Thursday, January 19, 2012

Fact Or Fantasy?

By Jay Stringer

I'm tugging at another thread that's way above my level today. I've been thinking of them sexalism issues again. I've written before about my feelings when writers accuse other writers of things like misogyny in interviews (coughGrantMorrisoncough) because it can be a cheap and nasty gimmick.

We've also talked on DSD before of the responsibility of dealing with racial issues (if memory serves, it was a great post from Sandra that kick started that conversation.) But I've noticed that terms like sexism and misogyny get thrown around a lot on the net at the moment, particularly in the days following popular television shows.

Quite recently there was a bit of a storm -largely an internet one, until The Guardian newspaper picked it up in print- about the first episode of Sherlock's second season. Now, I know the show hasn't aired in the U.S., so I'll avoid saying much more than that, but I couldn't sit on the issue until it turns up over there. What I will say, is that a lot of people raised questions about the decisions the writer, Steven Moffat, made about a woman in the show.

There was one post on the subject in particular that was a well measured and intelligent approach to the questions raised, and if you don't mind having the episode spoiled, you can click on over.

I certainly don't belittle the questions raised by the whole affair. In the specific instance of that episode, I can understand why people were concerned with the decisions made. I draw the line at making any personal assumptions of the writer, but I do understand why people had issues.

On the whole though, I often find myself concerned with the tone and the aim of the Internet criticism that seems to whip up so easily.

I wonder if people often fail to draw a distinction between then world they want to live in and the world we actually live in. Or that they have expectations that writers should deal with the former rather than the latter.

There are many, many poor representations of women in fiction, be it prose, films, TV or comics. But I also think there are people who don't actually want honest representations, they want fantasy. They want Buffy. They want myth. I enjoyed Buffy as much as the next teenager in the 90's. And often, when I go back and catch part of an old episode, I still find much to admire in the craft, the dialogue, the plot structure and the many bold, brave choices that the show took. It was very well made television. But the character herself is not a particularly brave bit of writing, in my opinion. I'm not interested in the super-powered ass-kicking "girl power" female characters any more than the shallow, cardboard Mary sue of the past. Neither version moves the argument forward.

I know some people simply want escapism from fiction, they want the fantasy of a better version of our world. But I also want social fiction. I want honest fiction. I want to read stories that treat me as an adult, and that face up to the fact that some groups of people get a shittier deal than others. Women get a raw deal. Immigrants, foreigners, children, the working class, the disabled, all of these people get the bad end of the shit-shovel, and they get it right from the get go, and to the benefit of people who are paler, taller, older, healthier or more male.

I don't see the benefit in fiction that hides from that. We don't have to like it, but we do have to be willing to show it. And I worry that, as the vocal minorities become more vocal, and less tactful, we will start to see writers scared of being honest in their fiction, for fear of being tagged.

Lets take the treatment of Steven Moffat as a example. There are my people who've articulated their issues without needed to resort to easy labels or making value judgements of the writer. But there are also people who want to make personal accusations, without any reproach or restraint, and these are the ones that tend to be loudest. The Guardian article itself, I felt, was crossing that line, and Moffat himself was clearly upset at the tome of comments being thrown his way.

I'm sure Moffat would welcome the fact that he writes popular (screen) fiction, that is seen by millions, and that encourages discussion of such serious issues. But can't we keep that discussion on a constructive level? A public figure might get followed around for years by a word that gets associated to them in Internet searches, and we should think twice before playing a part in that process.

Here's where the self interest comes in. As a writer, I take the representation of my characters very seriously. I work hard at trying to be as accurate as I can when I write a woman, or an immigrant, or someone who's politics are the opposite of my own. I don't always get it right, because none of us do. It's a constant struggle for all of us. And it's a challenge, to get out of our comfort zones and to stay out.

But with that honesty comes a trust. If we're putting in the hard work to try and get these things right, and to try and be accurate when capturing the worlds views of racism and sexism, I think readers and critics need to give writers the room to try a few things. Otherwise, why try anything?

