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Wednesday, September 23, 2015

GUESTPOST: "Men With Breasts Or Women With Agency?" by T. O. Munro

There is a 1997 film called “As Good as it Gets” where Jack Nicholson plays a celebrated but misanthropic author with severe obsessive compulsive disorder. Nicholson has a talent for playing the obnoxious and the arrogant with total conviction, but there is one particular exchange which stuck in my mind. A female fan is gushing enthusiasm at Nicholson’s irritable character and asks

How do you write women so well?”

To which he replies “I think of a man, and I take away reason and accountability.”

While no-one I know of could seriously adopt such a stance, the quote highlights questions which have scratched at my conscience for the last few years now.

How does a man write women well?” and “What does it mean to be a well written female character in the context of epic fantasy?”

It is perhaps a little late for me still to be considering these questions. I am a man and I finished my epic fantasy trilogy last October. The bloodline books feature a number of leading female characters whose point of view I have portrayed in the throes of both joy and despair, facing triumph and disaster (though this being a dark and epic fantasy the balance is not exactly 50:50). Half a million words in, I should probably be more confident of having answered my own questions, but then, like my leading lady Niarmit I am forever tortured by duty and self-doubt.

As a father of four daughters and with a sister who has soared to quite exalted success in the world of international banking, it is natural for me to want to give women their rightful place at the table of power and influence in my books. While only one of my daughters has enough of a liking for epic fantasy to have read my books, that hasn’t stifled discussion with the others about the representation of women in film and books.

It was my eldest daughter who first objected to my use of a relatively popular phrase “strong female characters” To use that adjective, when one would not so naturally use it for a male, implies a default representation of women as weak characters. To be complicit in a convention that they are usually mere straws blown by the wind of other (male) personalities. So, Niarmit, Dema, Hepdida and Quintala are my leading female characters, (Giseanne, Elise, Marvenna and Persapha also have their parts to play in key point of view scenes).

It was the same daughter who told me of the Bechdel test on the equality of representation of women in films and indeed in books. It’s a simple three part question. Does the work feature:

• At least two named women,

• who talk to each other,

• about something other than a man?

It is a test which many of my second daughter’s favourite Avengers movies rather comprehensively fail, even though research has shown that films which pass the Bechdel test are higher grossing, lower costing than those that fail it. My own books do pass the test, though they do so incidentally rather than by design; writing must always be driven by the stories and the characters rather than by any notion of meeting a politically correct formula.

At the same time, the stories any author wants to write will be shaped by their own beliefs and experiences. I loved Lord of the Rings – still do – but found it left me wanting more in three key ways,

• A great weapon whose power was not vaguely awesome but was revealed to the reader in precise detail

• A big bad guy who was not merely a malevolent influence at the periphery of vision but had a real presence, personality and distinctive voice

• More female characters in the front line of the story – Eowyns and Galadriels aplenty seizing the centre stage.

But beneath that commitment to roles for women lurks the undeniable fact that I am not a woman (Though one internet personality quiz did give me a rather high score for femininity). There is a sense of presumption in setting out to accurately portray a female point of view and a constant fear that I may have done it wrong.

There are, for me at least, two dimensions to this dilemma.

The first of which is what role do the female characters fulfil – the question “Are they men with breasts or women with agency?” That is to say does one write a host of Eowyns riding into battle out-men-ing the men at their own game and crying out “Begone foul dwimmerlaik” as they scythe down the great captains of evil. Or is it better to populate your pages with the likes of the historical Eleanor of Aquitaine, wife of two kings, mother of three and an absolute political and historical heavyweight despite never having “come between a nazgul and his prey”?

There is a validity to both approaches. In contemporary life we are used to the notion of career ladders segregated by glass ceilings for women, so why should a women not be the kick ass sword wielding demon. I recently saw and shared a facebook post on the six intrepid female archaeologists who went caving down a seven inch rock tube lined with shark tooth edges in order to recover remains of a previously unknown hominid species from a place so dangerously inaccessible no man could reach it. There is a need to challenge every stereotype of what is the preserve of men and of what women can do. But at the same time there is a risk in portraying women’s only access to success as being by out-manning the men.

