Tag Archives: sexism

Q&A: Breasts and Breastplates

I’ve read your posts on female armor, and it really helped me with designing armor for my female superhero, but I have a concern: would wearing a flat breastplate inhibit a well-endowed woman? It almost seems like it would make it hard for her to breathe, especially if she’s bigger and taller than average (my character stands at 6′ 2″)

That… is an anime gag.

There are medical conditions which can cause this, but if there’s breathing issues then that’s a clothing issue and if the armor is causing you to be short of breath then… the armor is useless and not doing its job.

Corsets and any sort of binding that doesn’t allow the lungs/chest cavity/ribs/diaphragm to expand will cause shortness of breath in… either gender. It is historically more common in women because of, well, fashion. You didn’t need to be well-endowed to fall prey to the whale-bone corsets of the 18th century. (Which also led to miscarriages.)

The argument you’re referring to is one common among fanboys, primarily as a justification for boobplate and the fetishistic armor choices for female superheroes. For all it’s claims to realism, it has zero bearing on reality.

The weight of your boobs doesn’t make you short of breath or hamper your ability to breathe. It can, in some cases, be painful during high energy activities when they’re bouncing around but the solution is called a sports bra. (Besides, big boobs can disappear fast depending on the type of activity. You ever seen runners or professional female athletes in almost… well, anything? Muscle burns fat, and your chest muscles will start with your chest. No fat, they shrink.)

The Most Common Superpower joke is that women get to keep theirs and stay conventionally attractive when engaging in highly aerobic activity.

If we want to start with the issue in the presentation of female action heroes it begins here. (And that men, and some women, usually don’t understand how breasts work.) Or have this idea the issue has never been addressed because women don’t participate in sport activity anyway.

Breasts. Are. Just. There.

She’s a superhero. Her armor is custom designed. If whoever made her armor didn’t take into account the size of her chest or provide support then they are crappy at their job and armor design in general.

The issues we run into with armor is when it is either:

A) Not yours. Or..

B) One size fits all, but you’d still be able to function in it.

If you can’t move in the armor then that’s an issue that needs to be addressed at a design level but it’s not insurmountable. This is why armorers and tailors exist.

Besides, if the other option you’re considering is boob plate then that wouldn’t solve the issue. I guarantee boob plate is more uncomfortable, and will guide weapon points straight to your heart. This is an argument I’ve seen brought up a lot (by men) to justify the existence of boobplate or going without armor for “realism”. It is not only BS, it’s annoying. It ignores both reality (female combatants of history) and human ingenuity to prop up outdated sexism. It’s like they think female athletes never address the issues of their chest size. Well, I’m here to tell you: we already solved this one and it’s called a sports bra. In the real world, we get a bras that are designed to support the weight of our boobage during athletic activities.

Women can, however, STILL RUN without problems with a regular bra or even no support at all.

You, however, may want to address the underlying sexism nipping at your approach to this character. If you genuinely believe cramming big breasts into a tactical vest is going to cause breathing issues then you’ve got a lot of your own to work out. That is also the problem with sexism. The misinformation is so baked into every bit of common knowledge meant to justify a certain sexist approach then held up as realistic that most people never think about it.

Again, the kind of breathing issues we’re talking about come from corsets and not armor. A corset tightens your waist, and will result in issues because of the diaphram/stomach can’t expand. When performing aerobic exercise, you need your diaphragm (thus expanding your ribs) to breathe. The diaphragm allows more air to pass through your body, which means more oxygen in your blood being carried to your muscles. Without them, you’re stuck breathing entirely with your upper chest, and that will be a problem when engaging in athletic activity. If the expansion of the chest is also cut off, then… you’re really up a creek. This is what causes the fainting fits of the 18th century. Women wearing clothing that doesn’t allow them to draw enough oxygen into their bodies to keep their brains cognizant.

It’s also why you never want to bind your breasts with anything like Ace bandages because Ace bandages are designed to continually constrict around an injury and create pressure to halt the blood flow. They can tighten so much that they crack the breastbone or the ribcage, and that is what causes shortness of breath rather than the breasts themselves being bound.

You don’t get this problem if you bind with just cloth, but it’s also shit for support.

Breathing issues are a problem for men when they wear clothing styles that ensure their diaphragms can’t expand or just don’t breathe with their diaphragm when fighting.

If her armor causing shortness of breath then that’s not armor, it’s fetish gear. It may be great for a bondage session but it’s not meant to be worn combat. (And if what she’s wearing is causing shortness of breath anyway, then she just needs to stop wearing it. That’s still the fault of her clothing and not her breasts.)

Besides, a woman with large breasts would have issues finding bras that fit her anyway and would probably be specially ordering them. Most malls and sports stores have bras for A, B, C, and some D but not a lot. DD’s can have trouble finding comfortable breastwear, especially ones in the six foot range.

