There is No Feminist Agenda; Only Zuul

You may have heard the news this week that the much-talked about Ghostbusters reboot finally has its all-female cast. I love this cast. Love, love, love this cast!

Of course, there are differing opinions about this movie.

Since the Internet is full of terrible people, I’ve seen some Men’s Rights Activists’ tweets about how this movie is going to dismantle the sanctity of their childhood memories and why do feminists have to ruin society all the time?

Since the Internet is also full of wonderful people, I’ve seen several supportive tweets already hailing the movie as a feminist achievement and waving the Girl Power flag proudly. This is where I needed to pause.

I will admit, I do not like reboots in general. They usually mean that instead of producing an original screenplay, Hollywood opted to dip into the same well because it’s easier money. But! If they were going to do this at all, I’m happy they went with an all-female cast. I’ll end up seeing it because it’ll probably be good, but it won’t be Ghostbusters. You can’t recreate that no matter how good the new cast is. So why not just make a new comedy about women fighting paranormal elements? Men In Black meets Ghostbusters, but with women. You’re welcome, Hollywood.

Anyway.

Hating this movie because it stars women makes you an asshole, and I have no time for that nonsense. Praising the movie as “feminist” feels misguided though. It reminded me of the issues I had with Bridesmaids being hailed as the best movie ever even though it was just a regular comedy (I elaborated on that here: Never A Bride.) It’s great that Hollywood green-lit an all-female reboot, but let’s not kid ourselves into thinking this counts as feminism.

Asking women to fill the shoes of beloved, iconic figures stacks the odds against them right from the start. If the all-female reboot is successful, it will be a huge step forward. My fear, however, is that it will create a surge in remakes, not necessarily new roles created for women. And, again, let’s not fool ourselves. We shouldn’t have to accept sloppy seconds as an “achievement” in feminism. Much like the recent remake of Annie being designated Black Annie, “Female Ghostbusters” doesn’t exactly make me feel like an equal, let alone someone’s first choice. It’s a lazy approach to diversity. Give me a character that wasn’t established by a man first.

As always, everything relates to writing, which is why the Ghostbusters talk has made me think a lot about my own slush pile. Many queries I receive begin with lines like, “Because you’re seeking strong female characters…,” which I think is great. I also love a good re-imagining of a classic or fairy-tale, but I end up rejecting 99% of the ones I receive. That’s because their “strong female character” isn’t really as dynamic or three-dimensional as they think they are, and their “re-imagining” is just a retelling.

[Digression: When agents and editors say “strong female character,” we mean strongly written. If she also happens to literally kick ass, that’s cool, as long as there’s more to her than that.]

Like a Hollywood reboot (a good one, anyway), re-tellings should be more than simply rearranging scenes in the same story we already know. There should be a reason this story needs to retold for a modern audience. Why are you writing it? What’s your approach? What makes it unique and relevant?

Gender-swapping is fun and can add a different perspective to a familiar story, but I see too many “re-imaginings” that rely on gender-swapping as its only twist. This holds very little appeal to me. The most common I see are Beauty and the Beast, but the female character is the beast; or a typical paranormal romance set-up, but the girl is the vampire who gets a shy boy to love her. Nothing about the stories themselves have been updated or changed. I need more than that to impress me. And I definitely need more than that to convince me the novel is somehow feminist just because it’s not not feminist.

And don’t get me wrong. I love a good gender-swap. Just make sure that’s not all you’re relying on. Feminism is not using the Find & Replace feature and changing Jim to Jane. It’s about creating roles for women, making us in control of our own narratives, and acknowledging that women’s stories have just as much merit as a man’s.

New Title Trend

Happy 2012, everyone! (It’s not past the point where I can still say that, right?)

I’m beginning my 2012 posts the same way most writers begin their novels – with titles.

Titles matter. Sometimes a bad title can ruin a good thing (Cougartown, anyone? But more on that later.). I’ve been having a problem with titles lately. Specifically, titles of television shows. It’s not so much what they are as what they reflect on society. I’m not liking what I see. Usually when I talk about TV on the blog, it’s about something that translates to novel writing, and the title trend I’ve been seeing in the latest crop of sitcoms is no different.