Equality of representation operates across a continuum not at a point. The sword wielding demons are at one end of that spectrum – and right out on point is Nysta – the heroine of Lucas Thorn’s Revenge of the Elf. They are those who succeed inspite of being a woman. At the other end there are those who succeed because of being a woman – those who out-woman the men. And in between there are blends of both approaches.

It is a spectrum that runs:

•   from George R. R. Martin’s Arya to Sansa in A Song of Fire and Ice,

•   from Joe Abercrombie’s Thorn Bakhu to the young Queen Skara in the Shattered Sea Trilogy,

•   from Mark Lawrence’s eagerly anticipated Red Sister to Katherine ap Scorron.

•  from Mazarkis WilliamsGrada the knifesworn assassin to Mesema partner to two emperors.

In my own work, while Niarmit, Dema and Quintala all kick butt to varying degrees, Hepdida, Giseanne, Rohdra and Elise exert influence of a more subtle kind.

It is the existence of that continuum which may lead some to say there is no issue with writing women. We just write people some of whom happen to be of the female persuasion, but who can nonetheless be all things to all men and women. This is a line Mark Lawrence takes in his blogspot on the completion of his “Red Sister” and in particular a question he asked of his beta readers.

I asked, if I changed every she to a he, every convent to monastery, every abbess to abbot ... would it now ring false? Would my boy characters now seem 'girly'?"

"There was some talk about girls and women being 'more about relationships' and 'interpreting more levels in a conversation' but at the end of the answer was 'no' - if I swapped everything around my convincing girls would be convincing boys.”

This brings me to the second dimension in my dilemma of being a man writing women. How far can or should the character’s gender show in their actions and their words? If one swopped the pronouns and masculinised the names as Mark Lawrence hypothesised would the story still read as well. If a character’s every “she” became a “he” if Hepdida became Hepdidus would their words and actions still work?

On the one hand, one might argue that it should still work – that women are people after all, that we are writing characters not genders, that each gender is equally capable of the full range of human emotion and motivation. But on the other hand you could argue that, if swapping pronouns and names makes no difference, then how can we claim to have written a woman well, rather than say writing a person well. How can we claim to have written a woman at all?

Let us be honest, men and women are different. Sure it is a fractional genetic deficiency that makes a man rather than a women. (That old Y-chromsome is just an X-chromosome with one leg missing – which is why, in my science teaching days I could honestly tell classes that girls were genetically more complex than boys.) But that difference shapes more than just shape.

My second daughter will ring us when she’s walking home from university, she doesn’t like to appear alone or out of contact when walking the streets. There is a vulnerability to being a woman which men can easily forget. The closest I can get to it is imagining my days as a small school boy walking home past the local comprehensive, trying hard not to cause offence or draw attention with a misplaced look. I only got hit a couple of times but that sense of everyday vulnerability lingers on into adulthood for many maybe even all women.

As a teacher I noticed a yawning gulf in confidence (arrogance even) between the girls and boys in my science class. I crudely summarised it at one parents’ evening as “A boy can understand 10% of something and think he knows everything, a girl can understand 90% of something and think she knows nothing.” It is a difference in attitude that I saw perpetuated into senior management as a deputy head in a girls’ school which shared a sixth form and a close working relationship with the co-located boys’ school. While there was rarely more than a cigarette paper’s width difference in the outcomes the two schools achieved with the brothers and sisters from the same families, there was a robust confidence in the leadership of the boys school a focus on what had been achieved, while at the girls’ school we were more keenly aware of what had yet to be accomplished.