-Michi

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How do I write a female character that doesn’t fall under the “Beautiful Badass” trope? I feel like she either ends up a Mary Sue or becomes a cold, heartless, pessimistic, combat-ready-yet-gorgeous queen of badassery. What’s the middle ground?

By making them characters.

With female characters, many writers feel there’s an underlying need for them to be “better than” when it comes to combat. They can’t just be. They end up written in comparison to male characters, and whether it’s a conscious or subconscious belief that they need to be the “best, best, best” and better than all the boys or they’re worthless.

Sexism is pervasive.

Whether you’re male or female, the vast majority of media consumed over the years will have taught you that objectification is the status quo. And yes, both those two characters you listed are treated in their narratives as objects. Struggling to hit the societal standards for what a woman “should be” in fantasy, beautiful, desirable, wanted, powerful, but also dependent. The fantasy society dangles in front of us. The issue with the fantasy is that the fantasy woman in question is always an object. A vessel to insert your desires into and not an individual, not a person with their own wants and needs. Being the desirable vessel is what women are told they should want to be. It’s a woman’s duty to exist for the pleasure of men.

Why are the badass and the Mary Sue always stunningly beautiful?

For women, our physical attributes are paramount, linked intrinsically to morality and goodness. You can’t be a good woman if you’re ugly. If you’re ugly, you’re most likely morally moribund. Our desirability is a necessity, it’s treated as the ultimate form of freedom but is, in fact, the cage. If you can transform a woman from a person and into a fantasy, she goes from challenging uncomfortable gender norms to being “safe”. The vast majority of female characters that we’re told are challenging gender norms are actually safely inside the narrow band. What is treated as “girl power” is often just a different version of the fantasy, as much for men as it is for the women it’s ostensibly appealing too.

A woman’s narrative importance is determined by her fuckability. Many of these characters are at once both the hero and the hero’s girlfriend. They are still the hero’s girlfriend, while masquerading as the hero, and thus must be worthy of their love interest. They aren’t actually any different, we’re just told that the hero’s girlfriend is the protagonist now. And the hero’s girlfriend is a moniker tied to the man, her existence about the man, and not herself.

She must be accessible, objectified, and always within reach. Better but lesser. Capable of nurturing the hero, taking care of others, and self-sacrificial. Her backstory is about the men in her life, and often she’s had to take on a masculine role due to circumstances outside her control. She doesn’t “choose to be”, she’s “talented enough to become”. She’d give it all up if she could. She’s dangerous but not too dangerous. Outstanding enough to defy the gender constraints, able to run with the boys and beat them, but still deeply insecure in herself and looking for someone to “tame” her or “take care of” her.

It is a woman’s role to be subservient.

When you are a fantasy, you are no longer dangerous or in defiance of the status quo. You are not a deciding actor, but an object moved around by the narrative’s will. There to be pretty, no matter how much ass you kick in the meanwhile, until you go away.

There is no way to stop writing these characters if you’re unwilling to unpack the gender norms and societal expectations which creates them in the first place. You also need to stop writing them in comparison to men, with men as the norm, and the gold standard that they must defeat in order to be worthy of a role in the story.

Why does the badass need to be beautiful? Why can’t she just be brutal? Why does it matter what she looks like when she fights?

These characters can be mediocre and struggling, and it’s better if they are. Badassery is not a state of being. It’s a title earned through the character’s actions in the narrative. It’s not a single standard, but a contextually changing one based on the challenge.

A woman who fights to escape an abusive environment without violence is a badass. The teenager who studies all night in order to pass an exam in their worst subject, overcoming deep seated insecurity and self-doubt is also a badass.

Greatness is not what we are, it’s what we fight to become.

Women are asked to sacrifice their own desires for the good of others. So, let these characters ask, “what about me?” Fill them up with wants, desires, and dreams. Let them travel the path from mediocre to excellent. Weak to strong. Figure out their feelings and their emotions and figure out what they want. What they could be or can be, dreams that are perhaps stolen from them in context of their narrative.

Writing well-rounded female characters requires breaking past the fantasy in which we perfectly fit into society by the standards demanded of us. That we can fit into the dimensions, force ourselves into shape, while simultaneously defeating them. To recognize, whether male or female, that not only are those standards unfair, they’re also unnecessary.

If you’re stuck between the Mary Sue and the stone-cold beautiful badass, it’s because, on some level, you still believe a woman needs to be more than human in order to succeed.

-Michi

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I have two female characters which I need to fight to the death, how can I go about this without making it seem like a cliché cat fight between the two? One of them has more training than the other (the winner). Their only potential weapons are spoons (long story). Also, how long should the fight last before they tire themselves? How many hits can a female take?

How would you write a fight to the death between two men?

Start there. Seriously.

Think about it.

Then back track to this question: what is the difference between a fight between two men and two women?

