Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Women in Fiction

Of late, I have become more aware of the problems of gender imbalances in novels and movies, and more specifically, the way female characters are dealt with when there is only one of them around. Case in point – X-Men: First Class. At the end of the movie, Charles Xavier and Moira (to prove how little of a thing she is, I just had to look her up to find out her name) have a sudden, unexpected romance that takes place over the duration of a single scene. I really felt like this relationship was never, ever developed, and that basically, because Moira was the only girl around - or at least the only romantic option - they felt like they didn’t need to develop a realistic relationship, since her role was clear. The leading man apparently needed a love interest, and so they gave him the shallowest one they could find. For want of a better term, it was Bond-romance, minus the sex-scenes.

I feel that this illustrates the dangers of gender imbalance – because someone is the only woman on screen, no-one feels the need to explore her character, because her character is ‘the woman’. This has always frustrated me about the Smurfs, because all the boys have different personalities and traits, and then there is Smurfette, whose defining trait is that she is a girl. And that works for her, because there are no other girls, so she is sufficiently distinguished by the fact that she is 'girly'. No, being a girl is not a personality trait. (Disclaimer: I have never read or seen the Smurfs. All I know comes from watching trailers, and playing a computer game that we had in primary school. I may be entirely wrong here.)

I don’t think the answer to this problem is necessarily to put more female characters on screen or on the page. Gender imbalanced casts are not actually the cause of the problem, but I think that it can be exacerbated by it. Having several female characters forces you to think about them as something more than just ‘the girl’, and instead to develop them just as you would any other character. Nonetheless, you shouldn’t need multiple female characters just to understand that they need to be defined by more than just their gender.

This rant started because I have been planning my Nano for this year, and am finding it a little lacking on the female-character front. On the one hand, it is a historical-type fantasy, loosely based on the culture of Ancient Rome (I think, maybe) and largely set during a war. The focus is going to be on military and political sorts of things, and obviously, there weren’t many – or any, really – women operating in these spheres in that type of setting. I never felt, for example, The Lord of the Rings lacked women, although from what I can remember, there are only two female characters who fill roles other than love interests.

On the other hand, well, basically everything I have said above about gender-imbalanced casts. As a girl, I feel like I should have a handle on depicting female characters well. Recently, however, I have found myself falling into the damsel-in-distress trap: using a girl, usually abducted by the antagonist, as an instigating plot-device. Both times I’ve done this, the character in question has had traits other than being ‘the girl’ and there have been other female characters around. But it still makes me vaguely uneasy, and similarly, I don’t like the idea of writing a male-dominated novel, even if I am entirely aware of the fact that female characters tend to end up characterised as 'the girl' if there is only one of them around.

What do others think of the potrayal of women in fiction? Is it a good idea to add female characters into a male-dominated novel just to ensure gender balance? Is it always bad to have a girl function as a ‘damsel in distress’? Being a girl who often writes about girls, should I just stop worrying about this and assume I can do it right?


  1. As an author, it's important to never add women to your cast to 'even out the odds' so to say. Same goes the other way around. (people always make a problem of the role of women, but the other way around is sometimes a problem as well)
    I feel you should go by your feeling as a writer to determine whether a character does well in your plot or not and whether s/he should be male or female.
    As for the smurfs,I believe I recall it being a part of the story that smurfette isn't a real smurf but a golem of some sorts created by gargamel to delude the smurfs with her female charms. Hope that helped a bit.

    1. Thanks for commenting - I think you're right, and I'm starting to see that adding female characters for the sake of it is a bad idea. I'm just going to go with my gut regarding genders of characters, and see how things turn out. =)