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Sexism Harms Everyone

I’ve posted before about female characters in both visual and written media, and I ran across this article the other day. The general premise of the post is the observation (and lamentation) that if you put a female character and a male character side-by-side who have similar characteristics, it’s okay and even celebrated for the male to have negative attributes, while the female character is labeled “unlikable” for the same flaws. In the movie examples given by the author, the negative traits are drunkenness, extreme selfishness, and a proclivity toward adultery. The author then goes on to make it clear that even flaws that aren’t as “heavy” become controversial for female characters.

The double standard is a form of sexism ingrained into us by our culture, and, of course, can be seen in reality as well as fiction. The post was excellent, and I sympathize and agree with the author’s sentiments–and I would like to take it a step further.

Sexism hurts everyone.

I’m not the first to observe this by any means, of course, but it bears saying again. Men are not inherently unable to care for children or the home. Men are not intrinsically incapable of deep empathy and compassion. Men are not animals, driven only by primal instinct. And men can, in fact, have close relationships with other men without having to be gay.

Yet when we drive women into predetermined gender roles and don’t allow them out of that corner for anything–flaws or otherwise–we drive men into the opposite corner.

I wonder if, when it comes to fiction, men are “allowed” to have flaws because men are viewed as inherently flawed, whereas women are viewed as inherently gracious, loving, and kind–the “gentler sex.”

To be clear, I don’t believe in so-called “reverse sexism. In order to be sexist you must be the one with power. A woman cannot be “sexist” toward a man, because there is still a power imbalance in favor of men–especially white, straight men. But sexism (i.e., toward women) colors our perception not only of woman, but also our perception of men.

And in the end, we all suffer for it.

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Posted by on June 30, 2016 in Character

 

The Token Female: Even Veggie Tales

This might be an odd post to begin with after another 4-month hiatus from blogging, but I couldn’t help myself. By way of introduction, there has been a growing conversation–and increasingly, outcry–regarding the treatment of women in society. Sexual assaults on college campuses, slut-shaming, the continued income disparity between men and women in the workplace, #yesallwomen…I’m sure we could all name a few more hot topics from the past year alone.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that running parallel to these trending topics is the conversation revolving around the portrayal of women and minority characters in media. Visual media is the better known conversation, but for those of us who love books, the same conversation is taking place among novelists. I’ve been very interested in these conversations, and have found myself becoming increasingly aware of these portrayals when I watch TV, go to movies, or read books, especially the portrayals of women.

That being the case, in my regular activities as a parent of a 3-year old, I ran across a rather bizarre example of a specific issue–the “token female,” and felt compelled to draw attention to it.

So, my son has recently decided that he loves Larry Boy. If you don’t know who that is, then you haven’t watched Veggie Tales, and I won’t go into too much detail trying to explain it. Suffice to say, it’s a show with talking vegetables that teaches nice moral lessons and sometimes Bible stories (with much creative license). One of the characters that shows up on occasion is Larry Boy–Larry the Cucumber’s super-hero alter ego.

The show itself is tolerable as a kid’s show–even amusing sometimes–though I could rant about the entire premise, and won’t right now. But when we sat down to watch “The League of Incredible Vegetables” (2012) the other day, I found myself heaving a sigh of frustration.

Yes, even Veggie Tales.

The super hero sub-genre in movies has been blasted particularly hard when it comes to the token female–especially in movies that feature a cast of protagonists instead of just one super-hero. There’s always that token female. And it’s not just super-heroes–it’s any movie featuring a larger cast of characters. My husband and I recently went to see Kingsman, for instance, which was an amusing almost-but-not-quite-parody of spy movies. (Minor spoiler warning) There were two female characters in the initial group of kingsmen trainees, out of a much larger number of males. I’ll grant that the setting may have warranted less females. But what happens to one out of the two females? Of course, she’s the first to be cut. Because we can’t have two females making it further through training. It’s almost like someone said proudly, “Look what we did! We put two women into this elite group!” *pats on back all around* “Now, quick, get rid of one of them. We clearly can’t have two women for too long [even though there are many more men from which to choose from as our first cut]).”