Nothing.

Except cultural perception.

The term “cat fight” implies that women do not fight about anything serious, that they fight with each other for silly, shallow, superficial reasons and don’t perform lasting damage because they are harmless. I assume the people who came up with this term have never seen two cats fight.

The idea behind the cat fight is that it’s a lot of screaming and yowling, hissing and spitting, hair pulling, slapping, clawing, etc. It turns female anger into a joke and fights between them into something comical, even when they’re not supposed to be. It sends a tell to the audience that the fight is unimportant, these women are unimportant, their anger is ineffectual in the same way that they are.

Why are female combatants often treated as sexual objects and jokes in media? Because the goal is to turn them into something ineffectual, harmless, and safe so the male viewer doesn’t feel threatened and the female viewer isn’t pushed outside her comfort zone. All women of all races get this treatment in different ways. Whether it’s the Angry Black Woman or your stereotypical Asian Dragon Lady or your standard Action Girl, the vast majority of media you consume takes great pains to remind you that women are not frightening.

They’re safe.

Well, screw that.

Female characters can be terrifying if you give them the same freedom as their male counterparts. So, write the fight like you would between two men. Think about the fight like you would between two men.

The reason why I say that is because so much is built into how we perceive women (and men) in our everyday lives. You think about two women fighting and your mind automatically turns to the “cat fight”. It automatically turns to it being something foolish, silly, or less important than a fight under similar conditions performed by male counterparts. You do it subconsciously because that’s how society at large, and media in general, has conditioned you to think. You’re having trouble getting out of it because your mind is still bound up in all those nasty gender norms which state women (and men) must behave in a very specific and coded way.

That’s why I say “think about them like they’re men”. Not because they are men or are the same, physically, as men but because what’s been ingrained into your mind regarding women and “how they should be in fiction” is actually working against you. So, think about it from the perspective of writing two men. How would it be different? Would you still have the same concerns? Worries? Do you worry about to men fighting for their lives being taken seriously in a similar scene? How would it look if they were men?

Write that, exactly that way, except with the two characters in question being women.

It’s tricking out your mind’s sense of internalized sexism which makes you think about women as separate, other, and acting under different rules than their male counterparts.

If we want to have a conversation of what “internalized sexism” really means and how it expresses itself then it’s right here. The hardest part about writing fiction is getting over the hump which leads us, even when we’re a member of the minority groups in question, to treating these characters as separate or different.

How many movies have you watched that purport to be “realistic” and yet have women kicking ass in high heels? The Dark Knight Return’s treatment of Catwoman was hilarious in this respect. Batman gets more “realistic” body armor, Catwoman gets skintight leather, high heels, and running around with her hair flying free in the breeze.

It’s not your fault for not taking these two women in your story seriously, really. Media doesn’t take female combatants seriously and it doesn’t take the fights between them seriously. In film, nine times out of ten, you’re looking at a cat fight. Where the female characters are consistently sexualized even when brutally trying to rip each others hair out.

A lot of the time, “realism” even in realistic films is only there for the men.

There is honestly no difference, story-wise, between two women fighting for their lives and two men doing the same. Yet, media will tell you consistently that there is. The answer has nothing to do with “reality” or “realism”, but instead it comes down to perception. It comes to the ways that we think about women and their place in media, fighting against that requires accepting that we have been influenced by what we see and recognizing those tendencies in ourselves in order to overcome them.

When I’m talking about internalized sexism, I don’t actually mean the arguments that a lot of Tumblr uses to bash someone about the head to say that they’re wrong for not sharing the same opinions. I mean the actual influence media/presentation/cultural mores and norms have on the way we perceive the world around us on a very basic level.

You can’t defeat it in your own work until you actually start taking the steps to realize where it rears it’s head and, unfortunately, because it’s subconscious these prejudices aren’t always that easy to find. The tendency when writing women is to create special rules for them that often run counter the same rules being applied to their male counterparts. It’s very easy to create those rules even when attempting to be well-meaning.

And, you know, it’s really hard to take female characters seriously in any narrative when the narrative itself has to give them special concessions in order for them to be able to function.

That’s the norm and it’s repeated ad naseum by male and female writers alike.

Trust that your female characters can carry the story without you helping them. Trust that their own desire to save their life or desire for self-preservation is not some silly or simple thing.

Make it real.

You do that by giving it real human emotion. By breaking down the walls we erect to keep others out, showing the terror and the horror even when the circumstances seem silly of two people being told, forced, or volunteering to kill each other.

There’s nothing shallow about wanting to live. Nothing shallow about deciding you’re worthy of survival. That your life is more important than someone else’s. That is what you are deciding when you kill someone else, by the way.

