Category Archives: Stereotypes

The Gigantron

This is my gift to you all for your support over the past year.

 

Amedee Bollee's first 1878 steam-powered car

1878 Steam-powered Car

 

“Miss Stevens, your car is ugly.”

Renee rolled her shoulders to relax the tension sitting between them, and pretended she didn’t hear the comment. She didn’t bother looking up from her white wine. She was the only woman who frequented the bar – a known hangout for car enthusiasts – and she had earned a reputation for not taking shit from anyone. However, it had been a long day and she was bone-weary.

Alas, the man would not take the hint.

“Didn’t you hear me, girl? Your car is ugly.” He stood aggressively, with his fists on his hips and his chin thrust out, trying to look bigger than he was. Renee has seen a hundred men like him every day since she had started on her quest to build the fastest car in the world. They always managed to make the word ‘girl’ sound like a curse, rather than mere fact.

Renee suppressed a sigh. She said in a low voice, “I don’t recall being introduced, but since you know my name you must know of me and my car. I built her to be fast, not fashionable. You are not the first person to tell me that my car is not beautiful.”

The man was not the sort to be turned aside with gentle words. He snarled, “Are they the same people who tell you a girl shouldn’t build and race cars?”

“Yes, they usually are,” said Renee. She took another sip of wine and her mouth puckered; it was too dry and didn’t suit her mood. She needed a sweeter wine, something light and fruity.

“And they are right!” declared the man. “No woman has a brain that understands the mechanics.” He was short and dark, with a luxuriant moustache. No grease clogged his nails or the pores of his hands. He was too clean to be an inventor, engineer or mechanic. Most likely, he was a driver; they tended towards being highly strung.

Renee’s own hands were not as clean, even though she wore gloves when working on the Gigantron and took extra care to wash after work. She wondered if the man suffered ‘short man syndrome’ and saw the large size of her glorious Gigantron as an attack on his manhood. He seemed to be quivering with suppressed rage at her, and she couldn’t recall having any prior conversations with the chappie, so he couldn’t have a personal grudge against her. Pondering this, she said, “Really? If you are so interested in holding with traditional values, why are you picking on someone who is smaller than you?”

The quiver turned into a tremor that shook the man’s whole body. Renee concentrated on her wine. If he actually swung at her, she knew the entire bar would leap to her defence. As much as the other patrons might disapprove of a woman in their bar, they wouldn’t tolerate such ungentlemanly behaviour as a man striking a young lady, even if she was a peculiar young lady who invented and built automobiles. They weren’t to know that Renee had a spare wrench in her reticule for emergencies of all kinds.

“Your ugly car will not race,” growled the man, and he turned and stomped away. His spot was taken by a well-dressed, elderly gentleman with enormously expressive eyebrows dominating his face.

“How do you do, my dear?” said the gentleman, while a twitch of his eyebrows dismissed the rudeness of the short, dark man. “May I have a word with you?”

“You may,” said Renee. She smiled at the old gentleman. The eyebrows were clearly delighted at her welcoming response. The gentleman settled himself in the other seat at her table. Renee took the opportunity to study him. He was of average height, but was so thin he appeared to be tall and rangy; she imagined people often used the word ‘spry’ when describing him. His clothing was well made and well cared for, but fragile with age. His shoes were brand new and looked to be very expensive. Once he was comfortable, he smiled back at her.

He said, “Thank you, my dear. My name is Mister Erasmus Whittingstall. We haven’t been formally introduced, but I know your name is Miss Renee Stevens. You have a formidable reputation as an automobile inventor.” His eyebrows conveyed what an honour it was to make her acquaintance.

“How kind of you to say,” said Renee, and she meant it. People tended to use the word ‘bad’ whenever they mentioned her reputation. “How can I help you?”

“I would like to hear about your car, the Gigantron.”

“What do you want to know?” asked Renee.

“This might sound strange, but I have pretentions of poetry,” said Mr Whittingstall. He grinned and leant forward as if imparting a delicious secret. “I have seen you and your car in action. You will have the last laugh. Your car is a masterpiece. I can see how you have must have grown bones of steel and iron, and how you must sweat rust. I can see how you have rattled your teeth loose, suffered welding burns, and jarred your bones to splinters for your quest for speed. I want to capture your energy and enthusiasm in a poem; a poem to capture the zeitgeist of this new age.”

