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.
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.