I’ve spoken before about “strong female characters” and what term means to me. Surprisingly, I think TV has been getting “strong” right more often than many novels lately. There was a lull in the past decade (I blame producers who tried to find “the next Sex and the City” by missing the point of the show.) Things are far from perfect, but in recent years we’ve been reassured that characters like Mary Richards (and Rhoda!), Murphy Brown, and Roseanne actually mattered. Women have come a long way. We get to be in charge of our sexuality, choose our own destinies, and have dragon tattoos (but more on that later). We get characters like Alicia from The Good Wife, Leslie from Parks & Recreation, and Caroline from The Vampire Diaries.

So if I’m so happy with the way women are finally starting to be portrayed, what’s my problem? Men are my problem.

Don’t mistake my italics for an emphasis on “men.” I like men, as most feminists do. My problem with Men are the titles the word keeps appearing in. It’s talked about less, but men suffer from sexism on TV, in movies, and in books too. The difference is that most of the better characters are written for men, so the good often outweighs the bad, and the sexism isn’t always as noticeable. But apparently someone over at ABC noticed and wants something to be done about it. Only instead of creating better characters for women, they’re leveling the playing field by creating worse characters for men.

ABC seems to be leading the Man Revolution, beginning with its already-canceled Man Up and Tim Allen’s return to TV, Last Man Standing. Both shows are about men taking their gender back. From whom, you ask? Apparently women, liberals, and gay/intellectual/vegan/hipsters who are not considered “real men.”  

Man Up is about friends who need to grow up, but can’t seem to shake their college lifestyle. It’s a typical boys will be boys character trope that we’re used to seeing in small doses, usually through a supporting character in an ensemble cast. Not to be outdone, CBS had the good sense to kill its new show How to be a Gentleman before it spread, yet is holding on tight to the wizened patriarch of all Men shows, Two and a Half Men. Like Man Up, both of these shows feature men in their 30s and 40s behaving like boys. It’s all fast cars, hot babes, no ambition, and zero self-reflection. On the other side of the “man” spectrum is Last Man Standing, in which Tim Allen has sacrificed his manhood by living in the same house as his wife and daughters, and now needs to return to his manly, undomesticated roots.

ABC’s crowning achievement this year might be their mid-season replacement, Work It, a remake of Bosom Buddies, which should tell you all you need to know. But to elaborate, this is a 2012 sitcom with a premise that was tacky and outdated even in 1980. Two men – extra macho-looking for comedic effect – decide the only way they can get jobs is by dressing up as women. Hilarity, weak premises, and sexism ensue. From the previews, the men look as convincing as women as the Wayans Brothers looked in White Girls. Not only do they neglect shaving and general upkeep even though they are passing as women, but they only wear shoulder-padded pantsuits that I can only assume ABC still had laying around from Bosom Buddies. It’s offensive to men as much as it is women. There is no equivalent to these men in real life, and the level of immaturity and stupidity they celebrate is insulting.

But I digress. Back to Men.

I described these shows in case you hadn’t heard of them, but what it boils down to is that every man featured on these shows wishes for simpler times (for men) when gender roles were defined and all men were created equal, with the same interests, thoughts, education level, and goals. While each show features men in arrested development, they still get to proudly wave their Man title high. And yet, every magazine cover, news article, and end-of-year round-up has been about women (“finally”) being recognized as equals in comedy.

We got to see Bridesmaids… and, um… If you’re waiting for me to name another well-received all-female comedy made in the past year (or ten), then you’ll have to wait until Bridesmaids 2 comes out. Our “Year in Comedy” consisted of one movie, and two new sitcoms, New Girl and 2 Broke Girls.

Notice the immediate shift in title choices. The irony, of course, is that while Men get to celebrate their lack of growth, the Girl shows feature young women trying to make it on their own as adults. Admittedly, New Woman doesn’t have the same cache, but even teen heroines Buffy, Clarissa, Veronica, and Alex Mack got to at least have their names in their titles. (Oh, this year we also got Whitney, which did for female empowerment what its ad campaign did to get me to watch the show.)

