Friday, October 19, 2012

FIGHT LIKE A GIRL: THE CASE FOR REAL WOMEN AS HEROINES IN SFR



Original cover for Sinclair's book

Diane Dooley’s excellent piece on motherhood in science fiction earlier this week got me thinking about how we tend to characterize our heroines in SFR.  Most of us grew up with kick-ass captains of starships and battlers of marauding aliens like James T. Kirk and Han Solo.  It was only reasonable to expect Sarah Connor and Ellen Ripley to pick up their weapons and grit their teeth in the face of the alien threat in much the same way our heroes had.

Sarah and Ellen are terrific characters, iconic and multidimensional.  As both Diane and Laurie (in her comments) pointed out, they even display fiercely maternal instincts, certainly a feminine characteristic.  But too often, those uniquely feminine elements of their characters are overlooked, and only the “kick-ass” elements—the physical courage, the strength, the independence, the resourcefulness—are replicated in the women who populate many SFR (and urban fantasy and YA) novels. 

Now, before you draw breath to howl in protest that I am advocating a retreat to some Paleolithic era where women “knew their place” and acted in more demure fashion, let me assure you I have no such intention.  I simply think it is possible to display physical courage, strength, independence and resourcefulness without cutting oneself off from human contact, refusing to accept help from others, carrying an impossible load of angst, lashing out in anger and so on.  This has always been the emotional profile of the “wounded hero”, the “loner” who goes through life with shields up, unwilling to form emotional bonds with anyone until the heroine somehow reaches him. 

Today very often the roles are reversed, and it’s the heroine who has relationship issues.  I’m guilty of it myself.  In my second book, Trouble in Mind, FBI agent Lana Matheson is just that sort of person—emotionally isolated, pathologically independent, dedicated to her job, in many ways just like a man (sic).  The challenge in writing her kick-ass character was to allow her to think like a woman.

Take hierarchy, for example.  Forgive the broad generalization, but guys love a good, solid hierarchy.  They want to know their place in it—who’s first, second, third.  They’ll size each other up when meeting for the first time, and when meeting again after a long separation.  Has he lost a step?  Have I?  Every acquisition, every promotion, every loss is added into the equation.  (As a woman, I would see this constant evaluation process as nerve-wracking, but my observation is that most guys are hardly aware of it.  It just is.)

Women, on the other hand, tend to operate in groups, or circles of relationships.  The groups work more cooperatively (though they may have their own kinds of hierarchies) and they may overlap.  Generally, with women, the question is whether you’re in or you’re out of a particular circle.  Within the circle, quite a lot is tolerated.  Outside it, well, not so much.  And if a woman is in need of emotional support, she can rely on the friends and family members that make up these circles.

My character, Lana, works in a male-oriented world, full of hierarchy (the Bureau, the law enforcement agencies she deals with) and full of men who are constantly assessing their place in that hierarchy and with each other.  But, as a woman, she is not inclined to play the game.  She stands outside it as an observer.  I’ve got several scenes where that happens, not overtly, but subtly.  If she thought and acted like a man, Lana’s reaction to the bluster at the scene of the crime between the agent who is her ex-boyfriend and the private tracker who’s been hired by the family on her kidnapping case would be quite different.  As it is, she sees the confrontation as the circling of two wolves—and it’s pretty clear who is the alpha male!

Women’s leadership styles are quite different, too.  According to studies, effective women executives are much more likely than their male counterparts to seek out different opinions from their subordinates before they act, and to seek consensus on difficult decisions.  I’ve always thought Captain James T. Kirk had a particularly feminine style of leadership, in that he always asked his senior officers what they thought before he gave his orders.  No one could accuse Jim Kirk of being indecisive or weak.  He was just in touch with his yin side.

In the best of SFR, we find complex heroines like Lois McMaster Bujold’s Cordelia Naismith Vorkosigan, Ann Aguirre’s Sirantha Jax or the women carrying the story in Linnea Sinclair’s or Susan Grant’s many novels.  These are women operating out of a web of relationships, both of family and friendship.  They are strong and self-reliant, but they think and act differently than your typical action hero.  In some cases, they may begin by denying their femininity (like Grant’s Coalition starship admiral Brit Bandar in Moonstruck), but they always reclaim it by book’s end. 

They fight like girls, which in this case is a good thing.