That choice runs counter to the self-sacrificial nature of women in fiction, which affects all women but especially white women. Women in fiction are supposed to die for other, more important characters (usually male characters). They are the ones who are supposed to line up to be sacrificed, whether it’s their hopes, their goals, their dreams, or even their life. In many narratives, they exist to act as a stepping stone for other characters, a vessel into which someone else’s desires can be poured into until they are no longer useful. Even when treated as precious, they are still just a commodity. This can happen to female characters when they are the protagonists of their narratives.

It can be hard to have a female character honestly look at the camera and say, “No. My life had value. I don’t want to die.” Then fight for it and in the process take it from someone else, someone who doesn’t want to die just as much as they do.

On a basic level, that is what is happening in this scene.

It’s tragic, terrifying, and horribly human.

There’s nothing shallow or silly about it.

The problem is only your perceptions.

-Michi

How would you go about showing that a woman is an equal fighter to a man in a misogynistic mediaeval setting? In-story, she’s often mistaken for a man (being 6+ foot tall and in armour) and the story isn’t narrated from her POV; how can I make sure that when the narrating character thinks she’s “good, for a girl” it’s *his* opinion, not an objective statement on female fighters as a whole?

The short answer is: remember that objective truth and subjective truth are different. The reader will assume that your narrator (POV) character is factual and a resource they should believe unless they are proven to be unreliable. The POV character, especially in a fantasy narrative, is our connection to the world. They are our state of normal, they are the providers of knowledge and our insight. The audience has to trust them, at least in the beginning, in order to be grounded in both the narrative and the world. You have to show them that the main character’s opinion is false through the character’s actions and the opinions of other characters. His perceptions and reality’s perceptions are different, other characters both male and female have lives, goals, and desires outside of him. If he is the only POV and you’re writing in First Person or Third Person Limited, then you’ve got a lot of hard work ahead of you.

Contrary to popular belief, the sexist main character does not need to overcome his sexism, does not need to be redeemed, and no romance tropes need to be invoked. (I’d also avoid the rape tropes, frankly.) You do need to show he is wrong even if he doesn’t realize it. Sometimes, main characters are shitty people and not every narrative needs to be about them becoming better ones. (He can come to respect her without giving up his sexism, this shouldn’t be treated as a solution. Seeing one person as fine but the rest of their gender as the same isn’t a realization that “x group” are people just like them.)

He doesn’t need to be, nor become, a good person.

However, again, you do have to lay in the groundwork to make it clear that his perceptions and the reality don’t lineup.

You do that by giving the female character her own arc separate from the main character, where she does her own stuff, where we find out a little about her backstory and motivations (not for the benefit of the male character or because of any man), and recognize she has an interior life with goals and dreams of her own. He may be involved in her arc, but it isn’t about him.

However, in the same hand, she also is probably accepted by the vast majority of her compatriots and they trust her to have their backs in battle (or else she wouldn’t be participating, unless she never expects to see combat). There’s a lot of fine detail work you can get into with sexism depending on the female character’s social class and background. (She sounds a little like Brienne of Tarth.) So, her reasons for being present and perception of special treatment due to her social status could be present. (She’s got her father whipped, he’s a weak man who lets his daughter run amok, she’s wild and does what she wants, she’s a fool, etc.) If she’s someone of a lower class background or a mercenary, then

A variety of sexist opinions, however, are worth using that don’t automatically fall under the “for a girl” header and they don’t always relate particularly to only the woman in question. Aspersions will be cast on everyone who supports her.

Denying her femininity and womanhood due to her choice in occupation. “Ha! Her? She’s no woman.”

One of the guys. “Yeah, but Elsa, no one thinks about you like that.”

Referred to commonly with gendered slurs that are particularly sexist.

Turned to when a “woman’s” opinion is needed.

Constantly asked to “prove her worth”. Over. And over. And over again.

Referred to as being undesirable because she doesn’t fit convention, told she’ll never “get a man”, assumptions made that she must want children. (Whether she does or not isn’t the issue.) Even though it could be said in jest with no ill will meant. “One more sword blow like that Elsa and no one’ll want you!”

Jokes about her body type. Generally invasive personal questions. Jokes made on any male character who shows an interest in her.

She’ll be passed over for jobs she’s suited for, not because she’s no good but to avoid causing offense.

People from outside the company will routinely say that they don’t want to work  with her, regardless of her skill level and, sometimes, even after she’s proven her worth.

For the men who support her, it’s just as hard. They will be ridiculed and insulted, aspersions will be cast on their “manliness” and their ability.

Friendly interest or saying anything complimentary is generally assumed to be sexual i.e. “You only said that ‘cause you want to get between her legs!”

“It’s your responsibility!”

“How can you let her…”

Her superiors will be accused of being incapable when it comes to “controlling” her. Her friends will suffer the same and will constantly be asked why they don’t “encourage” her to engage in a safer line of work. Some may even suggest them marrying her as a means to get her off the battlefield.

