Tropes: Gender Characterization Hurdles

[Content Note: Sexual Harassment, Violence]

The 1990s brought us many things - some good, some bad, and some extremely quirky - and one of those quirky things was a quirky science fiction satire movie called Mars Attacks! The film drew mixed reactions from critics, largely - I think - because the satire frequently came across as very heavy-handed and relying largely on strawmen, and thus the all important element of subtlety was lost. (Not that strawmen and heavy-handedness kept me from enjoying Starship Troopers, but that's another post for another time.)

My favorite part of Mars Attacks! is when the Martians decide to send in an undercover assassin to the White House - they disguise one of their own as a human woman, but the disguise is utterly terrible. Although the "woman" vaguely looks like a human woman (under the pointy breasts, sallow skin, and beehive hairdo), everything about her is completely off - they way she looks, moves, and acts perfectly demonstrates the concept of the uncanny valley. See for yourself with the video here.

Mars Attacks! is a satire, so the terribleness of the disguise and the inability of the men around her to catch on to the disguise is, ultimately, the point. When Press-Secretary-as-played-by-Martin-Short completely fails to realize that his escort for the evening is acting utterly inhuman, it's not because the disguise is actually much better than it appears to be - it's because his character is so utterly self-absorbed that he can't be bothered to pay attention to little details like how his lady is acting and whether or not her behavior lines up with any other woman he's known.

This, I feel, is analogous to some authors.

Everyone has heard the old canard that you should "write what you know", and while I think the sentiment is a useful one, the platitude is perhaps not best expressed in those words. Obviously, most of us have only ever been one gender, one sexual orientation, one species, and one set of relatively limited experiences - and it will be a rather dull story indeed that confines itself narrowly to only those subjects and the characters who have experienced them. And yet, even if you've never been (for example) female, or have never had children, or have never gone to college, or have never seen a vampire, the chances are good that you can still experience those things vicariously.

Of course, a great deal depends on the veracity of the source for your experiences. If you've only ever seen movies about women or children or college or vampires, it's likely that you'll have a very one-dimensional understanding of those things - you'll have only experienced these things through a visual medium that had to alter and condense major details in order to fit strict time constraints and entertainment demands. That may be fine if your only goal is to make another movie to add to the growing pile, but if you plan to migrate your limited knowledge and vicarious experience with a subject from a movie to something quite a bit longer and more complex - like, say, a book - then you're going to have to delve more deeply with your fact-finding. You may have to read other books on the subject, or use your imagination to really follow a lot of your assumptions through to their logical conclusions. Above all else, it will be important to solicit the input and opinions of others throughout this process - and the value of their opinions will be closely tied to their own personal experience with the subject matter.

So if, for example, you were writing a book on vampires, you might consider checking out resources on vampires to learn what has and hasn't been written before you. You might solicit the opinions and advice of other writers (and their readers) on what they would expect to see in a new vampire mythos. And you might take time to consider what, ultimately, motivates your vampires to keep doing whatever it is that they do with their time. Ultimately, though, since no one on earth has actually met or even seen a vampire, whatever you come up with will probably be accepted as likely and probable by at least some of your readers. There is, after all, no such thing as vampires, so who is to say that your version isn't plausible?

Unfortunately, the same can't be said when writing non-fictional beings like men and women.

Now, I'm not going to sit here and say that a man can't write a compelling female character, or that a woman can't write a realistic male character - artists like Margaret Atwood and Don DeLillo have been writing varied, unique, realistic, and sympathetic characters of the opposite gender for years. That level of mastery, however, takes a great deal of time and experience to achieve and - most importantly - humility and a willingness to learn. Without these qualities, it is almost impossible to write a truly good novel because every person in it (or at least the ones of the author's opposing gender) are going to strike the reader as just as strange, inhuman, and false as the poorly-disguised Martian lady.

For example, I was reading an excerpt earlier in the year. The main character (and first person narrator) was female, but within not half a dozen pages, I turned to Husband and said,

Ana: This excerpt confuses me.

Husband: Why is that?

Ana: Well, the narrator character seems to be addressing the reader as though she, the narrator, were also the author of the piece. Like, that she's actually the person who wrote this down and it's a true account or something.

Husband: So?

Ana: Well, it's not possible - the author is clearly male.

Husband: How do you know? The author's name isn't on the excerpt.

Ana: I just know. There's no way that the author of this is female.

