Category Archives: Stereotypes

The Competent Woman Protagonist: a Steampunk Feminist Perspective

Compenent Women

Table by Javier Zarracina for Vox

I read an article about Competent Sidekicks on Vox, and saw this table. I don’t completely agree with it, as Luke did blow up the Death Star, but Leia certainly gave him access to the Death Star plans and his torpedo-firing spaceship. But I do think this table makes a valid point; why do these competent women not get their share of the credit at the end of the day?

Agent 99

Agent 99

This cliche is as old as television. Look at 99 and Maxwell Smart. Smart was extremely lucky to be teamed up with Agent 99, as she did most of the thinking and the hard work while he got most of the credit. What made him survive was luck – not to be underrated, but it can’t be depended upon. Even in the modern reboot, Agent 99 has all the training and skills. Max and 99 are the extreme example of the trope, with Starlord and Gamora from Guardians of the Galaxy coming a close second.

This occurs quite a bit in literature too. So,how do I avoid this happening in my Steampunk novel.

Well, for starters, my protagonist is a competent woman. And – at the end of the story – she will be getting her credit and her reward. Yep. I finally figured out the reward that would make her happy … a free pass into Kew Gardens. For life. No restrictions. For a woman academic of the 1870s, that is like winning Olympic Gold.

So much more satisfying that marrying her off into a faux ‘happily ever after’.

 

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Misunderstanding the concept of a Strong Woman Character – Steampunk Feminist Perspective

image-from-etsy-02

When a writer talks about a ‘strong’ character, they don’t actually mean that the character is physically able to lift a horse or beat up ten opponents or swears like a shearer. A strong character is a complex character, three dimensional, not a stereotype. There have been some work put into constructing the character. The character lives and breathes on the page.

Lately, there has been a trend toward ‘strong female characters’ in books, television, and Hollywood movies. However, it appears that the multiple meanings of the word ‘strong’ has confused a lot of people. So, here are some questions you can ask yourself when trying to decide if a ‘strong female character’ is strong in name only.

1/ Are her actions over-the-top to overcompensate for the lack of other female characters or a personality of her own? SFC often display exaggerated ‘tough’ mannerisms that no man would get away with, or take risks that are stupid rather than brave.

karathrace

Think of the characterisation of Starbuck, Kara Thrace, during the first season of the new version of Battlestar Galactica. When we first encounter Kara Thrace, she bears a strong resemblance to the original 1978 Starbuck character: both were portrayed as hot-headed and cocky fighter pilots, with a tendency to challenge authority head-on and get into trouble. Both were avid gamblers and enjoyed drinking, smoking cigars, and casual sex. Except Kara was even more full on than the original Starbuck. She did stupid things that a trained warrior would never do. However…

All kudos to both the writers of the series and actor Katee Sackhoff for being able to give this version of Starbuck to opportunity to grow and change.

2/ Is she ‘every bit as good as a boy’?  In other words, is she simply a male character in every aspect but her gender? Is she a classic Patriarchal male in all her strengths and virtues, and in her flaws, as well as her values – with only her gender ticked as ‘woman’ rather than ‘man’?

sergeant-calhoun

Sergeant Calhoun

Look at Sergeant Calhoun from Wreck-it Ralph. Here is her character description from the Disney-Wiki:

Calhoun is hardcore, tough, and incredibly strict. She commands her troops with a firm and domineering hand, and exhibits a fierce tenacity in which failure is never an option. She has no tolerance for shortcomings, and doesn’t hesitate to roughly reprimand her soldiers, and additionally seems to enjoy goading them with taunts to increase their drive. Although Calhoun comes off at first as crass and callous, she is very serious and stoic when not engaged in gameplay. Her tragic backstory has left her heartbroken and untrusting, with a dry sense of humor. It is her backstory and her dedication to her job that she appears to consider herself a soldier first and woman second.

The comment that she is “a soldier first and a woman second”is telling. I’m yet to hear a man described as ‘a soldier first and a man second’, because, of course, the default setting for soldiers are that they are men.

sharon-stone-as-the-lady

I’m also thinking of Sharon Stone’s The Lady in The Quick and the Dead. Clint Eastwood  – in his spaghetti western era – could have played her role. Her backstory was the same backstory for a dozen Western movies.

Tasha Robinson wrote a compelling argument against Strong Female Characters during last year’s summer blockbuster season, lamenting that: “Bringing in a Strong Female Character™ isn’t actually a feminist statement, or an inclusionary statement, or even a basic equality statement, if the character doesn’t have any reason to be in the story except to let filmmakers point at her on the poster and say ‘See? This film totally respects strong women!'” The irony of the celebration of and hunger for Strong Female Characters is that they perpetuate macho notions of strength and capability, which just happen to be communicated by women and girls.