Back to talking vegetables. The League of Incredible Vegetables (in case you didn’t guess) obviously takes its name from The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and is an Avengers-style super-hero team with Batman references…with talking vegetables.

All right, put down your eyebrow and just stay with me here. I have a 3-year old.

There are six members of the team (if you include Alfred). Five are male (okay, I know they’re vegetables, but they’re portrayed as male characters) and one is female.

And what do we get for our token female super-hero, “Vogue”?

The official Veggie Tales people have put together this video with clips from “The League” that so helpfully illustrates my point:

Yes, that’s right. Not only have they chosen to have the “token female” but they have chosen to portray her in the most stereotypical way possible (aside, perhaps, from making her into a fighter with tight black pants, but um, remember, talking vegetables).

Now, let me just offer the caveat that the way to fix the problem is not to expunge females who like fashion from movies or kids shows. I’m not saying that women can’t like fashion and potpourri and have bad hair days. I’m not saying there aren’t plenty of women who do (though, to be fair…I know a good number of men who do as well). But the whole problem with the token female is that she is just that–a token. And whenever you have only one of a character–whether it be the token female, the token African-American, the token Asian, or the token homosexual–that character naturally assumes the burden of representing their entire demographic sub-set.

Right, wrong, or indifferent, that is simply what happens, and a start (not complete solution, mind you, because nothing is that simple) to fixing the problem is to eliminate the “token” character.

If three (or, heaven forbid, four?) out of the six main characters were female, one of them could have been fashionable Petunia “Vogue” Rhubarb, and the other two could have had, you know, other personalities and identifying traits. Because women have different personalities and quirks, just like all real people.

I realize that the creators were probably trying to appeal to girls with this character (as if girls need to somehow be given fashion and shoes and pink to enjoy something–but that’s another issue). But I was disappointed, if not surprised, to find this attitude show up even in the most benign of TV shows, even (especially) one that purports to teach good moral lessons.

You might say, “Come on. It’s just a kid’s show. You can’t expect them to think that deeply about character creation. Are any of the characters that developed?”

I can, and do, expect that. Because whether they like it or not, they are communicating a subtle message to my son that will probably ingrain itself better than their intended one, simply by virtue of the fact that he will hear this message repeated so much all around him as he grows up. That message, which is a part of a larger message that I referenced at the beginning, is one I will have to actively combat as a parent. I will instead need to communicate the message that women are complex human beings and individuals, just like men, who have value and are worthy of respect. They are not one-dimensional. They are not tokens.

And there is a place for more than one at the table–even a table filled with talking vegetables.

 
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Posted by on March 23, 2015 in Character

 

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Things I Learned at World Fantasy Con 2014

I had heard tell of the mysterious “networking” that happens at cons between professionals in the publishing industry, and had also heard tell that World Fantasy Con was one of the best for this particular purpose, since it is small and targeted more toward professionals than fans (no stormtroopers here!)

This year, World Fantasy Con happened to be within an easy driving distance from where I live, so I figured, what could I lose? (Aside from the price of admission, of course.)

Well, the con was a great experience, but perhaps not in the ways that I had expected or hoped it would be. Since I’ve just finished a first draft and need to let it marinate for a week or two before diving into revising, I figured I’d take the time to share my thoughts on what I learned from the experience of attending World Fantasy (as opposed to what I learned from panels or some such).

