Breaking the Patriarchy

by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky

Did you know that Bilbo Baggins was a girl?

Neither did I, but it appears that Michelle Nijhuis’ daughter insists on it. In Michelle’s great post, she at first resists her daughter’s remonstrations before finally capitulating…and the result surprises her:

What the hell, it’s just a pronoun. My daughter wants Bilbo to be a girl, so a girl she will be.

And you know what? The switch was easy. Bilbo, it turns out, makes a terrific heroine. She’s tough, resourceful, humble, funny, and uses her wits to make off with a spectacular piece of jewelry. Perhaps most importantly, she never makes an issue of her gender—and neither does anyone else.

The post goes on to explain that female characters are still under-represented in children’s literature, a situation reflected in other story media such as cinema, in which studies have shown a gender imbalance of 2.5 males to 1 female in speaking parts across 500 of the top grossing fictional films of the last decade.

Some might argue that the gender imbalance isn’t as important if the story presents the female character as lead and protagonist. But isn’t there an issue if a female exists isolated in a story, surrounded by males and demonstrating her agency only within a male-dominated world?

This issue is somewhat considered in the Bechdel Test, which gives a movie a pass or fail depending on whether it contains at least two female characters AND those female characters have a conversation amongst themselves AND the  conversation is on a subject other than men.

The Bechdel Test aims to identify stories where female characters are simply token gestures or, worse, simple props for the development of their male counterparts. If the Bechdel Test can go some way into identifying the problem, then I think the simplified Bilbo Baggins gender reversal (replacing the male pronoun with the female) is part of the solution. I love this technique, because it enables me to uncover and consider gender assumptions and bias in both reading AND writing. I also like that it effectively deals with the issue of the “strong female” character.

Sophia McDougall caused quite a stir with her insightful article on why she hates  strong female characters – it appears she is not alone. There is some great thinking and great responses out there on the internet that a simple google search will uncover (my favourite is from the Librarian who doesn’t say shhh!) and most of them agree with a simple premise – A character who is only strong is still a one-dimensional character.

Female characters and, more particularly, female protagonists, are capable of character traits beyond “strength” (Laura Bogart does a great job of identifying and discussing this in her article on Stephen King’s Carrie). They can be vulnerable, arrogant, undecided, quick-tempered, loyal, exasperating and ambitious. They can be tough, resourceful, humble, funny and wise – just like our female Bilbo Baggins.

WIth all of this in mind, I am setting three tests for the development of my Elementals novel:

1. Is there a realistic gender balance?

2. Does it pass the Bechdel Test?

3. Are ALL of my main characters multi-dimensional and free from gender assumptions and bias?

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Breaking the Patriarchy

Failing NaNoWriMo

by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky

I had the best plans to really put some stream of consciousness writing down on my Elementals novel during NaNoWriMo. Instead, I found myself doing more thinking than writing. About a quarter of the way through November, I realised that I was falling into the same trap I had with other (unfinished, half-loved) novels that I had started before.

I love my novel concept and I think I will love my characters (once I give myself a chance to fully develop them and get to know them), but I found that I didn’t love the canvas on which I was presenting these two components.

As with other novels I have attempted to write, I was getting the feeling of 0.99c mediocrity (you know, that feeling that just because you can write, doesn’t mean you can write well or a write a great novel – despite almost unlimited opportunity to draft, publish and sell your novel at the perfect ‘let’s just have a look’ price point of 0.99c. Almost a literary version of Idol – you have a nice voice and can belt out a tune in the shower or in front of appreciative family and friends, but can you captivate an audience with a song that will transform their experience? Should you really be putting it out there on the international stage with just a ‘yeah, I can sing’ mentality? The number of 99c ebooks I have bought that suffer from this kind of purple prose, poor development and suffocating superficiality… A kind of paint by numbers approach – that’s what I mean by 0.99c mediocrity).

Now, I know this screams of that self-doubt that I have written about before – and flies in the face of the wisdom that advises one to just get the words on a page and refine later. But I think this is deeper. This is about ensuring you work with the best materials to begin with – akin to “don’t cook with wine you wouldn’t drink” or “poor data in, means poor analysis out” or “prepare your canvas!“.

So, as indicated above, I spent the rest of NaNoWriMo learning about good writing – rather than indulging in bad writing. I learned from the masters – both classic and contemporary – by reading good books and watching good television. I fed myself with great stories and, in digesting them, came to a new (albeit, still undeveloped) understanding about what makes them good.

As part of the November reading challenge for Goodreads Group, Dystopia Land, I re-read Ray Bradbury’s ‘Fahrenheit 451‘. Helpfully, Ray Bradbury himself tells us what makes his novel a great novel. In a discussion on the quality of books, Faber tells Montag:

This book has pores. It has features. This book can go under the microscope. You’d find life under the glass, streaming past in infinite profusion. The more pores, the more truthfully recorded details of life per square inch you can get on a sheet of paper, the more ‘literary’ you are…The good writers touch life often. The mediocre ones run a quick hand over her. The bad ones rape her and leave her for the flies.

Life is hard, tough, overwhelming, underwhelming, transformative, unforgiving, challenging, redeeming, responsive, sublime. To capture this on a page or a collection of pages – that is to write a good book. It is not enough to have an interesting premise and great characters – these two components must be drawn together in a way that tells the story of life. That is what distinguishes between a novel and a fairytale. The relentless push of reality versus the saccharine musings of a dreamer.

Failing NaNoWriMo