Art, Porn, and Strong Female Characters
I want to start off this post with a definition–two definitions or really, a distinction. Writers and critics often talk about the responsiblity of the artist, what things we should and should not do and how, and as I’ve said in the past, I’m not too fond of burdening creative people with an intent of social justice. (This is not to say art doesn’t provide moral instruction: It is more so that art presents a multitude of moral possibilities and shouldn’t serve merely as propaganda.) That tends to be a recipe for didacticism rather than enlightenment. However, I do think that art itself is meant to do one thing: It shows the world as it is, as the writer sees it. Now I know that may sound absurd, especially when we take into account the many genres available to us. How does the fantasy or sci-fi writer depict the world as it is, when the story takes place in an entirely different universe? Well, the story, no matter the species or world, should connect to those experiences we all share as human beings. There are flaws in human nature, things we don’t like about ourselves as much as there are many strengths. Neither will ever be exitinguished. Societies, even those that appear utopian, still give into our failings. That’s what makes stories worth reading. But if, instead, we depict the world as we want it to be, as we’d like it to be, we begin to tap into something else: pornography. You see, pornography, to me, is not just something that excites or titillates us, but shows us a world we’d like to inhabit. Have you ever watched a porn? Depending on your own personal fetish, you are the viewer of your own particular fantasy. Do you wish women would fawn all over you and decide to have sex with you in moments of meeting you? Do you wish your man would massage you and spend a lot of time on foreplay? Whatever it is that turns you on is there with a few clicks of the mouse. But the world doesn’t operate under those conditions. Our lives are not fantasy, and if you want to see your perfect world in art, you’re only engaging in masturbation.
I can’t remember the name of it, but a few years ago a book came out that depicted a homosexual love story in a very conventional way, in the sense that it was merely about two gay people in love with one another. I do not know whether the novel was very good or not, but that’s besides the point. There were two camps of people who had two very different reactions. First, there were the supporters, who felt that the novel was a good one and found it refreshing that the novel didn’t concern itself the societial struggles of the couple. It was just a love story where the characters happened to be gay. The other side thought the novel avoided the issue, that it should have been a main theme of the book. My problem is with the latter group. Who says that the characters have to face the structural oppression of their culture? Can’t they face other challeges? The story is about their love. The writer’s experience and knowledge is what dictated the focus of the narrative, not his or her political agenda. I’m sure the writer is for equality, and if he or she is gay, they are tapping into their world as it is. Does being gay change the governance of a story? Does it mean that the structure must be completely different? Do the characters have to act a certain way? We seem to want to straddle this line of categories are important/unimportant, that we are unique and also part of a group. But if our characters can’t represent that unique perspective, then doesn’t that make for fiction that is largely the same?
One of the best movies to come out in a while is Mad Max: Fury Road. It’s brilliant in its construction and reminded us how exciting (and visual) films can be. It’s also one of the most feminist films I’ve seen. Furiosa could have easily been one of those hard-nosed, masculined female characters, the kind that fuck but can’t connect to people. She, however, is Max’s kindred spirit: She is his equal in almost everyway. There are some things Max is better at, like killing a bunch of guys in the fog, but she’s a better shot and driver. They work together in perfect harmony. They’re both sensitive and caring, even when they know they shouldn’t be. And really, if Max wasn’t a crazy drifter, I would even think that the two of them would have been more than happy to start a physical relationship to add their emotional one. They play off one another and serve each other’s stories, helping one another to find redemption. That’s pretty rare on-screen or off.
Unfortunately, we have a lot of narratives that don’t do this–and it’s not because of institutional sexism as so many critics claim. It’s because they’re poorly written, and somehow we’ve forgotten this. (Art is really, really hard. Writing even an essay is strife with traps. It’s hard enough to convey an idea through argument and evidence. When you add story, it gets that much harder. Most of the time, people don’t know what the fuck they’re trying to say with their art.) To me, lovers in any story must be equals; otherwise, what’s the point of putting them together? Han and Leia in Empire and even Jedi are a terrific example. Once their initial courtship ends, they face challenges together. They aren’t spending their time quibbling about stupid shit. They have a mission, and it’s one they attack as a couple. Sure, they might squabble over how best to do it, but they still end up working together as a team.
One thing I find particularly frustrating, in television mostly, is when the writers wedge problems into the relationship–especially after seasons of will-they-or-won’t they. Why is it that these couples end up bickering in the subplot? Sure, relationships aren’t perfect, but why waste my time with something that shouldn’t be a problem? The goal is achieved. Turn your attention elsewhere. The next goal isn’t making things work: It’s taking on the new challenge or challenger as a team.