1. Cold querying will only get you so far. You can get an agent by only cold querying. It happens. It’s not impossible. But your chances of connecting with the right agent/editor are increased when you purposefully set out to network with others in the industry. I don’t think this is a shocker to anyone, since it’s probably true of many industries. It’s one of the reasons I decided to attend World Fantasy. I had a vague notion of this, but didn’t realize how incredibly true it was until I got there, and witnessed it for myself. It felt like (though I’m sure this was partially perception) everyone knew everyone. Talking, meeting, going out to dinner, having drinks at the bar, hanging with groups, socializing–this is the real purpose of World Fantasy Con. If you go to a con like this completely alone, without knowing anyone, it’s really hard to get into this aspect–especially if you’re an introvert to begin with. Which leads me to my second point.

2. Networking, especially for a somewhat shy introvert, is a learned skill and takes timeI have to confess, I was nurturing a vain hope that I would happen to run into the perfect agent, be able to pitch my book, and make some great connections. The reality is that I was really proud of myself for the efforts that I did make to introduce myself to people when it seemed appropriate to do so (i.e., they sat down next to me, they were staring off into space while waiting for a panel to start, they were standing in line with me). I didn’t meet a single agent or editor, though I know they were around. I even saw a few to whom I’d sent queries. However, while some people might feel comfortable accosting someone in the hallway who is obviously on the way to something, or butting into a group of people they don’t know, I most certainly do not. I’m also not convinced that this is really the best way to go about it. Far better to already know someone in the group, acknowledge that person, and then they (because they already know you’re an aspiring writer) say, “Oh, let me introduce you to…” Yes, I witnessed this happening on numerous occasions. Sadly, since I didn’t actually know anyone, not to me. However, I did meet some people, mostly other writers (published and non-published) with whom I hope to stay in low-key (i.e., social media) contact with, so that when I go next year, I will know some people. An agonizing process, but there you have it. Which, conveniently, leads me to my next point…

3. I’m going to have make every effort to go again. Otherwise, the connections I did make won’t help me take the next step. And not just World Fantasy. Local cons. Local groups. Any other cons or seminars or whathaveyou that I can make it to realistically. Networking is a process. And lest I seem mercenary, while I certainly forced myself to talk to random people I didn’t know for my own sake, I also met some really great people who I will appreciate having as acquaintances, whether or not the connection ever makes a difference to my career. The “community” feeling of the con was neat, and I’d love to be a part of it one day. Besides, who knows–maybe in the future I’ll be in a position to help someone else (I can hope, right?) Wow, that leads me to my next point!

4. People are generally amiable and enjoy talking about mutual interests. All right, maybe this is just me. But I think my natural assumption about people is that they are all mean and will hate me if I try to talk to them. Fear of rejection is probably what lies beneath my shyness (introversion is different). I’ve overcome much of that in my thirty years, but it’s still hard in a new situation when I know absolutely no one. That was a huge step for me. Terrifying, but a good one to make. But most–no, I take it back, all!–of the people I spoke with were friendly and more than willing to chat about writing, fantasy, and other things that we naturally had in common, given the conference that were were at. For the most part, I enjoyed talking with all of the people I talked to, for no other reason than it was awesome to talk to other writers about the craft and business of writing, and other fans about the books we love to read and write. Which, amazingly enough, brings me to my next point.

5. I really am an introvert. This is getting more personal, I know. But the real difference, they say, between introversion and extroversion is not shyness (which often comes with introversion, but not necessarily), but that introverts gain energy by being alone and are drained by being around people constantly, and the reverse for extroverts. Thursday was just plain terrifying for me. Friday ended up being a blast, talking to people, attending panels, etc. Saturday, I started to feel the keen urge to find a corner by myself and curl up in a ball. Like, seriously. For no particular reason, I wanted all those people to go away. I don’t think I’ve ever spent four straight days around so many people, especially while trying to be friendly and outgoing myself, and it definitely took its toll.

