Monday, 13 May 2013

The Gender Agenda

Just lately I've decided to embrace social media a little more. Partly, I've known for ages that the only way to really make friends and influence people any more is through this Internet-thingy, and partly, my dear lady wife has bullied me into it. “Stop being so Victorian,” she said. “Embrace 2013,” she said. A stranded time traveller such as myself can barely get to grips with wireless telephones and ovens powered by electricity, so you’d think she’d go easy on me.

Anyway, the real reason for blogging today is that I have decided to begin my second novel. (Yes, I know the first one isn't out yet, and I'm aware I'm being uncharacteristically optimistic; but I'm confident. And the second one is going to be even better than the first. Hash tag Ego, as the kids might say).

I made some firm decisions about the imaginatively titled Book Two a long time ago. The first was that the lead character was going to be [gasp] a woman. The second was that she was going to be an exceptional woman in the Victorian era – so exceptional, in fact, that she would have to be labelled as ‘the Other’ by those of a philosophical bent (Yes, I've read a lot of Angela Carter, and yes, it has inspired me considerably in the writing of Book Two). The third was that she would have to go through some pretty extreme ordeals in order to realise that there’s more to life than just being accepted in a man’s world, even in the 1870s. Now, this is going to be a sci-fi/horror mash-up, so I can pull some unconventional levers to make my point, but that doesn't take away from one simple fact: what I'm doing is a bit unusual, especially for a man.

I'm not saying it hasn't been done before (It has). I'm not even saying that I'm treating the subject with an entirely original bent. It’s probably even been done in the same genre for all I know. But when you look at all the [ugh!] genre fiction out there in the world, it’s amazing how much of it is focused on male-centric stories. Now, as you may be aware, I travelled to this time from 1888, and women there had a rum time of it, I can tell you. But it seems that, in the stories circulating today, we haven’t moved on terribly much. Even women writers often write about male characters if they want to break into niche genres (Harry Potter, anyone? And that horrid Twilight thingy – the one with the anonymous girl living vicariously through the eyes of an ageing sexual predator… I mean, vampire – god, I wish vampires were scary again. Ahem). I might just be writing Jane Eyre with added ultraviolence, rather than high art, but it’s still not going to be terribly ‘mainstream’ in its themes and characters. I'm not exactly a champion of feminism, but I do find that curious.

Possibly the point of the blog, other than just being food for thought and rambling musings, is that I'm already finding it really difficult. Understanding the theory behind female character development doesn't mean I understand how to write a ‘real’ woman. Anyone got any tips? Because, to be honest, I can’t imagine a trickier thing to write than an entire novel from the point of view of a nonconformist female, kicking ass and taking names, and not even bothering to be all masculine in the process.

Coming full circle, I was inspired to write this blog by an article I found doing the rounds on Twitter. It’s about the rather patriarchal viewpoint offered by geek culture tropes in the media. It’s a lot more succinct than my offerings, but I'm a product of my time. It even made me slap my forehead and exclaim ‘Ripley! Of course!’ (I'm calling that a Ripley Moment from now on). I heartily recommend you check it out. Unless you think a woman’s place is in the kitchen, of course, in which case you probably shouldn't.


  1. Hi Mark, Very interesting! For my two pence worth, what annoys me most about books with a female character is the romance. Always with the lovey-doveyness! In the face of world ending terrors which only I can stop, I'd like to think I had too much going on to worry about whether that guy over there likes me. But it always feels like romance is as central to the plot as the actual action when women are leading the way.

    The two fantasy series I've read recently with heroines (do we still use that word? Or has it gone the way of actresses and now they are female heroes?) are the black magician trilogy and the mistborn trilogy. I enjoyed one a lot more than the other, but they both had a lot of romance going on and give the impression that the direction of events is rather directed by how their actions will affect their love life. I love Jane Austen novels, but I'd like to see a bit more progression in the things which preoccupy my fictional girls please!

  2. You're not wrong, Emma. I mentioned Harry Potter earlier, and I know a lot of adults who enjoy the series, and cite Hermione as a great example of a strong woman. But if you think about it, she's annoying at the start, a proper know-it-all spoiling everyone's fun. She tries hard to make it in a male-dominated world (despite witches and wizards having a seemingly even footing, the headmaster is always male). Just when she starts getting interesting, she ends up going out with Ron in the most unlikely pairing since Lady Gaga and a dress made of meat. She's even the object of a stupid, short-lived feud between Ron and Harry. Female characters have to be objectified somewhere along the way, I guess.

    You know, thinking about Ripley, she even starts to go all maternal, doesn't she? It's the craving for motherhood that makes her hate the aliens so much, rather than her sheer kick-ass attitude, so maybe she's not quite was I was looking for.

    Answers on a postcard - any female characters in fantasy/sci-fi fiction that actually make their own way, don't conform to masculine tropes, and are defined by their actions rather than status?