More than words

As Tallulah is taking a well-deserved vacation for the time being, I started writing something else to tide myself over. I’ve had this idea kicking around for a little while of various fairytale princesses banding together to save themselves and each other from the various Big Bads rather than waiting around for Prince Charming to come their way, and decided that I didn’t have to wait until I felt like a good enough writer to do it justice, and could just jump in and start making things happen instead. (If somebody’s already written a story with this idea in mind, don’t tell me, let me live that fantasy.)

It’s fun so far. It’s also very … generic. And when I say generic – well, the main characters are all female, this being about fairytale princesses and all, and a couple of them are *shudder* Action Chicks.

Look, I like Action Chicks, I just hate how they’re generally written – I like good characters, and I also like action, and that is generally not what you get with your average Action Chick, perhaps because most Action Chicks that have currency in popular consciousness are written by men.

And so in my attempt to buck the trend of badly-written Strong Female Characters, it came as a bit of a disappointment to actually stop and read a bit of what I’d written. Namely, what I will dub the ‘I see your sexism and raise you a witty comeback’ trope, wherein, inevitably, the Action Chick will have to deal with some bit-part henchman who will, in their frustration, throw a mantrum and accuse them of providing sexual favours in exchange for money. Action Chick responds with some kind of witty comeback, generally also of a sexual nature, turning the slander back on the offending henchman, and scene.

I don’t like this.

On the one hand, yeah, take something offensive and ‘reclaim’ it so that it’s empowering instead. But on the other hand – it just feeds into that kind of attitude. Not so much in real life, but in fiction. It reinforces the code and makes the trope, well, a trope. Which is a trope of women who defy gender norms being subjected to sexist slander, invariably and inevitably.

And, yes, most of the writers of this trope also happen to be male. I can now add myself to that number. Yay.

It did not dawn on me just how much I dislike this trope until I wrote it myself, and it was even worse for the fact that it just kind of slipped out. Writing a first draft of anything involves a lot of autopilot, a mix of stream-of-consciousness with conventional wisdom. I ended up replicating this trope without even thinking about it, and by chance (or perhaps not, but this isn’t the first time I’ve ended up regurgitating the tropes and conventions I’ve been exposed to ad infinitum so I’d say chance) I came across this article today, talking about how movies are controlling us.

I don’t like the idea that media controls our minds, and I don’t believe that it does. But it does provide us with information, and while we can always excuse ourselves from being ‘gullible’ by telling ourselves that we know fiction is fiction, the article makes the good point of the fact that we don’t know which parts are fiction of any given narrative, unless we happen to have firsthand experience. The whole ‘you get one phone call’ thing, for example – I still don’t know if that’s a thing or not. But it is a trope, and even if you ‘know’ it’s all fiction when you see Garden State and we have our sad-puppy male protag ending up with the impossibly idealised and accommodating Manic Pixie Natalie Portman, if you don’t have anything to compare it to, does it matter that you know it’s fiction? If you have nothing else to go on, then you’ve only got what you’ve got.

And thus we end up replicating the stories we are exposed to, because we rely on the information that we are exposed to, and if that information happens to come in the form of movies – it’s not that it’s controlling us, but if we lack compelling alternatives, they may as well be.

The other reason I don’t like it is because, as a male writer who feels constantly out of my element when writing female characters, this kind of shorthand is really seductive, and relying on it to get you through a story with a character can end up preventing you from actually getting to know the character, thinking of why they respond a certain way to certain events or provocations. It’s the same with relying too much on any kind of conventional wisdom, and when you throw in the whole gender thing, the tendency for men to Other women because social conditioning and social attitudes encourage us to do this (or at least don’t really give us any penalties for not doing so), this particular instance of it proves … problematic.

I don’t like it, is what I’m saying. I don’t like that I’ve done this. But I’m going to let it stand because it’s a first draft, and if there’s one thing I’ve learnt first drafts are good for, it’s being absolutely dreadful, and coming back to bite you in the ass so that not only do you see your mistakes, you remember them. And that is how you learn.

And I like this story, so I want to give myself a fighting chance at writing it. If there is any possible way I can make it work, I want to find that way. And it’ll be good to have something to write while I take a bit of a break from Tallulah. Something to do over the holidays.

Happy Holidays, my wonderful readers. See you next year.

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