Remember, this female character doesn’t have to actually be better than all the boys in order to justify her existence. She doesn’t even need to be competent, though she probably is. She doesn’t need to justify her existence at all, other than she decided to do this and now takes a lot of shit for for being unconventional.

The MC could even be right, she could only be good “for a girl” aka people he believes can’t fight at all because no one has taken the time yet to teach her how to properly fight or she hasn’t figured out how to make good usage of her body. The treatment of violence or skill in combat as “masculine only” is what’s sexist, not the fact that someone could actually be bad at it or unsuited. Ability in combat is a skill set. It is acquired through time, dedication, training, luck, with experience gained by surviving through armed conflict. It is not static, but ever changing. Someone can start out slow and finish strong by working hard, whereas someone with a lot of talent can start strong but finish poorly due to resting on that talent.

If you’re wondering, this is why “Female Empowerment Fantasies” are often just as sexist as the stories they’re railing against. This is why the “One Woman Who Can Hold Her Own” is a problem. Overcoming sexism in fiction is not about exceptions to the rule, it’s the realization that the rule itself is bogus.

As Ellie Sattler, a young and fit thirty something woman with a doctorate degree in paleobotany, from Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park says when John Hammond, an old man with a bad leg suggest he should be making the long walk to the generators through a compound overrun with dinosaurs just because he’s a man:

“We can discuss sexism in survival situations when I get back.”

The one who should be doing the thing is the one best suited because of their skills and not their gender. Sexism is the assumption that a man is better at combat or war by virtue of being a man, just like women will be better at housework or raising children because they’re women.

“Look, Jack, you either trust me to make the long shot or you hightail your ass back to camp. We don’t have time for debate. You may beat me daily with that sword, but I’m more accurate than you on your best week.”

Give them a voice. Recognize that they won’t be the best at everything. Show them fighting for what’s theirs and what they’ve worked for.

Due to everyone experiencing cultural and social mores, no group is immune to sexism and no person, regardless of background, is incapable of being sexist. Sexism and discrimination change based on societal expectations for certain groups, which is where it intersects with racism and other prejudices. The female character’s ethnicity and the cultural prejudices surrounding it will play a role in how she’s perceived, just as they would a male character. Europe has a long history of discrimination based on ethnic background. An easy joke to point to is “draw me like one of your French girls”, where French women and, more specifically, Parisian women are considered to be more sexually available, sexier, or free than women in other cultures.

“Yes, but she’s Romani…”

“Yes, but she’s a Moor…”

“Yes, but she’s Scots…”

You know how they are.

Most importantly, recognize that these values are cultural and they are constantly in flux. Though often depicted as “it’s always been this way”, expectations change based on changing values. The sexism you’ll be writing for a medieval world is not the same in detail as the sexism you’re experiencing on a regular basis (regardless of gender).

So, research.

Your primary reading list is going to be:

Protector of the Small by Tamora Pierce. All of it. The full quartet from start to finish. Pay specific attention to characters like Joren and the constant microagressions that Keladry suffers through.

When Christ and His Saints Slept by Sharon Kay Penman.

A.D. 1135. As church bells tolled for the death of England’s King Henry
I, his barons faced the unwelcome prospect of being ruled by a woman:
Henry’s beautiful daughter Maude, Countess of Anjou. But before Maude
could claim her throne, her cousin Stephen seized it. In their long and
bitter struggle, all of England bled and burned. – from the Amazon description

When Christ and His Saint’s Slept is Historical Fiction, not fantasy but I prefer it when discussing medieval sexism over a series like George R.R. Martin’s “Song of Ice and Fire”. The reason I like it is because it has a lot of female characters that are based on real women in history and Penman has an excellent track record for sourcing/citing her work. She’s also very honest about where and what she invents. (The short answer is almost nothing.) It’s a great look at what medieval sexism actually affected and what it didn’t.

Now, I’m going to go on a long discussion about sexism, chauvinism, and misogyny.

-Michi

Start by not confusing sexism with chauvinism and misogyny. One of Tumblr’s issues is conflating the three together and, while all three can exist within the same individual regardless of sex/gender, they don’t represent the same actions or a unified set of beliefs. The vast majority of individuals, even in the middle ages, fall into the ranks of “casual sexism” rather than outright and blatant misogyny.

For example, “everyone knows” is casual sexism. Much like casual racism, it’s the most pervasive because the beliefs are commonly held. There is no active hatred there, is born more from ignorance or certain beliefs that have never been challenged rather than malice or an active desire to cause harm. “This is just the way the world is and has always been”. It’s passively damaging, but not actively abusive or automatically rapey.

Misogyny is the fire and brimstone speech a priest gives on a Sunday morning warning about how his mother visited him as a demon in a dream and attempted to lead him into temptation. This is not a quality of a single woman, but all of them. All women are evil, subhuman, and controlling them is necessary in order to save immortal souls from the fires of damnation.

