I write mostly female protagonists in my fiction, and find it can sometimes be a challenge to navigate the straits between virgin and whore, where about 99.9% of all real women exist. I personally know several of the .1% excluded from the above, and wish them the best, as well.
In order to be admissible as a typical character, the fictional 'whore' must be driven by urges she cannot control, perhaps lust, perhaps a 'daddy complex'; the virgin, on the other hand, has to be damaged, afraid of intimacy, needing only the right pecker to arrive on the scene in order to unleash her inner whore.
Writing in the space between these assumptions is somewhat like dealing with the autocorrect on an Iphone, for me -- I try to express the ambivalence of real sexuality, the balance of desire, opportunism, caution, short- and long-term considerations, personal history and outward circumstances that dictate how real people (I include women in the general appellation 'people') will behave.
But this Manichean cultural gender norm, like the Iphone that changes a crisp Anglo-Saxonism into 'ducking,' insists on correcting 'woman' to read 'virgin' or 'whore.'
This isn't universal, of course. But neither is it just me. A wealth of literature exists in which women are women, men are men, and the spectrum of shadings between frigidity and promiscuity are fully represented. The trouble is, I write genre fiction, or in other words stories that adhere to a thematic device. Genre conventions (for any genre) are fairly rigid, a kind of template into which the narrative must fit. That's a blessing and a curse. Genre conventions allow a great deal of story matter to be assumed, rather than tediously explicated; otherwise every science fiction yarn would have to back all the way up to the present and explain exactly how mankind ended up scattered among the stars, etc. as opposed to simply announcing, "they approached the unknown planet at sub-light speed."
However, genre tropes take up story space. Sci-fi requires (among other things) that a percentage of the story be spent on hardware; in fantasy you're going to be world-building. Detective fiction needs procedural details: clues, interviews, cups of cold coffee on scarred desks. Romance novels have the most rigid set of requirements, I think, of any genre -- weirdly enough, the greatest of which is that the protagonists in them be either whores or virgins, rescued from one or the other state only by a sure cocksman, preferably a wayward Scottish laird or similar.
With 'straight' fiction -- that is, the stuff composed only of the ordinary world -- the author need explain almost nothing before the characters can be developed. The story is the characters. Dash in a setting, spread out your cast, then force them to reunite, and you're off to the races. There's room in a non-device-driven story to birth female characters who are as complex as the real women born by non-literary means. Now, a really good writer won't run into any limitations imposed by genre, because she or he can express all of human experience with only a few well-chosen words. So I make no claims to greatness.
Here's why this comes up for me at the present time. I'm tinkering with a particularly loony story which happens to include militant lesbian fairies, some ancient, evil monsters, and a relatively liberated young woman completely covered from chin to footsoles in tattooed talismans. It's a sort of riff on the 'urban fantasy' genre, which tends toward:
"...Jaxxie Hornwolff is nobody's fool: a tough, heavily-pierced, large-breasted motorcycle mechanic by day, a werewolf by night. Until she meets Bram Ravenwylde, a smoldering hawt vampire who knows the secret destiny that Jaxxie must soon confront. She can't resist him, but she knows she must: will he save her soul or send it to hell?"
... So I wanted to fool around with those peculiar conventions, and to write something equally absurd, but to make it believable and rich -- to convince myself of it first, so I can convince my readers later. Which might be more ambition than good sense. The trouble is, the instant you jump into these waters (particularly as a man writing women), you realize Scylla and Charybdis, the virgin and whore, stand on either shore, waiting to kick your inadvertently sexist, male-chauvinist, peenie-centric ass if you venture an inch too far in either direction.
My protagonist meets a smoldering hawt guy, for example, and she's got a wicked letch on for him. He's not a vampire, and she's not a werewolf, so I've got that going for me -- but I'm conforming to genre, at least to some extent. Until the moment Mr. Horsehung arrived in the story, I was in pretty good shape. My heroine isn't a prude; she enjoys a good, raunchy duck just as much as the next Iphone user. She's also not a nymphomaniac out there conquering the men by parting her wayward knees at the drop of a trouser. She considers her options, weighs outcomes, listens to head, heart, and hormones like we all do. But now that "the guy" has appeared, it's very hard to retain those more subtle aspects of character -- because the whole point is, she's totes into him. Attraction is like that. Caution is defenestrated.
The enormous weight of assumptions that surround the genre are pushing her in those binary directions, even if it's not on the page. Henceforth, I have to be extra-scrupulous about expressing this stuff. She really, really wants to get it on with this dude, and he's ready to go. In real life, we understand there are a million little calculations that go into such liaisons: whether we have work the following day, the contraception situation, how drunk we are, and so on. But laying it all out (so to speak) would stop the story in its tracks, especially when the most interesting thing isn't the fucking (I'm not writing this on an Iphone) but rather the reaction of the tiny militant lesbian fairy, who is in love with the protagonist.
I don't have a particular conclusion to offer. It's just interesting to note how some pretty offensive gender stereotypes are so deeply rooted in our storytelling tradition that it's difficult to avoid them even if that's the whole point -- and they can't be subverted, because the act of subversion requires the stereotypes be firmly established before they can be upended. Once they're established, the subversion comes off as poorly-conceived posturing.
Or maybe that's just me. I'll try to write harder, in future. Women deserve the effort, even fictional ones.
Note: the above outburst evolved from a comment I posted on another blog; I haven't linked to that here because the context isn't particularly germane.
2 weeks ago