Friday, May 10, 2013

Missing out

I am really fond of asking newly met people in pubs or at parties questions like

‘how old are you inside?’

‘does your mother understand what you do for a job?’ and

‘what do you do when you are not earning money?

These questions receive a variety of answers, some unique, some boring, but hopefully even with the boring answers, I work with the person to think more deeply and a little sidewise about the question, and we will get to a new and interesting answer for both of us.

I came up with a new one last year, which I was very proud of

‘who are your role models or people you find inspirational who are not of your gender?’

This is now my favourite question because so many people just don’t bother crossing gender lines when it comes to the people that inspire them.

I actually came up with the question because a group of women and I had been discussing our favourite films with female leads and realised that most of them were films based on books written by women. Very few original and classic movie scripts had unforgettable lead female characters unless a woman wrote the script, the movie was directed by a woman, or the actress was allowed to let her talent off the leash.

As a result of that discussion I asked a lot of women the following questions

1. Who are your favourite lead female characters in a book written by a woman? I'd be interested especially in modern characters as well as those in the classics.

2. Who are your favourite lead female characters in a film/TV show written/directed by a woman? If not written or directed by a woman, a character that has been well-acted and elevated by the talent of the actress.

3. Who are your favourite male characters in a book written by a man?

Once I got to question three of course I had my new pub/party question – who are your heroes/influences/inspirations of the opposite gender? – and I had my new and slightly disturbing insight into gender bias in popular culture. The question was designed to get past, for both men and women, the gender bias of men choosing or being directed towards 'men's stories' and women choosing or being directed towards 'women's stories' when they are developing their taste in literature and popular culture.

Ariel posted the article The Gender Coverup by Maureen Johnson at The Huffington Post to my Facebook Wall this morning and I read it with a growing sense of déjà vu.

Here, a rueful admission that female readers, especially in English Literature classes across the English-speaking world, are studying reading lists of male authors.

"Do you know how much I read about aging men and their penises and their lust for younger women and their hatred of their castrating wives? I read enough stories about male writing professors having midlife crises and lusting after young students to last me seven lifetimes. Can you imagine the reverse? Can you imagine classes in which guys read nothing but Germaine Greer, Eve Ensler, and Caryl Churchill? Can you imagine whole semesters of reading about vaginas? Again, I mean outside of a specialized class in women's literature or anything about the human reproductive system. I seriously doubt you can."

Maureen Johnson, The Gender Coverup

I may have talked about female heroes in Hollywood Films, but to reluctantly agree that my favorite part of life, the world of books, is completely gender biased, is a sad day.

I even had to have a little giggle when I read this passage, which reminded me of some of my own conclusions on women being ideologically bilingual.

"So, we're thinking about boys and girls and what they read. The assumption, as I understand it, is that females are flexible and accepting creatures who can read absolutely anything. We're like acrobats. We can tie our legs over our heads. Bring it on. There is nothing we cannot handle.

Boys, on the other hand, are much more delicately balanced. To ask them to read "girl" stories (whatever those might be) will cause the whole venture to fall apart. They are finely tuned, like Formula One cars, which require preheated fluids and warmed tires in order to operate -- as opposed to girls, who are like pickup trucks or big, family-style SUVs. We can go anywhere, through anything, on any old literary fuel you put in us."

Maureen Johnson, The Gender Coverup

This article is challenging to read as a writer who is also female, because it sets out the illogical threats to our success that our gender presents, in an already difficult area of endeavour. It also shows how shallow the experience of reading can be made for men. While women can read books by both genders about both genders, men are held back from doing the same? It’s a tragedy for male readers for sure, this strange action to keep them from meeting some of the great women of literature.

Last year, as I was asking questions of the women around me, I was pleased to be given lists and lists of beloved books with strong female characters written by wonderful female authors. I remember going home and holding my own favourite book Villette, thankful for the literary world of women who do not have to go through a midlife crisis to be lead characters. And I remember a rather smug feeling of holding a great secret in that book. No matter how important those boring, sex-obsessed men on the syllabus think they are, they can’t actually get inside my heart and displace the cool logic, heated intelligence and steely resolve of Lucy Snowe, Christabel La Motte, Lizzie Bennett and Sara Liwellan. Not a chance. Being a woman in literature is about being tough, and most men just aren’t that tough.

Great female characters written by great male authors and great male characters written by great female authors are found here.

Great female characters written by great female authors are found here.

Female characters in popular culture in review are found here.


MWBLesq said...

Q1 - 10 and 80.
Q2 - Yes.
Q3 - Continue doing the same work, only for free.
Q4 - Marie Curie, Ronda Rousey and Ursula LeGuin to just touch the tip of the iceberg.