For all the significant overlap between the genders there is a difference and while the French may celebrate it with the phrase “Vive la difference” there is still the question of how does one faithfully show it or “Montrez la difference.” Mark Lawrence was asked if he would ever refer to menstruation given the female lead in his new work and his view was that he would no more do that he would write about other bodily functions which, while they undoubtedly existed and were attended to, had no part in moving the story forward. That said, I do recall one reference to Jalan dangling his backside off the side of a boat and rueing the fact this was not the best attitude in which to woo the attractive young woman sitting in the sternsheets.

Joe Abercrombie, in contrast, was lambasted by one reader for explicitly mentioning menstruation in “Half the World” when Thorn in a midnight search for the necessities to attend to her feminine hygiene needs stumbles across a conspiracy in process.

However the depiction of women by men has to go deeper than acknowledging the biological differences of form and function. It has to go further than striving to prove women are “as good as” men because they can do all the jobs and roles that men traditionally held in fantasy fiction. It has to show them not just as credible people but credible women too. In the planning of my books Niarmit was always female, as was Hepdida and – for reasons that will be obvious to a reader – so too was Dema. In an earlier iteration of the story Quintala the half-elf was Quintor and in her character at least there is perhaps still a degree of the “his/her” androgyneity that Mark Lawrence referred to. I hope the others are convincingly and unmistakeably unswitchably female, but I am a man and I don’t know. In the context of this article it is a little ironic perhaps that the catastrophic accident which befell Dema was in answer to the question, “What would a determined woman do to succeed in man’s world?”

You could ask at this point (or indeed at any point) do female writers either agonise or get challenged to the same degree in their portrayal of their male characters? I am a male reader of female authors who write about men, but the flipside of the question I torture myself with has never even occurred to me.

Can a woman write a convincing male character? Mazarkis Williams, Theresa Frohock, Elizabeth Bear, Mercedes M Yardley, Claire North (and, if she would only get on and finish and publish it – Agnes Mezsaros) all create credible male characters who never trigger so much as a moment’s doubt in me as to their authenticity. Some might say that I am inappropriately highlighting a non-problem, that I am whipping up a non-existant issue (and furthermore that for the sake of emphasis I am tautologically saying the same thing twice!). Why do I ask of myself and my fellow male authors a question I would not ask of women?

Well, we live in a world of inequality. Education is a constant battle to address inequality, remove disadvantage, and even up access. I see a dominance of male authors, of male power, of male perspectives in many aspects of life and the world. Where there is such imbalance there is an obligation on those who have or personify that advantage, to scrutinize their own actions so as to ensure they offer no contribution or endorsement of that disadvantage. I will and do defend every author’s right to write the story they want to tell. I am not saying social forces and political agendas should shape a story, but they should shape an author and in so doing shape how and what those authors want to write.

So, I came here with questions and I still have them. If you have read my books – and according to my kindle self-publishing reports there are a few thousand of you out there who have – I would love to know what you thought. In the meantime I should return to my work in progress and a kitchen in Salicia where two women armed only with a baby are arguing their way out of arrest by the local secret police.


Official Author Website
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AUTHOR INFORMATION: T.O.Munro works in education and relocated from Kent to Belfast in 2014. He started writing naval novels in the Hornblower tradition when he was 13 and has graduated through murder mysteries to writing epic fantasy. Having completed his bloodline trilogy he is now working on a two volume extended epilogue in a more sword and sorcery vein. He once helped catch two bank robbers in a London street but hasn’t yet worked out how to work that experience into a fantasy novel.


Sam Swinburn said...

I loved this post, it's a question all writers must agonise over, both male and female. I appreciate the nuance Munro has gone into, it's not as simple as "we're all humans" or "a woman is just a man +/- X". I think most people want to read about women with agency and ability who are not afraid of their gender, nor are just men with long hair and modified armour. The problem as I see it is that 'male' is often the unconscious default and females are seen as modifications on that template.

The primary job of a writer is to craft convincing characters, and to be authentic they by necessity appear to be as complex as real human beings. Gender and the issues surrounding it is one dimension of this and need to be explored to bring that character to life. If its messy and confronting - well, conflict like that can drive narratives and characterisation - it's not something to avoid.

- Sam

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