Wednesday, April 13, 2011

On Female Characters: Not So Different, Really

"What do they think their mothers do, when the lords are at war and a raiding party strikes? Stay in their solars and tat lace?"
--Salma, from First Test in Tamora Pierce's Protector of the Small series

All right, this is here by popular demand; I was going to get around to it eventually after some unrelated rants, but people convinced me to do it now.

Too often I read female characters that have me frantically backing away. Sometimes it's because they're written solely as props to male characters; sometimes it's because they're written with personalities that draw heavily on stereotypes and just plain don't make sense. These two major problems have slightly different root causes; the former tends to be more overtly sexist, while the latter, I think, stems from the idea that Man Minds And Woman Minds Are Inherently Different-- and that each cannot truly comprehend the way the other works. This is laughably untrue. I don't dispute that there are different genders (not the same as sexes, by the way), but the lines are a lot blurrier than society drives us to believe, and they certainly aren't incomprehensible to each other.

When I write a character, I try to write a person first, a member of a given gender after. While one's gender certainly affects their personality, there is not some box of Man Personalities next to a box of Woman Personalities with nothing in the middle. Ultimately, a character's motivations, beliefs, and actions are a lot more important than what's between their legs. Of course, this goes for people of either gender writing people of either gender, but I see far more problems with how female characters are written, possibly because the majority of RP'ers are male. In fact, I think that unconvincing, oversexed female characters may be one of the reasons we don't see more female RP'ers, but I digress.

Let's start off with some myth debunking: Women are not less intelligent. Women have not got some in-born instinct to propel them to the home. Women are not hysterical or inherently illogical (any more than humans in general are inherently illogical, anyway). Women are not genetically predisposed to disliking mathematics, to liking cute shoes, to wanting to dress to increase their sex appeal. Women are not weaker, personality-wise, than men. (Physically they don't have to be either, but I covered that in a previous rant.) We good? Okay, awesome, on with the show.

Women have motivations just like anyone else, and the spectrum of motivations they can have is no more narrow than the spectrum of motivations men can have. Career goals, devotion to family, devotion to a cause, loyalty, these are just a few. I would not call it sexist to have a female character be motivated by her goal of starting a family. However, to claim that all women are motivated by family, or that women can only be motivated to start a family/please their man/etc is both sexist and utterly false. Be careful with what motivates your female character, and choose her motivations for good reasons. If she wants to find a husband and start a family, why? If she wants to run away, cast aside all things traditionally feminine and become a fighter, why? Both ends of the spectrum require a lot of thought; otherwise the first character may come across as sexist, and a character who's running away from home to become a fighter because she hates dresses will likely come across as immature (which can also be sexist by playing into the "woman as unintelligent and overemotional" trope). (A younger character who hates dresses may be inclined to attempt to run away in a fit of pique, but I doubt she has the means to actually pull it off.) Your character's motivations can be as complex and conflicting as those of any male character you'd write, and they don't necessarily need to be sound in-story, but you should have good reasons for giving her them (hint: "because she's a woman" is a terrible reason).

Women act in accordance with their motivations, occupations, and situations just like anyone else, so make sure your character's actions make sense based on who she is, what she wants, and what she regularly does. When multiple motivations conflict, generally the more important ones will take precedence (escaping the villain trumps looking good, for example). Is she a combat medic? Then why is she freaking out about blood getting on her sleeves in the field? That's a part of her job! If she wants to become a master fighter, she's probably not going to be spending lots of time obsessing over clothes (she might well want to keep a good appearance when she's not fighting, but any OMG SHOPPANG~ behavior is going to trigger eyerolls.) If she's a genius studying to become the next big thing in astrophysics, she's probably not going to be engaging in large amounts of mate-chasing (she's allowed to have an interest in the finding a lover, of course, but if that's not her main goal, then don't make her act like it.) Just because she's a woman doesn't mean she shouldn't be consistent to her character.

Well, all that is obvious, you say, but why, then, are there still differences? Why do the motivations of female characters tend to fall into different categories than those of male characters? The caretaker, the nurse, the love interest, the one close to nature; these are but a few of the tired group of consistently appearing roles female characters are allowed to want to play. The reason for this, of course, is societal influence-- both in-story and out.

