Hi, sorry it’s been so long, but I’ve been dealing with a number of things that have kept me away from posting. Anyway, I just wanted to through out some quick thoughts on an issue that has come up several times recently.
In a novel I’ve been working on for a while now (since at least June of 2011, not counting pre-development), the two lead characters are both women. They are also both, to various degrees, pretty unpleasant people. Having had the first draft out for a while now and gotten some feedback, it’s striking to me that the number one feedback I get keeps being that these characters are pathetic, disturbing, disgusting, etc. I’ve also had a couple people point out that this might be a bad thing–after all, the reader has trouble identifying with them, and is it really a good thing to have characters who are female–and what’s more, potentially queer–be unlikable?
The thing is, I knew these characters were unlikable. This was always intentional, writing in a long tradition of books like The Cement Garden, American Psycho, Notes from the Underground, etc. But I hadn’t expected my readers to be surprised by this idea, that these characters might be unlikable. Of course, the big distinction is that in all of the cited examples, the main characters are white hetero males. Now, I’m sure there are plenty of unpleasant leads who are female, but all the ones I’ve read, at least for longer pieces (short stories always have more leeway), were written by female authors. I think it’s a sign of privilege, of the state of how we receive characters, that white male characters are ‘allowed’ to be horrible people, whereas anyone outside that demographic (and my characters are not particularly far from normative either) is seen as somehow representative. If you write a woman, you are understood as writing all women. The same applies to a greater degree with race, and to an even greater degree with non-normative gender and sexuality. It’s frightening just to think about the pressure of writing a trans character, where every action and word would no doubt be picked apart by readers from all over the political spectrum. Now, this is naturally part of the experience of being anything but a straight white male, but it exists twofold with a character, since that character is being judged both in their world and as a character in a book. Just look at the backlash to Silence of the Lambs--why is it that a transvestite serial killer can’t exist*? The obvious answer is because in the real world, transvestites are demonized enough, and the image of a transvestite serial killer only adds to that. But at the same time, saying that you can’t have a transvestite serial killer in a major motion picture limits what a transvestite character can be, makes them into more of a representation of their gender practices than a realistic purposes. For the needs of mimetic art, this is problematic to say the least.
What’s the solution here? I’m not sure that there is one, or at least that there is one easily available. It’s the same issue raised when people make jokes about the idea of a colorblind society: as long as racism/sexism/general bigotry exists, we need to be aware of it, but that awareness is nonetheless part of that system. The only solution I can see for the time being is to judge each work on its own merits, but at the same time pay attention to larger cultural trends. I, for example, think that Silence of the Lambs does an excellent job of not demonizing non-normative gender as a whole even while it contains a very unpleasant non-normative character. It does this a number of ways, including by addressing those gender practices as the behavior of that character (rather than generalizing), showing other characters with non-normative gender (at the very least, Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lecter), and by grounding the behavior in the world we see in the film. Other naturally have the right to view the film differently, and many do. One of the key things we can look toward is a resistance to clichés and tropes. It seems to me that tropes are the most common way bigoted politics work their way into media. With regard to the representation of women, just look at the number of pre-existing roles, from femme fatale to loyal housewife to leather-wearing badass to the very unfortunate cliché of the character that gets raped to prompt the male lead to action. Sure, some of these may seem empowering, but they are nonetheless problematic in that to design a character in order to seem empowering means that you’re denying to them the ability to exist as a character. (Note: this only applies to mimetic literature. Didactic literature is a whole other ballgame, one that I have largely stayed away from and thus don’t really feel qualified to speak on.)
So this brings me back to my original conundrum: is it okay to write female characters who are unpleasant? Obviously yes, but with caveats. In my case, I went into the novel intending to write about unpleasant people, and people who were female, but they were not unpleasant because they were female. I am sure–very sure, now that I’ve gotten some feedback from readers–that the representations will be offensive to some, but to me it seems unfair to censure the characters’ behavior because of what readers would respond with. What I have tried to do is ground that behavior in a world and experience, and show where it comes from and what it leads to, and to show realistic behavior rather than tropes either for the positive or the negative. Nonetheless, I am aware that people are going to read the novel and make negative generalizations about women from it. A necessary part of looking at characters as thinking, conscious subjects is allowing them a freedom of behavior, even of that behavior may be interpreted differently if they are looked at as objects.
*We’re totally going to ignore the fact that Buffalo Bill is not, according to both the book and movie, technically transgender, because it really distracts from the issue of representation we’re talking about here.