“Pardon?” Renee was taken back.

With a sympathetic swoop of his eyebrows, Mr Whittingstall explained, “I think your car is a great beauty, in the true meaning of the word ‘great’. Some automobiles seem to be airy-fairy filigrees of wire and chains. Your car is a warrior princess, a Valkyrie, big and powerful with sleek lines, breathing out smoke and steam and speed in return for your care. She looks like a rocket.”

“Like a bullet,” said Renee. “She is meant to look like a bullet.”

“Ah-ha. A bullet is another metaphor for speed,” said the Mr Whittingstall. He folded his hands across his chest and beamed.

“So how can my Gigantron and I help you with your poem?”

“I would like to pay you for a ride in your car.”

Renee relaxed. There was room for two in her vehicle. She could tuck the elderly gent behind her in the seat behind her driving console and chair. If she took it easy, he shouldn’t take any harm. She nodded and said, “You need not pay for a ride. I can take you with me on one of her test runs.”

The eyebrows jumped so high that they nearly disappeared into his mop of unruly white hair. “Oh no. You misunderstand me, though I appreciate the kind offer. I want to ride with you when you attempt to break the land speed record, and I am prepared to fully sponsor your attempt.” Mr Whittingstall nodded and continued, while his eyebrows dropped lower and lower, “I am quite wealthy. And I know how your expenses must be piling up. With my help, you can afford to best of everything.”

“And now I appreciate your very kind to offer, but it is much too dangerous,” said Renee.

“Now look here, Miss Stevens. I am an old man, but I still have a sound mind and a sound body. I promise not to be a distraction. One of the reasons I approached you is that I thought you might understand how it is to be constantly warned not to take risks. I am quite aware of the risks, and I have not discounted them.”

Renee couldn’t argue with his logic. He was certainly old enough to know his own mind. On top of that, she could use those extra funds. She made her decision.

“You will have to train with me. I must know I’m not endangering you, Mr Whittingstall. And some of your money will go to increasing safety measures on your behalf.”

The eyebrows danced with delight. “Excellent,” exclaimed Mr Whittingstall. “Come to my office tomorrow and we can make the arrangements. I’ll have my lawyer there so that no one can blame you for any mishaps. Though I’ve seen you drive, and I am sure I will as safe as in my own armchair. Then we can go visit my bank and arrange for the start of your funding.”

“Oh my,” said Renee, her voice rather faint.

“Let’s shake on it, shall we?” said Mr Whittingstall.

 

Two months later, Renee was polishing away the grease and grime that had condensed on the Gigantron overnight, and the car gleaming like the bullet she resembled. She whistled as she rubbed a shine onto every available surface. Some people might call the Gigantron ugly, but Renee knew beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Mr Whittingstall had taught her that.

If only those naysayers knew Gigantron better. Her chassis was similar in shape to a rocket, a long cone that curved to a point at the front, was finned at rear, and with six massive wheels supporting her weight. She was powered by a variety of methods, rather than just by coal or kerosene. She had two radial aero engines, the same sort of engines found in an airplane, air-cooled with propellers and gel-cooled with a refrigeration unit. In conjunction with these, Renee had added a magnetically-propelled motor, which could only work when the other engines are running at full bore. When she reached her maximum speed, she was as mighty as an avalanche or a tidal wave.

Stopping and turning when at full speed, on the other hand, was something of an issue. Newton’s Law of Motion and all that…inertia could be a killer when your car massed as much as the Gigantron. She wasn’t just a lady made of iron, she had an iron will. The lady’s not for turning. She could be the fastest car on the planet, but she wasn’t manoeuvrable.

Because of her lack of a turning circle, the Gigantron couldn’t race on a circuit. She needed a straight road, as smooth as you could make it. Renee had considered giving her a track like a locomotive, but a derailment at high speed would mean certain death. With Mr Whittingstall riding with her, certain death was not an option.

Today was going to be his first ride.

Renee was hoping for an uneventful day.

Mr Whittingstall turned up just as Renee was going over her checklist.

“How are you today, my dear girl?” called out the elderly gentleman.

