Thursday 7 November 2013

Feminism and complexity

Consider the can of worms open.

Earlier today I blithely tweeted that my novel passes the Bechdel test, which is admittedly a pretty low bar for female empowerment. The test is passed if two named female characters in a piece of fiction discuss something other than a man.

This prompted Tash Fagelman to ask me whether my novel was a feminist text or not, whereupon I realised that a) I didn’t know what a feminist text was, and b) I had barely considered the issue of gender, beyond the fact that one of the main characters, Natalie, is a strong, independent woman. In fact, she tends to be rather more strong and independent than the men in the story. Just about every female character in the book, and there are quite a few, are similarly strong independent women.

Great. Feminist box ticked, right?
Uh, slow down. While we could define the text as feminist on these grounds, Tash rightly points out that it’s a pretty simplistic approach. Fine, Natalie is able and willing to do most the things a man could and would do. But I fall into a whole number of other traps. In no particular order (and knowing very little about feminism):

  1. The novel is set in an alternative version of the 1920s and 30s. I make little attempt to discuss society’s attitude to women at that time or the way it might affect Natalie’s actions and character.
  2. Giving a woman a gun and making her act in a man-like fashion is a very narrow form of empowerment, if indeed it is empowerment at all. However, I do also give Natalie a character, with flaws and everything, which I think is important.
  3. All of the women in the book are roughly the same. Strong, competent women, yes, but really there’s not a great deal of variation between them. The men span a wider range – good, bad, cowardly, brave, introverted, extroverted, etc. Now that I stop and think about it, I feel this may be a serious problem both in terms of accurately representing women and in terms of creating an engaging narrative.

This third point brings me on to another interesting idea: I would feel uncomfortable casting a woman as the villain in the book (yes, there is a villain – I guess that’s kind of simplistic too), just as I would be uncomfortable having a black (wo)man as the villain. Vincent Volpe, the novel’s unpleasant and insecure antagonist, is a white male.

Part of this discomfort stems, I believe, from having an overly simplistic baddie. Turning to Shakespeare for an example, Othello [Spoiler alert!] is hardly a villain, but he does strangle his wife, which is pretty unpleasant behaviour. However, Othello is a deeply human character with strengths and weaknesses, and Shakespeare doesn’t simply have him murder Desdemona because he is black; Othello does it because he is a flawed human. And that, of course, is fine (at least from a racial/narrative standpoint – I don’t support the general murdering of wives).

Then again the real baddie, Iago, is a white male. So perhaps Shakespeare agrees with me after all.

I don’t really know how to solve this problem, but clearly it pays to stop and think occasionally about where the novel is going. Narratives have a way of becoming more complex than their authors realise, and I risk making the story feel flat and flavourless if I don’t acknowledge that complexity. 

Perhaps more importantly, patriarchy is a creeping thing that is, at least in part, perpetuated by literature, so if this book is going to be published I feel I have a duty to at least be aware of that risk.

I promise to think more about women from now on.

1 comment:

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