Writing for women is tricky. I don’t want to take away from writing for men or writing for all genders, but in the perfidiousness of patriarchy, we women seem locked eternally in the act of policing each other and that does add an extra component.
We do this constantly, almost without realizing it. We police ourselves – our bodies, our eating habits, our emotional expression, our sexual experience; and then we do it to the women around us. We write blogs that call for J.K. Rowling to stop writing, stop clogging up the market — while we leave the men and their bulky bibliographies alone. We say this one is too fat, and that one looks too anorexic; this one seeks too much attention and that one just shuts herself in – how can she ever hope to find a man?; this one is a prude and that one’s a slut. Of course all it means, is that the woman polices herself differently than we police ourselves, she has sex differently, cares for her body differently, engages with men or other women differently than we would (or can) – than we have internalized as the right way to behave. And we forget how many strings bind us, how deeply we have permitted ourselves to be locked in the simple struggle of being ourselves.
I don’t think men do that. Not like this, not many of them, anyway. Lily Myers in her poem “Shrinking Woman” said something that stuck with me. To her brother, she says “We come from difference, Jonas, you learned to grow out, and I learned to grow in.” We filter, we listen, we modify ourselves and analyze because we were taught to do so from birth. Even my mother – a liberal, a hippie, a stout feminist who struggled all her life because she raised us as a single parent – admitted to me once, after I pressed that she treated us differently. That while she made my brother coffee when he was sleepy, and cut him up vegetables so he’d have something healthy with his pizza, while she left him alone to study (because it’s more important and he was busy), I was expected to eschew pizza altogether (and received sighs and looks when I didn’t), to cook healthy, to be part of the household, to do the dishes and mind her feelings. All of those are good things – but there was no proportion: my brother got so little of these admonitions and I got all the rest. And I don’t blame my mother for this. She only learned from my grandmother, who still does the same to every woman around her. I listen to her talk, and every single one has something wrong with her – from her sister, to my mother, to me, to her neighbor – of my brother she only speaks kindly, tolerantly. And how could she not? My brother is wonderful, he’s the best man I know (and he took all these pictures of me) — but she doesn’t know him at all.
Every single friend of mine has a mother who policed her food, her weight, her sexual identity, the volume of her voice – or any of a million things that we now police in ourselves, the women around us, probably our daughters one day and definitely, definitely the fictional women we read about. And here we are at the reason why writing for women is tricky.
Fictional women have to be just flawed enough not to strike us as too unrealistic, as so much better than us that it becomes uncomfortable – but they also can’t be too flawed or our teachings kick in. She has to be “strong” but not arrogant; she has to be able to accommodate our own ego without leaving us behind.
In what I’ve read and what seems to be well received – this leaves us with two basic archetypes. One is the “least offensive woman possible”. She’s the girl with very little character of her own and who every reader can project herself into – the Bella Swans, basically. As far as I can tell – and have seen expressed in this way a lot – she is just necessary to play out the fantasy of the perfect guy, but she should be almost negligible in her effect. It’s all about him, the less the reader has to think about her, be confronted with her the better. She can be seen, but not heard, basically.
The other archetype is the “strong female lead”, the fighter chick, the one who won’t cry a tear over some idiot, who knows how to play with her sexuality to get what she wants or eschews it altogether. These girls are tough, confident, sometimes even brash and they yeah, they kick ass.
I like a girl who can kick ass!
But we also ended up, yet again, in a strange position where we constantly pit these two against each other, and that ended us up at a very strange idea of what strength looks like in women, and reversely what weakness is.
In an author group I attend, someone recently proudly reported that she realized how much her character cried in the novel and promptly fixed it all as to not make her look so weak. Another large sheet comparing all the recent YA heroines with each other, marked almost all of them as having “poor self-esteem”. Talking about feelings, having feelings and expressing those is becoming whiny and annoying and that makes me uncomfortable.
We live in a world in which guys are under this strain all their lives. To show emotion, they learn this from their fathers (and if they have better fathers than that, they learn it hard at school), is to be a girl, a sissy, a momma’s boy. And so they shut it down. We are faced with a generation of men who have no idea what they are feeling, because they were bullied into shutting it down. Men who can rape unconscious girls not because they are cruel, but because they have been taught that compassion and pity and kindness and sweetness is an unacceptable trait in their social circle.
And I don’t want that for women, and I certainly don’t want it for female leads.
That’s not what strength is.
I think I’m a pretty strong woman. I have ambitions and I work for them. I stared at a razor blade and stepped off the ledge and got help instead because of the people I love. I do things that scare me every day, I am loyal to my friends. I have convictions and I stand up for them.
But I also cry all the time – from a public service announcement about equality, to a movie, to just because I got a bad review or because I’m scared of the future. I have panic attacks and anxiety; I overanalyze everything I do and everything anyone says to me. I secretly think I am terribly ugly and nobody could ever love me.
And I am still not weak. I can be strong and cry. I can be strong and be afraid. I can be strong and quaver at the thought of my crush seeing me naked for the first time. Strength is not the denial of negative, hurtful or worrying emotions. Strength is to go on in spite of them, accepting them and limiting their power.
Strength is to stick up for friends even if that scares you, even if you could never do that for yourself. Strength is to have convictions and to stick to them — but strength is also to alter them when you grow older and learn new things. Strength is to say you were wrong and that you’re sorry, more sorry than you could ever say. And strength is to love and to trust and to be alive and open and vulnerable every day. Strength is to let people in and to show yourself to them, for who you really are.
That’s the kind of characters I want to read about. Strong women who cry.