Cheers, Donna

9 comments:

  1. My heroine in KEIR - Quin - has been described as kick-ass but I never set out to write her like that. She isn't a fighter, although she can defend herself. She'll protect the weak. She hasn't closed herself off to to the outside world despite her scars. She started out as a normal person who got flung into an abnormal situation and had to deal with it. I've always thought of her as more a reluctant heroine rather than a kick ass one.

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  2. All very valid - women do work differently and they often operate in groups as you say. But they don't all. Some women are loners with little interaction with friends. (I'm a bit like that myself). Even so, women ARE different. In 'Starheart' my heroine is a single mother. That puts a whole different complexion on her motives.

    As you can see, your post has provoked thought - and that has to be a good thing. Thanks.

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  3. Thanks for firing up my synapses, Donna!

    Intriguing topic. I have some thoughts on the subject but also feel a spin off post coming on. But the one thought that came immediately to mind is the concept that many traits are gender specific. I personally like the idea of SFR challenging that. Must ponder further.

    @Pippa Different readers will pick up on different aspects of her character no matter how much time you spend crafting her. Some will match your vision; others will be wildly different. Or even WTF? different. :)

    Once you put a character out there, she belongs to readers. And our taste is subjective. We're stubborn like that. ;)

    That said, sometimes tags can reduce characters too much or miss the nuances.

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  4. Thanks, y'all, for helping me kick this idea around. You may have seen that I was trying to get a handle on it. Of course, I don't mean to put men and women in little gender-specific boxes, Heather, yet I do tire of seeing so many Rambo-ette's in black leather. Don't know if anyone remembers the old British TV series "The Avengers"? John Steed and Emma Peel personified what I'm trying to get at--two very different approaches to kicking ass (the whole Sixties sex kitten thing notwithstanding).

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  5. Glad I'm not the only one who spends time pondering such things! *grin*

    I've read a few kick-ass heroines who would typically rush into dangerous situations with guns ablazing. To me that's not too different from the 'too stupid to live' heroine who rushes into dangerous situations without a gun at all. They are, I guess, stereotypes.

    Every woman I know is a mass of different traits and quirks - even the kick-ass ones. I live in the country and know quite a few women who are skilled and aggressive hunters. One lady I know hunts because she loves it and to provide meat for her family. After blowing away furry animals in the morning, she loves to curl up with a juicy romance novel in the afternoon. She's not a stereotype; she's a real person. And my only desire is that female characters are believable.

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  6. First off, great article. It's funny, I wrote something like this yesterday for the fine folks at Romance at Random as it dawned on me that my last two heroines aren't the ones who need to be rewired the way my heroes do in a typical romance novel.

    Second, while women are more apt to seek opinions and make critical decisions than men, the mark of a real leader is one who is surrounded by people who trust that leader, be they male or female.

    In my Male POV class, I mention the hierarchy. We're aware of it. well, many of us anyway LOL!

    Good article.

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  7. I guess that's the real point, isn't it, Diane? That we keep our characters--male and female--more like real people than like stereotypes of any kind.

    And, thanks, Sascha! I agree with you that a real leader--male or female--will attract followers, no matter what the leadership style, as long as it is effective.

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  8. >I do tire of seeing so many Rambo-ette's in black leather.

    Agreed, and it's also why I have a hard if not impossible time engaging with male movie action heroes who are all style and no substance. There's no depth, no humanity, just guns and car chases.

    Luc Besson's NIKITA is a great example of how to portray a kick ass heroine and humanize her at the same time.

    When authors/filmmakers fetishize the kick ass element and forget about adding the other layers, that's when those types of characters ring hollow (male or female).

    That said, I'm wondering if it's not so much that the feminine qualities are missing from kick ass heroines than *any* other qualities. Because I'd argue that for male kick ass heroes, feminine qualities are often overlooked when in fact they would have served the characters quite well. And if not the feminine element, then some other quality to humanize them/make them three dimensional.

    Come to think of it, male action heroes who strive to protect innocent children and others could be described as demonstrating maternal (paternal?)instincts.

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  9. Exactly, Heather. Some of the qualities that I think make for the best heroes--compassion and leadership that recognizes and draws on the best in others--are often thought of as "soft", more feminine qualities, but they are so necessary to a well-rounded personality. Three of my favorite heroes are Jim Kirk, Aragorn of LOTR and Robin Hood, all complex characters capable of both action and introspection, of hard and soft, yin and yang. I just think the women in our stories deserve the same consideration.

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