From the article I’m Sick of Strong Female Characters in Film by Clem Bastow

3/ Does the character have agency and a voice of her own? Does she make her own decisions and take responsibility for her own actions? Does she disappear during the action? Is she the rescuer or the rescued? Does she act and her actions impact the plot, or does most of the action take place around her?

Part of this problem is the idea that behind every great man is a great woman.  It means that the woman’s actions are still being defined by a man. Why isn’t the woman just out there doing for herself?

This one can be tricky. Consider Valka from How to Catch Your Dragon 2; she plays no real part in the plot after her build-up as an awesome character. Of course, overcoming this lack of voice and agency makes for a brilliant story, like Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale or Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. Female characters lacking in voice and agency tand not to be that memorable. Gee, I wonder why?

4/ Does she end up as the trophy for the male Protagonist? This is a Disney favourite. Think about Jasmine from Aladdin and Meg from Hercules.

aladdin_jasmine

meg

They were sassy. Independent. Actually played a part in the resolution of the story. And still ended up as the trophy brides. This happens so much, I could let you make your own list…

It doesn’t matter how sassy your SFC is, if at the end of the story she is the ‘prize’ won by the hero. The very worst example I can think of is Kate from the movie, Hackers. Kate is the only girl in the hackers group AND she is the ‘prize’ in a bet between her and the protagonist, Dade. I came out of that movie completely enraged.

kate-from-hackers

Kate was played by a very young Angelina Jolie.

5/ Is the SFC complex and three dimensional?  Or is her ‘strength’ her only defining characteristic?  The white-haired witch from the movie, The Forbidden Kingdom, is powerful, and evil, and we have no idea why. Oh, she wants to be immortal … but we are never given any backstory or understanding of her character. She is just strong, physically and magically.

white-haired-witch

As a child, my youngest daughter loved this character because she was so strong, and she wanted to be that strong with magic. I’m not saying that children don’t love complex characters, but when your target audience is older, you need more than strength to define a character.

Gazelle from the movie, Kingsman: The Secret Service, is another of these strong girls with one dimension characterisations. Imagine how much more interesting her character would have been if she had been allowed some dialogue and an insight into her motivations. Was she in it for the money? Did she hate humanity? Was she in love with Valentine or his ideals?

6/ Is she the token female in an all male cast?

avengers-movie-poster-1

age-of-ultron

civil-war

Oh look, a girl on each side…

Need I say more? Others have written reams about how badly the character of the Black Widow is being treated in these movies.

7/ Could all her strengths be defined as masculine strengths, rather than her being strong in her own unique way? In other words, could your SFC be replaced by a male character and no one would notice the difference?

Strength comes in many different forms. If you classify as strength only in terms relating to overt masculinity, you are misunderstanding what strong means. I want to see a strong Female Character who can rejoice in her ‘female’ and girly strengths. She laughs or cries because showing emotion isn’t a weakness. She is strong – not in spite her femininity – but because of it, while at the same time not letting her femininity define her.

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Filed under Characterization, Feminism, Steampunk Feminist, Stereotypes, Uncategorized

Caricature versus Stereotype: a Steampunk Feminist Perspective

A Stereotype: a widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing.

A Caricature: a picture, description, or imitation of a person in which certain striking characteristics are exaggerated in order to create a comic or grotesque effect.

From Google Definitions

Caricatures of attendees at an Australian suffragette meeting.

Caricatures of the attendees at an Australian suffragette meeting.

Anti-suffragette cartoons

The stereotype versus the caricature.

own worst enemy

anti-suffragist choir.jpg

Suffragette3USE

The Stereotype of a Suffragette from the viewpoint of those against the suffragette movement.

what I would do with...

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Place Keeping as Characterization: A Steampunk Perspective

Otto as a mad scientist

Art by Brian Kesinger

So, you’ve put together this kick-ass character. She has the ability to absorb a pile of seemingly unrelated information and find all the connections. She can find answers hidden in confusing masses of data. She has the quirky need to eat high-octane snacks to fuel her thinking. And you then use NONE of these interesting characteristics, and turn her into a standard ‘agent’ character with none of these characteristics ever referred to again. I’m looking at the writers of the character of Ellie Bishop from NCIS.