6. I am a writer. This might quite possibly be the most important thing I learned at the con. I introduced myself to a handful of published authors and other professionals as “an aspiring writer.” When they subsequently asked about what I was writing, and then learned that I have one polished manuscript complete and finished the first draft of a second, to a man (and woman) they replied, “Then you’re a writer!” I may not be published, but I have achieved what the vast majority of people who say, “I want to write a book” never do. I actually finished the book. And not just one, but two! I knew this in my head, but it was encouraging to have published writers and people who have been in the industry for a while in other ways tell me this.

Overall, the con was a “success” because it was a necessary step for me. I have to start somewhere, even if that somewhere felt lonely and at times painfully awkward.

 
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Posted by on November 10, 2014 in Random Thoughts

 

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WIP Updates

So, you thought I was kidding when I said I was bad at blogging? Let’s see, September 2013…that was over a year ago!

Part of the problem is I have limited time to write, and so if I spend time writing blog posts, I’m not working on my novel. However, I felt like an update was due, if only for myself.

Update on my last WIP: Yes, I finished the draft I was working on (fourth). As well as the fifth, and a sixth. I’ve also sent queries to twelve agents (not a huge number, I know), had eight rejections with no bites, and four I never heard back from.

Contrary to what it may sound like, I did not give up on this novel. I simply had two options: a) I could continue funneling my limited time into querying dozens more agents, hoping for a bite, or b) I could put all my energy into a new project that I felt would be more pitch-able as a first novel.

I still believe the novel is excellent, publishable, and salable. However, I’m not convinced that I will ever have much success with cold querying, as an unknown author, a 190K word epic fantasy novel that is not stand alone, but the first in a four-part series that must be completed for the story to be finished. It’s not impossible, but it’s unlikely, which I knew going into the querying process. After three years of work, I had to give it a shot. I may continue to put feelers out as I have time, and I definitely hope to be able to pitch it at World Fantasy Con, which I will be attending this coming week.

My new WIP: As much as I wanted to keep writing the series and jump right into the second book, I had to admit it was wiser not to put all my eggs in one basket if I’m serious about becoming a career author. So, I started another completely unrelated novel, designed from the beginning to be more pitch-able. It is truly stand alone (though I’ve certainly left plenty of wide openings for sequels, which I would love to explore if given the opportunity), and my goal for word count was 120K, which is reasonable for adult fantasy.

So how did I do? Yes, since September 2013, I not only finished the fourth-sixth drafts of my first novel, I am now almost finished with the first draft of my current WIP. It currently sits at about 123K, and I estimate another 7-8K to complete the first draft. I’m satisfied!

Then come revisions, alpha and beta readers, and all that fun. I’m hoping to have a polished draft ready for querying by the end of April of next year. Hard to tell if I’m being generous with that timeline or not, because it all depends on how much story editing I have to do. If the story problems are minimal, hopefully I’ll be ready to query sooner. If I run into major problems, could take longer.

That’s enough for one blog post; I’m going to try to post a little more regularly from now on (ha–we’ve all seen how that goes!), at least once a week.

 
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Posted by on November 2, 2014 in WIP

 

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WIP Update #5: My Biggest Fear

Progress toward current goal (complete fourth draft): I stopped revising this week to read two books on writing.instead, so I didn’t make any further progress.

WIP issues this week: Since I didn’t work on my manuscript, none.

What I learned this week while writing: Perhaps we should say, “while reading,” since I didn’t write. I read two books on writing this week. The first was Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne & Dave King. This book was weighted more toward line editing, which was exactly what I was looking for, since I’ll be doing just that very soon. A lot of great info, most of which I knew already, but it was helpful to take the time to think critically about where my manuscript might be weak in the line-editing department.

