You may have guessed from my tagline: Writer of kick ass women and oogy monsters, that I like strong female characters. I’ve read a lot of books in my lifetime and there have been many that have had weak, unimportant, or even non-existent female characters. When I read I want to put myself into that book and I don’t want to be a whiny, inept fool or the sex object who doesn’t have a brain in her head.
It’s not that I don’t enjoy stories about men, I do. I just don’t enjoy books that negate or subjugate women–often for no apparent reason. I’m not insisting all books need tough, independent female characters, but I am asking that women get more than bit parts or demeaning roles and are acknowledged as human beings.
This act of removing female characters’ humanity is similar to the way advertising dehumanizes the women featured in magazines, on billboards, in print ads, and on TV. Females are reduced to objects, to sexual things that need to be owned or used, to weak, simple or inferior people. There are hundreds of examples, unfortunately. When I talk to classrooms about rape culture, I show these pictures. They are met with disbelief, shock, disgust, and sometimes laughter, because how ridiculous is it that we treat people in our society like this and think it will sell products.
Apparently it does.
This idea that women are commodities to be used, sold, or bartered is a troubling one. We can see this belief in stories, in our ads, on TV, in our music but censoring the images won’t cure the disease. These ads, these lyrics, these videos are symptoms of a culture steeped in an ideology that says it’s okay to depict an entire group of people in our society as lesser beings.
What’s the cure? Spreading information about consent. Challenging songs like Blurred Lines, Pop That, Say Aah, Backseat, Baby It’s Cold Outside, Summer Nights, and many more. Not censoring, but pointing out how that song contributes to rape culture. Stopping jokes that contribute to the dehumanization of women. Speaking up when there’s harassment going on. Stepping in when something questionable is going on. Making videos that challenge notions of what it means to be a woman, like this one from Maddie and Tae called Girl in a Country Song:
As writers, we can work to confront rape culture by not propagating harmful stereotypes, by not spreading disinformation about female sexuality, by not adding gratuitous violence aimed at women, by not reinforcing or romanticizing rape in our stories, or using rape as character development. This isn’t to say you shouldn’t write about rape. If it’s important to you to write about these issues, please do. Just keep in mind that your words are shaping future thoughts and be aware of what message you’re promulgating.
As writers, we are in a unique position to change people’s worldviews. Each time we sit down at our keyboard, we make choices about what the character wears, how they speak, what they do. We compile back story, character traits, and ponder endlessly over word choices. We are aware of what we are writing, in other words. Which means we can, with intention, address rape culture in our stories.
“But I’m writing a cozy mystery about an old woman and her cat who solve mysteries! I don’t want anything heavy in my story.” That’s fine. I’m not saying every story needs to be a 500 page treatise on why rape is bad. If there’s an opportunity for your character to confront a sexist, have her do so. Maybe she kindly informs a young man that her granddaughter isn’t a piece of meat and he should keep his perverted comments to himself. There are opportunities if you want to take them.
“I’m writing an epic fantasy set back in the day, when there weren’t women’s rights. Or human rights, for that matter.” It’s one thing to have a story that’s set in a time where there weren’t human rights. It’s another to think that frees you from the responsibility you have as a writer to tell the truth. There are always consequences and reactions to acts of cruelty and violence. If you leave out the emotional impact of those acts, then you aren’t being honest about what’s happening in your writing and in the world of your story. Once again, there are moments where you can edify and enlighten.
Rape culture promotes the dehumanization of women. As writers, we can promote the humanization of women. Easy as that.
Who are some of your favorite female characters?
One of my favorites is Pippi Longstocking. She’s tough, fearless, and independent. I love her. Another would be Meg Murry from A Wrinkle in Time. Strong, caring, awkward, yes, but cool. Jane Yellowrock, of course. Mercy Thompson. Wonder Woman. And many more.