The vast majority of people do not actually want to harm anyone, the same is true of the Middle Ages. There’s a lot of hatred to go around, but if you’re going to do “misogyny” then do it right. Don’t do it because it’s more “realistic”. Often, when it comes to realism a great deal of historical fantasy that invokes it gets it entirely wrong.

You have to write these characters as individuals with differing views on what is and isn’t acceptable. You need to start researching the rules of European warfare during the Middle Ages. If you’re starting from the perspective “because girl” then it’s going to be helpful to understand why some would consider it a downside beyond just “well, woman” and “women can’t”.

An example would be that battlefield rules regarding women differ, many mercenaries and warriors during the middle ages (even knights) made their money off of ransoming a captured noble back to their family. However, female nobles are not bound by any such agreement and, more than likely, will simply be let go unless there’s a specific reason to hold onto them and the only gains the soldiers can make is the valuables found on their person (no, not what’s between their legs).

Characters may view the female character as “cheating” due to cultural loopholes that bind them to a specific course of action. They feel they’re receiving “special” privileges or are bound because they feel they can’t respond like they normally would. (Note: this doesn’t mean they should behave this way.)

I suggest reading “When Christ and His Saints Slept” and others in the trilogy because the first thing you need to do is read good historical fiction about the period you want to introduce fantasy elements to. One of the biggest mistakes writer’s make is assuming “everyone” in a group feels a certain way. If you don’t understand the social and political aspects at play for the period you’re writing then you can’t actually write racism, sexism, and the other prejudices that are reflective of the period. You can write your own prejudices and the sexism from the world you live in, but not sexism that’s reflective of the times. Often, medieval “sexism/chauvinism/misogyny” end up being lumped in with Victorian values and, more specifically, Victorian gender roles.

Cultural values, sexism, and social issues change between cultures and throughout history. You’ve got to define whose values and social rules are being used to limit mobility, with the understanding it changes vastly depending on which social class the characters belong to. And, of course, it varies due to country and territory as much as it does by religion.

While they often went unrecognized, women were partners, businesswomen, handlers of family accounts, skilled politicians and dissemblers, artists, patrons, religious leaders in their communities, and more. Some were treated as little more than chattel, some were abused, just like today.

You’ve got to start building a varied setting with as many women participating as men. They may not be participating in the same way as your warrior character, but they do exist and they are important. You can have solid and supportive marriages united by politics as much as by love. You can have male characters who love and respect their wives, much as the women love and respect their husbands, but still adhere to the culturally defined mores about what men and women are capable of. Off hand sexism is going to be more prevalent than outright hatred.

You defeat prejudice by humanizing characters and by showing the audience that the narrating character is wrong through action in the story itself.

Remember that objective truth is different from personal truth if you’re writing in first person or third person limited. Third person omniscient lets you tell a story from multiple perspectives within several paragraphs and into everyone’s mind. Your reader is more likely to sympathize with the characters you ask them to and vilify the ones the narrative does or the ones that characters they like do. It’s a balancing act and one that may take several subsequent drafts to master.

1) Sexism is a Social Construct

Whose values are you writing?

One of the problems with Historical Fiction and Historical Fantasy, especially when dealing with sexism, is the author’s importing of modern ideals and opinions into a period where the characters themselves would have no means of grasping it or isn’t relevant to them.

Sexism is a social construct. To understand it and it’s affects, we must understand the world the characters exist in. Their rules. Their laws. Their social values and mores. What is believed about women and about men, what is presented, and what the reality actually looks like.

We can go round and round about how men and women are different whether it’s psychological or physical or based on cultural conditioning with a side of societal expectations. People are complicated creatures, we’re affected by a lot of different aspects from our upbringing to our bodies. The hard boxes of “only this” hurt everyone, when we’re all trying to fit our square pegs into round holes or being pidgeonholed with our rough edges smoothed into what’s considered to be the norm. How those expectations are met though and the shapes they take rely on the culture in question. 

2) People are varied individuals who express their prejudices in vastly different ways

It’s not just about hatred. Chauvinism. Paternalism. Backhanded compliments. Kindness. Even Chivalry. Most prejudice is well-meaning. While there are plenty of men out there today, and who existed during the Middle Ages, that see women as their personal property, there are just as many who will never raise their hand against them.

However, that doesn’t mean their actions or opinions aren’t damaging. Stopping and thinking about how sexism and chauvinism, not just misogyny affects an individual’s daily life is important. The reverse is also true, women just as easily support the same sexist system and their prejudices about “women’s work” can be just as harmful to their sons as their daughters. Women can hate men and other women, women can discriminate against men and other women. Women can beat men, women can be the architects of pain and misery.

