I Objectify Women
I’m a writer. I think I’m a pretty good writer. I’m also pretty “progressive” when it comes to my politics. I like to think I’m a feminist ally. How do all of these things play together? I thought they did so fairly well. Until last night.
I had a few short stories that were getting rejections, so I pulled them out of rotation and handed them over to my friend, writing partner, and story doctor Rose. I trust her instincts and abilities.
She came back with some pointers I expected, but also a few I absolutely did not expect. It was seeing these stories through fresh eyes, female eyes, which showed me a few disturbing trends.
Story 1 — The only woman in this story appears only after she’s been bound to a chair, naked and tortured to death.
Story 2 — The only woman in this story is subservient to the male protagonist and shows her affection through fixing him food.
Story 3 — The only woman in this story serves solely as a an assistant to a male scientist and a carrier for his baby. She’s never named.
Story 4 — The only woman in this story is an agent of chaos and while I never sexualize her overtly, she’s barely a sliver of a character.
There’s a phrase that keeps appearing in the description of these stories. Did you catch it? “The only woman in this story”. Yeah. And add to that the fact that they’re only there to serve as a prop or a tool or a motivation and I feel positively embarrassed. I know better than this. I’ve worked hard to make sure that I’m not “that male writer”. Not hard enough I guess.
There was a small part of me that wanted to get defensive. I could explain things away, or try to. There’s the trust that I have in Rose, though. She sees things I don’t. She’s experienced things I haven’t and never will.
Whether you call readers like her sensitivity readers or just helpful, amazing human beings, I highly recommend having one.
So, now that my eyes have been opened, what’s my plan moving forward? For these stories in particular, I have several.
Story 1 — In talking with Dr. Rose, the biggest problem here is, there is zero reason for the woman to be naked. There really isn’t. The killer isn’t some psycho who felt the need to do it. I believe subconsciously, it was my thought that the worst thing that could happen for a woman was for her to be made naked, prior to being killed. I ask myself, if the victim was a man would he be naked or clothed? Clothed, I’m sure. Here, all I’m going to do is give her some coverage.
Story 2 — This character is gong to change. While she’ll still show affection for the male character, she’ll be engaging her brain and not her culinary skills. Women in the workplace are often portrayed as Makers of Coffee and Snacks. Instead she’ll notice something he likes and talk to him about it. I might even have him bring her tea. Also, since there’s a political element in this story, I’ve decided with some excellent suggestions, that’s she’s a leader of a discussion group about these protests and the reason for them. She’s going to “grow” a spine and a brain.
Story 3 — This one is going to call for the biggest change. Dr. Rose isn’t the only one who suggested I write this story from the woman’s perspective. She’ll get a name. She’ll become the lead/only scientist, and all of this will serve to better the story. And while she’ll still end up delivering a baby at the end of the story (this is a very important aspect of the story itself), at least she’ll be more than some nameless, faceless incubator.
Story 4 — I worked really hard to make the male protagonist fully fleshed out. I didn’t do that for the female character, even though she serves as a very important part of the story. Without her, the male would just continue on his way. I need to flesh her out, give her some clear goals and motivations, and just make her a fully actualized human being.
There are other challenges ahead of me. I’ve got ideas buzzing around in my brain and won’t stop writing. What I will do is make sure that I get a broader beta reader base. I’ll make sure to have them look for the subtle and not so subtle sexist elements in my work. I believe it will make my fiction stronger and make me a better writer and human being. I will be open to feedback and will be asking friends to check me not only when it comes to my writing but to my life. Now that I have this knowledge about myself, I can take steps to change.