Feminist SF/F: on Feminist Characters

During #FeministSF twitter chat yesterday, a question was floated about what kind of women we want to see more often in speculative fiction, and what kinds of characters are feminist. Keri@Feministfantasy.com called for strong female characters: independent women who save themselves and make their own choices, and are not defined by men. This is, I think, the popular notion of what a feminist heroine should be like.

A discussion followed, and I said many things, and some people said I should write up my thoughts as an entry.* Here goes.

In the twitter chat, I said:

For me, a feminist work showcases a variety of women, not necessarily a “typical” strong female character. I feel that by limiting feminist expression to strong female characters only, we are shortchanging ourselves. If male characters are allowed to be strong, weak, broken, insane, anti-heroes – why can’t we have a range of female characters likewise? I think that writing women in a non-stereotyping way, as people with desires, weaknesses, strengths – is feminist.
I want portrayals of women that are as vivid and varied as portrayals of men.

Limiting the range of female characters to the kickass-heroine, we are saying that only one type of woman is worthy of story.

I say, that approach is helpful in a short run, but harmful in the long run.

Let me unpack.

The Warrior Woman is a powerful archetype. We are still fighing very simple battles. We live in a world where all-male Best-of anthologies are published, where women’s books are reviewed less than books by men, where all-men panels happen – heck, we live in a world where all-male groups are empowered to decide on a woman’s rights to her own body. Against these, the Warrior Woman stands tall. She is powerful and unafraid of power. She does not complain , does not bend, does not hesitate. She may grieve, but her grief will never put her in a corner. She towers above the cowing figures of those who oppress us. She lends us strength. She is an Example of how we want to be, powerful and free and unafraid. She is an archetype, a token, and we need her – we need her in life and we need her in books and movies. She empowers us. There is not enough of her, yet.

But in a way, she also undermines us.

A subtype of the Warrior Woman is the Professional. She is a scientist, a doctor, an astronaut. She is fearless, competent, and wise. She is usually alone, surrounded by male colleagues who are sometimes goofy, immature, undersocialized, or just plain wrong. But never the Professional. She is never immature, never undersocialized, never abrupt, never wrong, never makes horrible mistakes with friends. She must be polite and rational and calm. She must never, ever be impolite or offensive, because women are so often demonized and underrepresented and barred from professions for various reasons (including ascribed overemotionality) that the Professional must always guard against it, always present a flawless Example. She is always, always a Token.

In classic theories of gender and language, women are said to be more polite because women are disempowered. Robin Lakoff (1975) theorized that lack of power is a key factor in constructing women’s discourse; due to women’s subordinate position in society relative to men, women would strive to minimize any threat to the people in power (men), and would therefore come across as more polite.

“Men are power brokers in most speech communities, while women are subordinate. Men can dominate the talking time, interrupt, and use a narrower range of speech variants because they don’t need to worry about pleasing their interlocutors, especially when the addressee is a woman. Women by contrast need to be supportive and non-aggressive and must be linguistically flexible in order to survive in societies in which they are not in control” (Eckert and McGonnell-Ginet 1998, 491)

This notion of power and powerlessness is very, very basic. As sociolinguists, we’ve moved quite a ways from it, and we know now that these generalizations about women and power in discourse are not borne out by the data. The data are, in fact, extremely diverse. (c.f. the work of Cameron and Mills in particular). Still, this notion of women as powerless, however inaccurate or incomplete, “provides a powerful symbolic meaning” (Cameron 2000, 333) that affects both people’s behavior and societal expectations.

What I am trying to say is, with the Warrior Woman (and her subtype, the Professional) always and only our Story, we as women act out our powerlessness – our desire to be invincible and able to ordain our own fate (Warrior Woman), and our desire to be Impeccably Competent in order to be Allowed to Exercise our Chosen Professions.

I want women to dream their literary heroines from a position of strength. Just as we know by now (I hope) that women are not always polite, so we should be able to have heroines who do not always represent our oppression. The way to get there, I think, is through multiple, intersectional, and diverse (yet not stereotyped or cartoonish) portrayals of women. I want women to be able to be Neurotic Geniuses. I want the Amazing Inventor with bad hair and mismatched socks who yells sometimes and makes her friends upset, and sometimes forgets to eat, and sometimes forgets to do laundry. I want to read about the Magician who forgets to check her email and gets embroiled in a political struggle at her University, which she loses ungraciously. I want to read about Neurotic Creative Professionals – architects, writers, film directors, music composers – who, in throws of creativity, can be quite upsetting to be around. I want to read about a brilliant woman scientist who is also a miserable drunk. I want to read about the person in a wheelchair who loves her work, but who takes her disability really hard. I want to read about women who are child-free by choice, and women who are mothers. I want to read about mothers who decided to stay at home, and mothers who work. I want to read about women who are fat and not, women who struggle with weight and women who do not. I want to read about asexual women, bisexual women, I want to read about people who are genderqueer and trans* and questioning. I want to read about menopausal women. I want to read about a heroine who is eighty two. I want to read about women who are mentally ill. I want to read a book with a feminist anti-hero. I want to read about kinky women, I want to read about dominant women and submissive women. And note, I haven’t even touched upon the questions of racial, ethnic, and linguistic diversity!

One side effect of writing a range of women is that we might not be comfortable with all of those characters, all of those women, all of those people. In real life, unless you are extremely holy, you won’t be comfortable with all the people you know. But what we often do in genre is allow men to be uncomfortable and difficult, but erase the women who are less than warm and fuzzy-making.

What I am saying is simple. As I see it, limiting women’s creativity to the Warrior archetype is limiting us in difficult ways that are ultimately bad for us, because this perpetuates our oppression. There are all kinds of men in speculative literature. There are NOT all kinds of women in speculative literature. There should be all kinds of women in speculative literature. Having all kinds of women who are human and complex will empower us to be ourselves, and comfortable in our skins. It is not easy, but I think we can get there.

* Additional and very important points were raised by Ekaterina Sedia (@esedia) and Alex Dally MacFarlane (@foxtailedgirl) among others; I encourage you to check out #FeministSF.


And ETA: Alex Dally MacFarlane wrote an excellent and important follow-up entry on female friendships. I did not want to discuss female friendships in my entry, because Alex raised this point in the original twitter chat, and I was hoping she’d write up an entry on this topic – and she did. Thank you, Alex.