We’re on day 3 of my week long holiday and I’ve already fallen into old patterns. I’ve achieved barely anything I intended to do today. It’s taken me hours to write this post and I still have a massive pile of washing sat in front of me waiting to get done. I spent all morning in bed telling myself it was okay because I’m on holiday. It’ll get done but I wanted to be better than this. At least this is done and I get on with writing the couple of reviews I want to post in the next few weeks. At least that’s something. I have been reading though. I intend to finish my current book before the end of the week and start a new one. Maybe, if I’m super energised, I’ll get that out of the way too. Of course, we all know my tragic flaw is my naivety and misguided amount of self-belief. No doubt my post next Sunday will be much the same as last weeks, but hopefully with less purchases. I’m feeling end of the month blues, guys.
The other day I read an article entitled “Where are the normal women in fiction?” and I rejoiced. After starting The Life and Death of Sophie Stark I found myself asking this very question. The first voice that you are introduced to tells a story of her past and she’s a tough talking, world-weary young woman. The reason for this? She was sexually assaulted when she was younger. As soon as this snippet was revealed I was stuck in a day long eye-roll. I know we live in a culture in which sexual assault is a very real issue and the statistics for the number of victims out there are horrible. I’ve got no problem with how realistic this is but I just find it a lazy way to give your female character substance.
It’s like a fucking epidemic these days that in order to write an appealing literary heroine she needs to have overcome some deep and painful trauma. That will, more often than not, involve a past of sexual and/or physical abuse which made her super strong. She went through something awful and has, basically, told the world to go fuck itself. It’s fair enough but how is it okay to fall back on this cliché to create a “strong” female character? If I was so inclined I could name a shitload of novels whose female leads or secondary female characters have become tough and aloof because of their troubled past. I won’t but we all know it’s true.
Now I’m normally the type of person who bemoans the lack of depth in representations of women in pop culture so why am I here rubbishing this attempt to give them a back story? It’s because it shouldn’t be the only way to give a woman depth. The article I mentioned above was mainly discussing the portrayal of women in psychological thrillers so I’ll take that as my basis for now. The fall-back for females in these novels is the psychopathic bitch with a flimsy revenge plot, the unhinged childless/single woman who is fucked up for no real reason, or tough-nut who acts like a man to make it in this tough world. Where are the normal women going about daily business? The women who have happy and successful lives but are no weaker than the detective with a drinking problem who hides her emotions from her male colleagues.
Why are writers so afraid to write women without a hidden past trauma to give them depth? Is it so difficult to accept that a lot of women are strong and powerful characters even if their only real secret is that they like to binge on ice cream once a week? Women are obvious deep: they have flaws, doubts and inner demons but these don’t need to be sensationalised. I understand it ultimately comes down to what creates the most drama but why should that matter? Why does drama or, to put it another way, a reason to keep reading, need to come down to something extreme? A good writer should surely be able to write about the tensions of everyday life without adding in something that instantly creates darkness.
The problem that’s arising is that we’re creating an archetype for survivors of abuse and for the “strong female” character. It’s damaging and is not a realistic portrayal of what it is to be a woman. I read books nowadays and can’t relate to any of the female characters. This isn’t a bad thing, I realise, but it’s got to the point that it’s so far removed from my reality that it just feels like a fucking soap opera. I know there are people out there with tough lives but, when every character has a harrowing tale of their parent’s beating them, drinking themselves to death and fucking everything up, there has to be a point where you realise enough is enough. It’s starting to feel like author’s are placing their characters in a worldwide version of the Four Yorkshiremen sketch where they’re all competing for title of “most difficult childhood”.
Just in the same way that you don’t need to rely on physical attributes to create a “strong” female character, you don’t need to dig into the murky depths of abuse to create a 3-dimensional female character. We live in a binary world where people are divided into Disney princesses and Disney villains. Women live in the same grey area that most male leads live in. We’re just as complex and full of potential as men. There are plenty of well-written male characters out there that don’t rely on the same tired traits to show how complicated they are. Women, generally young women, are increasingly placed into the camp of abuse survivor, orphan and recovering drug addict/alcoholic. That’s it: the lengths that an author is willing to go to create a complex female is to give her one, two or three of those labels. I’m fucking bored of it.