(Disclaimer: I'm such a fail at explaining this topic, so if I accidentally said something offensive, please let me know so I can fix it!)
This is something embarassing I came to notice about my writing, and I'm going to publically admit it in hopes that maybe others who are doing this might actually become aware of it, because I really wish someone told me about this sooner!
I'm going to speak from the point of view of myself, an American female who comes from a highly conservative, patriachial family system where it's taught that men are the head of the household while women are seen as stupid and lesser beings. I'll show you how I internalized it without even knowing, and my family upbringing along with social influences subconsciously influenced my perspective toward women in general. And I'll point out how it ended up rearing its ugly head in my own writing.
In American society (and many other societies) in general, women get shamed and bashed simply for being women. Put a man in the same situation, no consequences. For example, Taylor Swift dates a few guys, she's suddenly a slut and everyone mocks her by saying "Don't date her! she'll write you into her next song!" Take any guy artist who's had multiple girlfriends. Any negative perception of him there based on that? Nooope.
Looking at our movie industry, compare the number of blockbuster movies with female leads vs. male leads. Males will greatly outnumber females. And even in those female-led films, there's usually one main female surrounded by a predominantly all-male cast.
There isn't a SINGLE female character in The Hobbit, and a shit ton of people didn't notice. I didn't even notice until someone pointed it out to me. (I'm not criticizing the lack of female characters, because that was hugely influenced by the setting and time period. My beef is the fact that we're fed so much male-centric media that we fail to notice a female-less cast in today's supposedly "progressive, male-female equality" age.)
How often have you seen someone read a book and say "I like the male lead best!" "What about the female MC?" "She's eh."? In 90% of the books I've read, I've hated the female protagonist while loving the male protagonist. Flip it so the male is the protagonist, I love him way more than any females in his life. The male is usually far more well-developed than the female.
These are just a few examples, but despite our efforts at progressive thinking toward male/female equality, our society as a whole is actually still anti-female. It's not outright "damsel in distress" kind of thing. It's really subtle, and you really don't notice it until someone tells you.
Do we do this on purpose? In most cases, no! Like I said, it's something that was subtly fed into our brains from the start. When I asked for an N64 back in the '90s, my dad literally asked his friends "can girls play video games...?" Even now, the girl's section in the toystore is highly distinct from the boy's. I saw a tumblr post of someone ranting how she was a knight at some event, and this little girl walked by and told her mom she wanted to be a knight. The mom shot her down, saying that's for boys. Then the knight walks over, takes off her helmet, and apparently the face the mom made was priceless.
This all shows that we get subtle influences of strict gender roles from birth. And those gender roles tend to advocate men being the better gender. Females can still reach the same heights as men, but they have to work far harder. My aunt is a lawyer, and she told us how it's difficult for a woman to rise in the ranks and be taken seriously in that career. So yes, we're not a gender-equal society just yet. Damsels in distress are not the only negative "female" trope.
But this how-to isn't a rant on feminism. It's how we can avoid some of the less obvious anti-female portrayals in our writing. So let's get to it! (Note: I'm not specifically mentioning transgender and any other types of gender outside of male and female, but apply that to this how-to as you see fit.)
So in most of my stories, there are only 1 or 2 prominent female characters. The rest of the cast are all guys. In Guardian Redemption, Kairi is the only female pov character among four other male povs. The only other big female character ends up dying--for a man. In Stray, Annie is the only main female. The other main characters are Darren and his brothers. Annie lives with her uncle and Darren with his dad. There is almost no other female presence, and any is extremely inconsequential. In VENGEANCE, Takara is the only female of any consequence with two guy friends, a brother, and a father.
Writing tip #1: Create a cast balanced in gender. Try to avoid casts that are overwelmingly male (unless it's a requirement of the setting, e.g. Mulan where she joined the army so OF COURSE there would only be other males surrounding her most of the time). If the gender of a character doesn't affect the plot and you find yourself with a predominantly-male cast anyway, why not make some of them female? Instead of a brother, what if the protagonist had a sister? What about the villain? You don't see too many sociopathic female characters! (On the flipside, don't go to the other extreme and write all-female casts unless the setting/situation calls for it.)
