Writing a ‘Strong Male Character’

I recently wrote about my current work in progress and how I’d accidentally made my protagonist into a ‘strong male character’, by which I meant that I’d made him into a gender swap of the ‘strong female character’ .

I started out to write a character who was, in part, a satire on male power fantasy characters but re-created for the female gaze. I grew up loving action movies but over time I realised that a lot of the characters I loved were somewhat problematic. They were violent, manipulative misogynists who perpetuated toxic ideas of masculinity. I set out to write a more rounded, less misogynistic character and to reveal what it costs a person to do all that action hero stuff.

In those action movies the female characters seem to be either damsels in distress or ‘strong female characters’. As a kid I hated the damsels but as an adult I’m coming to dislike the SFCs even more. The SFC is strong but that strength is defined by the male gaze. She can kick ass but she has to look good while doing it. If she wears armour then it’s boob plate and if she doesn’t then she’s showing an unnecessary amount of skin. She wears heels regardless of practicality. She has long hair and she doesn’t tie it up before kicking ass and it never gets in her eyes. She may be a-typically feminine but she still has to be decorative.

The SFC has stereotypically masculine skills which have to be explained in the dialogue because it’s totally unbelievable that a woman could fight, or code, or fix a car just because. She is surrounded by men (because she’s the only female character) and must constantly strive to prove herself to them. She has little to no character arc of her own, will help the hero even if it harms her own goals or beliefs and in the pinch she may still have to be saved by the hero. She helps the hero because she loves him and she loves him even if that makes no Goddamn sense.

The SFC is like a fluid that changes shape to fit the gaps in the plot. She’s not a person she’s a plot device with boobs.

My ‘strong male character’ isn’t that bad. For one thing he’s the protagonist so we see things mostly through eyes and he’s the one driving the plot. He’s a ‘men want to be him, women want to be with him’ type character but with the priorities flipped. Though once you find out how damaged he is you might change your mind about that.

So why am I saying he’s a ‘strong male character’ then? Well he is surrounded by women to whom he must constantly prove himself. He looks really good, even under circumstances when he should look terrible. He spends an inordinate amount of time shirtless (which is the female gaze equivalent of artfully torn clothing) and when he’s not shirtless he’s usually wearing tailored suits. When the female characters discuss him amongst themselves it’s in terms of his attractiveness. They’re not exactly objectifying him but they’re not exactly not objectifying him either.

I’m not sure what to do about this. Should I ramp up the ‘strong male character’ stuff as a subversion of the trope or should I continue my commitment to making him as well rounded as possible?

 

If you’ve found this interesting then why not check out this link to a comic on what the sexual objectification of the female gaze might do to a superhero.

And if you’ve enjoyed this post why not buy me a coffee with Ko-fi.

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My problem with body positivity

Strictly speaking I have two problems with body positivity. One is definitely my problem. I think the other is a problem with the movement.

Let’s talk about my problem first. I’d rather own my problems before I go pointing out other people’s. My problem is that I find that I cannot love my body. At best we exist in a state of détente but most of the time we are at war. I hate how it looks. I hate that it’s never comfortable and that I am never comfortable in it. I hate the constant negotiations to get it to do anything. Most of all I hate how limited that anything is.

I want to be strong. I want to exercise. I want to go for long walks. But I can’t lift weights today because I put my compression tights on and apparently that’s me done for the day. As I write this my hands are still shaking just from the effort of getting dressed. How dare they.

And this, of course, creates a secondary problem. Because people keep telling me that I should love my body and I just can’t I feel like I’m letting the side down. Not only am I failing in my patriarchal duty to be decorative I’m failing in my feminist duty to love myself. I’ve failed to be thin and now I’m doing fat wrong.

Now let’s talk about my problem with the body positivity movement, and specifically the ‘healthy at any size’ part of the movement.

Because some of us are not healthy. Some of us are fat because we’re sick. Some of us are fat and sick with no causal link. And then there are people like me. People with lipoedema and similar disorders. People with dysfunctional fat cells that we can’t get rid of. We’re not sick because we’re fat, it’s the fat that’s sick.

