Writing Women P1 – The History of Stereotyping (As I see it anyway)

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In early storytelling, women nearly always received the bloated end of the sexism stick. Right from the beginnings of literature we filled certain roles and traits, and believe it or not, these were normally about being stupid or naïve enough to cause trouble, and often on a global scale. Eating the prohibited fruit and dooming mankind to an eternity on the wrong side of paradise, opening boxes and setting free the evils and destructive natures on the world, heck even female deities don’t escape this; according to Homer, gossiping Goddesses caused the Trojan war. Even in fairy-tales we’re the ditzy, innocent beings who fall for tricks, eat unsupervised porridge, and more often than not end up in the belly, caller, or bedchamber of the beast. Lucky for us those smart thinking, brave young men have always been there to get us out of the trouble we’re always getting ourselves into.  Thankfully, recent societal developments, and equal rights movements, have altered the way authors think about female characters, and especially female protagonists, revaluating the old stereotypes that used to plague the written word. I’ve noticed a definite alteration in the ratio of female to male protagonists in YA fiction, but while we seem to be getting more air-time, and certainly a less-traditional portrayal, I still don’t think women are being represented in a realistic or well-developed manner, mostly anyway. Don’t get me wrong, authors a certainly nearing the mark, and realism isn’t always crafted well when it comes to their male counterparts, but there seems to be an annoying trend happening in YA fiction, whereby girls are morphing into just the exact opposite of what society once expected us to be. Flipping the coin on the matters of social interaction isn’t any less of a stereotype than the ancient perceptions of the fragile darlings, perfect ladies, or virtuous maidens from the centuries past, it’s just becoming a new addition to a long list of what women aren’t.

The problem stems from the idea that we have to fight the conceptions of stereotypes, with their exact opposites. Gone are the days we needed to fend away the idea that women are more about emotion than intellect; while these ideas haven’t escaped a cameo appearance in today’s media, they’re a washed down, often parodied version of themselves, thanks to the influences of some of the Georgian and Victorian female writers, who promoted that women had strong viewpoints and decision making skills of their own, and could even be deliberately manipulative, as appose to just naturally so. Yeah, we did make some progress. Unfortunately, we were still revered to be delicate, rash, and demure, and have a favour for all things pink, frilly, and fancy. Nowadays, we find ourselves trying to escape that classic princess stereotype that’s been with us since the 40’s and 50’s, established by the early Disney feature films, which were based on the unwilling fairy-tale characters we’d managed to wiggle free from a decade or so prier. While they didn’t act the same, the princess classic stereotype returned with a vengeance.   In a lot of the Disney Princess cases, to give the company (of that day) some credit, we were a lot more strong minded than history would let us believe. Snow White, the earliest of the ever expanding Princess troupe, was by far the weakest character, but moving through the timeline these attributes do improve. Disney’s portrayals of Pocahontas, Ariel, and Jasmine, exert strong characters, not letting their social positions define their destinies, and braving environments otherwise uncharted to ensure the successes of life they wanted. Granted in almost every case this is in some way connected to having a romantic involvement with a man, but we’ll get to that later.

Obviously, even from its earliest conceptions there were women, (and even men), feminist or otherwise, who regarded the animated, written, and televised portrayals of female characters like these to be a huge insult, and an incentive for girls to always be secondary to men. Thus began the tomboy era. This was a time in literature when girls struck one of two roles on the page, and particularly in children’s books. Either girls were written to be the princess classic archetype, or they were the feisty, troublemakers, who could fend for themselves, never wore dresses, and hated anything remotely relevant to the word pink. This pleased many of the rebellious masses, but it didn’t really resolve the issue as far as realistic characterisation was concerned. Besides which, we still encountered the dreaded, ‘but all girls want a man’ issue, which has plagued female portrayal since the dawn of time. Let’s talk about that.

There are four common ways to screw-up female characterisation in any form of media; these are the methods you’re probably familiar with if you know good-fiction writing, and even if this isn’t your area of expertise, you’ve most likely come across the problems in one way or another. The trouble is, that for a long period of history women were seen to be useful to a plot in one of only four ways. Obviously there are exceptions to the rule, but on a basic level, this is where we stood.

  • Objectified – The obvious and ever present trope, which devalues female characters to only that of their physical sex, or other passive traits. This often drives away any importance the character, or her actions has to the plot, even going as far as to present her as simply an item of pleasure, or lust for a male character.
  • Reactive – Using women to emphasise the characteristics of others by her visible reactions to them. This is more a problem in visual media, but it doesn’t escape the written word either. For example, a character causing a woman visible stress, might be considered villainous. Arguably, a good way to show rather than tell, but when this is the woman’s sole role within the story, we’re on sexist ground.
  • Relational – Where female characters derive all their significance from their relationships to other characters, usually, if not exclusively male. This covers the LINETS (love interest not essential to story), evil wives, and distressed daughters, whose only meaning in the story centres around their male relations.
  • Motivational – Using female characters purely as motivation tools, via a plethora of methods, including divine speeches of wisdom, using the power of love, and often dying tragically.

Anaylse most media stemming from the early century and this is what you’ll find; females littered about, placed in stories specifically to be female, to enact some form of job so that the men around her character are better highlighted in one way or another. So, women  were used in fiction to support, encourage, sustain, and be the prize of the male species; in literature they didn’t really have meaning outside being attached in some way to the needs of a man, which of course is stupid, but society was hammering that into women for so long, it became common practice. Yeah, women can have strong-will, but only to the shame and determent of her family; yeah a woman can reject an arranged marriage, but only in light of finding her ‘true-love’ (that’s a blog all it’s own); yeah a woman can be ill-tempered and violent, but only to annoy her husband (usually to some the comic-effect). It’s little wonder authors take such lengths to ensure these ridiculous notions are removed, but we seem to have swung a complete 180. Remember that era I mentioned, where girls were placed in a clear-cut pink, or blue category as far as their attitudes were concerned? Well, that wasn’t actually so long ago. Portrayals of women got kind of crazy during the late 80’s and early 90’s. Tomboys, and their adult counterparts, career woman, were a staple in books, television, and film, but they usually still had that emotional baggage, feminists and their kin didn’t care for. Characters were strong, or independent, or strong-willed, not because woman could simply be that way, but because of some traumatic event which made them deviate from the norm, like doing so was a psychological illness. Usually, this was about a man. Being beaten, being mocked, being sexually abused, or even just wanting to prove they could best a man at his own game; but this is still playing the relational card, and what’s worse is that many examples of that time have one moment in the girl’s story arch which truly shows she still just wants to be treated like a woman, get a man, and trust in love.  For younger protagonists this was usually a teen-crush with which her lack of femininity stood in the way. For career women, this usually meant confessing a terrible childhood event to a sympathetic male, crying, and subsequently finally giving-in to his advances. In other words, the new attitudes were just a mask to the older traditions, they didn’t change the notion of what a women was so much as just extend the idea we could hide our emotions well.

What we have now are authors so desperate to not allow this to happen that they go out of their way to ensure their characters deviate from these rules at all costs, crafting female protagonists from what they want society to be aware a woman can do. There is a batch of new-improved ‘pro-female’ stereotypes, not necessary positive or negative in themselves, common in the wave of modern stories.  Who/what are these stereotypes? How do we prevent the continuation of these ideas, and mould better-rounded, independent, realistic women protagonists?

We’ll talk about this in part-2.

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