A Damaging Gender Role?
The other day as I was feeding the cows I got to thinking about the little novella that I’m writing. And by “got to thinking” I mean I was bored out of my skull and when that happens I usually start pretending to be interviewed about my books-that-have-yet-to-be-published and inevitably slipping into a British accent in the process. Don’t lie other writers out there, you know you do it too. In fact I’m pretty sure most people in general do it, just for different things.
Anyways, the novella I’m referring to is a fairy-tale story about the divided kingdom of Perth and the Fae sorceress named Estrella who antagonizes a human warrior training academy. After this little act of terrorism she is hunted by warrior Jalen. The skirmish between them leads to Jalen being turned into a squid and Estrella, having some measure of sympathy, deciding to take him to the Wizard to be restored to his original self, since she does not have the power to return him. It’s a bit of a silly, light-hearted story that I’ve written more as a self-insert and insert of those around me, not any work of serious or epic fiction at all.
Being that it’s self-insert, the character of Estrella is based somewhat off of myself, and the character of Jalen is inspired by the young man who helped me create the entire concept for the story in the first place; The I’m writing the story for. So while I was doing my mind-numbing farmwork last week I was considering all of this (through my pretend interviewing). Specifically, I realized that Estrella has a significantly higher amount of character development than Jalen does, and he is more or less the one who develops her character over the story. Thinking about it more I noticed how in many stories for the couple-type characters, this is the other way around, where the girl is the foil to the guy in the relationship and the story. She is the sweet, kindhearted, all-knowing soul who changes his rebellious, wayward, bad-boy ways for the better and gives him a focus, a direction. The fact that this is quite a pervasive cliche, one that even makes its way from the pages into the real world, is a little worrisome to say the least.
This character trope handed mainly to females in stories is, to put it bluntly, quite stupid. And even, I might go so far to say, damaging.
See, when females are only ever presented as foils to a male’s character, encouraged to be someone who cultivates and develops a boy’s morality and personality and traits, they are squished into quite the tiny box. It is a small and fixed role that allows no flexibility, no real emerging of their own person, none of their own growth. Certainly one can grow through the mentoring and encouragement of working with another, but not in the same way. And when that is all that is expected of you, well. Suffice to say that’s setting the bar pretty low for females in fiction and the real world.
Not to mention their relationships.
As I thought about this more and more I realized that this is definitely not a problem belonging only to fiction, but it extends beyond that into reality. When a girl is taught to be the “developer” of a guy in a relationship, not only does that fix her in a restrictive role, but it keeps her from seeing how it can and will work both ways, with the boy sometimes “developing” her character as well. I can see and know from my personal life that with this pervasive mindset of the girl being the boy’s caretaker that it can have negative impact on their relationship and the roles that are there to be filled. Relationships of any sort are certainly a two-way street and to deny that and tell a girl only that she should be crafting away at the “flawed” personality of the boy can be nothing but harmful. For both of them. It is supposed to work both ways, with male and female assisting in the development of each other’s character for the better. To stuff a female solely into that role and that role only as many fiction writers are guilty of is to severely crush a very beautiful aspect of relationships. The working together.
As this revelation began to dawn on me further and further I realized that I too am guilty of this, not only in my writing but in my life. Too often I consider myself the one to be doing the developing in my relationship and forget that he is supposed to develop me too. And he has done much more with me than I have him if we’re being honest. I came to the conclusion that I had cultivated a gross amount of pride in thinking I was here to “fix” the boy in my life and forgetting that he could do some “fixing” of me too.
What a foolish pride it was, to be so convinced of this that I was willing to place myself in this damaging box, fit myself into this stupid role. And what a foolish thing it is for me to do as a writer as well.
Though my fairy tale about a sorceress and a squid does sort of turn the cliche on its head by doing the opposite, I have written multiple other characters who fall victim to this silly trope. In this coming year of 2016 and beyond I would like not only to do my female and male characters a service by broadening their roles further than that little box, but also striving to remember what I learned doing chores and talking to myself. And in remembering, apply it soundly to my own life as well.
So what do you guys think? Are there other restrictive/damaging roles females can get fixed into that people have never really noticed? What are some of your thoughts on this topic? Do you guys have any experience with it in your own lives of writing? Let me know in the comments!