Next, when a female has a problem in my stories, it revolves around a male character. In Guardians, Kairi wants to sever her telepathic link from Cleon. Then when he gets possessed by a giant monster, she has to risk her neck to stop it. She goes to another male character for help. All her goals focus on other men. In Stray, Annie's entire problem is Darren. She didn't have a life outside of him or his problems. Her goal is saving him from... you guessed it--another male character.
Writing tip #2: Give your female characters goals for THEMSELVES, not goals that revolve around another male. (obviously, many exceptions to this, and simply giving your female character a male-centered goal absolutely wouldn't make her weak or anti-feminist or whatever. But it may add to other existing anti-female issues in your writing. Or it might not! Analyze and decide for your specific situation.)
The female character usually should have a life beyond another male character. I actually accomplished this in VEN, where Takara's goal was to become a war hero by stopping a genocide. It had nothing to do with a man.
Another shameful thing I did was have most of my female characters take on masculine traits and shun all feminine ones.
I consider myself a tomboy, but even I have what one would consider "girly" interests. I love stuffed animals and sparkly things and can appreciate pretty hairstyles and flowers and sunsets and all that. And yet I found myself looking with disdain at any girl who spent more than 5 minutes on their appearance in the morning, who loved the color pink, went shopping and talked about clothes and boys and whatever other stereotypically negative feminine traits. Our society kind of teaches us to find such interests and behavior "frivolous" and superficial/petty, even though it's obviously not. But still, I ended up soaking in those perceptions and as such, my female characters were always all macho fighters who never took care of their appearance or flirted with guys, wore pretty dresses, did their hair, nails, makeup--nothing like that. And not only did they not partake in "feminine" behavior, they scoffed at it. They act like men, only have male friends, are physically rowdy and violent, etc.
Writing tip #3: Traditional "feminine" traits are not to be scorned by your female characters in order to look tougher or stronger. Let your female (and male!) characters embrace their feminine side as well as masculine traits. Gender is on a gradient and being more toward the feminine end is not shameful. Let your female characters paint their nails or enjoy wearing dresses (the dress thing is something so overdone in literature... Every girl who gets forced into a dress is, for some reason, obligated by the writing gods to hate the experience and complain about how useless and uncomfortable dresses are. And yes, my characters have done this too, unfortuantely.).
Toph is a great example of how to do it right! (Toph is a great example of everything good in writing haha.) She's extremely macho and tomboyish, but she genuinely enjoyed the spa day with Katara where she got her makeup done and got pretty new clothes, and she didn't try to hide the fact that she was having fun. She didn't scoff in the face of "girly" activities. It's not really her, but she doesn't look down on other people if they like it, and she can see the fun in it too.
(And don't forget the men, either! They're allowed to like pretty things and get new clothes and admire pretty things.)
I'm sure I've made many more unintended anti-feminine jabs in my writing, but this is a good starting point for your understanding. Hopefully this opened your eyes to how skewed our society's basic perceptions of females vs. males tend to be, and maybe you'll be able to spot some issues in literature as well as your own writing.
Seriously, I'm mortified how many anti-female ideas have crept their way into my writing, and I'm conducting every effort to fix it in past and future works. If you found out your ideas are a little backwards, don't feel bad! Figure out how you can tweak a few things to present a little more gender equality and progressive thinking in your writing. It's absolutely fixable if you put your mind to it.
Keep in mind: SO MANY EXCEPTIONS EXIST BASED ON THE SETTING/SITUATION. This is a really general guide to get you to see things from a different angle in case you weren't aware of this.
This goes along with the Bechdel Test. Failing it doesn't mean you write weak females, and passing doesn't mean you have a 100% progressive book. Same thing with the writing tips I gave in this chapter. A female in a reverse-harem trope might be the most feministic character ever written, and a macho female isn't inherently bad either.
Gender is a complicated topic, and what may be sexist to one person in one situation might be equality by someone else's perception. A girl getting saved by a boy doesn't automatically make her a damsel in distress. Being a tomboy and only having male friends doesn't automatically make her anti-feminine. Judge your individual story situations for yourself and see if there are any harmful anti-feminine concerns you can address.
So what do you guys think? After reading this, have you spotted some less-than-equal gender tropes/stereotypes/ideas in your stories that you think you can change? What are some other anti-feminine tropes you can think of that I didn't cover in this chapter?
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