Tag Archives: writing women

Q&A: When it comes to women, “Realism” is often wrong

I’m writing a story set in the Victorian era, something I have done a lot of research on, and my female character (a teenager) is a skilled fencer. I have been told that this is ‘unrealistic’ despite research telling me noble women would have actually been ENCOURAGED to fence, as fencing was seen as graceful. I was going to have her get into a duel but I’m worried readers aren’t going to believe woman could fence back then and impose even more restrictions than were in place at the time.

So, with fiction, you can essentially normalize whatever you want. You’re not limited a very narrow view of someone else’s reality. You create the reality your readers experience. You shape the world to your liking. You have that control, you have that power, and, when you get good at crafting new realities, your readership won’t question it because you never gave them the opportunity. However, the trick with normalization is understanding there needs to be more than one. You need many characters from in a multitude of age groups in order to normalize a behavior pattern in a setting.

Never forget, you are the creator and they are the consumer. The consumer doesn’t dictate what the creator creates. A well-written story will always find a home, even one filled with uncomfortable and inconvenient truths. Be confident that you’ll find yours.

Remember, perception of history doesn’t outweigh real history except when we ignore the real history’s existence. The fact women were encouraged to fence as they were encouraged to participate in other sports like tennis for the benefit of their health doesn’t outweigh the sexism which existed in Victorian England. It also doesn’t reject women’s participation in sports as being seen as secondary to men’s. Their participation treated as less “legitimate”, less serious, and entirely hobbyist. Which is not so different from how women’s professional sports are treated today.

The trouble with the presentation of many female characters who fight (and this has been normalized) is that they’re the only one. They’re the trailblazer, the only one who fights, who earns her stripes by playing with the big male dogs, who is different from other women. This gives them the position of being special and unique. However, by being different from other woman in such a big way, we cut the setting off from normalizing female participation and the concept of a woman fighting is treated as abnormal. A single outlier is not normalization, and isn’t really proving anything.  In fact, the treatment of a female fighter as being different, unique, and special due to her gender throws the violence and combat ball squarely into the male court. By normalizing violence as the domain of men, these female characters are framed as infringing on spaces inherently male rather than just culturally male. This treatment of sex and gender ends up normalizing the very sexist stereotypes and cultural mores that the narrative is trying to combat.  The treatment posits that men are inherently and naturally better at combat than women because violence is male, and the truth that combat is a skill you practice and work at in order to be good gets lost.

Women have always fought. You’ll find at least two women in just about every martial arts class, and probably more. There will be older women and younger women, the women who threw off society’s rules to completely embrace their martial calling, the women who didn’t, the women who are there just for that bit of added grace, the ones who are there because their mother or father made them, the ones who love it, the ones who aren’t really interested in fencing. They’re just crushing on the salle’s fencing instructor or taking the opportunity to go husband hunting among the available gentry. You need lots of female characters with varying opinions on the subject and with their own reasons for engaging in the sport. The primary opponents for a female fencer are going to be other female fencers, and that’s also who she’ll be training with; even if the master is a man. Where women dueling women is acceptable, women dueling men will be socially frowned upon. This doesn’t mean a woman can’t duel a man on equal terms, they can. However, the social and societal consequences for breaking with tradition are much more severe.

This is where the sexism the audience has been trained to expect leaks back in. The mental jump is in the statement: “it is socially frowned upon for women to do X” and the logic then  becomes “women can’t do X!” because we don’t talk about the ones who challenged social mores. There’s the assumption, and then there’s the reality. Audiences demanding realism often overfocus on their assumptions, rather than what is real. Fiction is a poor substitute for the real world, which is often much more complicated. The reality is women’s fencing as a codified sport has been thriving for over a century. Women have been fencing and fighting for much longer than that. Women learned and practiced self-defense in Victorian England, there were women who did fight in live duels against other women, and there were those who participated in the sport purely as a means of exercise.

Women didn’t duel in Victorian England, they say? We have actual historical events of women dueling topless, and not for the entertainment of male or female spectators. No, they dueled topless to avoid infection and to keep cloth from going into the wound. In this particular instance, the countess and the princess were dueling over floral arrangements for an upcoming musical exhibition.

The reasons your characters have for dueling could be really, really out there. Violence over floral arrangements may not make sense to us, but it did to them. Humans can be really out there, and history isn’t a sham collection of men doing everything while women stayed home. History is littered with badass women from all over the world doing crazy things. I wouldn’t even say that a woman dueling a man in Victorian England would actually be all that out there because women did, what would be unrealistic is there being no consequences (societal or otherwise) for the act. There were certainly women who openly flouted convention. Novelist George Eliot is one example. Female prize fighter and all around bare knuckle boxing champion, Elizabeth Wilkinson Stokes is another.

However, culture involves more than one.

If you want to portray an attitude as normal, you need to have your characters treat the attitude like it’s normal and back that up with a robust mixed gender cast. Women are drawn to violence in the same way men are, and female members of the aristocracy certainly did duel each other. There were articles written on the subject of how fencing is good for women’s health.

So, should you fear detractors? No, you shouldn’t.

Don’t give them power over your work. Women have been carving out their place in the world of professional sports and on the battlefield for a long, long time. The tragedy is that our culture at large pretends they don’t exist in order to uphold the sexist mores underpinning our society. Remember, women make up half of the human race and half of every society. Honestly, read this article. The Boy’s Club may be societally acceptable, but it’s actually unrealistic.

So, if you want normal, jam your work full of female fencers of every age. Main characters, secondary characters, side characters, and cameos. Female friends, female rivals, female mentors, female teachers, female assistants, female family members, female characters who just don’t understand, female characters of every stripe imaginable. Women who fence, women who don’t, women who look down their nose at it, women who think its unseemly, women who long to be taken more seriously, and the women who just don’t care what society thinks. Those do it anyway. All these types of women have existed.

You’ll always find detractors, but the answer is easy.

Do it anyway.

-Michi

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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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