“Are you talking to me or to the Gigantron,” said Renee, turning to meet him. It was quite the sight that met her gaze. Mr Whittingstall was dressed in the driving clothes of an earlier era, with a woollen coat, gaiters, heavy driving gloves, goggles and a leather aviation-style helmet. It was all Renee could do to suppress a laugh, but she felt safe enough with a smile.

“I think your outfit is quite wonderful, Mr Whittingstall,” she said. “Did you buy it especially for this occasion?”

“Well, no,” said Mr Whittingstall. “I own quite a collection of automobiles. This is just one of my driving outfits, one of my favourites, to be truthful. I think it looks dashing.”

“I’m glad to see you have dressed with safety in mind,” said Renee, and meant it. She was dressed in a padded leather boiler suit, and also sported gloves, a helmet and goggles. Even though the canopy of the Gigantron was designed to protect them from the wind, a stray draft would be dangerous at high speeds, driving dust into their eyes. To be driving blind would be fatal. Goggles were an important part of any driving outfit.

A couple of assistant mechanics came over to help load the two of them into the Gigantron. The car was too tall to get into without a stepladder. Mr Whittingstall had to go first, as his seat could only be reached while the driver wasn’t occupying her seat.

The old man gamely climbed into the car without too much trouble. He really was a spry old duck. The assistants carefully strapped him into his seat, a seat designed with a superior suspension to minimise any rattles or sudden jerks. As well, Renee has added padding to any hard surface around Mr Whittingstall’s seat, in case of a sharp stops or turns. Old bones were brittle.

It wasn’t just because he was her sponsor that she was taking such care. You had grown quite fond of him. He was a cheerful and undemanding mentor, asking intelligent questions. Renee had been expecting the poet to be much less sensible and more of a nuisance. Indeed, Renee found his enthusiasm for her Gigantron refreshing and inspiring. She had even stopped frequenting the bar, as she no longer needed to drown her money worries over a drink or two. Mr Whittingstall had been true to his word, and signed cheques without a peep of protest. It had made her life so much easier, being able to afford the proper equipment and staff to do things right. One of those things she made sure was right was Mr Whittingstall’s comfort and safety.

Renee climbed up the ladder and into her own seat. Her assistants buckled her in, making sure she was almost part of her console. Her back was immovable; only her arms, feet and head were unrestrained. Both her and her sponsor’s chairs were custom-made to their physical specification, to minimise jolting and bruising. The canopy was lowered and bolted down.

The Gigantron surrounded them like a fortress.

“Now remember your training, Mr Whittingstall,” said Renee. “You can halt this test at any point right up until I start our final acceleration. Once we are at top speed, we can’t stop quickly.”

“I understand. Mainly because you’ve told me this about a hundred times, Miss Renee.”

“And I will probably tell you a hundred times more,” said Renee, but the poet could hear the smile in her voice. “If you are all settled and ready, I’m starting her up.”

Renee flicked several switches, and with each switch a different part of the Gigantron roared into life. Other men spoke of growl or purr of engines, using the imagery of lions and tigers to symbolise the power of their motors. To Mr Whittingstall, it sounded like a hundred different drums beating their own individual rhythms and yet all coordinated into creating a heartbeat; this was mechanical teamwork at its very best.

The poet Whittingstall could hear the patterns within the engine noise, like when a child is learning to speak, and it repeats the same word over and over. The language spoke of cog and gears, of forces harnessed, of woman and machine working together to make a dream come true. Humanity has always pined for wings, and speed gave the illusion of breaking the bonds of gravity. Had speed become a metaphor for flight? The poet believed the urge to fly was really a search for higher things … like truth and beauty. The thought pleased him immensely. He knew that Renee was a pragmatic and sensible woman. It enchanted him that she might be secretly as big a dreamer as he was; so secretly she herself didn’t know it.

Unaware of Mr Whittingstall’s train of thought, Renee was carefully driving the Gigantron out to the especially prepared track. It was two hundred kilometres of perfectly straight roadway constructed to support the weight of the Gigantron without buckling. Today was a test of the track more than it a test of the Gigantron. Either side of the track was lined with bales of hay and bags of wool, for a softer ‘landing’ in case of a spinout. Renee was taking no risks with her car or her mentor.

