Tackling Social Issues As A Fantasy Author: Feminism
Or How Sailor Moon taught me to be a better feminist writer.
I am blessed by the Powers-That-Be to be surrounded by educated, intelligent, caring and powerful friends (and partner) that are well versed in race and gender issues. They have taught me so much about how to look critically at everything from current events, news media and fiction whether it be tv, movies or books. Naturally, as a new author, I wanted to do right by them and write the kind of stories that would have a positive influence, whether it be providing the right role models in YA stories or highlighting certain issues in my short stories.
I am still working hard on that. I don’t have a success yet.
My latest work-in-progress is a YA fantasy romance novel with what (I hope) a strong but realistic female protagonist who (I also hope) develops a healthy relationship with a male lead. This article speaks to my thoughts during the process of writing this novel. Before I go on, I do want to specify that in this article, I am tackling specifically the challenges around writing a romance between a CIS gendered, male and female couple. This is not because any other kinds of relationship is less important or less valid, but simply because I am sticking to writing what I know. If you have tips writing feminist romance portrayal with other genders or non gendered partners in other types of relationship I’d love to hear them.
So onwards! First, I have to say that I found it freaking hard to write a romance novel showing a normal healthy relationship with a male lead that treats the female lead right. It would be so much easier to succumb to the traditional trope (more on that later.) Instead, I had to design a (sadly) non-standard male lead. It means that he is not necessarily the leader in the relationship (at least not constantly). It means that he is respectful of her wishes and treats her as an equal, not as someone to dominate. It means that he constantly and precariously has to balance between being a gentleman with the desire to do things for her, and respecting that she is her own woman with her own will and agency. It means not sticking with the standards where the hero comes in and saves the princess in some way, in the process sweeping her off her feet. Besides, is that what really girls want anyways or is it a male power fantasy? Without getting into the academics of it, I will leave that to the opinion of you, the reader.
For me, the light bulb went off when I stumbled across this particular article about how Sailor Moon serves to be a sound feminist story. I urge anyone who is interested in improving how they write female characters to read the article.
Perhaps it would be prudent to define how I personally understand feminism first and its relationship to fiction. Before you, as reader, choose to hit that comment button in protest, please keep in mind that this is only my modest opinion, formed by my experiences, either directly or indirectly through discussions with others much more learned than I.
Modern feminism speaks more to choice and equality. In its simplistic form, as an example, a woman should be able to choose to stay at home or have a career, just like any man could. However, feminism is much harder to recognize when a female character chooses a role that patriarchy cultures deems traditional, such as choosing to stay at home to take care of family instead of a career outside the home. A young girl who chooses to care about her look, makeup and boys may come off as a very anti-feminist character in fiction. I am unsure why we are so quick to pass snap judgements without understanding a character’s motivation but I believe part of the reason may just be that many of us are simply not well versed yet in recognizing and understanding what choice and agency as modern feminism defines looks like. And so if we want to present strong female characters, we as writers tend to err on the side of creating characters with attributes opposite of those dictated by patriarchal traditions. Anything less runs into the risk of being interpreted as a poor example for young readers that identify as female, at least on cursory analysis.
To illustrate this point, let’s consider two characters as candidates for the same romance novel. Character A, we’ll call her Lucy, is fiercely independent, doesn’t care much about her looks. She has little time for boys and barely talks about them. She chases her dreams of becoming a world renowned expert in whatever field she chose for herself, preferably in STEM. If a boy does enter her life, she must protect her career and her independence, ensuring that he is a supportive partner, fitting into her life rather than her changing hers.
Now let’s look at Emilia. She loves playing with her appearance and spends much time and even resources on her. There’s something about looking good. She dreams of meeting the right man, settling down and starting a family. She loves kids, you see, and would love to be able to stay at home and raise her own brood. It’s not that she isn’t independent or intelligent, after all, running a household requires many of the same skills - management, prioritization, people management, just to name a few - but it is simply what she is more interested in.
Who comes off as a more convincing strong female character? I bet your answer is Lucy.It’s not that Emilia is not a strong character in her own right. In fact, I would argue that she has just as much agency as Lucy. She just chose a traditional gender role. However, because of this, she could easily be accused of being not a good example of a strong female role model.
That said, which character is likely to be involved in a romance, or at least easier to write one for? Is it Emilia? Did I guess your answer right?
Hence the challenge.
But why does it have to either/or? As I mentioned, the Sailor Moon article holds another answer, one that I think enriches storytelling. Instead of creating this one super ultra anti-traditional gender role female character, create multiple female characters who portrays elements from both within and outside of traditional gender roles.
Let me reiterate. A diverse cast of females. (D’uh, right?)
I will only leave this quote from the article as I think it summarizes the article nicely and can express my point much more elegantly.
Takeuchi’s greatest strength as a creator is characterization, and it is this to which fans primarily rally today. Sailor Moon’s cast is massive — and they are nearly all female, from the heroes to the villains to the sidekicks. This manifold nature removes the burden of representation from any one or two female characters as is the case in most media: Usagi can be emotional, flighty, and boy-crazy, and still a wonderful heroine because she doesn’t stand for half the population.
What I also love about Sailor Moon is that none of the female characters are one dimensional. Like any good writing, even supporting characters should be fleshed out with their own traits, backgrounds and personalities. This is a golden opportunity to instill and spread across different exemplary attributes of feminism and even weave in subplots where available. And of course having multiple female characters that do more than just prop up the main female leaf’s romance allows the story to easily pass the Bechdel Test. So it’s a win-win.
Now there is the consideration that Sailor Moon is written for at least two different mediums. It is afterall, a manga and an anime, serialized over 18 volumes and at least 39 episodes in just the remake alone. That is much more room for storytelling and fleshing out characters than a single YA novel. Nonetheless, I believe the same technique can be used in novels through dialog, through the characters’ actions, their preferences and even through appearances. And of course that in itself may be an argument for serialization or at least more stories about the same characters in order to allow for better storytelling. For instance, even as I wrote the current story, I could feel the tug of another story about one of my supporting characters, a sign that (I hope, ah there’s that word again) means that I have given her sufficient depth.
As a result, when I was working on my novel, my female lead had room to both be attracted to the male lead without appearing to have a lack of agency. She could be girly but it made her no less capable of independent thought and decision making. Another character may be less “girly”, but may assume other characteristics. One is mischievous, but a little flighty. Another suave, popular with the boys but also empowered to turn down advances easily. And the three (as well as other characters) can have conversations that still have nothing to do with the male lead. And there’s room for this, even in a YA novel on the shorter side, despite the need to focus on the main romantic relationship, because when the characters are more realistic, so too are their conversations.
In truth, I hope that I have been able to achieve the goals I set forth with this novel and hope this article has allowed me to share with you the lessons I learned writing it. If you have any other tips on the topic, I’d love to hear them!