September 16th is a day when bloggers come together to celebrate womanhood. If you jump on to one of the host sites above, you should find links to a wealth of other bloggers also discussing this topic, each in their own way.
I know so many amazing women. They are my friends, my family, people I work with and for. They are resourceful, determined, energetic, creative, witty and resilient. One of them built a business while raising children, and managed to cycle to the base camp of Everest. Another opted to stay at home while she was a mum, and is not only the best read person I know, but an accomplished sculptor. Others have overcome the shadow of cancer to get pHDs, renovate houses and paint beautifully.
Despite all this, not one of these women is free of the insecurities which plague us all from time to time. Being a woman can be hard. Despite the examples of women we actually see in our lives everyday, instead of acknowledging their strength, independence and wit, somehow we are still swayed by the negative portrayal of women in the media.
Yes, advertising industry, I’m looking at you. Yes, women’s magazines, at you too. I’ve been much more content since I completely stopped reading these magazines, not that I was ever a great fan. The content seems quite calculated to make sure that we don’t measure up: not thin enough, young enough, pretty enough or fit enough. The honest truth is that the advertising and publications which make you feel insecure are doing it quite deliberately. Their business is not necessarily to make you feel like you’re a competent human being: their business is to encourage you to keep buying, either their magazine, or whatever product they are selling.
In light of all this pressure, I feel it’s particularly important for women to have some positive reinforcement from other sources. Of course our family, friends and work colleagues cannot be underestimated in this role. However, the books we read can also help.
I’ve read some discussion about how we have a responsibility to have good female characters in our books to hold up the feminist cause. While I don’t dispute the end, I do dispute that they should be in there just for that purpose. We should be writing strong female characters because they are more interesting, involving people to populate our work. The Bechdel test states that a novel is only not sexist if it:
a) Has two named female characters, who
b) Have a conversation with each other, which is
c) Not about men.
Doesn’t seem all that demanding a criteria, does it? But if you think through your favourite books, it is surprising how many don’t even come up to this low benchmark.
Much has been written and said about the lack of good female characters in science fiction. I think that this is starting to be remedied by authors of both sexes, and that is a very positive thing. Many of the ‘greats’ of science fiction were men writing in the 50’s and 60’s, and their vision into the future, while technologically brilliant, did not always extend to social vision. Very often, despite being set in the distant future, the women characters (if there are any), are not much more than 50’s housewives in a silver dresses.
I don’t wish to smear these stories simply for that fact. They are of their time. If any of you have read Ian Fleming’s books on which the James Bond movies have been based, you may have been surprised by the extent of racism and sexism which is taken completely for granted. That doesn’t stop them from being great adventure stories: just of their time and place.
In my novel, ‘The Artemis Effect’, and also in my short stories (particularly ‘Perpendicularly’), I have tried to write about real women. They are strong, capable, intelligent people, and this is not due to some feminist plot on my part, but because that is how I find most women to be. To be believable characters, they needed to be powerful, and yet still sometimes subject to their insecurities.
There is certainly a place for female superheroes – real kick-ass women with no self doubt – in literature as well. Kerry Greenwood wrote her 1920’s detective, Phryne Fisher as a female equivalent of James Bond, and what fun she is to follow on her romps through the very proper society of the time! Perhaps if there were more role models like Phryne, less of us would look to Jordan and Pamela Anderson as role models (although you’ve got to give it to Ms. Anderson for the tongue in cheek courage she had to participate in Stripperella.)
So as writers, as a bare minimum, let’s be of our time and place. Let’s write about the real women we see around us, in all their strength and resilience, rather than as the downtrodden beings that the media would like us to be. Let’s celebrate real womanhood.