As a matter of fact, I do have a magical effing library

So, I read this thing on Tumblr about why a particular blogger over there doesn’t like female characters, and she got quite self-righteous about her right to dislike them, and I started to feel all ranty, and this is the result.

She begins the debate seemingly in the middle, with this:

I am tired of being told to like female characters.

Possibly it’s a reaction to a different Tumblr post that I saw, which was asking female fans to take a look at their own reactions to female characters, to consider whether they were judging them according to different standards than male characters, and whether this might be the result of internalized misogyny.

Yes, I am going to judge male and female characters differently. I am going to be interested in a wider range of plotlines that feature male characters and, to be honest, I am going to like more male characters than female characters.
You know why?

Yes, please tell me why. It sounds as if the author intends to make an extreme, and, on the face of it, indefensible series of statements, and then go on to dazzle us by defending them somehow.

Male characters are often written with more effort and originality, and the author understands the male characters better.

Nope, that’s not going to defend the indefensible. First, the assertion that the author understands the male characters better strongly implies that only men write books, which hasn’t been true since… well, ever. I mean, I do write fiction myself, and I’m pretty sure that I do not understand my male characters better than my female characters. I like to imagine that I understand them the same, but I suppose that’s for my crit group to tell me.

Of course, if you’re primarily talking about characters in comics, movies, TV, or video games — areas where, UNlike books, male authors strongly dominate — you need to say that. But the use of “author” as opposed to “writer” strongly implies book-books, so I am going to assume that’s what we’re talking about.

And, I simply don’t agree. I’ve spent a lifetime — a somewhat longer lifetime than the Tumblr blogger, I imagine — reading books by men and women, about men and women and girls and boys (and hobbits and dragons and aliens and…) and have never noticed any overarching pattern which would indicate male characters are more originally conceived or better-understood by their authors. There are certain sub-genres which have conventions regarding female characters which I HATE HATE HATE (the mid-century narcissistic male lit-fic novel, for example) and will rant about at great length, given the chance. But these are not the whole of literature.

Why, just last night I was at an author event featuring three female authors (Tina Connolly, Nisi Shawl, and Mary Robinette Kowall), two of whom wrote recent books with female protagonists, where the female protagonist is by far the most well-developed character. (Nisi’s book isn’t out yet, but if it has a female protagonist, I’m quite confident that she’ll be at least as well-developed as the males)

So, the supposed artistic superiority of male characters is not a fact which can be used to support a different thesis, it is a thesis all on its own which must be defended, with a lot of specific examples, and would probably still fail to convince me.

Let’s be honest. Authors are as sexist as everyone else.

Or as feminist. They’re people, you know, and have the usual range of people-qualities. But “let’s be honest” is one of those triggery phrases like, “I’m sorry, but…” that strikes me as a rhetorical cheat. It introduces an idea with the assumption that the reader must accept the next idea as axiomatic or self-evident. Well, I won’t do it. I do not accept the phrase “authors are as sexist as everyone else” at face value, without additional evidence or qualifiers.

It takes a rare gem of an author to actually write stories with female characters with characterization as complex and interesting as the male characters in the story, or MORE complex and interesting.

This statement will not fly without evidence — actual authors, actual stories, actual characters. Because all the authors who come to my mind right away, do a smashing job with female characters.

I don’t want to have to cherish the underdeveloped, agency-deprived, two-dimensional stereotype just because I am so goddamn starved for representation.

Without all the previous content, I might agree with this statement. Sure. You DON’T have to like female characters who are underdeveloped and stupid just because they’re female. Superhero comics in particular have a very bad track record when it comes to female characters. But that’s one very specific subset of storytelling, and it’s one I don’t tend to read — possibly because of its traditionally male-dominated suckiness.

2) There’s a certain amount of sexism I just do not want in my stories.

So I am going to have [..] problems with things like “the only female character in the book spends the entire book disguised as a boy” or “female character in a viciously sexist setting uses her enemies’ sexist misjudgment of her as a tactical advantage” or “female character uses stereotypically-female role to defend herself from enemies who are much more powerful than her”.  

Dealing with sexism is not my [..] power fantasy. I don’t want to feel threatened or vulnerable by identifying with a protagonist. I want to feel heroic.

This touches on an interesting debate in feminist nerd circles, which is — what serves the cause better, fiction that explicitly addresses feminist issues, including the problems inherent in patriarchal power structures, or fiction that simply shows us women doing cool, powerful stuff? There’s an argument to be made for both sides. But…

If my options are character-constantly-threatened-by-sexism or character-not-constantly-threatened-by-sexism, I will pick the latter, even if it is at the cost of not reading about female characters. 

…those aren’t actually your only options. There’s a wide range of aproaches, and if all you want to do is avoid stories where struggles against the patriarchy form a major part of the story, you could probably figure that out beforehand… you see, we have these things called reviews…

But, something isn’t adding up here. Generally speaking, there’s more than one character in a story. In my experience, you cannot avoid characters threatened by sexism just by avoiding female protagonists. Books primarily about dudes still usually have female characters in them, and some of the worst, most poisonous, most enraging female characters and ideas about women — well, I ran into it in fictions where the protagonist was a dude. Sure, I don’t always want my female heroes struggling mightily against the patriarchy. But I REALLY don’t want my male heroes telling me all the stupid things they think about the true and fundamental nature of women, or treating their girlfriends like crap, or whatever.

However… given what you’ve already said… is the problem really with the characters? Or is it your reaction to the characters?