Once women are old enough to be taken seriously in the real world, television and media find new ways to infantilize them. Isn’t it so darn cute how those Girls are single and independent and trying to live in a man’s world? Someday they’ll make 3/4 of what those Men do. Then maybe when they outgrow their youthful optimism they can move to Cougartown or become a Good Wife or if they really snap under the pressure, remain a Girl, but ones covered with dragon tattoos. I suppose it’s too much to think they’ll ever be called Women though, right?

Since two of these Man shows have been canceled already, I have some hope that this trend won’t last. I hope that writers will stop thinking that the type of humor that worked 30 years ago is still relevant today, and that the most critically acclaimed shows on TV right now are the ones that challenge gender stereotypes and create non-archetypal characters. And mostly I hope that you, the novel writers, won’t let this trend infect your work.

(Parting exercise: Type in “wife” into the Amazon search bar under Books. Scroll through the bestsellers and acclaimed novels that tell stories of women overshadowed by powerful men. Then type in “husband.”)

Strength, Weakness, & Why Everyone Gets Feminism Wrong

There was some discussion this week about what makes a so-called “strong female character,” and since I’m often touting that I want that very thing in a novel, I thought I’d offer my two cents. It all started with Natalie Whipple, YA author and my former fake-battle-of-the-band nemesis. She blogged on Wednesday that she hates the term “strong female character” because it usually implies that there is only one way to be strong. In response, and further elaboration, Sarah Jae-Jones examined what it means to be feminine and the variations of “strength” it indicates.

I call myself a feminist and I don’t understand how anyone, male or female, can say they are not one. Feminism is the belief that women are equal to men, and that women have the freedom to make their own choices. That’s all it is. We are not militant radical hairy-legged man-haters intent on ridding the world of all things male. The thing about applying labels to yourself is that, suddenly, you become every negative connotation that label has ever represented.

Another example, though on a far less ideological scale, is the casual science fiction fan. Say you like sci-fi or fantasy to the average person and you become pegged as a Babylon 5-loving, Dungeons and Dragons-playing, convention-attending fanatic. (How many times have I experienced the “judgmental nose crinkle” after one hears my favorite show has the word “vampire” in it? Yeah, a lot.)

The point is, it’s easier to generalize; the extreme of a situation is always more fun to consider than the reality. To me, real strength is rising above those labels and bringing their original meaning back to the forefront. (And yes, I am attending the Rally to Restore Sanity.) Strength is not the ability to be sassy, independent, or fall out of gender roles. (Sorry, but I buy impractical shoes and paint my nails and am afraid of spiders – and I like to think I’m pretty damn strong.) Strength is the ability to be yourself and be comfortable with that person. There are characters who are less self-assured and still considered strong, but we’ll get to that later.

So what do I mean when I say I’m looking for strong female characters? Well, it’s the same as what I mean when I say I want strong male characters. “Strong” women are not necessarily the single-and-proud modern femmes made popular by Sex and the City. Of course, those characters were strong, for the most part. That is, until the movies showed up and demanded Carrie needed a marriage license in order to be happy, even though the person she married was horribly emotionally abusive to her for over ten years.

But I digress.

Actually, it’s not digression. By making Carrie get married, her character was weakened. She represented the “It’s OK to be single!” crowd (started a movement, even!) and making her marry Big instead of just living monogamously ever after or (gasp!) remain “happily single” the way she did in the book, basically lobotomized her. Yet, making a character like Charlotte remain single would’ve just been upsetting. Her whole purpose was to find love and marriage and have babies. Not giving her that happy ending would have weakened her too. It would have said everything she worked for was all for nothing, and that her dreams were meaningless.

The ladies of SATC were by no means the originators of ambiguously happy endings in the form of marriage. Elizabeth Bennett wasn’t suddenly in less control of her life because she married Darcy at the end of Pride and Prejudice. What made Lizzie strong was her intellect, wit, and refusal to adhere to the restrictions of her time. We’d root for her no matter what she’s done because of who she is. If she ended up single at the end, she wouldn’t be tragic or a martyr. She’d still be Lizzie, who got there on her own terms.