We later looked up the excerpt and confirmed that the author had a traditionally male name, but it didn't matter to me whether the name was a pseudonym or a non-traditional naming a la Bobbie Ann Mason, I knew that the author was male even if his main character was female. I knew that not because I have Miss Cleo powers of clairvoyance, but because there is no way that a woman could live, work, and grow up in America and hold the same thoughts, beliefs, and actions as this female character supposedly did.

This isn't to say that you can't have unusual, quirky characters in your novel, or that everyone of a certain gender has to fit an exact cardboard cut-out - I can think of plenty quirky, strange, odd, and outright wrong characters of both genders in the writings of Mercedes Lackey and Patricia Wrede, just off the top of my head. But when writing a character that is very different from yourself, it's important to understand where "quirky" ends and where "unnatural" begins. In this particular ABNA excerpt, the female character - when called into a closed-door meeting with her boss at her crummy minimum-wage labor job - was absolutely thrilled at the possibility that he might sexually harass her, because the mere act of filing a sexual harassment complaint was an 'automatic' two-weeks paid vacation while HR investigated... and if they did find evidence of wrong-doing, it meant an automatic gigantic juicy monetary settlement for her.

It's possible that somewhere in America there is a company with a sexual harassment investigation policy that is as generous and liberal as the above. But in every job I have ever worked at, the reporting and investigation process is extremely different. In those jobs, when someone is sexually harassed, they report it to management. The management generally responds that it's obviously all a misunderstanding and insists that the harassed person continue to "clarify" to the harasser that the harassment is unwanted behavior. Then - if the harassed person is really brave - they report it again. A formal investigation is grudgingly opened. Harsh questions are asked, usually by men who are asking from a clear position of doubt and hostility. The person who reported the harassment has their motives and actions analyzed in the worst possible light, looking for bias and misdirection - Did she lead him on? Weren't the repeated-and-unwanted hugs and shoulder rubs just friendly team building? Isn't she using her gender to lobby "special" treatment because she doesn't want to have to submit to the company-wide spankings like everyone else? - and lies. The same questions are repeated again and again, looking for the slightest variation which would obviously prove the whole thing a figment of a vindictive imagination. The entire system is built to make the whole process painful and dangerous for the accuser and cushioned and safe for the accused - largely because it's a heck of a lot cheaper and easier to fire a low-level worker for lying about a harassment charge than it is to fire a high-level worker for harassing people.

But even if this fictional female worked at the most liberal company on earth, it's still unrealistic for a fictional woman to be excited at the prospect of harassment, because harassment is a very unpleasant thing to endure. Even if there's no physical assault or violation of personal space involved in a sexual harassment incident (and, of course, the woman doesn't know she isn't going to be assaulted), the experience is degrading, humiliating, and thoroughly unpleasant for the victim. Being unwillingly objectified is an experience that humans almost universally hate, and no woman is going to look forward with glee to the experience, no matter how much she might expect to be compensated for it after the fact. Certainly, the real woman in this situation isn't going to jut out her chest to tempt the manager into harassment, as this particular character did. Now, obviously this is an extreme example, and one that was hard for me to take seriously (occurring, as it did, after an equally unrealistic scene wherein the woman accidentally caused herself to pass out and lose consciousness by holding her breath too long when trying to pass the aromatic homeless person holding the door for customers at her favorite Starbucks, and then erupted in a rage at the attractive man who had caught her and carried her delicately and gently into the safety of the coffee shop), but unrealistic characters abound in novels where, frankly, I expect better. Some of this can be chalked up to the author not caring to do the homework, and some of it can be chalked up to outright strawmanning of various groups, but this hardly makes sense to me as a strategy for new and aspiring authors because every group you piss off in your novel is a group that probably won't buy your books.

I can't count how many times I've had to explain to a new author that women buy books too, and that the best way to woo that demographic is probably not to include a "sexy" rape scene in the first chapter nor is it wise to insist in the narrative that feminism as a doctrine insists on the castration-with-a-rusty-knife of all men, everywhere. At the very least, know your audience - if your novel likes to toss around the term "feminazi" without irony, you might want to think twice before requesting a review from a female reviewer who favorably reviews books by famous feminist authors.

It's important to note that this problem of being unable to realistically characterize a member of the opposite sex isn't limited to male authors and female characters - I noted in my review of "Wither" earlier this year how disappointed I was that the male romantic character could have been excised from the novel entirely without changing more than a few pages of the overall book, and both the male antagonists were so one-dimensional that I almost half-expect any movie tie-in to characterize the younger man with a halo and the older man with a pitchfork and horns. So there's no question in my mind that this problem - authors writing characters that they genuinely don't know how to characterize - is not a gender-specific one.