Monsters and Men

Eleanor Bishop – a wasted character

Once Bishop joined the team, she stopped being a data specialist. Everything that made her unique was no longer part of her characterization. Did they think that Abby was enough of an eccentric for one television show? (And, on a side note, whatever happened to Tim McGee’s writing career?)

I have found this very frustrating. Why go to all the trouble of creating and introducing an interesting character to then underutilize all that work that went into making the character? It makes no sense. I suspect lazy writing – they just needed a woman to fill that ‘space’ at the departure of Ziva David, to play a sisterly figure for McGee, a girlfriend for Abby Sciuto, a daughter substitute for Doctor Mallard and Leroy Gibbs. As she was the first ‘married’ character in the team, she did not replace Ziva David in Anthony Dinozzo’s affections. However, they must have wanted to make it appear the new female character was a person in her own right … and then forgot about it.

This brings me to the point of this post. Do you have place keepers in your writing?

Have you written a character that simply exists to be a romantic interest, without giving them their own importance withing the unrolling of the plot? You can reveal this by using the Sexy Lamp Test. If the romantic interest can be replaced by a lamp and not affect the plot … you have written a place keeping character.

The Sexy Lamp Test was originally invented to detect gender bias within a movie or a text, but it is too useful not to use it as a lazy writing detector. It was invented by Kelly Sue DeConnick, a comic book writer.

Pretty_Deadly-01.jpg

The Cover of Pretty Deadly by Image Comics, written by DeConnick

 

I think the Sexy Lamp Test is a good metaphor and a great name for a place keeper. There are other ways of detecting place keepers:

  • they are often stereotypes;
  • they do not have any character growth over the course of the narrative;
  • they are two dimensional characters, unmemorable and uninteresting;
  • they have no meaningful interactions within the text;
  • their existence does not add anything to the plot.

A place keeper can be rescued and given a much more interesting role within a narrative, or can be incised without impacting on the narrative. It depends on what you wanted to achieve with that character in the first place. Of course, a minor character is easily cut from the story, but if one of your major characters is a place keeper, that can be more of a problem. You – as the author – will need to step up and make the effort to bring life and humanity to your place keeper.

You can start the process by considering these factors:

  • what is this character’s back story?
  • what is this character’s motivations?
  • How does this character interact with the protagonist/antagonist?
  • how does this character’s actions impact on the plot?
  • what makes this character an individual?
  • How does this character react to a stressful situation?

Even answering one of two of these questions should help bring a place keeper out of obscurity. For example, you have a mad scientist character who is essentially a place keeper. Maybe you’ve added the character for ‘colour’ in your Steampunk novel. Do any of this scientist’s inventions play a major part in the plot? If not, time to rethink that decision, as why have the character if you weren’t going to utilise her skills? In one stroke, you’ve saved her from being a place keeper.

Laugh like a Mad Scientist!

Now it is time to build on that. What drew her into her field of science? Was it something the antagonist did back in the past? Is her motivation revenge? Did she hunt down the protagonist because the enemy of my enemy is my friend? Is that something she is trying to keep a secret, or she does she relish sharing the details of what she will do to vanquish the antagonist?

See? Already your ‘place keeper’ is more interesting than a generic stereotype of a mad scientist. Write a memorable character, and she will stick with your audience for years.

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Defining Creativity and Rationality.

How methodology affects results

There is a really persistent underlying discourse in the English language and culture: duality. Everything is black and white, male and female, tall and small, right or wrong, good or evil. One of the assumptions about real science is that there is very little creativity involved. Science is logical, rational and ‘cold’. I hold a Bachelor of Science AND a Bachelor of Arts, and I can tell you that nothing is further from the truth.

Science vs Everything Else

Human beings tend to prefer simple over complex, and science is neither ‘cold’ nor is it solely rational. A scientist is not the opposite of an artist. A scientist follows the stream of science that interests them. They are certainly not unemotional when they are in the ‘my work requires funding’ stage of their career (stressed would be one of the words I would use instead). In Australia, most scientist aren’t that well paid, and generally work for love (like writers and artists) rather than fame and fortune.

Science = Magic without the lies.

I love this website and can recommend it highly.

By buying into the discourse that science is rational and cold as opposed to art being warm and creative, two stereotypes are perpetrated. Being an artist takes a lot of training and thinking and expensive equipment as well as talent … as does being a scientist. Passion is something of an over-used cliché these days, but both art and science take real passion. As a writer and a scientist, the conflicting stereotypes would indicate that I have a split personality, rather than mad fangirl that I am in reality.

