Friday, January 23, 2009

Getting herstory right in speculative fiction

Cultural writer Lucy Portsmouth has done an excellent job breaking down the feminist perspective here in the online magazine Seven. In addition to parsing out the writers that have avoided the stereotypes, she also breaks down trends by feminist era.

As a child of the Seventies and Eighties, the message sank in...and I personally strive to avoid the pitfalls Portsmouth mentions in my own writing. Three of these stereotypes are the:

  • evil villainess
  • hapless victim
  • attractive, often scantily clad, in need of redemption and validation by a heroic man

Settling onto the couch doing a bit of self-analysis: I avoided 2 out of 3 in my recent novel Darwin's Orphans. There is a phalanx of evil-doers in my book all perpetuating unrest with violence. And there is an evil villain character -- not the leader -- she's the smart one that clearly dominates in the end...she's obviously the most resourceful of the lot. In this case, she's not a stereotypical, evil villainess. What about hapless victim? Most of the victims are male and the female pulled into the snare turns out to be very clever: again, I passed the test. The scantily clad one in need of redemption, I confess, is included in one chapter. In spicing things up, I committed a feminist misstep.

Overall though, I've got strong female characters and feel good about realistic and positive representations in the book. But, I wonder, how do your favorite authors faire in this regard?

I'm reading one of my favorite current authors now: Charles Stross. Catching up on his older books, I'm in the middle of Glasshouse and it's got hot women that Ms. Portsmouth may not respect. However, they are intelligent and full of guile...doesn't that earn Stross a few pointers? In the book before it, Accelerando, Stross also features complex, very smart women as major characters. Yet there is that hottie factor thrown in...but why is that?

My take on it: people are seeking both fantasy as well as future visions from speculative fiction. They want both intellectual stimulation as well as entertainment from their books. So, at least for the male audience, spicing the women up makes it more entertaining. That's not fair to real women, though. So, do you counter this by making the smartest, most capable characters women? Seems like a fair balance. After all, seeking balance is what the feminist movement pursues.

This writer pledges to seek that balance in female characters. As a child growing up when Gloria Steinem was in her heyday, I got the message loud and clear...and I agree with it. Hopefully, this same message will imbue the decisions that other male writers make in creating their female characters. Assuredly, Ursula K. LeGuin and other current female authors have already got this mastered.

1 comment:

M. L. Kiner said...

"The Hong Kong Connection" is a legal thriller about a gutsy female attorney who takes on high ranking International officials. It's a taut, rollercoaster of a ride from New York to Palm Beach to Washington D.C. to Hong Kong. The plot is expertly woven, the characters persuasive, and the dialogue snappy and spot on.