The second book I read was Writing the Breakout Novel, by Donald Maass. This book was less about line-editing and more about taking your writing to the next level; i.e., not just writing a salable novel, but a novel that will be successful. I’ll admit, my biggest fear when it comes to this whole writing enterprise is not that I won’t find an agent, or then a publisher. Those are worries, to be certain, and two big obstacles to face and surmount, but let’s be optimistic and say I do eventually find an agent, and then a publisher. My worst fear? That the book will be published, and no one will want to read it. In other words, it will flop. I’m not hoping to be a NY Times best seller out of the gate, but I’m writing because I have a story (well, multiple stories, but let’s focus on the one I’m working on at present) that I feel compelled to tell, and if no one wants to read it, I think that will crush me more than anything else. If I can’t find an agent, I can always revise some more, or put the project aside and work on another idea. But if no one reads the novel once it’s published…that’s frightening. I want people to read it. I want people to like it. No, not just like it: I want people to be moved by it like I am. I would be hard-pressed to find something in my 30 years that I have been more passionate about, and nothing would make me happier than for readers to experience just a little bit of that passion too.

Anyway, this book was a good read, partially because it confirmed that I am doing many things right, and, of course, that there are areas I could improve–not to make the book publishable, but to make it successful.

What distracted me this week from writing: Reading. Alas that I don’t have time to do both, but I think the books I read were useful, so it wasn’t time wasted. Also, the normal things: my son giving me trouble going to bed, thus cutting into my writing time; the need to spend some time with my wonderful and supportive husband, whom I abandon more evenings than not to go sit at my computer…etc., etc.

 
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Posted by on September 17, 2013 in WIP

 

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WIP Update #4: Writer’s Block

Progress toward current goal (complete fourth draft): The prologue problem took me longer than anticipated, and so I made very little actual progress this week. Finally, just tonight, I think I figured out a way to move forward, but still need to make some tweaks. Aiy.

WIP issues this week: The prologue problem was still giving me fits. I had decided to ax it, and then doubted myself, wrote a few scenes in other ways, only to discard those…this week was a mess of getting basically nothing accomplished other than agonizing over this one thing. Discouraging and frustrating, but I think I finally figured it out.

What I learned this week while writing: Not as much something new, as an emphasis on an old lesson: just keep at it. There is most likely a solution, but you might have to think outside the box (and sometimes, be willing to kill darlings to accomplish it).

What distracted me this week from writing: Family visiting, some work that needed to be done for another side gig, (I instruct an online class for my alma mater), and quite frankly, frustration with the prologue problem caused me to simply give up and stare off into space doing nothing for two nights, trying in vain to come up with a solution. Talk about writer’s block.

 
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Posted by on September 10, 2013 in WIP

 

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Critique of Merlin

There is a show that I watch on occasion that has been a great exercise in critiquing story: the BBC series Merlin.

Why? Because not an episode goes by that I don’t sit there muttering under my breath, and as my husband can tell you, more often not under my breath, about all the ridiculous things they do in the show. Inexcusable inconsistencies in plot (“Wait…didn’t he just get stabbed in the stomach? Why in the next scene has he been strangled to death?”) Either bad research, lack of research, or apathy toward research in small details about the setting (“Uh, do kings usually wear full armor to dinner?”. Ridiculous character decisions that seem forced simply because the writers wanted to take the plot in a certain direction and were too lazy to figure out a natural, believable way to do it.

And did I mention Morgana? I simply can’t take her seriously as a villain, for two main reasons: first, her “fall” into villainy seemed forced to me, almost akin to Anakin Skywalker’s, “I don’t want my wife to die! What should I do?” *pause* “I know! I’ll slaughter children!” (But I’ll leave my rants about the Star Wars prequels for another day.) Second? She’s so over-dramatic. Every time she speaks, all I can hear in my head is that ridiculous dialogue line of of King Galbatorix from the Eragon movie: “I suffer without my stone…do not…prolong…my suffering…”

Yet I continue to watch it, I know, I know. I don’t really know why, other than that at its core, the show has heart…and it’s often highly amusing (in a good way), especially the later series’. And, really, the “will he, won’t he” of Merlin’s best-kept secret has almost as much UST as a romance in a drama to keep you watching…

 
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Posted by on September 4, 2013 in Random Thoughts

 

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