I read an article just recently that says that “Female characters often aren’t allowed to have their own story arc.” I’m not fond of this particular generalization. I can think of few good stories where this is the case. Every character wants something, and by the end of the story, that character should either succeed or fail. In Die Hard, Holly Gennaro wants to be a successful business woman, and she thinks that means she has to sacrifice her relationship with her husband. They, of course, have to put those martial problems aside in order to stop the terrorists, which they do as a team. In the end, she recognizes that they can be together, and presumably, doesn’t need to distance herself from her husband in order to be a success. In Batman Begins, Rachel is Batman’s conscience–and has her own strategy to achieve their common goal. In Iron Man, Pepper Potts primary goal is to keep Stark Industries running. The love stories aren’t tacted on: They’re integral to the story because a good writer knows they should never put something in that doesn’t serve a purpose. But there are plenty of writers who don’t recognize this, and that’s just what the author of that article is inadvertently complaining about. It’s not a gender issue. It’s quality control.
Critics say we need more “strong female characters” in art. First, what the hell is a strong character? When I hear it described, what it sounds like is a complete character, one who is complex and real, but people tend to take this as “women need to be badass.” I object to that as much as I do the term “strong female character” for its inaccuracy.
Just about every movie nowadays that has a squad of soliders needs to have that badass female in it. Those characters tend to be as one-dimensional as the rest of the squad. So really, what’s the point? Characters in the background are just scenery. Ripley is complete; Vasquez is just a diversity credit. It doesn’t matter what those ancillary characters are or do, really. If you want a “strong female character,” they can’t come from the background. I think we should recognize that there’s little benefit to making some tertiary or quaternary character a woman, a person of color, a homosexual. How do you characterize this minor player? How can you get your reader to know who they are in the paragraph or two in which they appear? Do we have a shorthand to solve this? We do. They’re called stereotypes.
So what makes a “strong” character strong? The answer should have started to reveal itself by now. A strong character is our focal center: It is the protagonist. No other character can compare to them, except maybe the antagonist or love interest or best friend. You can’t render every character as completely as you would like.
And how do we remedy this situation? Obviously, we need more characters of certain categories, but who should create them? Should we burden the predominate writing population (read as white, cis, heterosexual males) with the solution? It might seem blasphemous, but I say no. Critics quibble with any act an author makes, binding them to a strict biological essentialism. They say a writer’s female or ethnic characters are stereotypes or that they’re writing about an experience they’ve never had. (It is should be obvious, but I am not suggesting that writers cannot write outside themselves.) But the solution comes from those people of color, those women, those gays and lesbians, those transgendered individuals who bring their own unique experiences to their fiction. I don’t think it’s absurb to say that they we tend to write best what we know best. Sure, we might not know what it’s like to shoot an Arab man for no comprehensible reason or to kill a pawnbroker because we want to tap into our own little Napoleon, but we do know what it feels like to be in our own skin. That no one can take away from us. Women, I would bet, write women best. Same with any other category.
If we want more “strong female characters,” we need more strong female writers. There, fortunately, have been quite a few so far: for example, George Eliot, Jane Austen, Zora Neale Hurston, Virginia Woolf, Toni Morrison, Flannery O’Connor, Alice Walker, Alice Munro, Tillie Olsen. (Literature, for the most part, is one of the most democratizing of the narrative artforms.) But frankly, that’s not enough. It’s easy to say that women aren’t recognized enough in the arts, and to a certain extent, that’s true. But the bigger issue is that greatness doesn’t appear in small numbers. Just look at film. Name all the talented female directors. Julie Taymor, Kathryn Bigelow…and then? And neither of those two would I call great. (Though I would argue Taymor is far more talented visually, unfortunately, her films, like David Fincher’s, are only as good as their scripts.) There’s such a small pool of female talent–of any underrepresented group–that greatness among their ranks is limited, if not shown at all. We need a larger sample size.
We tend to forget that dreck is not unique to any one group, especially, under today’s microscope of social justice. There are a lot of great male writers; however, there are also a lot more bad male writers. Just look at the latest issue of New Letters. All three pieces of short fiction are written by men, and all three suck. All over America, we have these shitty–but somehow successful–artists, whether James Patterson or Michael Bay. So the question remains: Why shouldn’t those spots go to anyone else?