On two-dimensional women

I read a book recently that made me so angry I nearly threw it into the sea.  It wasn’t designed to be controversial – it was a light, funny holiday read that I’d downloaded because it looked fun.

The book itself was good. I mean really good. It was laugh out loud funny, at points. It was interesting and had twists, turns, car chases and a fair bit of blowing shit up. Unlike my own book, it didn’t have much wanking, but you can’t possibly have everything. Unfortunately, despite being a bloody entertaining read, it made me angry – the author had gone to great pains to draw all of his male characters as interesting, in-depth individuals, but when it came to the women he’d obviously got bored. Each had just one characteristic, which was her primary motivating factor and drove everything she ever did: there was Bitchy woman, Supportive woman, Bossy woman, Hormonal woman – like a lazy misogynist retelling of the seven dwarves.

Our dashing, complex hero battled villains with backstory. Our bit-part dudes and walk-on cronies had needs and desires and flaws and foibles and all that good shit that humans have. Our women? Well. One of them had a sexy nun costume.

Women as filler

The book came in the middle of a period where I’ve watched lots of TV and films in which women have been there purely as fodder for the development of male characters. Whether it’s a wife getting killed in the first episode to give her husband dark reasons for revenge, as a tempting prize for our hero to win in the second act, or as a scheming harpy obstacle for our dashing gentleman to overcome, it pisses me off.

Yeah, some female characters are always going to be cardboard-cut-outs: I don’t expect you to tell me the tortured history of the lady whose only contribution to the plot is that she fixes our hero’s car at the beginning of act one. But what I do expect is that if women play a major part in the story, they should be more than just furniture or the faceless catalyst for a painfully bad sex scene.

What do two-dimensional women do?

It’s not just the poor characterisation and ‘but women are so complex I couldn’t possibly write one as if she were a human being’ – the women-as-insignificant message is woven into the story itself. Here is a list of some things that men in the book got to do:

  • Drive tanks
  • Have epic car chases
  • Fire guns
  • Be on TV panel shows
  • Invent new scientific instruments

Here are some of the things the women got to do:

  • Fuck the main character over for child support
  • Have epic temper tantrums
  • Give massages
  • Dress in aforementioned ‘sexy nun’ costume

At one point a woman got to join in a fight, and she beat the guy by – can you guess? Go on, guess – kicking him in the nuts. Of course she did! Because men, while infinitely more powerful and violent than women, do at least have one weakness.

Women: know your limits

I’m not just angry because the women didn’t get to be president or whatever, though – in this book they didn’t even get to perform basic human functions. For example: our hero’s girlfriend had a job. We know this because he made repeated reference to ‘her job’, and talked about her ‘leaving for work’ and all that jazz. Yet at no point were we told much about what she actually did. Compare this to other minor characters, whose entire backstory was fleshed out in the space of a couple of paragraphs, and we were told not only what they did but how they felt about it, whether they liked their colleages, and if they’d ever had an amusing office incident involving a photocopier or a bottle of Tipp-ex.

Amazingly, one of the women didn’t even really get to speak. As the baddies and goodies were fighting at the climax of the novel, she – who had up until that point remained almost completely silent – was asked how she felt about something. She responded by letting out a ‘shriek of rage’. That’s it, just a shriek. At a certain point (the point at which bad women fight good women because that is how it’s supposed to be) I think she manages a word or two. But although we’d fleetingly been told she was a ‘bossy’ person, at no point did she utter a word when men were in the room. Unless – and I shit you not – it was for one of the scenes where she had to fawn and drool over a guy. Then, with ‘oh baby’s’ and ‘I love you’s and slobbery kisses, she piped up a fucking treat.

Full-blooded women

Sure, there are some awesome female characters woven into amazing literary masterpieces. This is just one book out of many many millions, and it wasn’t ever intended to be the defining literary masterpiece of a generation. But it’s not the only one, it’s just a neat example to use because it makes so many of these common mistakes in just one story. There are plenty more where it came from, though – TV dramas and films in which women are there purely so the male character can have an epiphany/get laid/perform a daring rescue.

Sometimes these things are wholly necessary, of course – we need the hero to go through scrapes in order to come out on top. And having one or two cardboard-cut-out characters is necessary for a story. But does it always have to be that way round? A tortured, complex guy leading plastic women to safety as they shriek in fear then fall at his feet? How about you give a girl a shotgun and let her storm the castle?

I know some male authors complain that female characters are hard to write. Or, in the case of video games manufacturers, that our soft bodies and gigantic battering eyelashes are so difficult to animate that to create playable women would cost more money than there is in the Universe. I originally wanted to refer to this as a problem of misogyny – these writers are unable to believe in their female characters or female audiences because they fundamentally don’t care about women. But that’s not the problem really, is it?

The problem isn’t a lack of empathy, money, or basic human decency: it’s a lack of imagination. Which, if you’re writing fiction, is a tricky hurdle indeed.


  • Alys says:

    Oh, my Gods, yes.

  • Quin says:

    I am reading a popular fantasy trilogy at the moment. It does have some really excellent female characters, but the kicker is that every book at least one of them gets “put in a refrigerator”, and her death is incredibly gruesome and described in great detail.

    In book 2 the character’s death is there for no reason except to generate an easy emotional response from the reader and to inspire her male opposite number to completely lose his shit. It’s pointless and unnecessary, and I spent the rest of the book just feeling resentful that my feelings had been exploited in this manner. And frankly, it would have been a much better story if she’d still been in it.

    So my additional plea to this post is that when you finally write your well developed female characters, don’t just kill them off to advance a male character’s plot line.

  • BrenJames says:

    Not really on topic – but, I’m loving your book!!

  • Richard P says:

    There was a quote I saw a while back about this.
    “If you can replace your female lead with a sexy lamp without having to change the plot at all, then fuck you”
    It was referencing the idea of female characters as purely sex objects but the principle is true in general for all one note female characters.

  • I can’t even begin to describe how much I agree with this post, or how often I am going to steal Richard P’s quote.

  • I love Richard P’s quote.
    And I absolutely agree.

  • Pookariah says:

    Have you heard of the Bechdel test? It is great for calling out the media on minimizing female roles in fiction. http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bechdel_Test

    • Girl on the net says:

      I have- I like it as a general rule, but I think there are much more subtle things need to be done. For instance, the book I described would probably have passed the test, but that’s because the test sets such a low bar. Still, the fact that it’s such a low bar makes it much more significant when things fail it!

  • Britt says:

    I don’t remember who it was, but someone once pointed out that in a lot of literature, movies, etc. the best way to hurt a man is to hurt a woman, and the best way to hurt a woman is to… also hurt a woman. Strange how female pain is the most convenient way to motivate pretty much any story.

  • I try to write a lot of my stuff from the female, if not both viewpoints. Not sure how successful I am, but I try. Even if my writing is purely wank fodder, I try to make both parties central to it. The women are there to enjoy and want. Sex just as much as the men are. They have their own wants and needs to fulfil. They are never just there to feel good the guy’s cock, or to be a spunk recepticle, they are there to enjoy the fucking as much as the guy.

    I’ve read so much badly written erotica from male “writers” where it’s all about how many thrusts, how hard he fucks her, how wet he makes her, how much cum he fills her with, how good her holes feel. And thats the woman’s sole contribution, other than to be blonde, ridiculously slim, have gravity defying boobs and lips that would give a Dyson a run for its money. I want my female characters to be more than just cock receiving ciphers and actually want and enjoy having sex.

    The chances are, my writing is still shite though.. Am I overthinking this?


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