KJ (owlmoose) wrote,
KJ
owlmoose

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A few words (well, okay, more than a few) on fandom and women characters

So it appears that fandom is having its somewhat-annual discussion of slash as a genre: good idea, bad idea, transgressive, appropriative, symptom of internalized misogyny, etc., etc., etc. Since I don't identify as a slasher (I write it on occasion, mostly in response to prompts, and often enjoy reading it, but the vast majority of what I write is either het or gen), I don't really have a dog in this hunt, so I didn't start following it right away.

But the topic morphed, as discussions on the Internet often do, and I have recently found some very interesting posts focusing on a topic much nearer to my heart: female characters, in fanfiction and in mainstream media, and whether fandom's focus on stories about men is problematic. These posts, in particular, resonated with me.

musesfool - It's all in how you use it

It never fails to amaze me that we place female characters in such an awful catch-22. They can't be perfect, but they can't be flawed! They can't be seen as vulnerable, but they can't be too strong!...

I've seen every single one of these arguments made whenever this topic comes up and it depresses me.


This, exactly this, and depresses me, too. As a rule (not every person, every time; I'm talking about patterns, not individuals), we are much harder on female characters in our analysis than male ones. There are any number of reasons for this, but I think it comes down to the fact that there are so many fewer female characters in most media. Which leads to two problems: first, we have fewer representations to choose from, and second, we get a lot of tokenism. Very often, the cast of characters in a story will boil down to archetypes: the smart one, the funny one, the impulsive one, etc. And one of those types is "the girl", and there's only so much a creator can do within that mold.

And then we have creators who try to break the mold with so-called "strong female characters", with varying levels of success. Don't get me wrong -- this represents progress. I would much rather see Strong Female CharactersTM than Damsels in Distress, and I am more inclined to give a benefit of the doubt to creators like J.J. Abrams and Joss Whedon who at least appear to be trying. But there is still a long, long way to go. Occasionally we get a hit, but more often they miss, because the women aren't characterized in such a way as to make them interesting or well rounded. They're given character traits that make them appealing to men, as this excellent article from Overthinking It points out:

And even when she was being strong, she was always doing it in the sexiest way possible. She’d never, say, get a black eye or a broken nose in a fight. Her ability to fix cars (a powerful, masculine trait) would basically allow her to get sexy grease all over her slippery body. Her ability to shoot a gun was so the film’s advertisers could put her on a poster wearing a skimpy outfit with a big gun between her legs. All in all, the “strength” of her character was just to make her a better prize for the hero at the end – and for the horny male audience throughout....

I think the major problem here is that women were clamoring for “strong female characters,” and male writers misunderstood. They thought the feminists meant [Strong Female] Characters. The feminists meant [Strong Characters], Female.


Exactly. Strong or weak, the emphasis is still on the "Female" rather than on the "Character", and that's a problem. The article goes on to list a number of women characters who have something to them that makes them unique, interesting, human, and not necessarily in a way that marks them as female.

But in a way this is all beside the point: we in fandom do tend to come down on female characters, dismiss them, hate them, call them Mary Sues, and then turn around and give male characters a pass for the exact same traits. And if we find ourselves doing that and giving reasons that sound like they belong on a bingo card, maybe it's time to step back and rethink.

(I participated in a discussion about this topic in [personal profile] renay's journal about a year ago; my thoughts above are largely adapted from my comments there. Hat tip to dreamcatcher for the link to the Overthinking It article!)

[personal profile] miera_c - Thoughts on slash

I've reached a point where I feel that women writing about male characters, even nominally straight male characters in a homosexual relationship, is a way we are participating in our own erasure. When there are female characters available, and female fans ignore them in favor of writing about the male characters instead, that makes me uncomfortable....

It's especially worrisome for me when the 8,000 familiar excuses get tossed around for why the female fans aren't writing about the female characters. Everybody knows these excuses, and the problem is, in individual cases they may be completely legitimate, but when they get added up and you begin to see a pattern forming, it becomes highly problematic.


The above-linked author is compiling a list of said reasons, and, as she says, I can think of times when every single one of them might be appropriate. But when they start piling up, as they seem to do in these discussions? Yes, I do think it's cause for concern.

Not that I would ever, ever say that writing slash, or stories that focus on men, or traditionalist het, or whatever is "wrong". We write what we're drawn to write, and overall I think that's a good thing. What I'm asking for, dreaming of, is a world where we are able to take a critical look at the work we produce and the worlds we create, and really think about why we're drawn to those particular characters and situations. And a part of critical thinking in this context is considering the ways in which the culture that surrounds us affects our choices. As one of my favorite thinkers likes to say, "This shit doesn't happen in a vacuum." It's about owning our choices, and accepting the ramifications, not just digging in our heels and getting stuck in "I write what I wanna write."

rahirah - A Modest Proposal

If there aren't enough female characters in your fic, then write more female characters.


Because, in the end, it really is just that simple, if we let it be. If we drop the reasons and the excuses, and the fear of getting it wrong. If we all do it together, imagine how much less scary it will be!

This is just about the shortest call to arms you will ever read, but it's a very stirring one.

At least it was for me, to the point that I am seriously considering participating in halfamoon, a February challenge community focusing on women characters in fandom. Because while I feel like I shouldn't need a reason to focus on the awesome women of Final Fantasy, it never hurts to have one.
Tags: fandom, feminism, i need better tags
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