I’ve written before about lipoedema. It affects up to 11% of women and post pubescent girls. It’s triggered by hormonal changes. It’s progressive. In many cases, and I am one of them, it is painful and debilitating. Our bodies lay down dysfunctional fat cells that don’t work as an energy store. These cells hang around in the wrong places, trapping fluid, putting pressure on our joints, and causing pain.

Before anyone slides into my comments to tell me that I just need to eat less and move around more my anorexic thirteen-year-old self would like to have a word with you. And she’s carrying a cricket bat. I’d run if I were you. No, faster than that. She’s spent the last 4 years running from people throwing rocks at her head so she’s a lot faster than me. No don’t stop for a rest she’s got plenty of stamina. Try to find some flowers. If she gets a lungful of pollen she might have to stop for an asthma attack.

But back to body positivity and my problem with it. I feel stuck. The lipoedema support groups are full of internalized fatphobia and people whining about how they should be immune from societal fatphobia without ever questioning that it should exist. The body positivity groups erase my experience of being disabled and fat. The insistence that fat women are hot just reinforces the patriarchal assumption that whatever else a woman is she must also be decorative. What if I don’t want to be decorative? What if I want to be a dapper androgynous badass?

Can’t I want to get rid of my dysfunctional fat while at the same time supporting your right to look however you want to look? Can’t we all agree that how people feel about how a person looks has nothing to do with their value as a human being? I just want to be in the world without the feeling that either I have to cut parts of myself off or excavate a me-shaped hole in order to fit in.

A thing about feminism.

I asked my youngest brother, Ninja-Bob, to write something about his feminism. He is a straight white dude and the father of a young daughter. He’s a martial artist and a science communicator who works with children. He’s also the sort of guy who will go to the pub wearing the tiara his daughter bought him for Father’s Day because he really doesn’t care what people think of him.


So, My sister asked me to write a thing about why I’m a feminist. Which I was really chuffed by as I don’t call myself a feminist.

I want equality, especially for my child, and if that makes me a feminist, that’s great.

I’m not afraid of anything, by and large, I walk down the street and I don’t give a fuck. If someone speaks to me I’ll listen, but if they piss me off, I will tell them exactly what I think in the sure and certain knowledge that they won’t attack me or harass me or follow me.

I know, from experience, that if I stop to confront someone being objectionable, then they will continue berating me, but they will do it as they back away very-fucking-quickly. I know they won’t follow me home, I know that I’m too scary to fuck with. I’m enough of an unknown quantity that even – to use a Central-Beltism – a “hard-cunt” won’t fuck with me and I’m respectful enough to avoid the animosity of actually dangerous people.

I want that level of confidence for all. Yes, men get attacked and women that get attacked don’t get attacked by all men. But far more women live in fear whenever they have any kind of dealing with men.

I want my daughter to grow up to be whatever kind of person that she wants. I know that for that to happen, she will have to know that she is loved and be confident enough to take chances.

Nowhere in her future do I wan’t to see her putting headphones on without music in order to avoid harassment.

So yes, I am willing to sacrifice some of my freedoms so that she can have an equal chance with her peers of becoming the best Space Volcanologist that there ever will be. However, those are freedoms that I don’t fucking want anyway.

I can live without the freedom to be paid more than someone doing the same job. The freedom to get away with brutal, heinous crimes with a slap on my wrist because my future is considered more important than my victim. I don’t need the freedom to make demeaning comments to those that I work with based on their gender. Oh you, you don’t like what I said? Well give us a smile, sugar tits, it was only a joke.

I witness, on a regular basis, parents engage in casual sexism that they probably don’t even recognise as such. Telling their boys that “You don’t want to wear that, that’s for girls”, or asking at my work as a science communicator for “more girly” science experiments.

I know that I’ve got far to go, that I’m not yet free of patriarchal indoctrination, but at least I know it’s there. I’m sure that, as a martial artist, I’ll probably never feel as exposed as most women. I don’t get it, but at least I know that I don’t get it.


And there you have it. Proof that I am not the only foul-mouthed, opinionated feminist in my family.

The myth of the irristiable powerful older man

A while back I had a bit of an epiphany about the rising tide of #metoo allegations.I was watching an interview with British MP Diane Abbott on the subject of sexual harassment and abuse in UK politics.

