Other People's Books

Representation matters, part 2

Dara’s just put up an excellent post on the topic of how even progressive, liberal people can commit unintentional acts of sexism in their creative work. She’s responding to the question brought to her by a male comics artist who was told his mostly male cast is sexist, despite the political tone of his work leaning to the left. He wanted to know what Dara thought. Picosummary: Dara says the woman who told him that is right, actually.

Go click over to what Dara has to say, won’t you? And to her words I’d like to add: yes, as with race or with sexual orientation, representation in gender matters too. Especially in our storytelling.

As you all know, I read. A lot. But if you take a peek at the titles that’ve been on my reported reading lists for the last couple of years, you’ll probably notice a thing: the majority of novels I read are written by women. Someone who doesn’t know me might immediately conclude that “oh well Anna, she’s a girl, of course she wants to read girly books like romance or chick lit with girly things in them! Like FEELINGS!”

And if you thought that, you’d be wrong.

Most of the authors I read being female boils down to something much more simple: female authors are way more likely to give me a cast of characters with more than a single token female character. You’ve heard about the Bechdel test, right? Y’know, how in order to pass that test, a story needs to have more than one woman, and they need to talk to each other, about something that isn’t a man?

Kinda funny how I find this a lot more often in books written by women. And by funny, I mean frustrating. Don’t get me wrong, there are shining exceptions to this tendency in my library–Jim Hines comes immediately to mind, with his Princess series. And while I have several more excellent male authors in my library as well, I genuinely have to wrack my brains to think of any others who’ve managed to pull this off.

Even if a book doesn’t pass the Bechdel test, at minimum, I like to see women in lead roles. And I’m not just talking romance, either, though I am a documented romantic sucker. Nor am I talking the now-stereotypical “strong female character” that’s usually shorthand for “woman who has more sarcasm than sense and solves all her problems by hitting them with weaponry”–though in the right hands, I like this, too. But give me women who are leaders among their people, whether human, elven, dwarven, or whatever other species they might happen to be. Give me women who are heroes, women who are mages, women who go on quests and get to save the world.

Give me women who are scientists, and who do actual science, as opposed to just parading around a book wearing glasses because that’s shorthand for “this character is smart”. I want to see that woman being smart. Bonus points if a woman wearing glasses at no point is ever thought to be prettier without her glasses.

Give me women who are superheroes. Give me Wonder Woman, goddammit–and a Wonder Woman who is defined by more than just “she’s got superpowers so she gets to be Superman’s girlfriend now”.

Give me secondary female characters who are in positions of power, and who are there to do more than just encourage the female lead in whatever relationship the plot’s setting up for her. Give me hunters and scouts and healers and fire-mages and queens and priestesses. Give me starship captains.

Give me a series who does any of these, and I’ll be giving that series my money, support, and reading time and love.

Representation matters.

ETA: I’m already starting to get a couple of recommendations from folks about male authors who’ve written female lead characters. That’s awesome, but it’s also not the point of this post. Like I said, I’ve gotten several excellent male authors in my library. A couple of them have in fact written good strong female lead characters. But male authors who’ve got not only female lead characters but also a good representation of females in their cast in general are harder to come by.

I find it problematic for some urban fantasy or paranormal romance written by women, too, for the record. One of the biggest problems I have with some long-running urban fantasy series is the dearth of female characters in them other than the leads, and how a lot of the time, the only other women who show up are there to be bitchy to the heroine, or to be romantic rivals.

And really, y’all, I ain’t hurting for books to read right now. You DO know I’ve got over 1,100 books on my To Read list, right? 😉

ETA #2: And while I’m on the topic, it’s worth noting that the book I’m reading right now, i.e., the excellent The Hum and the Shiver, is a) written by a guy, i.e., Alex Bledsoe, and b) does indeed pass the Bechdel at least twice so far, and that’s with having two other notable female characters interacting with the heroine.

So yeah, trust me, I’m paying attention on this, guys. Also: really digging The Hum and the Shiver.

ETA #3: And OH HEY well this is timely to my post, now isn’t it? The Mary Sue has a piece up now about the need for female villains. They are correct. Powerful female villains are just as important as female protagonists!

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