I never thought I would begin another piece of writing this way, but in the fall of 2016 I had the privilege of visiting the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM). You might have guessed that the other piece of my writing that begins this way is my undergraduate thesis, which I wrote on the Holocaust in young adult fantasy novels. In preparation for this trip to the USHMM, I did some research on the museum’s exhibition for children, which is entitled “Remember the Children: Daniel’s Story.” What was their thinking behind presenting the Holocaust to children and young adults, I wondered? This was a question I was grappling with and I wanted to know how some “trusted institutions” were thinking about this question.
Accompanying this exhibition (which I have several problems with, not the least of which being that they never state anywhere explicitly that “Daniel” is not a real child from history, but a fictional one) is a novelization of Daniel’s Story. I don’t remember for certain since nothing from this book and/or specific essay ended up in my thesis (so no references), but I am pretty sure I found this discussion in Adrienne Kertzer’s My Mother’s Voice: Children, Literature, and the Holocaust. The novelization of this exhibition is an interesting process for a variety of reasons, BUT what I bring to you today is this: Daniel’s story is about Daniel because a wide variety of educators and publishers and museum professionals agreed that while young girls could be asked to identify with a male protagonist, young boys could not and would not identify with a female protagonist. Daniel was meant to, was able to, stand in for the whole in a way that his unborn female counterpart never could.
Allow me to just say: yuck.
This essay on Daniel’s Story was the first time the issue had been laid out to me in so obvious of terms. Women are asked and expected to identify with male characters and the male experience as if it is universal. Or if not universal per se, at least the most important experience. Women’s lives and experiences are blocked off into “special interest” categories like “women’s fiction,” “romantic comedy,” and “side character.” Plenty of women I know will speak of Captain America, Thor, or Iron Man as their favorite Avenger. I don’t know any men who would say that Captain Marvel is their favorite Avenger, assuming they even saw the movie and weren’t too upset by whatever whiney sexist nonsense it was that made men so upset about the Captain Marvel movie.
In true Sally fashion this has been a stupid long lead-in. The topic I was given this week was men writing female characters, and how 95% of the time it is bad. I was hesitant to take up this topic because I didn’t know what I would say, whether I would say it articulately, or if I would say anything interesting (never even minding NEW) on the topic. Nonetheless, we ended up here, because it is an interesting topic and why not. Most importantly, I love you, Morgan. I do this for you – and your very cute husband.
My claim is this: because men are not often asked to identify with female characters, they struggle to imagine that women have complex, internal lives. Therefore, the majority of male renderings of the female experience/personhood are performative to the point of absurdity. There are some leaps here, I know. I will do my best to explain how I got here.
I know this is a bit Writer Pretentious TM, but good characters are supposed to feel lived in. They’re not supposed to feel like a tied together bundle of personality traits that mimics human speech, thought, and action because the author needs them to. This is difficult to achieve because A) characters are (shocking) constructed, B) there’s a different logic in fiction than there is in real life, so of course characters sometimes just behave like characters and not real people and C) it takes time. A long time, in my experience, though I shouldn’t be anyone’s hallmark for average speed of anything. Character creation least of all.
Because of all these challenges, characters of any gender are susceptible to feeling “not lived in,” or in other words, they feel like they are performing human behavior. Not to be a total dickwad yet again about Brandon Sanderson, but take a look at the scenes in Mistborn when all the characters are together and trying to have a Cheeky Banter. Every scene is very constructed, to the point that it gives me secondhand embarrassment. No shade to Brandon necessarily, banter is the hardest form of conversation to write convincingly, which is why it’s a good example for this stiff human mimicry.
My issue is that men seem to write these types of paper-thin female characters a lot more frequently than they write paper-thin male characters. I would also argue that, generally, the opposite is not true. Women do not write paper-thin male characters with the same frequency. (Please forgive this disgusting use of the gender binary). I believe this happens because men are not often asked to identify with, or even acknowledge, the internal lives of women they see in the media. To men, maybe these paper-thin women they write seem like real women, I don’t know. I do know that the internal lives that are portrayed as important by our society are the male ones. Women can access the male experience whenever they want, but men are just aren’t asked to reciprocate. Female characters are at the center of things way less frequently, and when they are there’s this incredible backlash against men that find those female characters interesting and engaging.