She was asked why there hadn’t been any allegations of female politicians abusing their staff and after pointing out that there are a lot fewer women politicians and that allegations against women tend to be treated less seriously she gave a truly fascinating answer. She said something like “In general middle aged women tend not to be convinced that much younger men are irresistibly attracted to them.”

Bam! There it was. The interviewer should have passed her a mic to drop.

Powerful men have got used to the idea that sexual access to women is part of the reward package of power. And that’s partly because of the idea that women, even young attractive women, are irresistibly attracted to wealthy and powerful men simple because those men have money and influence.

I was a teenager the first time someone told me that women are attracted to gross old men if those men have enough wealth or power. It sounded like bullshit to me at the time because I knew that I absolutely was not. I didn’t start to understand this supposed attraction it till I watched the original British series of House of Cards.

The central character, Francis Urquhart, was weirdly magnetic in spite of his age and the fact that he was most definitely the bad guy. Here was I, a young woman, feeling attracted to a much older and morally dubious man of wealth and power. Therefore people were right. Powerful men were attractive. But looking back that’s not what was going on at all.

Francis Urquhart was played by the late Sir Ian Richardson. He was a man of genuine beauty and grace and a tremendous actor. He created a monster but Urquhart was a charismatic monster with a voice like honey and brilliant mind. I can overlook a little matter like relative age when the rest of the person has that much going for them. And regardless of attraction I hope that I would have had the good sense not to sleep with him.

I’m not saying that money isn’t attractive. It’s a lot easier for a man to be charming when he can spoil you. Fame has its attractions too. But they don’t make a man irresistible. I’m 46, fat and ugly and no matter how irresistible he thinks he is I wouldn’t fuck Donald Trump with a borrowed vagina. Some women do find him attractive but it’s becoming clear that there’s a lot less of them than he thinks.

Rich and powerful men have been largely insulated from the negative consequences of their actions until now. This means that they’ve never had to learn that people just aren’t that into them. We are all living through the consequences of their unexamined privilege.

Not a real person.

One of the things I struggle with a lot is the feeling of not being a real person. I think some of it is imposter syndrome and some of it is a throwback to the bullying I grew up with. When everyone tells you that you’re ugly and stupid and worthless you tend to start believing them. If you’re smart enough to know that it’s not true you still can’t help suspecting that you’re not a real person because who would treat a real person like that? Real people have rights. Miss-treating real people has consequences.

But lets not forget that for a lot of people I am not a real person. I am a poor, disabled, depressed, fat, middle-aged woman. You’d be surprised how many people will lose interest in my humanity the moment one of those trigger words is mentioned.

There are a few men for whom no woman is a real person. They might not express it this way but it’s clear that to them personhood is a uniquely male quality. That’s why they think that rape is not a thing. Because they think that only male desires count. If you think of women as objects then of course you don’t care about consent.

There are a larger group of men for whom women are people but with an asterix. They say woman* or female* but that asterix leads to some mental footnote that defines a woman according to some personalised criteria. If you listen to them long enough you find out that woman means a cisgendered, hetrosexual (or bisexual but only for male entertainment), able-bodied woman, between the ages of 17 and 35, with a BMI in the underweight or normal weight range with an attractive face (and if she’s a woman of colour she’d better have a really attractive face) and “good” breasts. The rest of woman-kind doesn’t count as female because we have failed in some aspect of our femininity. Remember that to them the primary purpose of a woman is to be decorative. It doesn’t matter who we are or what we do only how we look.

There’s a lot of people for whom poor people aren’t really people. That’s why they don’t care about minimum wages or benefits or social housing. The assumption is that poverty is some kind of moral or intellectual failing rather than a necessary side effect of capitalism.

Some people make similar assumptions about both physical and mental health. There’s an almost superstitious belief that ill-health and injury must be a punishment for something. There’s also a surprising number of people who are happy to declare that depression, anxiety, ADD, ADHD, OCD and autism are “all in the mind”. Which of course they literally are. They are illnesses of the brain. They cause changes in brain activity, neurochemistry, and sometimes in the physical structures of the brain. No amount of willpower is going to remake the chemistry, activity or gross anatomy of your brain. You can’t just get over it.

I don’t understand why it’s so hard to agree that people are people.

