A number of years ago SFSignal asked writers if there were any taboos left in science fiction. The responses were pretty predictable. Apparently, a number of writers think the big taboos are sexualized violence against women and children. They must not read much.
I read books to figure out how to make sense of my world. I read books for characters I can relate to, characters who struggle with the things I struggle with. How do they get through it? Is there a road map for me? I rarely find these books. Women in stories, even those written by female authors overwhelmingly engage in stereotypically female behaviors. Breaking this barrier is still largely taboo.
I participated in an online writer’s workshop once where one of the stories featured an octopus with ten arms. Breaking the Clarion rules of workshopping, the beleaguered writer broke in to explain that she had a particular octopus in mind for the purposes of her story, an octopus which did, really, have ten arms. The pro told her that didn’t matter. Reader expectations mattered. Most readers would question a ten armed octopus. Anything else would cause that cardinal writing sin of pulling the reader out of the story.
This is the crux of the problem with writing female characters, any characters who aren’t the default[ii], yet behave as full human beings. Stereotypes have been ingrained in us since Mom put us in our first pink or blue Pampers. Women navigate gender stereotyping like a minefield, any misstep leads to self-doubt. The stereotypes are so ingrained and internalized fictional women ring as untrue when they don’t play the appropriate part.
Readers are so used to reading these character stereotypes, many of us are uncomfortable reading characters who do not conform. In Matthew Chaney’s review[iii] of Nisi Shawl’s Tiptree Award Winning short story collection Filter House, he suggests that there is something so profoundly lacking in these stories that no sensitive reader would be able to say these stories offer much of a performance.
Nisi’s stories are filled with the people we have been trained not to see, and for those readers invisibilized in real life recognizing themselves here can be overwhelmingly empowering.
OK, female genre writers and readers have been given one “present”, one non-stereotypically female character that’s OK, kind-of. The kick-ass heroine, acceptable as long as we don’t make her a Mary Sue. What? What? She can’t be a woman’s wish-fulfillment fantasy? (Mary Sue signifies poor writing I guess, and let’s lob that bit of advice at fan writers and beginners, shall we.) So, whose wish-fulfillment fantasy is she supposed to be? Oh, OK, I get it.
In my own writing I often get rejections which are less enlightening than confusing. Although, I am very grateful for editors who take the time to try to explain what isn’t working for them, I’m often left wondering if there is something in the reading of my characters, something that I am trying to do, which doesn’t ring true, because I’ve refused to adopt the kick-ass heroine as a vehicle to address life traumas.
A recent rejection hinted as much. A story about a woman who chooses to leave a violent home situation elicited this rejection—the editor wrote there were images in this story which will haunt him forever, but in the end he found my protagonist unsympathetic. I do know the ending to this story is weak. I may not quite have the craft to get to where I was going, but maybe I did get there, maybe it was where I was going that was unsettling. What I wanted to say was that sometimes, simply choosing to live is an heroic thing to do. But, was this editor really wishing she had just kicked some ass?
The artist Frieda Kahlo is the ultimate Mary Sue artist. All of her work explores dealing with the lasting trauma of the horrific accident she suffered as a young woman. Her work speaks to anyone who is trying to navigate through life and survive its traumas. I loved her work long before I knew any of her personal story. In the first biography of her that I read it was suggested that she underwent repeated surgeries, not in the hope of relieving the chronic pain, she suffered but to control her philandering husband by making him her constant caretaker. Apparently, her life had to be about him.
Writing women with agency means writing women who are as complex as we are in life, as conflicted, as flawed, as heroic. It means creating a fiction which showcases who we are and who we want to be.
So, I welcome the Mary Sue. I want stories about women the way we experience our lives. My wish is for more fictional characters who look like me, who’ve experienced what I’ve experienced, who live their lives in ways that ring true to me. And, oh, how I would like that wish to be fulfilled.
[i] Does anyone besides me get suspicious when confronted with a gendered criticism (Mary Sue) which has a male version added, always as an after-thought (Gary Stu)?
[ii] White, male, straight, cis-gendered, not poor or working class and able-bodied
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