Monday, May 16, 2011

on men and women and books

Note: Before you read the rest of this, I'd like to point out that as this is a somewhat involved subject, I could have done it more justice by editing this and not just posting my raw train-of-thought typing (which is how most of my first drafts for everything start), but I'm not being productive tonight and I need to go to sleep so I can wake up and be productive tomorrow, so you are getting the rough version of this (that's what she said). Look out for all the "buts" in the third paragraph.

This whole question of sexism in art fascinates me. I need a better word than "art," though -- I'd use "popular culture" but it's not really only a question of that which is popular -- I suppose I really mean books, although it applies to television and films as well. But I'm most familiar with books, so I'll stick with those.

I just tried to Google some examples of people complaining about this but I couldn't find any. True, I only looked at the first three results, but this, I believe, is insignificant. So maybe I'm just making all of this up inside my head. But anyway, you hear a lot about how there is much sexism in books because lots of main characters, especially in popular series, are male, and how males (and sometimes females) tend to only read books with male main characters. But this leads to the question of how we can combat this problem, or perhaps more interestingly, whom do you blame for this? You can't just put a cap on the number of books that have main male characters and then declare that all other books published that year must be about girls or women. This is also similarly an issue for me when you see books get slammed for being sexist when they have weak female characters and strong male characters, and when that book doesn't have a feminist reason for doing so (to satirically point out the flaws in society's treatment of women, for example). When you look at a large number of books that do that, it seems to be a real problem trend. But on an individual level, how do you tell who's being "sexist" because that's what the book called for (art is rarely politically correct, after all) and who is just a "male chauvinistic pig?" Like, I'd really love to see the day when having that weak female/strong male scenario isn't seen as sexist in the slightest because there are so many examples of the opposite and of combinations that it's just seen as another facet of life being portrayed. Because right now, I don't think we're at that point at all.

Because I think you do have to write male and female characters differently because male and female people aren't identical. But you also can't fall into the trap of "writing a boy" or "writing a girl" because within each sex are billions -- and within the fictional world, another several billion -- of unique individuals who defy gender stereotypes all the time, not to mention the whole realm of gay/lesbian/transgender/etc., etc. characters. But then again, you can't ignore the fact that sex and gender play large roles in the personalities of people, even though sex and gender don't necessarily define a person. But it may be possible that sex and gender aren't even that important in terms of characterization in novels; we just think they are because that's how it's always been. But, personally, and I truly don't think this is sexist of me, I do think that the sex of the main character alters the rest of the book, not that it makes it automatically better or worse if the main character is male or female, but it does change the book and it does change how readers view the book, I think. For one thing, as most people have probably experienced, it is often quite easy to develop slight (or rather large, in some cases) crushes on fictional characters, which I think changes a lot based on how the main character sees them. Like, if the main character is a girl and has a crush on some male character, I as a reader would probably see that differently than if the main character was a boy and had a crush on a female character, because I am already inclined to be romantically attracted to males rather than females, so I'm already looking at the book from a different perspective. But I think it also affects the book and the reader in subtler ways than just as far as romantic interests go.

It's like the "straw that breaks the camel's back" syndrome, only less linear. Whom do you blame? It's a total diffusion of responsibility. Because as an author, at least as a good author, you have a responsibility to yourself and to your story to make it the best it can possibly be, and sometimes, oftentimes, that means including a main character who is male. But then when do the girls get a chance to be the multi-dimensional heroes other than in YA novels, where they are rampant and plentiful (although not always multi-dimensional...)? I think the solution is to write what is best, not what is politically correct. And hope that the problem corrects itself as people slowly start to realize that Being a Girl is not a sign of weakness and Being a Boy is not a sign of power. And that the opposite isn't true, either, because there are tons and tons of weak (in the traditional sense), needy girls. But there are also tons and tons of strong, independent (as independent as a person can be, which is truthfully not very, but in the colloquial sense) girls. Personally, I would be way happy if people would just publish some damn books that have female main characters who aren't annoying as fuck. Goddamn. I can't even tell you how many YA books I end up, not hating, but certainly not enjoying to their fullest, because the main character is a stereotypical feminine girl (which isn't a bad thing to be, but is often written really annoyingly), or she's purposely the opposite of the stereotype, which is really just as painful to read. I think sometimes authors over-correct by focusing more on the fact that the character is a girl than by focusing on the fact that character is a person. So basically, if you ever write a book, don't do that.

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