I tend, these days, to be cautious on the internet.
A lot of this is because of all the years I spent not being cautious on the internet. I started on Usenet back in 1988, and I did my share of ranting and piling on. I have a temper, and the reason so few people know this about me is because I have spent a lifetime practicing how to think before I react. I still sometimes fail, but it’s rare these days, and I almost always regret it after the fact.
Which is a long-winded way of saying I don’t rant much in public. I’ll do it on message boards from time to time, but even then, I’m careful, and I spend a lot of time typing and deleting. I’ve spent hours on posts that have never gone up. On many forums, all I need to do is wait, and someone else will say what I was thinking, and they’ll be more rational and make a better argument and do, overall, a much better job of actually debating an issue.
But sometimes I wake up early and read a forum and see an excerpt from an article that sets my teeth on edge. And hours later, I end up writing a blog post.
Welcome to my Saturday!
So there’s this thing that people talk about, sometimes, when they discuss female characters – in particular, “strong” female characters. Often, someone ends up saying something like “strong female characters should not just be women who act like men.” Which, in an interview I read this morning, someone did.
And in fairness, I know what that person meant. We all know what they meant, right? Because in any culture, there are going to be norms that NO NO NO ENOUGH I WILL NOT FANWANK IT AWAY KILL IT KILL IT KILL IT WITH FIRE.
It is a bloody meaningless phrase and every time I see it my eyelid starts to twitch and I dwell on fond memories of all those tequila shots I did in my youth.
Look. I don’t know much, really. I know some things about the software business, because I was in it for 27 years. I know about why startups fail, and about the degree of luck involved, and the shocking fragility of all this intertwined software we have come to depend on. (It’s hair-raising, really. Back up your stuff, people. I mean it.)
As a writer, though? I don’t know anything. I mean, I know things about writing, because I’ve been doing it for 47 years; but I can’t really tell anyone about it. I could tell you how I write, and what things work for me, and what I need to do to keep from procrastinating. I can’t even tell anyone how to get published, because from my own perspective it’s some mysterious alchemic relationship between persistence and luck.
And I’m a publishing newbie, and I’m out here, a tiny pebble tossed in the ocean, and nobody’s listening anyway, so here’s the thing: Please, for all that is good and beautiful in this world, stop saying “women who act like men” when you are talking about cardboard characters. Because “women who act like men” is gibberish.
I’m not even talking about the cringe-inducing gender-binariness of the phrase. (But I could talk about that, because WTF?) But I’ve got two big problems with this idea, and they’re related.
1. Why are men considered the immutable, ubiquitous norm that we all understand?
I’ve read a lot of books in my life. By virtue of the fact that I grew up in the US, educated in a US school system buying books mostly based on US culture, I’ve read a huge number of books by men. So on that level, I really do get it: without it even being explicitly taught, we’ve all learned that the norms of our culture, of our art, of our politics – the norms of everything come from men.
So it’s natural to think of men as “the norm,” right? And to measure everything against this norm, and to define everything in terms of how it deviates from the norm.
Except wait, no, that is utter bullshit. Men make up a wee bit more than half the population (and by a wee bit more, I mean a fraction of 1%), and that’s not the kind of percentage that justifies using them as some kind of elementary particle to define every other bit of matter in the literary universe. It would be nearly as justifiable to use women as “the norm,” because in any random sampling of the population, you’re going to get numbers roughly equal.
The only reason men are viewed as the norm is because men have always been viewed as the norm, humans remember cultural shifts for about four seconds, and generation after generation we keep passing this down.
But there’s another piece that’s frankly more interesting to me:
2. What does “act like men” mean, anyway?
Okay, so I guess I’m going to touch on the cringe-inducing gender-binaryness of it after all. Because how the hell do men act?
I don’t actually think anybody has ever been told, ever in the world, that there is only one type of male character in fiction: The Man, who is the same everywhere. If you want to write The Man, just follow these twelve simple rules. Write The Man, and he will be a well-rounded character because he is the norm. Nobody ever has been told that. And that’s because it’s utter bullshit. Even if you stick with your 50%-plus-a-fraction-of-1% people in the world, there is no norm.
In much of Western culture, “act like a man” tends to mean “the only acceptable expression of emotion is violence,” and it’s a poisonous thing to tell anyone. We tell it to our children, and we get the expected result, and seriously, people, what the fuck kind of a message is that? This is why I write science fiction.
But let’s leave out the issue of toxic masculinity for a moment, shall we? “Act like a man” is another cultural construct. Ask six people what it means, and you’ll get six answers. Using it as some sort of literary shorthand because “we all know what it means” is cheap and stupid and, yes, utter bullshit. If you argue using a phrase that has no concrete meaning, I am most likely going to tune you out.
Okay, I said there were two things that bothered me about this. But there’s a third, and it’s probably the most important:
3. Why is it bad to write a woman who acts like a man?
Because unless you also write your men to be cardboard, predictable, and uninteresting, there is nothing wrong with doing this.
Now, depending on the world you’ve built, there may be characteristics that are less realistic for a female to possess; but that’s not about stereotyping. That’s about paying attention to your worldbuilding, and making sure your characters make sense.
“Strong women characters should not just be women who act like men” is repeated enough that someone, somewhere must perceive this to be an actual problem. But let’s be honest about what the problem really is: badly drawn characters. Having those characters described with a weird, meaningless, culturally tone-deaf phrase doesn’t actually change the underlying issue. Good characters are genuinely hard to write, and screwing it up isn’t an unusual thing to do.
But if you do this? Own up to it. Say “I didn’t think this through.” Say “I fell back on tired stereotyping instead of trying to write a vivid individual.” Do not tell me “strong women shouldn’t be women who act like men,” because no. It is bullshit. KILL IT WITH FIRE.
Maybe next Saturday I’ll stay off the net.