There is also what I’ll call plot-based strength. Think of Ryan Bingham from Up in the Air (made famous by George Clooney in the movie). In Ryan’s case, independence and freedom are not always positive strong points. He is solitary and convinces himself he wants it that way. Then we see how lonely that life is, and just when we think he can finally connect with someone… he doesn’t. The ending is incredibly sad, but the novel sets it up to be that way. Sad endings aren’t always deep and happy endings aren’t always an easy way out. But, in Ryan’s case, his sad ending existed to make the reader reflect. Like Lizzie, it almost didn’t matter if the character found happiness through another human being or whether he decided being alone is what he really wanted. It was his time, place, and circumstances that made him who he is. If we knew him in real life, would we consider him a strong, confident man? Maybe not. But he does make for one strong character.

Back to my original question, now: what do I mean when I say I want strong characters? I want people who transcend the labels, who are multi-dimensional, and who’s endings are in keeping with what they want or deserve. Words like “strong” or “weak” only apply to how you write your characters and what types of lives you want them to have.

To me, the weakest character in all of literature is Bella Swan. She is passive, unremarkable, and has no purpose other than to be the object of crazy-stalker-boyfriend’s affection. She is the poster child for low self-esteem and teaches girls all over the country that it’s OK to be controlled, bitten, and obsessed over, as long as the boy is cute enough. (Oh, and it’s perfectly fine to carry his claw-happy offspring, as long as you wait until marriage and give up your humanity.)

The reason all of this makes Bella weak, other than the obvious, is because through it all, we’re still supposed to think of her as our heroine, and not as the tragic figure she really is.

Writing good characters, like feminism, is about choices. Whether your character is male or female, ask yourself if they were responsible for their story’s conclusion, and, if they weren’t, can it be considered redeeming or poignant.

The Superbowl Ups Their Game

While the best word to describe what I see when I look at a football game is “static,” I, like many, sat down to watch the Superbowl last night. (Go Saints!) Granted, I only watch the Superbowl every year for the commercials and (sometimes) the half-time show. The hype surrounding the ads this year was already high due to the allowance of an anti-choice ad and the denial of an ad for a gay dating site. So, more intrigued than usual about the content of the commercials, I was prepared for some mild irritation (Tim Tebow), some laughs (Betty White!), and a whole lotta unnecessary sexuality (Danica Patrick and that other token hot girl from GoDaddy). 

The objectification of women is practically standard in commercials, so much so that it’s now often exaggerated for comedic effect. But last night featured far fewer babes in bikinis than in previous years. (Where there any at all?) Perhaps the folks at CBS thought the hot-chicks-and-beer images weren’t for the post-wardrobe malfunction eyes of the FCC. Instead, the ads took their anti-woman agenda to a whole different level. 

Is it too much for me to call it an “agenda?” Maybe. But when I think back to the Dodge Charger commercial titled “Man’s Last Stand,” I think… maybe not. In the ad, the inner voice of “Average Man” goes over everything he does not want to do during the course of his day, which includes doing his job, coming home from said job, and spending time with (presumably) his wife. Because he behaves the way a human adult should, he totally deserves a car that looks like a huge penis.

Two more ads – I forget what they were for, but then, does it matter? – were especially tactless. One featured Jim Nance announcing that any man who agrees to shop with his girlfriend has “had his spine removed” and obviously needs to get it back by buying something damn manly! The other ad simply listed what “real men” should do during their lifetimes, which include falling in love with woman (subtext: and only a woman!) and then proceed to do much of what the man in the Dodge commercial complained about.

What’s interesting here is that, yes, these ads are obviously offensive to women, but they’ve managed to now include a whole other group of people to offend: men! If I were a man, I would be rightfully horrified at these ads’ portrayal of the such a blatant stereotype of the male psyche. However, if I were a guy, I’d probably think they were speaking directly to me because I, too, would feel trapped and burdened by the annals of life. Guys, if you need a car or other product to assert your manhood, I have news for you – you’re not a real man yet, and buying that car won’t change that. This is a new brand of misogyny. Just because it offends everybody doesn’t mean it counts for equality.


So, to sum up, I’ve learned that yes, I am one of those stereotypical women who are confused by football, but I also learned that women, football fans or otherwise, only exist to look pretty and emasculate men. Likewise, all men secretly hate their lives and resent their girlfriends, wives, children, and even jobs for making them forget their true nature… which is apparently “being fifteen.”

Sort of makes one miss the days of “Open a Bud Light, Have a Stripper Land in Your Lap,” doesn’t it?