in that she has the ability to take care of herself. What makes her story compelling to me, though, is when she feels softness toward particular characters, like her father, or her friend Fisher - that's when you understand what is most important to her, because that softness shows what she really cares about, even when she's disguising it to protect her reputation.

Pelisma, from a work in progress called "Soul's Bargain," is a woman who has always defined herself by her work as a cave engineer, who values herself for what she's able to accomplish for the people of her underground city. In the twilight of her life, she's questioning her faith, and questioning her own abilities, trying to determine what is most important to her as she goes blind and becomes more vulnerable. In the end, though, her determination is going to take her to a place she didn't expect. She'll have a decision to make, to fight or yield, and she'll discover that yielding accomplishes things that fighting won't.

What are you working on? What are your female characters like? Do they have goals? Where do they find their strength? There are so many possibilities here, and we need to keep exploring them. I also want to see more male characters who don't deny their softer strengths (and of course, everything in between).

It's something to think about.



  1. Is it possible that books for youngsters are oriented to work against the stereotypes the kids will run into on TV, movies (one Smurfette, one female Avenger)? A boy who has read a book about a girl pirate may realize that there were women among the pirates - who may or may not be similar to the men (ie, male standard for 'pirate') - and a girl reading the same book will identify enough not to close off 'pirate' as a possibility for herself?

    I loved Kidnapped and Treasure Island - but the women in those books were at best running an inn they had inherited, or being servants. The boys and men had all the fun. At the age I read them I didn't know what position real women might hold in those societies - but I wanted to be like Jim, not the innkeeper who had to stay behind and clean up after the rowdies.

    My WIP has three principal characters, two women and a man. The women are as different as I can make them: one has everything she wants (almost) - youth, beauty, acting ability, celebrity - kickass in the conventional sense; the other has had illness and a series of reverses in life remove much of what she held true about herself.

    One of their goals is the same - their other goals are very different. The first is bold and reaches for what she wants, figuring someone will get it - why not me? The other knows her limitations so strongly that she is close to the point of not taking risks because of their cost.

    The first finds her strength from the adoration of the crowds, the other from what is left inside her after everything else has been burned away.

    I like to write them - to be in their pov - to do the self-justification they need to act as they do. And then I get to switch. Vicarious lives for me. And a strong contrast between them.

    I pay attention: when one seems to be winning the implied battle, I shore up the other.


    1. From what I've read, biases still exist in children's books. However, it looks like people are starting to remedy that. Your WIP sounds interesting!

  2. I suspect that books that flaunt stereotypes by portraying "kickass" girl and women protags are a phase we have to go through en route to true equality. Of course, such characters are as one dimensional, whether they're male or female. Hopefully, the idea that girls and women can be as tough as men will become part of our popular conception soon, and we'll be able to move on see more stories that present the entire range of human experience for all genders.

    1. I suspect so as well. It seems to be the road that feminism in general has taken. Well written characters tend to be more complex; let's hope we see more of those as time goes by.

  3. The main character in my novel An Unproductive Woman is in many ways the antithesis of the type of woman today's literature considers strong. She is a barren first wife in a polygamous marriage in a very patriarchal society. I also happen to think she is incredibly strong. Instead of kicking ass or bucking the system she fights to maintain her identity and her sense of right and wrong in a situation that would break many people.
    In my current WIP my !ain character is a hoping woman who's lived most of her life on the wrong side of an unjust system of law. She wants to "go straight" and is willing to play the "game" until she realizes doing the right thing sometimes means being on the wrong side of the law. She's tough, sure, but her real strength lies in her convictions.
    I agree with you. We need to be able to recognize the goodness and strength in the roles of our female chacters even when they aren't karate chopping along side men.

    1. Khaalidah, both of them sound very interesting. I think you make an important point about the strength required of women who are in very difficult situations. I have a novel where the character of the protagonist's mother is in a very oppressive situation, and I have always considered her to be very strong. In middle drafts, though, I was told that she didn't come across that way (one person thought the book was misogynist). I made some changes that didn't affect her situation, but showed some of the ways she was holding her own, maintaining outside relationships, etc. I hope it came out the way I intended! Thanks for your comment, and good luck with your projects!