I want to talk about a couple books as a lead in to my subject. First, because they're great books, and I read them after my post highlighting some of the great books I'd read in 2010. And they deserve a shout out! Second because they got me thinking on a particular subject, which I want to explore today. Topical lead in! Yes, I've written too many academic papers in my life. And, yes, it's ruined me for most other things.
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The first book is Far North, by Marcel Theroux, a post-apocalyptic novel set in the far north of Russia in an area settled by Western pilgrims looking for a harsh new utopia. The apocalypse that struck the rest of the world led to an influx of refugees and conflicts that doomed the way of life the pilgrims had created.
The story follows Makepeace, the last peace officer in a town without people. She leaves in search of others, but is eventually betrayed by those she finds and enslaved. Yet the slavers need people to search through plague-struck ruins for the technological remnants of the powerful civilization that once was.
It's a wonderful story, and I see why so many people compared it to The Road. It's only natural, I think, after reading it. They share a bleak view of the world lit only faintly by hope and possibility, and yet a beautiful humanity still exists amidst the darkness, burning embers in the ash and dust. It lacks the vibrancy, perhaps, that comes from McCarthy's prose (but then who else has that?), but it is beautifully written - a great "voice" novel, a first person narrative that leads you firmly along, a mix of rough lyricism and the ever so practical common sense of Makepeace herself.
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The second book is True Grit, by Charles Portis, a sort of literary western in which a fourteen-year-old girl, Mattie Ross, hires a U.S. Marshal to catch her father's killer... and decides to go on the hunt herself.
As the title suggests, it's a gritty novel, but also an extremely funny one. You have to be careful while reading, as some of the lines are sharp enough to cut. This, too, is a "voice" novel, a captivating first person narrative driven by the perfectly pitched tone of Mattie Ross, offering to the reader this captured sense of a true human voice.
(And, no, I haven't seen the movie yet! But looking forward to it, certainly.)
Both books are worth reading. But after my own exprience with them I started thinking about female characters and what makes them strong. I started thinking about the Men With Breasts Syndrome.
The heroic male is still a high convention across many forms of literature, but I think there are a lot of writers seeking female heroes as well, and in so doing they're trying to craft strong female characters. And yet I sometimes find this idea of strength problematic, because what I often see is a female character who gains "strength" by rejecting traditional feminine roles, habits, hobbies, beliefs, experiences, histories, etc., and adopting traditional masculine ones.
Now, there isn't necessarily anything wrong with this in a specific, individual sense. Gender constructions can be varied and can certainly run against the grain of the norm. But I find it a little troubling as a trend (and by trend I'm merely going, of course, on my own subjective experience - I'm broaching a topic for exploration, rather than trying to provide answers. Hopefully everyone will bring their own view to the discussion). What it does is place the idea of "strength" firmly within the masculine norms, and denies the possibility of strength within the feminine. For a female character to be strong, in this sort of construction, she must in fact become masculine.
Now, this masculinizing trend is often disguised by having the female character aggressively heterosexual. Sexual orientation adds a whole new layer to the discussion, but is probably too much to go into here. So, with a straight heroine, we have someone overtly hetero, often with passionate love affairs with men, and thus overtly feminine in the traditional sense. But beneath that mask lies a gender skew toward the masculine - it's the only way strength is available, to out-patriarch the patriarchs.
There's an element (particularly among male writers, I think) of a sort of male fantasy in all of this. The ol' We can drink beer, watch sports, bash a bad guy -- and then have sex! Yippee! The strong female character who is seamlessly one of the guys... and yet so often denies female contact. No female friends, no traditionally feminine hobbies or interests. This would reduce "strength"; this would be "soft". It's the kickass heroine who also happens to be eternally full of sexual smolder. Sexual relations can either go further in showing the gender skew, with the woman taking on the dominant and traditionally masculine role, or it can subvert it at a base level: yes, she's a hero and can kick ass, but, you know, she still does what I want her to do in bed. Oh yeah. Who's the man.
Power is appropriated by the masculine. To be "strong", you have to be like "us", the men. It's the old patriarchal structure, only with a twist: we'll let you in... if you meet the criteria. If you're a woman who's man enough for us.
Obviously, this idea of strength is fraught with problems. Strength has many forms and human patterns, and this denial of possible forms can't be good for the richness of characters, of literature. We don't necessarily need more Men With Breasts, but strong female characters. Characters who find strength on their own terms.
I think both the novels I touched on are interesting for this reason. In True Grit Mattie Ross is fourteen, and forces her way into a manhunt, bringing her father's old gun. And she's willing to use it. And yet one of the wonderful things about her character is that she's not predictable. She certainly confounds traditional gender norms, and certainly some of the things she does would be considered "masculine". And yet she's not trying to be a man. She's not secretly yearning to be a U.S. Marshal herself, to be as manly as the men. She has a purpose -- to avenge her father. She doesn't care a lick about guns or any of this outside her purpose. After that, she's going to get on with her life as she sees fit, bound by her own ideas of self.
Makepeace, in Far North, is even more masculine, in some ways. She often tries to hide her own sex, though this is partly for safety, or lets others misjudge her without correcting them. Many of the things she does would be considered traditionally masculine, and yet her actions are based on the specific influences of her own life -- trauma in her past, the need for survival, the practical bent of her own nature. And there are contrasts, her love of metal-working (learned while making bullets) played out against her love of gardening. There's a depth to her character that makes it hard to pin her down within simple gender constructions, and this is wonderful.
What is immportant, I think, about both characters, is how their strength does not come from an adopted gender role, but arrives as a result of their own unique natures and the pattern of their own unique experiences. Their strength is personal and individual. They can both shoot a gun... but this isn't what makes them strong. They are strong because of their conviction, their sense of their own place in the world and what they want, and their willingness to risk and sacrifice to reach their goals.
Reading these books I had the sense that this was important, the idea of finding a character's unique strength within him or her, rather than merely grasping at biased cultural notions to prop up character actions. Strength is not something defined by external props, by a created facade, but something interior and personal.
Yet this certainly isn't easy. I think of my own characters, and wonder how many of them meet this criteria. Do I avoid "weak" female characters? Do I avoid them only to make Men With Breasts? Do I have to do a better job of finding and understanding female strength in my own stories? Or perhaps I simply have to find what's uniquely human in each character...
I would love to hear some thoughts about your own writing, your own struggles and successes with characters. How do you navigate strength? Power? What is it to be strong and female, particularly in the context of literature?
Edited to add: I had this in the comments, but maybe it should go here.
"And I should add, as an addendum, I was a little nervous of the Men With Breasts thing - it's a fun bit of rhetoric that summarizes the point... but it could also be misapplied as a slight against a certain gender construction. Which is not what I want, obviously. Traditional male actions are certainly valid within a female identity - even a solely masculine gender performance. The person may not be any less female for that, which is why I'm leery of Men With Breasts - which could be construed negatively in that situation.
Hopefully its use as a bit of verbal rhetoric is clear. If not... mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa."