Yvonne Carts-Powell

Arisia! Part 2: Writers, aka “What Women Want (in Their SF/F Females)”

In science fiction on January 24, 2011 at 11:21 pm

Raven Goodwin in Huge. Photo by Bruce Birmelin – © 2010 Disney Enterprises, Inc.

Raven Goodwin in Huge. Photo by Bruce Birmelin – © 2010 Disney Enterprises, Inc.

“What Women Want (in Their SF/F Females)” was a lively delightful panel* at Arisia that I shared with fiction writers Vikki Ciaffone, Genevieve Iseult Eldredge, Trisha Wooldridge (who suggested it), and Suzanne Reynolds-Alpert.

    The gist, as I remember it (I was having far too much fun to write notes, and these are skewed towards the points I wanted to make) was that we want women characters:

  1. To be actual characters who could be recognizable humans, rather than just accessories or prizes for the (male) main character, or plot devices.
  2. (Read more below the cut)

  3. To have more than a token presence. It was great that Uhura was on the bridge of the Enterprise, but I like that on Firefly, the Serenity‘s crew was half women. If women are half the population in the world we’re reading about, give us something like that many women characters.
  4. To be sexual, not just sexy. Women have sex drives. This is closely tied to the point that the end of a woman character’s arc should not always be achieving orgasm or a meaningful romantic relationship. (Unless it’s erotica or romance, in which case that’s the end of every protagonist’s arc.) There are all sorts of stories we can tell, romance and sex is only one of them.
  5. To take a heroine’s journey. We discussed, briefly, the difference between a hero’s journey and a heroine’s journey, although we really didn’t have a chance to get into it. (Can anyone suggest good online resources for learning more about this?)
  6. To look like us. In real life, not every woman conforms to current standards for supermodels, and even correcting for that, not every woman is a raving beauty. Body types vary, ages vary, racial and ethnic backgrounds vary. So why do we keep seeing the young white beautiful women and not anyone else? Even just talking about this was fraught with tension.

Other comments:

At some point, I mentioned that if you give me a protagonist who is a middle-aged mixed-race overweight mom who is still smart and capable and attractive, who has adventures, who kicks ass, and who gets some good loving too, I will adore you forever. And the conversation turned towards how to write cultural backgrounds different from one’s own, and the (admittedly glib) answer was: first write the people as people, and then ask someone from that background to tell you what you got wrong. And that was tied back to the panel topic, in that SF could be so different today: What if Heinlein or Niven or Pournelle had checked their stories with the women in their lives and said, “what am I doing wrong in characterizing women?”

In Epic Fantasy, you know who the good guys and bad guys are by how they look. The good guys are intensely beautiful, evil is ugly.

Arwen and Eowyn. Women characters or cardboard? Women characters who were strong and capable and made bold choices? And what became of them? Yes, Arwen became Queen of Gondor, but was pretty much screwed over later in life (after the trilogy). And we had a spirited debate about Eowyn. I like that Eowyn was a soldier, and she got to fight in the great war and then have a husband without having to give up any parts of herself except her despair. But that may be doing the author’s work for him, since she barely had any time on the page between her stabbing the Black Rider and falling for Faramir. An alternative take on it is that she was a kickass woman who broke out of the mold, but then was neatly tidied away into a conventional marriage at the end.

Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books that focus on the witches are really good. Nanny Ogg is the sexy, sexual, mother; Tiffany Aching defeated evil with a cast-iron skillet; and in general, his women characters are real characters.

Karen Lord’s “Redemption in Indigo” is an awesome book for the heroine’s journey, and I strongly recommend it!

All or most of these women are part of Broad Universe, which is an awesome recommendation for the organization.

Discussion of powerful, characterful middle-aged women included President Roslin (from Battlestar Galactica) and Morticia Addams.

The Bechdel Test is not a high standard. SF/F stories should pass it.


* Panel description: Many panels discuss what women’s roles in SF/F are and ought to be, but what do female readers really want to see? How do women feel about “token” female friends in works like Harry Potter or Percy Jackson? How do we feel about reimagining heroines like Alice, Arwen, and Maid Marion who are willing to pick up weapons and fight to achieve their destiny? Female readers, writers, and other SF/F creators will “let it all hang out” in this spirited panel!

  1. :D I’m so glad you liked the panel. I had a lot of fun with it and I’m glad it turned out so well!

    I want to say that Suzanne might have some online resources, and I know one of the members of Broad Universe recently published an academic book entitled “The Heroine’s Journey.” Besides that, I don’t know any off the top of my head, but I do see it pop up in various blogs here and there.

    Thanks again for being on the panel and helping make it so much fun!

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