My latest novel, Fellside, had its UK release in April and it’s just come out in paperback. To commemorate this fact I’m spending the week running around on other people’s blogs (thanks, Civilian Reader!) shouting “look at me.”
It’s a time-honoured tradition, and to keep you from saying the same thing ten times over your publisher will usually come up with a list of possible themes or titles. On the list in front of me right now, about two-thirds of the way down, the following phrase appears:-
“Writing Strong Women”
It immediately made me wonder whether or not that’s something that I do.
As a male writer I love being told that my women feel plausible or authentic – that readers engaged with them or found them interesting. But “strong” is a very specific word, and arguably it suggests a fairly narrow approach to the creation and development of a character.
It’s easy to see what the phrase “writing strong women” is referencing, and what it means when a writer is praised for doing this. There was a time, not so long ago, when most popular fictions had male protagonists, and women – where they appeared at all – took on roles that were supportive of or incidental to the male protagonist’s story. They popped up as love interest, or as the hero’s mother, or in walk-on roles that were gender-specific like housemaid, saloon dancer or nurse.
Then the ’60s happened, everyone woke up to the idea of gender equality, and things gradually began to improve. Now we have a huge number of movies where the central character is a woman or a girl and she can be just as strong, just as kick-ass, just as inspiring of awe and admiration as any male hero.
Except it isn’t. Not remotely. Yes, there are more movies with female leads than there used to be, and yes, it’s now acceptable for women to be action heroes. But if you’re tempted to see that as a cultural revolution, let me splash your face with the cold water of some recent statistics. A study carried out by Dr. Martha Lauzen at San Diego State University in 2013 found that out of the top 100 movies of that year (measured by world box office) only 15% had female leads. Women made up 29% of major characters and 30% of speaking characters. And only 13% of the films studied had gender parity – as in equal numbers of male and female characters overall. These figures were actually worse than those in a similar study carried out two years before.
Even more interesting, and more damning, are the results of a study released in April of this year (hey, that’s when my book came out!) by Polygraph.com. They decided to test the general findings on male and female dialogue through an exhaustive study of over 2000 films. They then broke down their findings by genre and audience. Even in an arena where you might expect female characters to have the upper hand, like Disney movies, the truth was more complex. In 22 of the 30 Disney and Pixar films they looked at, male characters were given the majority of the dialogue. Four broke down more or less equal, and four had more dialogue spoken by female characters.
Even films with a female protagonist, such as Mulan, often gave more dialogue to the male characters around her. Mushu the dragon, voiced by Eddie Murphy, had half again as much on-screen dialogue as Mulan. The general conclusion is bleak: “Across thousands of films in our dataset, it was hard to find a subset that didn’t over-index male. Even romantic comedies have dialogue that is, on average, 58% male.”
The other half of the equation seems to hold more water, though. Women and girls can take on heroic roles now, for sure. You’ve got your Katniss Everdeens, your Natasha Romanovs, your Tris Priors. The question, really, is whether the kick-ass heroine is a sea change or just a diversion.
In my own writing something happened – or seemed to happen – about six years ago. Up to that point, I think most of my lead characters had been male. It’s true that in my X-Men run I had a lot of female characters – probably more than I had men, across the run – but they were in ensemble casts. My solo leads were male.
Then I switched to writing female protagonists, and I’ve been doing it ever since. My last six novels – counting the two I wrote as Adam Blake, and the two I co-wrote with Lin and Lou – have all had female leads. The next one arguably does too, although there’s a young boy who maybe shares top billing.
I’ve been asked in interviews what motivated the change, and what it meant – whether it reflected a shift in my own attitudes or creative goals. But I think the truth, at least insofar as I can explain it, is more prosaic. The stories I wrote with male leads date from a time when I was working mainly in comics. And the comics industry (at least in the US) differs from other media in that the mainstream consists of telling new stories for pre-established characters. Lucifer and Constantine, for example, were characters who I simply took over from other writers.
Moreover, the characters I created myself in those titles were more often than not women. Elaine Belloc and Jill Presto stand out in Lucifer, but there’s also Lilith, Rachel Begai, Spera and Cestis (I didn’t create Mazikeen but I used her very extensively throughout the series). And in Hellblazer I put the women in the Constantine family – John’s sister Cheryl and his niece Gemma – in the spotlight along with character like Angie Spatchcock, Rosacarnis and Clarice Sackville. So the switch to female lead characters is maybe a less dramatic move than it seems on the surface. I already enjoyed writing women, and when I moved away from writing franchise characters I did it more and more.
But what are we really talking about when we invoke “strong” women? I think it’s shorthand for women who occupy the heroic space previously occupied by male protagonists; women who kick ass and take names, save the day, defeat the big bad and leave the field either literally or figuratively strewn with the corpses of their enemies.
I can and do write women like that. Heather Kennedy is like that. So are Diema Beit Yudas and Zuleika the assassin in City of Silk and Steel. But Melanie in The Girl With All the Gifts – for all that she can fight when she needs to – is very different. Fighting is something she does occasionally and with very mixed feelings. It doesn’t define who she is or her role in the story. The same is true of Drozde in House Of War and Witness, whose strongest attribute is probably passive endurance.
And Jess Moulson in Fellside, when we first meet her, is far from strong. She’s a junkie who became addicted to heroin through allowing herself to be manipulated by an abusive partner. She’s an emotional wreck, the accidental killer of a child, someone who isn’t remotely in control of any aspect of her own life.
In the course of the novel, as she meets the ghost of the dead child, we see Jess change – taking on a responsibility to put right the damage she has done, even as the personal cost to her mounts higher and higher. But her strength, insofar as she has any, lies entirely in that decision, and in weathering the consequences of it. She commits exactly one violent act in the course of the story. It’s messy and unheroic and it’s only significant in that it gives her a shot at living long enough to keep her promises. Jess doesn’t ever, really, kick ass. She discovers truth, by asking questions and not stopping until she has answers.
The trick for writers, surely, the holy grail, is to write as wide a range of female characters as you can, strong or weak or whatever they happen to be; and to write female characters whose experience readers will find authentic and compelling and relatable. In other words, you should approach them in exactly the same way you approach your male characters. You don’t have to pay lip service to the kick-ass archetype. If it fits your story that’s fine, and if it doesn’t that’s fine too.
Also on CR: Review of The Girl With All the Gifts
M.R. Carey‘s Fellside is out now in the UK and US. His critically acclaimed previous novel, The Girl With all the Gifts, is also published by Orbit in the UK and US, and was recently made into a movie starring Gemma Arterton and Glenn Close. City of Silk and Steel and House of War and Witness are published by Gollancz in the UK and ChiZine in Canada. Orbit also published Mike’s Felix Castor series.