I have no real desire to keep talking about Avengers Endgame, but here we are. SO: SPOILER ALERT, KIDDOS. We’re gonna talk about the two main characters that kick the bucket. Iron Man dies and Black Widow dies. I think the arc about Tony’s daughter is as stupid as plotlines come, but the need to give men a tragic emotional center in the form of a young girl, while connected to this topic, is food for its own essay. All the same, Tony’s arc made sense, more or less. A traumatized man picks up a quieter life, has a kid, gets pulled back into the heroics for one more round yadda yadda yadda. Boring and overdone, but it makes sense for the human that has been constructed over like 100 movies, or whatever. It makes sense that Tony, our progenitor, ends his life as not only the metaphorical patriarch of the Avengers and the metaphorical “creator god” for this post-Thanos world, but as the actual, biological (I assume) father of a child. It’s an arc that feels lived in.
Meanwhile Natasha. Oh, Natasha. I cannot stop thinking of the catastrophe that was your hair in Endgame. It’s this horrendous, strawberry cheesecake swirl. To paraphrase Justin McElroy, that dye job is a cruel joke to play on God. You genuinely expect me to believe this world, post structural collapse, still has diners and cellphones but no fucking hairdressers? Or that a superspy wouldn’t know how to dye her own hair?
The implication is that Natasha is just too busy and/or too traumatized to care about her appearance. This would interest me if it was explored as symptom of post traumatic stress or depression, but of course the film does not explore how Natasha reacts to her trauma – she’s a woman. Don’t be ridiculous. Exploring her traumas. Nonsense. Besides, the rest of her appearance is as beautiful and polished as ever. Instead, we get this whacked out hair that is itself incredibly performative. The extreme colors are meant to draw the eye, and the contrasting colors make us draw conclusions about Natasha’s lack of interest in her hair. A lack of interest in your appearance is one of the HALLMARKS of a paper-thin, performative female character. I know lots of real life women who are not as invested in their appearance as the stereotypical “woman” is. However, this trope of a woman who “isn’t interested” in her appearance, and yet looks gorgeous constantly is a male fantasy, a performance of an un-reality, where men get the beautiful woman to look at, without having to put up with the time and energy it takes women to look this beautiful.
Natasha in Endgame is made so very un-real next to her male counterparts that I was almost happy to see her go, to watch her freed of this prison and hellscape. Of course, her death was the peak of that movie’s misogyny, but, again, food for another essay. Emily also pointed out to me – when I was yelling about Natasha’s hair on our way to Rumbi – that Natasha’s hair has changed in pretty much every movie. And with her hair, Natasha’s character changes in every movie. And not in the character growth sort of way – in a way that fits the plot, whatever it might be. Whether it’s her STUPID ASS romance with Bruce Banner or kicking Iron Man’s ass or sacrificing herself for Hawkeye (BLECK), she does whatever the plot needs. She’s got no stability, no true internal life. She performs for a script that’s written for the male characters.
The entire movie I was thinking: why doesn’t she just shave her head? If she’s really uninterested in upkeep that would be the way to go about it. Plus, it’s a tactical advantage and it would be a truly radical move for a traumatized, stressed out, sad, busy character. But, oh Sally, you naïve little bean, then she wouldn’t be sexy. Because shaved heads aren’t sexy on women.
The most insufferable thing about men writing women is the way they sexualize those women. Calling them “ripe,” having them talk or think about their breasts more than any human has time for in a single day, and of course having them cater to male sexual fantasies.
Because, if women are just a performance, it might as well be an enjoyable one, right? If women exist to be player’s in men’s lives, and not actual participants, they should serve some value to men, and performances should be aesthetically pleasing, shouldn’t they?
Allow me to just say: YUCK.
Allow me to also say, once again, that I hate more than anyone how basic this blog was in terms of identity politics. The male-female gender binary haunts me in a way that makes me want to peel my own skin off and feed it to the particular black-necked swan at the Aviary that hates my guts. I hope we can make this more complicated in future discussions. Because the same type of bullshit applies to the queer community and people of color and the disabled and the poor. When the privileged and the dominant can’t imagine your life as REAL, when they are never asked to live it or see it or identify with it, you are just another set piece in their life. And it fucking sucks.
Furthermore for further discussion, women are also guilty of writing paper thin women. That’s internalized misogyny, baby!
Anyway, did I do any of this justice? Who knows, kiddos, it feels like a whole lot of ranting, but I’m really angry now, so I’ve at least had some thoughts. Hope you did, too.
Thank you, Morgan. Remember: you’re the realest.
And remember: shaved heads on women ARE sexy.
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