Regardless of skin colour, nationality, religion or lack thereof, political affiliation, age, sexuality, gender identity, nationality, wealth, health, ability or IQ there is only one Homo Sapiens species. We all belong to it and we are all people. Even me. Even when I don’t feel worthy of it. Even when people in power are trampling all over those rights that I have but for some reason can’t use.

Today I will attempt an opinion, but mainly an apology.

You might have noticed that yesterday (8th of March) was International Women’s Day.  You can usually tell it’s International Women’s Day by the apparently never-ending tide of arseholes saying “When’s International Men’s Day?”

You’ll notice I said “arseholes” rather than “men”.  That’s because, while all of them were arseholes, not all of them were men and because many of the people joining the online chorus of “It’s every other day of the fucking year you hopeless cockwomble” were men.

As a woman and a feminist I must confess that in the past I have been somewhat dismissive of Men’s Rights and Meninists.  I still think Meninist is a horrible, ungraceful word but that’s hardly the point. This International Women’s Day I’ve taken stock and I’ve realized that men have a lot to be angry about and it’s all the same things that most feminists are angry about just for different reasons.

For example.  Men’s Rights Activists often complain about the way men are portrayed in adverts and I’ve been assuming they were complaining about those adverts aimed at women where men are useless, bumbling idiots or incompetent bores.  Those adverts certainly bug the hell out of me.  How dare an advertiser think that the way to sell me something is by denigrating 50% of humanity.  How dare they adopt this “We’re all girls together here and aren’t men horrible,” attitude?  I am not going to buy your shitty cleaning product because it’s simple enough for a man to use.  I am not joining your bingo web site because you promise to kidnap my husband.

Then I realized that maybe those aren’t the adverts they’re angry about.  Maybe they’re angry about the unnecessarily gendered snack adverts or the deodorant adds that treat women as objects.  Maybe they’re angry at being sold yogurt for men because advertisers think their masculinity is too fragile for regular yogurt.  Maybe they’re angry at adverts that assume that they’re shallow or childish or  secretly hate women?  Maybe they’re as angry at being told how to man as I am at being told how to woman?

I’ve also been thinking about dress codes.  Dress codes make me angry because they often contribute to the victim blaming attitudes of rape culture.  Dress codes usually place the onus on women and girls dressing “appropriately”.  They reinforce a false gender binary.  They make women the gatekeepers of human sexuality.  They contribute to the patriarchal assumption that sex is something all men want all the time, and woman have, and men have to somehow get it from us by hook or by crook.

No.  Sex is something that some people like doing with some other people.  No-one is owed it.  It’s not a prize.  It shouldn’t be your only goal in life.  There’s nothing wrong with wanting it.  There’s nothing wrong with enjoying it.  There’s also nothing wrong with not wanting it, or not wanting it right now, or not wanting it with you.

But there’s another reason to be angry about dress codes.  Dress codes basically say that men and boys are little better than animals.  That you cannot control your base desires.  That you find a collar bone or a thigh so distracting that you loose the power of rational thought.  Dress codes contribute to the infantilsation of men.  Dress codes are the equivalent of hiding the jar of sweets so that the children don’t pester for them.

No wonder men are angry when the patriarchy treats them like children with all the impulse control of a grizzly bear smelling a picnic hamper.  “Oh noes,” says the patriarchy, “womens must hide the boobies.  If the mens sees the boobies they will loose control.”

 

2014 Can kiss my arse

In the interests of full disclosure I haven’t had a good year since 2008 but 2014 has been particularly fucking awful and I don’t think it’s just me.

I’m not going to go into the reasons why I’m glad to see the back of 2014.  Some nice things happened in my personal life which, while they didn’t counter the many many horrible things, are the reason I’m still here to write this. I’d like to say thank you to any of my real life and online friends and family who read this.   Without you guys I couldn’t have made it through.

In the wider world we’ve seen wars and rumours of war, business as usual throughout all of recorded history, but they’ve been particularly nasty and confusing.  There’s no such thing as a good war when you’re in it but the level of atrocities this year seem to be particularly bad.  Civilians being bombed and kidnaped and held hostage, beheaded, or forced into marriage.  Entire populations being used as bargaining chips. A civilian passenger jet was shot down and the wreckage became just another political football.