Just today I was working on edits for the second book in my crime trilogy. The book takes on some big themes or gender, sex and race. At the moment I'm handling some of them more effectively than others, and the aim is to get the balance right by the end of the draft(s). It's on ongoing process, and one where you need to be willing to get things wrong on the road to getting them right. I was writing a scene today where a Muslim woman talked to a white male about her identity and views on mixed marriage. And I decided several times that I would probably be best served to simply delete the scene rather than risk looking like an idiot. But i want to keep fighting for the scene, for the characters, and for the story.

What we need is for writers to try and write real women and real men. Sometimes that means creating someone who is inspirational, sometimes it means creating someone who is cowardly, violent or needy. Often it means creating someone who is all of those things.

I get worried at the agenda of some the the people making these arguments. In talking of "better role models" and of the kind of characters they want to see, I again question whether they're wanting reality or fantasy. Writing the bold, strong, tough-as-a-man woman is the easiest thing in the world, but I don't see any art in it.

Perhaps I'm in the minority. Maybe most people come to fiction just looking to see a fantasy version of themselves cast back at them, like the best fun-house mirror ever.

There's going to be a level of personal taste in that, it's down to each of us where we draw the line. My personal line in the sand is character. I'm writing socially driven pulp, crime fiction that is a heightened reflection of the area I grew up in. I need to capture that immigrants often get treated like shit, or that women get manipulated by the system, or that we're failing whole generations of children. Where I try to earn the room to show that is in trying to give the characters some life. The first two books in the series are very much about how people get manipulated, objectified and traded, but I hope to at least make these people seem interesting along the way.

Writers need to be given the room to be honest. Sometimes that honesty hurts. Sometimes they (I, we) don't pull it off, and it's fair to talk about those times. As long as the conversation is open, honest and balanced, we can keep the issue moving forward. But let's play fair about it, eh?


Dana King said...

The primary issue may be that some critics have a tendency to take the actions or treatment of one character (woman/minority/handicapped/religious affiliation) and accuse the author of generalizing about the group, when all he was referring to was how that single character was treated or acted. Making mountains of molehills helps no one.

On the other hand, if a writer consistently portrays members of a certain group in the same way, there could be a legitimate issue worth pursuing, regardless if whether the portrayal is unflattering. It's no better to portray all white males as virtual supermen (just because they're white men) than it is to portray all women as mindless tarts (just because they're women).

Jay Stringer said...

Absolutely, well said.

Sandra Ruttan said...

There was an article recently, The Five Most Pathetic Female Film Characters of All Time

I really wanted Brian to blog about it, because I certainly know his views about such things and that he doesn't want Bry following such limited female examples, but he said if he did, he'd be called a sexist again. Every time he announces awards or puts up a 'best of' list, he gets called sexist by someone.

I didn't want to blog about the topic because I'm not a bra-burner, and what I don't like about the idea of advocating rights for any group is the risk that it means limiting rights for another. The push for equality somehow, with some, turned into women being superior. That drives me nuts.

Since I haven't seen the episode in question, and in fact, nothing I'm aware of by Moffat, I have no opinion on him whatsoever, but I did follow the link and am not persuaded.

Can it just be that giving birth is an obvious, if sometimes cheap and overused, dramatic element in TV stories?

And if some writer were to go truly Sci Fi and present a world where men could give birth, wouldn't they be met with criticism? Giving birth is, after all, one of the few things that nobody can deny that women can do that men can't do. How fast would these people fly into a furry if some writer took that away from women? Faster than you can blink your eye, and undoubtedly it would be the same people furious over the frequency of women giving birth in these shows.

Brian tweeted once what I consider to be the only standard that really matters: If all the women in your novel are a) hot b) fuckable c) in to the protag d) all or some of the above. Then your book has a woman problem.!/brianlindenmuth/statuses/64727533026942976