From her seat, Renee could see approximately twenty-one kilometres down the track. There were no obstacles. She had already driven the entire track the previous evening to check, using a motorcycle of her own design. Twenty-one kilometres should give her plenty of time to stop at the speeds the Gigantron would be travelling today.

Renee waved to the watching staff, signalling she was ready to go. They waved back.

“Righty-o,” said Renee. “We are all set to go. Comfortable?”

“Immensely. I really should get a chair like this for my study.”

Renee grinned. “Get two. I’m certain Mrs Whittingstall would like one as well.”

“Oh my. Of course. She could use one for her knitting chair.”

“She knits?” asked Renee, while she straightened the Gigantron so that she was lined up between a series of white marks on the bitumen. Even though Renee had a steering wheel, it was safer to reduce any chance of trying to turn at high speed.

Mr Whittingstall said in reply, “She is a terrible knitter. But she likes to show willing. In fact, I believe she is knitting you a present.”

“Something to look forward to, then,” said Renee, her mouth running on automatic. She was concentrating; two hundred kilometres was a long way and even a small deviation from the straight would mean the Gigantron might end up veering off the road.

“How kind of you to say,” said the poet. He fell quiet as Renee went through her final checklist. She was letting the motors run to warm up and ensure that the lubricant was coating everything. Then she started the Gigantron down the road.

Mr Whittingstall admired how the Gigantron shone, nearly sparkled, in the sunlight. Every surface that could be polished on the car was polished. But – as much as Renee might refute it – the Gigantron was an ugly car when compared to the confections decorated with wood and brass you could see on the roads and byways. But those little toys just puttered along, thrilled to make even a hundred kilometres an hour; they were earthbound. Renee’s invention might look more like a train or a rocket than a car to the ignorant, but mere rails were not her natural environment. The Gigantron only looked clumsy because she spent most of her time out of her element, like a seal on land, and yet the seal was an athlete and an acrobat in the water, while the Gigantron’s natural element was speed.

As the car went faster and faster, Mr Whittingstall was expecting her to start rattling. After all, he had ridden in other cars and had suffered the shaking they gave his bones. The Gigantron didn’t rattle. The road was smooth, and the machinery beautifully made and balanced. It was more like riding in a sailing boat than in a car. Trains had a constant clackety-clack. Even airplanes made more noise than the Gigantron, and he knew the car had two airplane motors.

Renee broke into his thoughts. She said, “I’m about to switch on the magnetic propulsive engine, as we are now at a speed where it can be useful. This is your ten second warning.”

“Is it dangerous?”

“Oh no. It is well insulated from the other motors. But we should speed up even more …now!

A new voice was added to the chorus, and the poet felt himself gently pushed back into his chair. A glance outside confirmed the car was going faster; even middle-distance objects were quickly falling behind them.

“How are you doing back there?” asked Renee. “Are you feeling any aches or pains? Feeling breathless?”

“I’m feeling nothing but inspired, my dear,” said Mr Whittingstall.

Then I am pushing her up to 300km an hour,” said Renee. “That is just under the current land speed record, but should be well within the tolerances of the Gigantron. Then I am going to run her for five minutes at that speed, and then start the braking process.”

Everything went according to plan. The car made a smooth transition to 300km and back without the motors straining at any point. At the end of the track, Renee had invented a special rotating platform that turned the Gigantron 180 degrees, so that the car could set off on her trip back to base without the bother of trying to steer her.

They were halfway back to base when the unexpected happened. As they approached one of hummocks of sandbags and straw bales, it seemed to collapse and fall onto the road.  It left an obstruction in the middle of the road. Renee’s heart stuttered as she saw the problem.

“Hold on! We’ve got a blockage on the track!” she shouted to Mr Whittingstall.

The old man peered over her shoulder, straining to see.

“Sit back and brace yourself,” ordered Renee.

This time he did as she asked.

Renee thought quickly. Should she risk trying to brake and possibly send the Gigantron into a spin? Should she try to make for a break in the barrier and risk the rough ground?  The Gigantron was a heavy car, her wheels sturdy, and she was pointed at the front like a cow-catcher … it was probably best if they tried to bully their way through the barrier. And the faster she was going, the better. If the barrier was enough to stop them, they would die anyway.

