Today, I was inspired by comments to a somewhat innocuous quote. Someone mentioned that they wanted female villains who were not inspired by a heartbreak or jealousy. To me, that’s a good thing to want. But the comments!
While many people were agreeing – or mentioning great literary examples that would qualify for this – a large group was complaining that there’s plenty of lady villains out there. Here’s my question. So?
I’m pretty sure that in our entertainment, there are not 50-51% of the arch nemesis or antagonists who would qualify as a self-motivated female villain. Just like I have a pretty good feeling that in most genres of literature, the heroes are still not quite up to half the population. Young adult books aside, because the ladies do have a very strong voice there.
And such a large percentage of the people complaining were men! Well, guys, how would you feel if giving you a quarter to a third of the representation in the world was considered “good enough”? Honestly, even in movie extra casting, 33% of a crowd being female is what we come to think of as “proportionately female” because we’re so used to seeing more guys than girls! In this “enlightened” time, where women are supposedly equal to men, why would the initial statement even raise an eyebrow about gender rather than motivation?
Because benign sexism still exists.
Now, before you start freaking out, calling me some conspiracist, or anything else… let me explain. Societies, over time, change in small increments. I’m not saying that most men hate women. Rather the opposite, in fact. I just think that we’ve been trained to see things so much worse than what we have now that we think we’re doing pretty good – when we still have a little ways left to go. It’s no different than getting that wild hair to start a project, working on it nonstop until you’re almost finished, and then growing bored of it. This discussion, about equality in representation, grew stale about 30 years ago.
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have it. It certainly doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t think about it when writing. Granted, an author can tell any story they want, and there’s a good chance it’s going to sell. Hell, there’s a real good chance it will appeal to someone’s inner desires. Look at Twilight! So much sexism going on there, and yet so many women fawned over the idea of a man who’d take care of them. The trick is to walk that fine line between the two. In my opinion, the solution comes down to character depth.
Give me a female villain who is killing her friends because they’re prettier, and yeah, I’m gonna call that sexist. Give me a female villain who has been threatened that if she doesn’t win the beauty pageant her entire family will be deported to a third world nation where the government is going to execute them all, and it’s a little more interesting. The “pretty” part of that no longer is her motivation, but merely one of many steps in her psychotic reasoning for killing the women around her. Family first, right?
The same is ALREADY true for men. When was the last time you remember a story about a guy doing something nefarious because he needs to show he’s “tough” enough? In the few cases it’s happened, there’s so much more to the story, like abuse as a child, gambling stakes, or other influences that make his choices just a little deeper than judging him on his masculinity. How about a man who goes bonkers because he got dumped? And I’m not talking about an all-night binge and a string of one-night stands.
So, while I agree that we’ve come a very long way in gender portrayal in literature, I’m just saying that we aren’t at the finish line, yet. We, as authors, can do better. We, as readers, should expect more from our writers. We may not always see the benign sexism ourselves – that’s why it’s called BENIGN! – but that doesn’t mean we should ignore it when it’s pointed out. Trying to say it doesn’t happen won’t help progress. In fact, it does the exact opposite. It pushes all of us – and yes, the guys too – back to the 1950s. Benign sexism is what makes people still think it’s strange for a man to take his wife’s name, for stay at home dads to be looked at sideways on the playground, or for so many men to be afraid to show emotions like fear and sadness.
I, for one, am up to the challenge.