A woman laughing at a man being abused by his wife is sexist because she buys into societal expectations about how men and women are supposed to behave. She applies those prejudices to the man for being “weak” or “unable to control his wife”, just as another man might. She blames the victim rather than the abuser because it’s easier to sympathize with someone who is like her and because she can’t imagine doing it herself.

Some people accept that system. Some people say no to it. Some of the people who say no aren’t always the ones we expect. Good and bad is based on the actions we take and on how we treat people.

At the end of the day, we’re all just people.

3) Not all men hold to or agree with the social rules and laws that bar some from taking or gaining power

People are individuals, I think that’s the most important thing to remember when working with a setting. I’m not saying you should frame the “good” characters as the not-sexists and the “bad” ones as misogynists. It’s not really true to human nature. It’s tempting to make “all men” in a story out to be chauvinists, sexists, and misogynists, and that’s just… not realistic. People are on a median and people don’t blindly follow social convention just because it’s social convention. There will be fathers who look out for and want to protect their daughters or find a way to provide them with happiness, who recognize their talents, and want them to succeed. There will be sons who want to protect their mothers and who see them as their formative parent. Cousins who love and respect their female ones. Men and women who conspire together. Men and women who fight together. Loving marriages. Marriages of convenience where the two happily pursue their own separate interests.

Women who do hold power because their masculine spouse or parent is either incapable. They have responsibilities. They aren’t just baby-making machines that spend their days stitching. The female side of the nobility are powerful in their own way.

There’s the perception of what female nobles did and what they actually did. Most of fantasy, sadly, revolves around the perception because much of what women are responsible for is forgotten by history.

Finally, it is worth saying that it is more difficult for someone who comes from a privileged class to recognize the extent to which injustice is happening. For someone who experiences discrimination and prejudice on a regular basis, it’s obvious. Experience has been the key teacher. Realizing your whole world, and the world you’ve built for yourself, is wrong isn’t easy.  

4) There are those from all quarters who challenge these rules and those from both sexes who benefit from the way things are

Both individual men and women benefit from sexism in their own ways. We can get frustrated at “Not All Men” and “Not All Women”, while neither excuse behavior it’s important to remember that it is true. There will be women who have learned to make the system work for them, they’ve manipulated it and those around them to make their own position of power. Like anyone with power, they don’t want to give it up.

On the same hand, there will be those who want to help their families. Who have a strong sense of filial duty and do hold to the values that their cultures have taught them are right. They want to do what’s expected of them and work within the system to get the benefits.

What’s unrealistic is a portrayal that all women are victims and all men are abusers. Some people benefit from a system more than others, but just as many either work to change it or manipulate it to their benefit. You can have female characters who are fine with their arranged marriages, even when they’re marrying old men. You can have older male characters who take a young wife with no intention of abusing or even sleeping with them until they’re either ready or just because it’s culturally expected that they’ll remarry.

You have noble parents who take care of their bastards and who may even take care of their cheating wives, either out of love or to keep up appearances. You have nobles who’ll be fine with lovers on the side, both for men and women.

Complexity, really, is the name of the game. Establish the system, but then work to figure out how people navigate it, manipulate it, and break it. For as many victims (both male and female), there will be just as many victors. There will be those who live happy and content lives, it doesn’t make the system any less prejudiced but they do exist and it’s important to recognize that.

George R.R. Martin and Robert Jordan both managed to beat this one (depending on how you look at it) by writing in multiple perspectives, allowing other characters to have an interior life and showing the multitude of prejudices different characters have. When done right, it’s very successful for creating a vast and varied world where we’re reminded that the objective reality differs from personal truth and that prejudices aren’t always right. They blind us to the real world in front of us and are part of human nature.

-Michi

Regarding an old post about female combatants: I have noticed that in the “Combat Sports” culture (just to give it a name), like MMA, people get outraged at the thought of women fighting men because of the men’s obvious advantages like size. How much of this is actually true? I mean, I know men have more upper body strength, but could a women actually win against a men in such combat sport?

People get outraged over the idea of women participating in high school wrestling too. But, they do okay, it’s not like it’s growing in popularity, or that girls don’t compete against boys in the same weight class, or that girls never grapple with boys when they’re in the same weight class.

The most thing you really need to understand about professional sports like boxing and MMA is this: it’s a form of entertainment and it exists to make money. It’s not altruistic and sports in the USA in general have a long history of sexism.

The same complaints you’re hearing about why women shouldn’t fight men in the UFC are just a different shade for why girls shouldn’t go out for their high school football team. Exactly like why women’s basketball is less serious than men’s basketball, why female wrestlers are often treated as sideshow acts even though they can accomplish great things if they keep working hard. Why some boys choose to forfeit their matches against girls based on personal beliefs that fighting a woman “just isn’t right”.

Professional combat sports are about entertaining their audience, the money they make off that audience is what keeps them in business. The fights they set up aren’t about creating “the fairest match possible”, it’s about match ups that will be entertaining to watch.

