Sunday, June 21, 2015

Representation, or finding our place in the story

We all deserve our own stories.

For a long time, I didn't realize that so few of them were made for me. I was never really the princess type, too stubborn and loud and average-looking for the lost princesses who filled the stories of my childhood. There were only a few warrior women and lady knights, but they didn't really work either – I wasn't strong, I wasn't noble, and I always thought there was a smarter way to fight than charging ahead with a battle cry. They were all good characters, but there was no place in their lives for someone like me.

But oh, I loved the thieves, the pirates, the charming rogues with a secret heart of gold. They didn't necessarily have to be attractive – a way with words was so much more important than how they looked. They didn't have to have powerful muscles – their brains did most of the work, and sometimes they could even best big, scary swords people without blinking. They didn't have to be even particularly good – they thought rules were bendy, twisty things, but they were usually at least helpful to the hero and sometimes even stood on the sides of angels.

When you feel like you're different from everyone else, it's too easy to also feel like there's something wrong with you. Like you're broken, or even just meant to fade into the background while the "hero" goes off and lives an exciting life. For a little girl with a plain face, a facile tongue and a squirrely mind, these characters felt like I had a place among all the pretty people. There wasn't anything wrong with me – I was just meant to be a charming rogue.

But ... all the charming rogues I had ever read about were boys. I wasn't a boy – I didn't even want to be one – and so for a long time I was just a lost girl in the corner with dreams she could never quite figure out how to reach. It took me years to steal the role, to cut it up and piece it back together into a shape fit an angry little girl. It took me even longer than that to find the self-confidence I'd lost so many years before, letting the rogue's boldness sink into my skin and teach me everything I'd always been meant to know.

And I was lucky. There are so few white girl characters when compared to boy characters, but there's even fewer for people of color or those who aren't heterosexual. They don't have the luxury to care about personality – they're grateful for the few they can find, and cling to them because they don't have anything else. And inside, they end up feeling that there's no place for them in the great story of life.

Feeling like there's someplace you're meant to be can change your whole life. No one deserves to only see their own faces, their own hearts, as background characters or villains. Or worse, to not see them at all.

So please, write more stories. Give your heroes and heroines your skin, your history, your fears. Give them your dreams, and in turn you pass those dreams onto all those little boys and girls who want a story to live up to.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Give me more variety in female characters

Copyright 2015 Disney
I came to the horrifying realization recently that most of my favorite characters were men.

This, of course, doesn’t count for my original characters, who are at least 50 percent men (and the women are all ever so slightly more my favorite – sorry, guys). But in other media, in the books, movies and TV shows that I devour in great piles, the characters I’m the most drawn to are nearly always men. Sam Vimes from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, Tony Stark from the Marvel movies, Dean Winchester from “Supernatural,” Malcolm Reynolds from “Firefly”….

These are all wonderful, beautifully created characters, and there is nothing wrong with loving them as much as I do. But I’m a woman, and I champion the need for more female characters in … well, pretty much everything. So why had I not given my heart to the handful of characters I had?

The truth is that I like every one of those women, and have a special place in my heart for Natasha (aka Black Widow from the Marvel movies). But the intensity of my love for any of them doesn’t quite match what I feel for the boys I listed, and I wondered if I had somehow failed my sex as a whole. Was it some sort of internalized misogyny that kept me from truly embracing them? Was I wrong, to love the characters I did and not these magnificent ladies?

Finally, I figured out that the problem wasn’t with me. It turns out that the characters closest to my heart are usually a very specialized breed of asshole, quick with a sarcastic comment and putting a brave face on the fact that they’re so desperately broken inside. I like the cons, the rapscallions, the ones who bend the rules until they're pretzel-shaped but deep inside are blood-loyal to their chosen few. I like the bastards who stomp through the rules, who shout at people and are convinced they’re not a good person even though they always try to help people. I like characters who are an absolute mess, but always get back up with a smirk and a good solid punch to the jaw.

Apparently, most writers don’t feel women can be like that.  The closest I’ve been able to find is my dear Black Widow, and though she’s a wonderful, damaged dork inside she usually masks it with a cool and collected exterior. I’m pretty sure I am physically incapable of being cool and collected, so as much as I love her I feel a little more affinity with “Mr. Cocky Swagger and Terrible Decisions” Stark.

Where are my female pirates? Where are my female thieves, for that matter? “Leverage” is the only show that’s ever given me lady cons, and I loved that entire team with an equal ferocity. Where are my female gangsters and monster hunters? Where are the snarky, grubby, sarcastic bastards that happen to be the same gender I am?

And why stop there? “Jurassic World” was good, but the main cast had exactly one token female. Unsurprisingly, she was the one in heels and a nice suit. Why couldn’t any of the security people have been female? Why couldn’t any of the people who worked directly with the dinosaurs have been female? Look around in zoos and wild animal parks, and you’ll see so many women working directly with the animals. No matter what the directors thought, it would be no different with dinosaurs.

Real women are lawyers, doctors, police officers, teachers, mothers, garbage collectors, drug dealers and everything in between. They are elegant, cruel, sarcastic, kind, gentle, anti-social, friendly, angry, loving, brave, tough, fragile, dangerous and everything in between.

Let us see the women we are onscreen. Let us be messy and unlovable. Stop insisting that we only come in a few versions, that all we are can be so neatly packaged. “Female character” is not a real category. “Strong female character” isn’t, either. There are an infinite variety of us, and you’ve barely scraped the surface.