I’ll start off this entry by saying I have no intention of pissing on the parade of any social activity playing out with positive intentions on the part of those participating, especially if they’re really having fun with it.
I recently came home from a Saturday night out and saw the hashtag #womeninfiction trending on Twitter. As far as I can tell from a quick Google-poke, it was started as a contest to establish the most popular women in fiction and to more generally promote the idea of women being written into fiction. (I’m not going to bother to look into who started or sponsored this, assuming that anyone who reads this is intelligent enough to figure out on their own exactly all the ways in which the origins of the things they enjoy are often not the purest.)
While the contest seems to be over, people are still using the hashtag to gush about their favorite women characters, which to me seems as good a reason as any to use a hashtag.
So I want to make it clear that I’m not about to knock anyone’s fun or good feeling here, or to be some attention-policing buzzkill. But if part of the buzz is founded on raising awareness of a social issue (not enough women being included in fiction, or not enough women being included in complex, prominent roles), let’s not just stop here. Let’s address the elephant in the room:
#womeninfiction? Why not #whiteonrice? Why not #caloriesinfood?
I’m not an idiot. Current mainstream fiction, whether movies, TV or books, still largely shys away from using women and minorities in main roles. And blatant attempts to correct this are often embarrassing, zooming in to the nth degree on what’s perceived as the special female-ness or minority-ness of the character. (In other words, stereotypes that pass for an essential education about these strange creatures.)
So that’s a given. But I do have a problem with the idea of people so willingly framing a roundup like this as an inherently empowering act, because it’s just not. Presenting a celebration of female characters in the form of a contest, in which the pool of women in fiction will be narrowed down beauty-pageant style…it’s so obvious I’m actually a little embarrassed to be writing this.
Another problem is that it blatantly ignores the fact that simply getting MORE women in fiction is not really the problem. I’m reminded of Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye, in which the female narrator, a painter, rankles at the idea of her depictions of women being viewed as particularly significant simply because she’s a woman. Her opinion is that women paint women for the same reasons men paint women.
While this clearly isn’t always the case, this fictional woman brings up a good point. The history of women in fiction, as in art in general, is undeniably huge. Jane Smiley paints a fairly extensive picture of this in her book 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel, in which she delves into the printed book as an early form of fiction shared by an entire culture. Throughout this history, it’s easy to see that the role of women in society, which has been evolving for hundreds of years, creates an obvious source of tension that’s a gold mine for fiction. Of course, that doesn’t mean that women characters have always been created to be well-rounded and interesting, or that women writers haven’t run into countless difficulties in practicing their art. But to say that they haven’t already played a huge role in fiction is beyond absurd.
I get it. People want strong female characters in interesting roles, roles that are highly visible and backed up by money and mainstream attention. But maybe what they really want is just female characters in ALL in the same places male characters appear with the same frequency, and for this to somehow NOT TO BE WEIRD OR WORTHY OF SPECIAL ATTENTION.
That’s what I want. It’s probably what most of us want.
But with that in mind, this contest is…well, it’s crazy, you guys! It’s bombastic, audacious LOONEY TUNES.
If we’re really interested in making a point, let’s conduct a similar contest for our favorite white hetero male characters and force them down to a final two. Because that sort of insane competition and narrow window for recognition is what’s been happening to women for ages. I mean, damn.
Ultimately, people participate in things because they’re fun, and I don’t subscribe to the idea that we’re ruining our collective social conscience by messing around with lists and games. If something like this brings you joy, go crazy. Don’t let anyone take away your joy. Just don’t, you know, actually go crazy.