If your strategy to avoid sexism is avoiding ANY FEMALE CHARACTERS AT ALL… uh… good luck with that. I think you might be limiting yourself to gay porn, though.

Seriously, what are the odds of a random book I pick up having female characters that I can identify with more than male characters, and not having plotlines consisting of character-vs-brutal-or-pervasive-sexism?

These are actually two completely separate ideas. The fact of a plotline being about a character struggling against sexism is relatively objective. The fact of the essayist identifying or not identifying with the female characters is entirely subjective. So, the odds of a plot being about sexism? I really don’t know. I don’t tend to follow it that closely, because I don’t have a special motivation to avoid books where female characters struggle against sexism. All I ask is that their struggles ring true, given the situation.

The odds of this particular essayist being able to identify with a female character? Well, I guess they’re low, given this essay… but I’m not sure that’s a problem with the books. I don’t have any trouble identifying with female characters in most of the books I pick up. And wasn’t that the problem all along? If you find yourself reacting dramatically differently to male characters vs. female characters, maybe the problem isn’t the characters at all, maybe it’s you.

Hahaha are you [..] kidding me or do you have access to a magical [..] library?

You know, derisive laughter and swearing (elided) is not a terribly compelling argument. The derisive laughter tells me you have run out of other things to say, and the swearing tells me that you want me to understand that you feel really, really passionate about this topic, and perhaps are hoping that your passion will convince me, where your lack of facts have failed.

No. Because, you see, I do have access to this magical library. I call it the library. (Or the University Bookstore SF&F section.)

I don’t really feel like playing Sexism Roulette all that often. I don’t go looking for female characters unless I feel ready to get a faceful of steaming hot sexism, and when I see a new female character I wince, fearing what the author is going to do to her, and by extension to me. 

All right, let’s recap. The essayist starts by asserting that she prefers to read about male characters and is tired of being told to like female characters. Then her justification for this is the poor way female characters are often handled, and also that female characters often encounter sexism, which she prefers not to read about. She would rather read about no female characters, than read about female characters who are poorly handled, or who encounter sexism.

Except, reading about no female characters — I don’t think that’s an option. (Except for gay porn, see above.) You can avoid female protagonists, sure, but in what way does that eliminate poorly handled female characters as girlfriends/mothers/villains/random encounters? In fact, avoiding female protagonists ensures that you will only get female characters as girlfriends/mothers/vilains/random encounters.

Now yes, there are some female characters I genuinely love. There are some female characters I want to be, some female characters with compelling stories, flaws and all. But not as many as there should be.

Yes, and why do you think that is? That there aren’t as many as there should be? Could it be people like you? People who assume all writers are male, who prejudge female characters in a way they don’t prejudge male characters, loudly defend their right to evaluate male and female characters according to different standards, and get all cranky when somebody suggests they might be doing it wrong?

I’ll tell you what I’m sick of. I’m sick of being told that I OUGHT to judge male and female characters differently. I’m sick of every female hero being scrutinized and found wanting, often ostensibly because she or her stories are not feminist enough, when nobody gives a crap about that aspect of equivalent male characters. I’m sick of being told that some popular fiction about a female hero, Hunger Games or Buffy, is actually secretly anti-feminist, for some convoluted reason that never makes sense to me anyway, as if I’m a sucker for thinking otherwise.

In real life, one of the problems women have is that we’re constantly faced by damned-if-we-do, damned-if-we-don’t, can’t-win choices. Everything women do is weighted with meaning, with shame and recriminations and an endless chorus of people telling us we’re doing it wrong. Have kids? You’re doing it wrong. Don’t have kids? You’re doing it wrong. Dress sexy? You’re doing it wrong. Dress plain? You’re doing it wrong. Out in the workplace? You’re doing it wrong. Stay home? You’re doing it wrong. Speak up? You’re doing it wrong. Stay silent? You’re doing it wrong.

The behavior of women is scrutinized, analyzed, filtered down to the tiniest minutia, and inevitably found wanting. Too feminist. Not feminist enough. Too much this, too little that. Women are assumed to have no power, and yet be responsible for everything. We bear the burden of all that goes wrong in the world, from the fall of Adam to the Trojan War to the supposed decline of the American family. A teenage boy has problems? Look to the mom. A man cheats on his wife? Maybe she brought it on herself, possibly with too much feminism. A man rapes a woman? Well, what was she doing there, at that time, wearing that dress?

Meanwhile, men are like air, their behavior taken as a given, a default — sometimes scrutinized, sure, but never in quite the same can’t-win way.

I’m no happier when imaginary women get the same can’t-win treatment.

Yes, it’s valuable and interesting to look at notable female characters and how they do and do not further the cause of equality. But if a given female character doesn’t further the cause in the particular way you would like to see it done, and you hate her for it, I think you have to ask yourself — would you hate a male character for the same thing? Or would you just take him for granted? Would you allow him to be evaluated purely on his own terms, and not in light of how he does or does not perpetuate the patriarchy?

And if you wouldn’t hate him, if you tend to give male characters an automatic pass, maybe without even thinking about it — it might be understandable, from a psychological point of view, but I still don’t think it’s admirable or reasonable. I think there’s something wrong, if you think the answer to sexism in fiction is to angrily insist that you would rather read about no women at all than about women doing X, Y, Z. Okay. You can read or not read whatever you want. But it’s not helpful to the conversation.

Anyway, that’s my rant. But rants get boring after a while. I would rather celebrate awesome female characters — who, I believe, are all around us, in that magical library which isn’t actually so hard to find.