So, Renee hit the accelerator.  The Gigantron surged forward. The barrier seemed to take a leap to meet them.

Renee could hear someone roaring like a berserker, and realised she was the one making the sound. It wasn’t a scream of fear; it was a warrior shout of challenge. She kept the noise up as they hit the barrier. She forced herself not to flinch or close her eyes.

The Gigantron didn’t even slow down. She hit the barrier in a flurry of sand and straw and … blood. A splatter of it bubbled and slid across the front windscreen while Gigantron bounced like she was a plane hitting turbulence. Then they were through the barrier and on their way again.

Renee finally stopped roaring long enough to take a breath. She carefully re-started the slowing down process and made a slight adjustment to the Gigantron’s direction.

Then she gazed at the smear of blood with mounting horror.

“Are you all right back there?” she asked.

“I am fine,” said the old poet, and Renee was relieved to hear his voice was unruffled. A couple of trickles of blood were being pushed and battered by the wind along the windscreen and down the sides of the car. Mr Whittingstall could see them. He continued on, “I gather we hit a rabbit or some such?”

“No. I’m sure this was an attempt at sabotage. There was a wall of straw bales and sandbags across the road. It had to be deliberately built to damage or destroy the Gigantron,” said Renee.

“But … the blood,” he said. “Where did the blood come from?”

“I think the saboteur was standing behind the wall,” said Renee, and gulped down a sudden rising tide of nausea. “We hit at least one person. We may have killed them at this speed.” The horror overwhelmed the nausea. “Oh god! I’ve killed someone!”

“Well, it certainly wasn’t your fault,” said Mr Whittingstall. “You weren’t to know someone was hiding behind that obstacle.”

“But still…”

“And you don’t even know if what you hit was the saboteur. It could have been a goat or any wild animal. And you can’t know for sure what you struck is dead. Don’t borrow trouble.”

Renee took a deep breath and let it out slowly to clear her head and calm her nerves. “Thank you for your sensible advice,” she said.

“You have nothing to thank me for. I should be thanking you for saving my life by keeping a cool head. As well, you won’t get into any trouble for this even if you did kill some idiot trying to damage the Gigantron. I was a witness to the whole event. There was nothing you could have done differently. You might as well say the fool committed suicide.”

Renee still felt shaky, but her brain agreed with Mr Whittingstall’s assessment.

“I’m just so glad you are safe,” said Renee, and meant it. She returned to concentrating on her driving,

 

As it turned out, a man had died under the Gigantron’s six wheels. What little wasn’t laminated to the bitumen was identified as Lorenzo Wheeler, another car designer who was also trying to develop a fast car. The local authorities took the same view as Mr Whittingstall; the man had brought his fate upon himself. They were also certain that only Renee’s cool head had saved her and Mr Whittingstall.

“After all this fuss, did you get any ideas for your poem?” Renee asked Mr Whittingstall as they walked out of the hearing.

“Actually, I did,” said the elderly poet. “In fact, this unfortunate incident just adds more grist for my mill. Speed is a beautiful thing, but like fire and knives and electricity, it can kill just as easily as it can help humanity.”

“I guess this means you don’t want to take another drive with me?”

“You would then be guessing wrong, my dear. You have proved to me that you are the safest driver, with the best car. I seriously doubt that any other jealous individual is going to make another attempt to wreck your car.”

Against all propriety, Renee gave the poet a bear hug. “You are brave, Mr Whittingstall,” she declared. “I have to admit, I never thought a man of words would be so stout of heart.”

“My dear! Poets are always brave. We have to see things as they really are, and often the truth is quite ugly.”

“As ugly as the Gigantron?”

“Only a dimwit would consider your stately Gigantron as ugly. And I will make certain that the world grows eyes to see how lovely she really is.”

“Well then, we’d best go and plan our world-breaking speed attempt.”

The eyebrows of Mr Whittingstall bristled with glee. “I think that sounds like the most sensible suggestion anyone has had all day.

The Gigantron did make the world record for speed, that remained unbreakable for eleven years. And it was another woman who broke Renee and Mr Whittingstall’s record … but that is a story for another time.