How do we fix this, moving forward? To be honest, I don't know. There are enough poorly-characterized male and female characters in mainstream novels that it seems unrealistic to merely cry "do better research!" when a new author trots out some tired canard about sex coming easily and automatically to any woman who wants it or about men not being able to deny a pretty woman anything she wants because hey, she has boobs, so he must obey. I would like to say that before writing a character not-your-gender, it would be best for the author to go out and observe the world a little in order to see that It's Not That Simple, but I'm concerned that confirmation bias being what it is, such efforts may be ultimately doomed to failure. Maybe the only real solution to this is to take a crash-course in passing - to go out and BE a woman before you try to WRITE one - but considering how unfortunately dangerous this can be, I can't really recommend it as a research tool. Maybe the only useful advice I can give is that, before putting your novel out there for the masses, you might want to get a second or third opinion as to whether or not your characters seem as alien and unfamiliar as a Martian poorly disguised as a sexy lady.


Karen Nilsen said...

Fascinating post. I think most characterization problems are due to a lack of empathy and self-awareness on the part of the author. This includes issues with POV (like the ones you pinpointed so well in your last Twilight post). We live in a complex world, and as a result, we all long to simplify things (and sometimes other people) as much as possible. It's much easier to slap a label on someone than to attempt to actually understand him or her, especially if that person has rubbed us the wrong way. In "On Writing" on page 189, Stephen King writes "It's also important to remember that no one is 'the bad guy' or 'the best friend' . . . in real life we each of us regard ourselves as the main character, the protagonist, the big cheese; the camera is on us, baby." So every character in a story, no matter how minor, thinks the story is about him or her. If a writer can learn to regard characters this way, as real people, even the bit players with only two lines of dialogue, I think that writer will convey fully developed characters with realistic motivations. A good exercise for a beginning writer might be to take something very familiar (like Star Wars) and imagine it from the perspective of a minor character (like a Storm Trooper). When you start shedding tears for all your characters, even the villains, even the ones you dislike, then I think you're on the right track.

Matt Smyczynski said...

I jump at every possible chance to say, "On Writing was more beneficial to my writing than my degree in writing." I love that book.

Karen Nilsen said...

It's one of my all time favorite books on writing as well.

Silver Adept said...

Makes sense, and I think that should extend-by-reversal to any time someone is writing a non-human character - check with the humans to make sure that they character being written isn't too human. For example, the Doctor (and a lot of Time Lords) look like humans, but you spend any amount of time with one and you will rapidly come to the conclusion that they're very odd ducks at the least.

I'd like to believe in this interconnected age that nobody is without access to persons to bounce characters off of in this manner, but I could be wrong. How might one go about running checks when you don't have them handy? Apply rules like the Bedchel Test?

BaseDeltaZero said...

Alright, hopefully this will work...
"In this particular ABNA excerpt, the female character - when called into a closed-door meeting with her boss at her crummy minimum-wage labor job - was absolutely thrilled at the possibility that he might sexually harass her, because the mere act of filing a sexual harassment complaint was an 'automatic' two-weeks paid vacation while HR investigated... and if they did find evidence of wrong-doing, it meant an automatic gigantically juicy monetary settlement for her. , the female character - when called into a closed-door meeting with her boss at her crummy minimum-wage labor job - was absolutely thrilled at the possibility that he might sexually harass her, because the mere act of filing a sexual harassment complaint was an 'automatic' two-weeks paid vacation while HR investigated... and if they did find evidence of wrong-doing, it meant an automatic gigantically juicy monetary settlement for her." 

I can... concieve of this happening with a lot of strings attached.  It's certainly not human normal behavior to any extent, and the woman involved would have to be either kind of insane or a some kind of succubus type (a succubus with rather unecessarily elaborate methods, at that).  Still kind of dumb, though.

I wouldn't underestimate how badly women can mess this kind of thing up, though.  You see that sort of really mysogynistic approach in fanfiction (purportedly) written by women quite often.

"Maybe the only real solution to this is to take a crash-course in passing - to go out and BE a woman before you try to WRITE one - but considering how unfortunately dangerous this can be, I can't really recommend it as a research tool."
It's also really hard - convincingly disguising yourself (or 'passing' or whatever you want to call it) as a woman (or a man, for that matter) requires a lot of skill and effort.  Disguising yourself as a decent-looking member of the opposite sex is even harder, and people of different appearances are treated differently.
Maybe when we have instant genderswap lasers, it'll be reasonable...

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