Though women’s divisions existed in other combat sports, the UFC only started signing female fighters in 2012. That’s two years ago. Though women’s boxing has a long history it was banned for most of the twentieth century. But, we still have examples of female boxers like Elizabeth Stokes who fought both men and women.

People use their own prejudices to determine what is and isn’t possible. While most of the MMA fighters I’ve met (limited pool) have been very nice guys, it’s a very masculine sport and most of the fans don’t like the idea of that masculinity being challenged. (More so than the fighters themselves.)

Right now, you can’t have a man fight a women without a whole bunch of people reading gender wars into it, and without potentially sacrificing both the professional male and the professional female fighter’s careers.

Man fights a woman and loses, he will end up regarded as incapable by the very people who are outraged at the very idea of men fighting women. It’s not that she’s a great fighter, it’s that he’s weak. And if he’s weak enough to lose to a girl then he obviously can’t go back into rotation and fight the other members of his division. He’s too weak, why would anyone want to watch that? (This is obviously not true, but we’re talking about stereotypes and perception. Not reality.)

Woman fights man and wins, she either got lucky or she’s a freak. Other women couldn’t do what she did and if she can beat this guy (because all men are obviously naturally superior to all women) then what’s the point of sending her back to the women’s division when it will be an obviously unfair match up? (Again, it’s not true. Perception, what people say, spin, not reality.)

Gender stereotypes like these hurt both men and women. Unfortunately, it’s not considered culturally appropriate for men to fight women. When your career relies on people showing up to see you fight, it’s not exactly rocket science to figure out why they don’t. Look at the controversy surrounding Fallon Fox, the first openly transgender athlete in MMA over whether or not she should be allowed to compete as a woman because of her bone structure. We’ve got a long way to go yet in a sport that is, overall, very conservative.

The problem here is that you’re so focused on what’s fair and unfair is that you’re forgetting that if a woman signs up to face a guy then she knows what she’s getting into. If a guy signs up to fight a woman, he probably knows what he’s getting into. They’re making a choice.

Can they win? Probably, we have enough historical examples. It’s not like women have never fought men before both in the ring and in real life. The question you’re not asking is: does it matter if they lose? The answer is no. No, it doesn’t matter if they lose. No single woman and no single man are the representatives of their entire gender. Some female fighters are exceptional, some are mediocre. Some male fighters are exceptional, some are mediocre. If a mediocre female fighter takes on an exceptional male fighter and loses, then she’s not letting her gender down. Anyone who fist pumps over a girl’s loss (and there are plenty of people out there who do) crying “I knew she couldn’t do it!” should probably re-evaluate their priorities and ask themselves why a girl losing matters so much to them.

I hope that answers your question.

-Michi

If you were a computer-loving male child who took a lot of shit from your peers, I suspect you heard something similar from the adults in your life. Maybe it was “Sure, things are bad now, but when you’re a little bit older, women will LOVE guys like you!” Or maybe it was “That kid who makes fun of you now will be working at a gas station when you run a big fancy computer company and marry a supermodel!” If you were once young, nerdy and male, it is not unlikely that your future sense of self-worth was funded with a non-consensual IOU from the world’s women.

Hey there! I saw you sharing the Dove advertisement, and got curious to know if you saw the criticism for that ad, about being racist and sexist in a covert way. Luv to ya!

No, I actually hadn’t seen that. I’ll see what I can find on the subject or you could point me to it maybe?

From what I saw, personally, I thought the overall idea of the ad was good. The part where it was trying to point out the underlying issues with the overly negative aspects we see in ourselves and the way media particularly the beauty industry gears women to see themselves as deficient. The beauty industry is definitely both a racist and sexist beast that feeds on generating consumer hatred for their body, I don’t think any ad, no matter how it attempts to be well meaning can fully escape it. We’ll have to take a sledgehammer to the entirety of advertising and Hollywood in general (plus a major reworking of the country’s entire social structure) to get rid of it entirely.

On the one hand, I appreciate Dove trying, though I know it’s more about sales and consumer satisfaction than it is about promoting more healthy body types. On the other hand, we’ve still got a lot of work to do and we’ve still got to keep pushing to try and normalize body image and relax beauty standards to be more inclusive. There are so many beautiful women out there of every size, ethnicity, race, and creed. Every woman deserves to feel beautiful and confident in what she looks like and find that inner beauty in herself without being held to a ridiculous standard, (Men too!) especially when it’s one that the even the female models and actresses themselves can’t reach.

A sledgehammer is the only real solution here.

But I appreciate you pointing it out! Have you ever seen the documentary Good Hair by Chris Rock? It’s a fascinating look into African-American hairstyles, the beauty industry and it’s message for African-American women (and men), and the entirety of that fucked up mess. If you haven’t seen it, watch it!

Thanks!

-Michi