Friday, August 16, 2013

What Girls Are Made Of

Watch me cutting every string 
One by one 
See me cut out all the rot 
Bit by bit 
Watch me as I push you back 
Inch by inch 
I push you back boy 
Inch by inch 

~ Garbage, “What Girls Are Made Of.”

There are many battles being fought in popular culture at the moment. Battles against homophobia, racism, bigotry, sexism, and misogyny. There have been popular uprisings against the male-centric and medieval attitudes of comic writers, SFF legends and fan conventions are producing harassment policies for their attendees.

The controversially titled article in the New Statesman, by Sophia McDougall, “I hate Strong Female Characters” generates the usual polarised comments that are best avoided, typical of an article discussing gender imbalances.

McDougall’s main point is that male characters can have a full range of human attributes, female characters get to be ‘Strong.’ They still don’t get dialogue, a starring role, a front and centre position in the trailers, the posters and the media they are part of.

They act in stereotypical ways, kicking ass and kissing some random guy. Taking control, like strong women.

As a male writer, I mostly agree with McDougall’s arguments. I recognise that men are the primary demographic of comics, women who enjoy the stories and art of this medium are stepping into a world where attitudes haven’t changed much in 100 years.

Me, I’m not a comic book fan. I like a good graphic novel, but serial comics are something I grew out of when I left high-school. 2000AD was always a big influence from my childhood and on my writing. 2000AD was also quite unique in my reading experience, with really well written stories like The Ballad of Halo Jones, a female soldier in a dystopian future (written by the legendary Alan Moore). There was Judge Anderson the Psi division colleague of Judge Dredd. Even male dominated series’ like Rogue Trooper had female GI’s.

Halo Jones wasn’t “strong” she was just a woman trying to get through life the best way she could.

I like to write female characters. Three of my novels feature women as the lead protagonists and antagonists.

Else, from Tankbread, is a complex person. She starts out as a fully grown, but completely new person. A woman with the mind of a newborn. As a clone, grown for consumption by the world’s zombie overlords, she has a life’s worth of development and experience to go through in a short space of time. Tankbread is as much a story of her self-discovery as it is the story of saving the world, even after it has ended. Else develops as a character, through set-backs, discovery, exploration and ultimately tragedy.

Her experience is important because she goes through the stages of life from infant to adult in a month. She is vulnerable, violent, intelligent, curious, creative, selfish. She learns all the things that make us human, joy, sadness, humiliation, wonder, hate, love and grief.

In the following two books, Tankbread: Immortal and Tankbread: Deadlands complex female characters take the lead roles again. Perhaps more importantly, complex women have supporting roles too. Some assist and others oppose. But all are detailed and human and certainly much more than “Strong.”

Engines of Empathy (currently under contract for publication) also has a female lead. Charlotte Pudding is a self-described single, professional woman. She is intelligent, recently orphaned and employed using her college degree in computer psychology to help customers better interact with their empathic appliances.

When she finds herself drawn into a quest to save the world she deals with a range of situations and antagonists. Some are male, some are female. All are weird and fill Empathy Universe with a thought provoking and often humorous story.

In the sequel, Pisces of Fate, Charlotte’s brother, Ascott, is the main character in the story. He is supported by Shoal, a girl that he feels very strongly about, but her personality is entirely her own. She saves him (more than once) and like all good characters, she has a depth to her that includes good and bad. She has her own ambitions, motivations, beliefs and values.

I write characters like this because I love a good story. I like characters that struggle and suffer and succeed and find love, are struck by tragedy and get angry at the injustices of the world they inhabit.

For me, “strong” women aren’t enough. They need to be as complex and detailed and flawed and interesting as the male characters.