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under Humour, Steampunk, Steampunk Author, Steampunk Genre, Steampunk Sunday, Steampunk Themes, 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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Filed under Characterization, Steampunk, Steampunk Feminist, Steampunk Genre, Stereotypes, Uncategorized, Writing Style

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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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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Can Hysteria create Mad Science? A further discussion of the depiction of Fictional Women of Science

A meeting with sinister repercussions for the world

Cogpunk Steamscribe and Doctor Steel.

Hysteria (noun): an uncontrollable outburst of emotion or fear, often characterized by irrationality, laughter, weeping, etcetera. Often considered restricted to women. The word ‘hysteria’ comes from the same origins as the word ‘hysterectomy’ – both derive  from Greek word ‘hystera’ meaning “womb”.  Back in the Victorian era, it made perfect sense that women suffered from hysteria, because they were considered emotional creatures and too much thinking would send them mad. However, consider the word ‘mad’. It can mean insane, but it can also mean really, really angry…

Happy Quinn from Scorpion -a mechanical engineer and inventor with an IQ of 184 and anger management issues.

It depends on how you define mad on how you define a mad scientist. Happy from Scorpion fills my definition nicely. She is mad at the world, and yet she hasn’t let that stop her from inventing or repairing machinery and electronics. I would love to see anyone call her a hysteric to her face.

I’ve mentioned Temperance Brennan from Bones in previous articles. She can get pretty snippy when the science doesn’t make sense or doesn’t achieve her exacting standard. As well, in her earlier seasons, she would have probably fulfilled the criteria for being a slightly crazy scientist as well. However, I am yet to see her blow anything up … that is left to Doctor Jack Hodgins, who gets to have the real fun.

 

I’ll stop being a tease. One of the actual fictional mad scientists is Claudia Donovan from Warehouse 13. She invents wild and wacky gadgets and does manage to blow things up once in a while. As well, she often updates Warehouse technology, adapting it or improving it. And when we first meet her character, she is trying to get her revenge on Arty by destroying the Warehouse.

And – of course – the epitome of mad scientist is Helena Wells from Warehouse 13; beautiful, genius level intelligence, and (when we first meet her) completely balmy due to the death of her daughter.  She will crack the world to get her revenge. She even builds her own time machine, unlike our world’s H G Wells, who only wrote about it; though it can only send your consciousness back in time. Some of her other inventions include the Imperceptor Vest, which allows faster-than-humanly-detectable movement, and Cavorite a metal with anti-gravity effects, and the grappler gun (which Mika envies).

Helena Wells of Warehouse 13: Polymath and Inventor

You can’t get any more Steampunk that a gender-swapped bisexual H G Wells who is also a genius with mad inventing skills (see what I did there?). Her characterization is dependant on her being a grieving mother, but her intelligence and gadgets are equally important. In fact, her femininity adds an extra dimension to her characterization, rather than overwhelming it. Alas … by the end of the show Helena was also ‘domesticated’, with the writers having her claiming to be happier playing a role as wife and mother rather than as a mad scientist.

Thank goodness, Claudia is a zany inventor right up until the very last episode. No white picket fences for Miss Donovan! She goes from being extraordinary to being more extraordinary!

Well, the winds up my character dissection of recent fictional women of science. Sadly, most of characterisations for these women have focussed more on their gender than their intellects and abilities. It seems that we still have a way to go before women scientists are seen as scientists first and women second.

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A Discussion of the Depiction of Fictional Women Scientists – Part Two

 

For fictional scientists, I do believe this to be the case … every character I have posted about over the past three blogs has her character defined by her femininity in some way. This may seem obvious because they are women, but male scientists are generally not defined by their masculinity, but by their job. This underlines the (often unconscious) bias that people have towards an expectation of a character; people associate science, maths, engineering and technology with men. When personal computers first became available for home use, they were marketed towards men and boys even though just as many women and girls were purchasing them.

The best example of this phenomena would be to contrast the two scientists from the same show, such as Amy and Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory … or Bernadette and Howard. As I discussed Amy last blog, let’s run with this second couple.

Bernadette the Pocket Rocket marries her Howie.