Another great post, I do believe I am getting hooked on this blog! I can honestly say from the perspective of an educator that whilst the comment of boys being more inflexible and less willing to experiment across the literary (or entertainment in general) gender divide, it is not always the case. I'll cite my own childhood reading habits for one, but this year I have found the girls in my classroom far more reluctant about picking up 'boy things' than the boys fussing over 'girl things'. I have come to believe that having a male teacher on top of being a very small minority in the class has them feeling that their identity (their 'feminine' identity in particular) is threatened. Alarmingly, one girl keeps complaining that science videos are 'boys stuff'. I absolutely will have her mind changed about that by the end of the year or I will quit my job and become a greengrocer.

However, sweeping claims about men tend to marginalize, just as sweeping claims about women. I have a great group of boys this year who have leapt in head first.

I must say, I always include as an introduction of myself to my students at the start of the year a list of my heroes, and I always ensure that the number of women outnumbers the men in my list for just this reason; I want to prove to the boys that nothing is taken away from our masculinity by respecting, admiring and aspiring to be like great women.

Final comment; your list of questions is missing the following good 'un;

1. What is your favourite female character written by a man?

Answer- Tiffany Aching from the book 'The Wee Free Men' by Terry Pratchett. That fantastic character is convincing troupes of young men every year that female heroes are badass.

Claire Madeleine said...

Terry Pratchett is a legend, there is no doubt about that. The Witches are genius, but Death is my favorite. The Emily Dickinson coming out in me :)

I do have to say that I don't ask women who their favorite woman is written by a man, because it is the status quo in books, movies, TV shows, advertising and life. We are told by men what we are. It smacks of Stockholm Syndrome to try and praise it on the same level as women written by women.

I will accept that we can have a list of women written by men who convince men that women can do anything, that would be a great exercise, but ultimately one that is not useful to women. We don't need a man to tell us we are great. We need men to realise we are great through their own logical processes.

As female readers, after we have given due respect to all the great male writers out there, and we do read all of them because, well, our marks depend on it and they are great writers so we don't discriminate, we go out and find the books that talk to us. And we treasure our female characters written by women because it is in our language, finally.

If we lived in a world in which every male experienced the storytelling of their identity by exclusively female writers and creators I would be asking everyone for their favorite woman written by a man. But that is not how the world is. So while men writing women is important so men remember that they should be writing women, I think men meeting the men in literature written by women is way more important to starting the ball rolling towards some kind of equality.

Claire Madeleine said...

Q1 - That is the youngest and oldest age range I have encountered yet!

Q2 - *grin*

Q3 - a teacher's work is never done

Q4 - Marvelous women, all. Ursula LeGuin is a titan, I studied Fantasy and Science Fiction in a History Honors Thesis, and Ursula is the critic and writer par excellence of speculative fiction.

Helena Worth said...

Claire your comment 'I will accept that we can have a list of women written by men who convince men that women can do anything, that would be a great exercise, but ultimately one that is not useful to women. We don't need a man to tell us we are great. We need men to realise we are great through their own logical processes' gives the impression that you have not considered that such a list of women written by men could identify those very men who have realised women are great through their own logical processes and experiences and are writing of what they know, what already exists. While it may be hard to establish the inspiration for some of these characters, and they are not characters I know, it sounds as though you are not open to the possibility that they could be based upon real women.

Claire Madeleine said...

Ariel - very true.

It's a bit like the anecdote the mighty Frank Broeze told in my first year History class. He was writing a lecture on women in Nazi Germany and went to his favorite book on Nazi Germany, went to the index, and according to the index there were no women in Nazi Germany.

Which is patently ridiculous. It wasn't that there weren't women in Nazi Germany, or that they weren't the very backbone of the Nazi Philosophy or war effort. And the men in Nazi Germany really, REALLY did know there were women around, I can assure you that. It's just that they weren't written about.

I have equal numbers of great female characters that I love written by men, GRR Martin and Robert Jordan, Joss Whedon, Shakespeare ... etc etc etc etc. Of course men can write women, and write them well. Women make up half their lives, their mums, their sisters, their wives, their daughters, their friends, their lovers, their enemies. Just like women write great men. The gender divide is an universal institution, not something that everyone accepts personally.

And great literature by men of course has great women characters, otherwise it wouldn't be great literature.

A list of great women written by men, therefore, as a resource for MEN to use to remember that writing about women is something that they can do, should do and have done is a great idea. Get more men actually writing about women and giving women 50% of the pages, screen time and stage time ... trust me, I'm all over that idea. But that is for MEN to think about, to change their view of who is important to consider when they want to tell stories. This is a little side skirmish, patting the past literature on the back for remembering that half the world is female.

That is not why I am writing thousands of words on the topic of feminism. I want to look to the future. I want to see women writing whatever they want, only about men if they want, and I want to see those stories taking up half the pages of books published each year, half the roles in films and stage plays. Because, unlike the people who wrote Frank Broeze's book on Nazi Germany, we are all, male and female alike, aware that half the world is women. And their stories are no longer invisible.