Breaking the Double Standard

June 29, 2012 at 8:49 pm (fantasy, Magic University, writing) (, , , , , , , , )

Some friends and I were discussing the concept of writers writing characters of the opposite gender and how effective and realistic these attempts can be. I honestly think gender has nothing to do with your ability to create a believable character. I mentioned in our conversation that I thought a poor portrayal of characters of the opposite sex did not reflect on the writer’s abilities based on gender, but just on their skills as a writer in general. Part of being a good writer is observing other people and trying to look at things from their perspective as you develop your characters – otherwise every character you create would just be another version of you, or a very one-dimensional arch-type, and that doesn’t make for good story-telling. The best writers can move seamlessly from complex character to complex character, no matter what their differences.

Admittedly, some writers do present the other gender in their stories without trying to gain some understanding of what it means to be a man if you are a woman, or to be a woman if you are man. That’s why you’ll come across carbon copy heroes who are physically strong, dashing, stoic, and confident, and carbon copy female characters who are loving and sweet but always in need of a rescue. Either these writers don’t attempt to do the story justice and offer an original character with a complex personality, perhaps out of fear of getting it wrong and being critiqued for it, or they are too lazy to try. I personally feel that the books with these types of characters come across as trite and formulaic.

I’m a strong believer that the hero or heroine of a tale should demonstrate some form of flaw, not super-human perfection, and more complexity than the arch-type norm, or they just aren’t being portrayed realistically. When it comes to the development of male and female characters, I have noticed that there is one “flaw” that is usually deemed acceptable in a hero, but often shunned in a heroine, and that “flaw” is promiscuity (not everyone considers it a bad thing, but it is frowned upon socially). The double standard in life carries over into literature, and while a male character who is promiscuous will be viewed in a mostly positive light, despite the fact that the character is a “player”, a “womanizer” or a “horndog” – lightly negative terms – a female character with the same trait is rarely cast as a heroine. The “slut”, “temptress” or “man-eater”, much more negative connotations here, more often is positioned as a villain in the tale.

I’ve tried to break the double standard, by presenting a couple of different heroines in my stories who are promiscuous, but I do find I meet with critique from those who support the notion that a promiscuous heroine is not a real heroine. Nia, from Magic University, has met with a lot of adversity in her life, including what many would consider an unfair exile from her people, loss of family, struggles with poverty and choosing a suitable career in an alien culture, and finding love in a world where she is very different from the people around her. She doesn’t always cope with her troubles in the most appropriate way, choosing brief affairs with men to make her feel better about herself and to fill some of those gaps in her life temporarily, but that shouldn’t make her any less of a heroine. She has moments in the story where she takes a stand and shows her integrity, and in later books in the series, she goes on to place herself at risk and make sacrifices for the sake of others, the mark of a real hero.

I refuse to tone down her impulsive nature for the sake of appeasing some people’s sensibilities. I have heroines who are alcoholics, who are outlaws and who have fractured psyches, as well. It’s their flaws and how they manage despite them that make them interesting.

A second heroine, in my yet to be published Elements of Genocide, Andreyelle, is also promiscuous, but she comes from a culture where promiscuity is acceptable, if not encouraged. She does not, however, derive much satisfaction from her brief and shallow interactions, and is searching for something more fulfilling. That doesn’t change the fact that she doesn’t see that kind of behaviour as harmful in anyway, and one of the other characters who scorns her for her liberal ways eventually learns something from her that helps him to grow.

I even have examples where I’ve challenged the double standard in some of my shorter works, like my female pirate, Adrianna Perla, from “Cat and Mouse,” who has no qualms about following her libido.

I guess my point is that while you will find a variety of Don Juans and Casanovas in fiction, I think writers have been neglectful of the female equivalent, most likely because of the social double standard. But that doesn’t mean that can’t be changed. I encourage other writers, male and female alike, to break that double standard. It can make for a very interesting read.

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