Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Permission to Write the Damsel in Distress

I've been thinking a lot lately about female characters - specifically, how difficult they can be to get right. I've always had trouble with this aspect of writing, probably because I've always been interested in reading feminist perspectives on literature, so I've wound up with every criticism of popular characterizations of women I've ever heard playing on repeat in my head. The moment I start writing a scene with a prominent female character, the chorus strikes up.

Portraying a female character as weak is demeaning to women.

She should kick ass and not need anybody's help.

But she can't kick too much ass, or she's obnoxious.

And she can't have too much sex because that makes her a temptress.

But she should own her sexuality because women's sexuality has long been repressed in literature.

But she can't actually need men, because that would make her weak, and portraying a female character as weak---

Lisa needs braces!

Dental plan!

Around it goes. Critical voices are eager to put limitations on what you should and shouldn't write about female characters, because female characters in fiction are held up as representatives of their non-fictional gender, the world's view of women, and/or the author's gender biases. It doesn't matter if they're in an everyday high school setting or hurtling through space in a bio-mechanical spacecraft: female characters get picked out as symbols for real-life gender issues. Male characters, on the other hand, are largely left alone to be read in the context of the story.

If I were a fictional character with a vagina, I would be pissed. I'd be marching about with signs reading "My bits don't dictate my characterization" and "I am not a stand-in for your societal issues!"

Author Sarah Rees Brennan has an excellent post, "Ladies, Please!", that deals with the balancing act of making a kickass female character. (It's well worth checking out even if you're not a writer - the woman is hilarious.) I do love the sort of female character she describes - strong, capable, and kickass without overshadowing the rest of the cast - and I've taken that entry to heart on previous projects.

My problem right now is, I'm working on a story where the most important female character is distinctly not kickass. She's living sequestered in a house by a man who basically owns her, legally, she has almost nonexistent independence, and in the end, she will very likely need honest-to-god Prince Charming style rescuing.

I love this character. She's smart, sarcastic, creative, and manipulative in a way I admire. But she's a Damsel In Distress, so everything I've read about writing as a feminist dictates that I shouldn't be writing her. I should be writing a character who's stronger, more independent, who can break herself out of the cage that's been constructed around her.

Every time I write a scene with her in it, I think, Is it enough that she wants to get out? Is it enough that she's got her own interests and strengths in spite of her lot in life? Will they take away my feminist card if she's not the one with the baseball bat in her hands when her oppressor takes a hit to the cranium? In essence, I've been asking myself: Is it okay to write a female character who doesn't kick ass?

And some might disagree with me, but after debating this with myself and the chorus for a few months, I'm gonna say yes. Because as much as I would love to present to the world a novel with an ass-kickin', name-takin' heroine who can be held up as a literary feminist icon, that's not this heroine. And that's not this book. This book is about characters who need help. They've been abandoned, abused, and misled, and they have to learn to rely on each other to make things better. Everyone will have moments of personal strength, but Luca, hiding in her basement, will never come out swinging the literal or verbal battleaxe, ready to dispense justice.

If this post is windy and muddled, it's because this is one of those issues that I'm still not sure quite how to address. It frustrates me deeply that I feel like I have to ask my own permission to write a character who makes sense for the story I'm working on, just because of her gender. This is my attempt to write it out so I can stop the Chorus of Conflicting Opinions from ringing out every single time she shows up on the page.

I'm writing a female character who doesn't kick ass. And I'm cool with that.

The interesting part will be watching how other people react to her.


  1. For those of us who have been unable to fight for ourselves at points in the past, or who are unable to fight right now, your character -does- kick ass, just by her existence, by the fect that she is one of us, one of the ones who is swept under the rug. Your character shows us we exist, and that may be the strongest part of all.

  2. really, the problem only arises in (good!) feminist critique of fiction when the damsel in distress is the ONLY representation of women in the story.

    When the damsel-in-distress (DiD) is held up as the ideal and the only role women play in that work of fiction, you end up with a problem.

    knowing your stuff i suspect that there will be other ladies in it, and there will be times when people disagree with the character, and it will be pretty plain that this is NOT the be-all and end-all and most awesome role women can ever play.

    I liked this little essay tho. I have some similar conevrsations with myself while writing Godseeker. I mean...Sombath, on some level, literally needs a man in order to access her power. Which is a whole set of problems right there.

  3. l think Kelly's right, honestly. To add to it, abuse and all the wonderful things that are associated with it are part of our world, and I think it could be said that acknowledging that, weather you do it via male or female characters, is a good idea. If every women you read about is kick ass, able to fend for herself and has none of the typical vulnerabilities, she's going to be very very boring to read - a large part of our interest in reading is being able to find ourselves in some way, or see how we would triumph in that situation. Being that we're human, and generally have our issues, sometimes we have to triumph by not kicking ass, but by finding our own way of going about it.

    I haven't read a lot of your work lately, but I still remember how you portrayed one of the female characters in Sixth, and that always seemed she was stronger then she portrayed, even when she was weak. Anyway, just my thoughts.


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