When we first encounter Bernadette, she is working with Penny at the Cheesecake Factory, while studying microbiology. She is better friends with the non-scientist Penny than with Amy, even though they are both scientists with doctorates in the biological sciences; I see nothing odd about this, as she was friends with Penny first. She breaks the stereotype of being a ‘dumb’ blonde, and is pretty, buxom and short; however, she is also strong-willed and knows her own mind. I suspect she loves Howard partly because she can dominate him both emotionally and intellectually, even though he is an aerospace engineer and an astronaut, and partly because he is basically tender-hearted and loyal and he sings her songs he had written himself.

 

Howard loves Bernadette because she is beautiful and sexy and smart, and she got on with his mother. He was a Mummy’s Boy. He met Bernadette through Penny, and the start of their relationship was quite rocky, mainly due to Howard’s inability to understand women while thinking he knows all about them. Since marrying Bernadette, his ‘creep’ factor has been dialled down. Bernadette finds Howard’s friendship with Raj a little wearying, but she still manages to accept most of their strange behaviour when together. Bernadette started off as a comedic foil for Howard, but her role has been expanded.

Raj – the co-dependant best friend

Both Bernadette and Howard have managed to cause major accidents at work, and survived with careers intact. Bernadette makes more than Howard, but Howard has been an astronaut and helped run Mars missions. You might consider their careers on par, even though Bernadette has a doctorate and Howard has a Master’s degree (which is a sore point with him, but he never seems to be doing anything to gain a PhD).

However, when the three women interact, they generally talk about their men, even though two of them are scientists in the same field. When the male characters interact, they talk about their pop culture obsessions, their work, and their women. See the difference? Howard has been given a whole range of interests outside his work – music, comics, movies, and his magic tricks. Bernadette seems to have no hobbies worth mentioning, and seems to spend her free time gossiping with Penny & Amy or doing girly activities with them like clubbing.

The shared bedroom – with little evidence of Bernadette’s personality.

And this is the root of the problem. Bernadette is written to be just an ordinary girl … with an extraordinary mind. In a very real way, Bernadette has been stereotyped not as a scientist but as a woman. Her gender is more important to her characterization than her intellect or career. Characterization shouldn’t work that way.

The domestication of an extraordinary scientist

Look at Brennan from Bones. Her character started off with many personal quirks that related directly back to her career and personality. I suspect it was to be inferred that Brennan was a little weird, possibly she had Asperger’s, because everyone knows that too much knowledge melts your brain (looking at you, Sheldon). As time has passed, she has been normalized as a wife and mother, with a reduction of her awkwardness and those strange little gaps in her knowledge, and a reduction in her enthusiasm for risks.

River in action outfit

Professor River Song from Doctor Who – a doctorate in Archaeology

Now, who is an exception to this need to domesticate the extraordinary into the ordinary? Professor River Song of Doctor Who. She has a PhD in Archaeology, but her characterization has grown to show her to be a free-thinker, a vigilante, a risk-taker and problem-solver, who is scary enough that a Dalek will beg for mercy. She embraces her femininity and at the same time is a gun-toting adventurer with a sassy attitude. No one tells her what to do – not even the love of her life, the Doctor. Nor does she settle into being a domesticated wife and mother after they marry; they lead independent lives, coming together when needs be. Instead, her personal growth is about becoming more responsible and caring for other people, so that her ethics improve if not her morals. River breaks all expectations and stereotypes.

Another exception is Doctor Julia Ogden from Murdoch Mysteries. Not only has Julia not given up her career upon marriage – because the expectation was that a woman’s real job should be to look after her husband and home – but she hasn’t given up on her enthusiasm for the suffragette movement. This pleases me immensely, that the Steampunk-inspired television show has broken all the Edwardian-eras expectations of conforming behaviour. Even after marriage, Julia is still fey, flirtatious, and prepared to try new things. I am yet to see her character show any signs of her extraordinary personality and intellect being made to change with marriage.

Tomorrow, I will be pondering further into the implications of the depiction of fictional women of science.

For those who are interested, I have two pages on Facebook:

Steampunk!

https://www.facebook.com/SteampunkSunday/?ref=hl

Doctor Who!

https://www.facebook.com/Osgood-LIVES-548954855247854/?ref=hl

 

 

 

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