Warning Science Ahead

The perceived opposition of science and art is as fake as the culturally perceived duality of night and day, and is lazy writing. A day can be broken down into morning and afternoon, and what about sunset,sunrise and twilight and a dozen other ways of describing the zeitgeist of a moment. Don’t fall into the trap.

 

 

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Australians replace the English as villains in American Television Shows

Possible Spoilers for Grimm – don’t read on if you haven’t yet watch Skin Deep.

Australian Villain on Grimm

Jonathan Wood, acting under the name Jonathan Patrick Moore in America, as the villainous monster-of-the-week in the Skin Deep episode of Grimm.

One upon a time in America, if you wanted to hint that a character was the real baddie, you made them English. Alan Rickman got a lot of work that way. Now – partially thanks to the superbly talented Ben Mendelsohn – you can pick the villain if anyone with an Aussie accent makes an appearance. Over the past month, I’ve seen several examples of this phenomenon, with the most recent example being the Skin Deep episode of Grimm. As soon as I heard the Australian accent, I suspected a villain, and I was spot on.

Ben Mendelsohn – an actor who just gets better with age, and he was amazing to start with.

American television likes to have foreigners as villains. It is easier to dislike the Other and Stranger. It is lazy writing. As well, it has the knock on effect that it makes stereotyping all strangers/foreigners as villains that much easier. This sort of thinking descends from the Red Menace and Yellow Peril propaganda of WWII and the Cold War.

A Fireman from the annual Firefighters Calendar. This man is not a model but a real life hero.

Australians, like everyone else, have a mix good and bad. And I am certain this current trend towards depicting villains as Australians will be fairly short-lived. However, don’t fall into the trap of stereotyping ‘furriners’ as inherently evil. This is just as bad as depicting every antagonist as beautiful or handsome. Characterisation shouldn’t be defined by expectations…break the mould and your characters will suddenly be more interesting and memorable.

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Susan Baker of Ingleside – a Steampunk Feminist Perspective

Canadian author L. M. Montgomery is best known for her Anne series, which commenced with Anne of Green Gables and finished with Rilla of Ingleside. The first seven books in the series are basically domestic ‘coming of age’ end in the Victorian and Edwardian eras, and ending before WW1. The last book, Rilla of Ingleside, is more of a war story, as told from the viewpoints of the women left behind as their young menfolk go off to war.

Even though the main protagonists of these books were Anne and her family and friends, the stand-out feminist character in Rilla of Ingleside is Susan Baker, the family’s cook and housekeeper, though she is not treated as a domestic and is considered by Anne & Rilla to be more of a senior family member. Susan is in her early sixties, which makes her an unusual choice for a secondary character in book written for Young Adults. She has a few scenes when she is the comedy relief, but she is the representative of all the older women who threw themselves into supporting their soldiers and their countries while the war was fought.

 

Dear old Susan! She is a perfect dynamo of patriotism and loyalty and contempt for slackers of all kinds, and when she let it loose on that audience in her one grand outburst she electrified it. Susan always vows she is no suffragette, but she gave womanhood its due that night, and she literally made those men cringe. When she finished with them they were ready to eat out of her hand. She wound up by ordering them–yes, ordering them–to march up to the platform forthwith and subscribe for Victory Bonds.

Montgomery was able to support herself comfortably with her writing, and she avoided accepting marriage proposals for the first part of her adult life. It wasn’t until the release of Anne of Green Gables cemented her success as an author did she eventually marry. Because her novels always feature strong female characters of all ages, we can assume she had suffragist leanings.

All the women ‘who have got de age’–to quote Jo Poirier, and who have husbands, sons, and brothers at the front, can vote. Oh, if I were only twenty-one! Gertrude and Susan are both furious because they can’t vote.

‘It is not fair,’ Gertrude says passionately. ‘There is Agnes Carr who can vote because her husband went. She did everything she could to prevent him from going, and now she is going to vote against the Union Government. Yet I have no vote, because my man at the front is only my sweetheart and not my husband!”

As for Susan, when she reflects that she cannot vote, while a rank old pacifist like Mr. Pryor can–and will–her comments are sulphurous.

Susan Baker is the classic Victorian woman coming to terms with new  social structures that were emerging at the start of the Twentieth Century. She was the ‘voice’ of the mature single woman, to contrast with the married mother, Anne, and the teenager, Rilla. From a Steampunk feminist’s perspective, Susan exemplifies how a sensible woman would manage to remain both respectable and support the rights of women. It is not just the young who feel passionately and deeply about their beliefs.

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