And for those of us outside the war zone there seems to be nothing we can do to help.  It’s like watching from an upstairs window as the family across the street fights each other to the death inside a burning house with their children trapped upstairs.

There’s been a global backlash against this pesky idea of women being actual people with rights and everything.  Well that’s what it feels like.  Some of it is really just a kind of tipping point.  We’ve reached a place where women are feeling more and more comfortable about speaking out which makes the mistreatment, harassment and oppression a whole lot more visable.

Some of this apparent backlash is just the stuff that was always happening suddenly being dragged into the light of day.  This stuff is not new but we’ve all been pretending that it either wasn’t there or was somehow ok.  But when it you pin it to the dissection table and really look at it you see how vile it truly is.

This is where the real backlash comes in.  A lot of people would prefer to go back to not thinking about this.  I understand that, I really do.  No one wants to think about Female Genital Mutilation, or child brides, or the grooming of children in care, or the endemic under-reporting of rape, or the epidemic of violence against trans-women, or the sexualsation of underage girls (particualraly girls of colour), or the million daily micro-agressions that come with being female.  Of course no one wants to think about it.  It’s fucking horrible.

When forced to confront this stuff some of us take a deep breath and we say “Well that shit is horrible we really ought to do something about it.”  But some of us would rather pretend that it wasn’t there.  Some of us just want everyone else to shut up about it.

And then there are those who just don’t believe it.  There are people, and they are mostly male, who say that because this shit isn’t happening where they can see it that it must not be happening at all.  Which is clearly bullshit.  That’s like saying that electricity is magic because you personally have never seen an electron.

And then there are those, virtually all men, who are convinced that everything would be better if they could go back to pretending that women were just objects with no real autonomy or feelings or rights.  These are the really dangerous arsholes.

2014 was also the year it became impossible for white people of conscience to continue to pretend that we live in a post racial society. In the UK we’ve seen the rise of UKIP.  Right wing parties have been on the rise all over Europe.  In America we’ve had a timely reminder that the cops can kill pretty much anyone and get away with it but they mainly seem to kill black people.  We’ve also seen a lot of white people trying to justify this by blaming the victims.  Shame on you.

As the right to same sex marriage moves round the globe we’ve seen a continued pushback from people who use religion as an excuse to object to the happiness of others.  Be honest with yourselves – the real problem you have with same sex marriage is either “Ewww Gross!” or “I had to pretend to be straight and so should you.”

My big message to people as we move into a new, and hopefully better, year is:

If you don’t understand that other people’s experience of life may be different from yours then you need to find a responsible adult to take care of you.  You have failed to absorb a lesson that most of us learn as toddlers or young children.  Also stop fucking killing people.

Opinons

The consensus seems to be that a writer should have opinions.  This is great news.  I’m just chock full of opinions about loads of things. Here’s a list of some of the things that I have opinions about.  If you stick around you might read about them in more details.  I’m aware that might seem like it’s not much of an incentive but remember that I’m a woman on the internet.  At any time I might say something that people don’t like and end up facing a storm of threats and harassment.  I’m sure hilarity will ensue.

  1. Idris Elba would make a fantastic James Bond but it’s probably only been suggested to get people talking about Bond films.
  2. I play computer games.  A lot of women play computer games and we’re probably not going to stop.
  3. I am a Feminist.  That means that I think women are real people too and we should expect to be treated as real people.
  4. I voted for Scottish Independence in the referendum but I’m probably not going to bang on about it here because that shit just hurts too much.
  5. Bisexuality, Pansexuality and Asexuality all exist no matter how much people like to pretend that they don’t.
  6. Transgender people are real people and should expect to be treated as real people and deserve to be addressed with the correct pronouns.  If you can’t manage that then you probably shouldn’t be allowed out without a carer.
  7. White people shouldn’t use the N word.
  8. A lot of angry people on the Internet need to lighten the fuck up about the colour, gender, religion and body-type of fictional characters, cosplayers, and real people that they don’t know.
  9. Everybody everywhere should be a whole lot angrier about the really important stuff that somehow slides past while we’re busy arguing about the gender of Thor or the race of James Bond.  Fucks sake there’s people out there dying of starvation, thirst and preventable disease.