We are constantly bombarded with messages about what, supposedly, we are. Women are mothers. Women want romance. Women are not good at math. Women are frivolously obsessed with fashion. Women are somehow "closer to earth" than their loutish male counterparts. Women are not fighters. Women do not get angry. Women are neat and clean and remain untarnished. Women are overemotional. Women are fragile. Emotion is feminine. Feminine is weak. These are stereotyped. And a character that fully conforms to all stereotypes about her sex is most likely unrealistic. A character may fit into a few, but make it clear that there is a reason besides "because she's a woman". Sure, some girls are bad at math-- but not because they are girls. Clearly some women are mothers-- doesn't mean it's the right thing for them all to be, or that they all have the maternal instinct. Watch your stereotypes.

There's nothing wrong with being motherly or nurturing. There's nothing wrong with wanting companionship. There's nothing wrong with being good at cooking (it's damn useful, really) or with cooking something for someone else because you want to do something nice for them. But if you're picking such traits as society's beating us over the head with for a character solely because she is female or treating such traits as inferior, you've got a problem, and probably a caricature where a character should be. Likewise, don't flout one negative expectation only to reinforce another-- beware, for example, the Strong Female Character TM who eschews all femininity to the implication that femininity is weakness. (I've got another rant to do solely about the Strong Female Character TM, but one at a time.)

The other part of the effect of society's expectations, as I said, is in-story. Many RP settings emulate the past, which was even less friendly to females. Of course, as has been noted, unless you're going to use it for useful commentary on gender issues, why even bother including the misogynistic element in your idealized, magical past-clone? But that is another digression and another rant also. If you're in a setting where your female character is limited by a society that, like ours, treats her as less than or worse, she's not going to be unaffected. The strongest person in the world will still internalize, to some extent, a message that's been sent to them since before they've learned to talk What she does with that internalization is the key factor in whether I'm applauding, giving a dubious look, or throwing things. Does she take it fully to heart? Please tell me, then, that she'll find some of it proved wrong and start thinking for herself; character development's not a male-only field either. Does she reject it entirely? Then I want to see how, and how it affects her-- we can chant "sticks and stones" all we want, but the fact is, betraying society's expectations and opening oneself up to hate that way takes its toll. If she's breaking all society's expectations, society's going to react, and it won't all be pretty. I want to see how she copes with this. Does she accept some parts, and not others? Show me how she makes those decisions. Make it clear why she rejects which parts she does. Does she exploit it, use it? Does she use it as a cover, hiding steel with lace? Be careful with this one; characters that do this can be fantastic, or they can just end up perpetuating unwanted norms and stereotypes. Overall, how does your character react to society's expectations of her, and why does she react the way she does? Yes, this does require thinking.

In summary: When writing a female character, don't buy in to the myth that females are less than, or even just alien, and not to be understood by males. Make her understandable: give her her own motivations and show us why she has those particular motivations. Keep her true to her motivations, occupation, and overall character. Be aware of what messages from society are influencing how you write her, what messages from society she is influenced by, and how she reacts to them.

TL;DR: Women are people; write them as such.

I didn't expect this to become a series, but then I had more that I couldn't fit into this one, so there will likely be two more rants regarding female characters: one about relations with other characters, and one about Strong Female Characters TM.


  1. Another good post. A few comments:

    1. You say that the majority of RPers are male. I am not necessarily sure this is accurate. From what I have seen of public RP forums this is probably true, but I have several female friends who RP privately with friends over instant messenger/email/etc. So, it is possible that there are more female RPers than it might seem.

    2. You mention the nurse stereotype which made me think of the differences between the portrayal of nurses and actual nurses(I have a lot of personal experience with actual nurses, mother and a lot of her friends are nurses, volunteered in a hospital etc.) Nursing is a very stressful job that usually requires the nurse to deal with some pretty nasty stuff (less so in a doctor's office than in a hospital or a combat medic I suppose). I'm not sure what part of burn wounds, bloody lacerations, and oozing pustules indicate "delicate femininity", but nurses/healers etc. often don't seem to be able to deal with the ugliness of severe wounds.

  2. Haha, Luna, you keep bringing up things that make me feel like that's a subject I need to write about.

    Re 1), I'll admit that my main RP experience has been via the internet, and with some knowledge from peers at school. In high school the RPG club was all guys, and at my university, while I do know numerous girls who RP, there are still a lot more guys.

    Re 2), you're making me want to do a healer article! Medicine is definitely dirty work, but especially in fantasy settings where there's a magical element the ick tends to get ignored, and everything is clean and shining lights-- thus allowing the healer character to be delicate, and usually freeing up time for them to be a love interest or whatnot. And then suspension of disbelief goes boom. I've seen healers done well and done poorly, so that's probably going on the list of articles to write now.


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