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Yesterday’s post Roxanna mentioned her dislike of YA protags who don’t like other girls. Oh, yes. What she said, indeed.
The women I have met who proclaim their dislike of women are, well, um, not my kind of people. So every time a protag proclaims that? I’m done with that book.1
Here’s why. I have no time for anyone, who on the basis of a poor experience with a very small sample size, declares that all women are dreadful. Ditto if they say it about all men, all black people, all Japanese people. All any kind of people.
Could be the correct conclusion is that this group of people are awful. Or it could be it’s the protag who’s the awful one. I know what I’d put my money on.
These women who hate women always have a long list of how women are: they all wear make up, they all gossip too much, all they care about are boys, they all chew gum. Etc. etc.
No matter what is on that list, I’m sitting there thinking of all the women I know who don’t wear make up, who don’t gossip, are lesbians and/or asexual and/or otherwise not much interested in boys, and don’t chew gum.
Your so-called statements of fact, Stupid Protag? They are not facts!
There are very few statements that are true of all women. Yes, including biological ones. There are women without breasts, wombs, ovaries. There are women without two X chromosomes.
The last time a woman said that to me I called her on it:
Me: “Last time I checked I was a woman. Are you saying you don’t like me?”
Woman-hater: “Oh, I didn’t mean you. You’re not like that at all. I meant all those other women.”
Me: “So I’m one of the blessed, few, not-horrible women? Gosh, thanks.”
Me: “Last time I checked I was a woman. Are you saying you don’t like me?”
Woman-hater: “Oh, I didn’t mean you. You’re not like that at all. I meant all those other women.”
Me: “So I’m one of the blessed, few, not-horrible women? Gosh, thanks.”
As a teenager I didn’t know that many girls who were into all those so-called feminine things. Admittedly I went to an alternative school. But the girls I did know who were closest to the boy-obsessed, clothes-obsessed, make-up-wearing, girlie-music-listening stereotype? They were absolutely lovely. So were the boys who were like that. In fact, I knew more boys who fit that stereotype than girls. C’mon anyone who doesn’t like ABBA is dead on the inside.2
Besides which gossip and make up can be fun. They are neither a marker of shallowness nor of depth. No more than liking opera, skate boarding, or drinking tea are.
I am very uninterested in reading books with such stereotyped, boring representations of the much more interesting world we all live in. Any book that draws characters so crudely is unlikely to be any good.
The girl who says she hates girls is telling us a lot more about herself than she is about other girls. So a book that begins with the protag declaring that, which then supports her contention: uggh.
But a book that then proceeds to undercut her absurd claim? Where she turns out to be a very unreliable narrator with a limited view of the world that the book skewers?3
Or where the girl who hates girls does so as part of her rejection of the rigidly enforced femininity at her school and community and learns not to blame the other girls for that but the larger culture. And learns, too, ways to subvert or, at least, escape her community?
Now those are the kind of books I can get behind.
I was going to end this post there but then I realised I hadn’t explicitly said the most important thing in all of this: women who hate women do not emerge out of nowhere. They are no accident.
Girls are taught that they are inferior to boys from day one. Once people know whether the baby in the pram is a girl the majority speak to her totally differently than they do to a little boy. They say how gorgeous she is. How sweet. How delicate. The tiny baby boy who is every bit as gorgeous, sweet and delicate as the baby girl is complimented on the strength of his grip and how active he is. Even when sound asleep.
I heard a midwife say, when told the expected baby was a girl, that the baby would be born wearing a skirt. It is to vomit.
Being “girly” is not good. “Throwing like a girl” means you’re crap at throwing. “You’re such a girl” is a widespread insult. “Be a man” on the other hand is an admonition to be strong and assertive. Boys are taught to eschew anything with even the faintest hint of girliness. They soon learn to hate pink, books by women, wearing dresses, dressing up, dancing, netball, sparkles and Taylor Swift.
Most of the boys who stubbornly stick to pink and other girlish things—gay and straight—have the crap beaten out of them. Some don’t survive adolescent. Many of my favourite men are girly. Most of them are tough as nails. You have to be to survive. Being a man and walking down the street in Australia and the USA wearing a skirt—particularly away from the major cities? Now that’s courage.
This relentless gender stereotyping hurts us all, men, women, and anyone who is uncomfortable in either of those categories.
The girls who eschew pink and Taylor Swift have a more mixed reception. Some are accused of being dykes—whether they are or not—and are likewise beaten down. Others get approval. They sometimes become “one of the boys.” They are told over and over again: “you’re not like those other girls.” They sometimes become women who hate women.
But most girls, girly or not, learn that boys are where the action is. Boys are the ones who get to be assertive, not bitchy. They’re the ones who can be strong and play sport4 without having their sexuality questioned. They’re the ones who are mostly listened to and encouraged—if they’re being proper boys that is—way more than most girls.
Is it any wonder that some women are down on their gender? Why wouldn’t they be? Everyone else is.
They’re still completely wrong, but. Let’s fill the world with a million books and movies and television shows that proves it to them.
Posted by Justine at 6:20, 19 September 2012 under Fashion, Feminism, Ranting, Reading, Writing goals & milestones | 19 Comments »
I used to be one of those girls who didn’t like girls, and you summed it up totally: But most girls, girly or not, learn that boys are where the action is. Boys are the ones who get to be assertive, not bitchy. They’re the ones who can be strong and play sport4 without having their sexuality questioned. They’re the ones who are mostly listened to and encouraged—if they’re being proper boys that is—way more than most girls.
The boys got to play outside and run around and had all the cool toys etc etc etc while I was at home with my dolls. I wasn’t allowed to have Transformers or LEGO because those were for boys.
It took a lifetime of undoing all that my parents did without realizing it for me to treasure friendships with women. I still bond with men as friends much easier than women, and I find myself uncomfortable being “myself” with women because I think I will be judged for not being “girly” enough. I watch my language around women I don’t know, I downplay my more masculine interests/traits around women I don’t know. But at least now, at nearly 37, I recognize what I’m doing and try to work around it and work on feeling less like that.
It’s definitely a work in progress, my attitudes about other women. I’m trying. It took me a long time to even realize what I was doing in the first place.
September 19th, 2012 at 6:32 AM
I grew up with a girl-hating/woman-hating mother. It was profoundly damaging.
September 19th, 2012 at 6:41 AM
3. Justine Says:
Angie: Yup, the stereotyping has the unfortunate effect of making us close our eyes to the tremendous variety of women in the world. Not all those girly girls are the same. No matter how superficially some of us seem the same we’re also just ourselves, you know?
I’m glad you’re aware of where these prejudices come from. So many of us aren’t.
Kaydee: That is so hard. I have friends with similar mums. Ugh. *hugs*
September 19th, 2012 at 7:19 AM
“Some are accused of being dykes”
maybe next time you could avoid slurs?
September 19th, 2012 at 9:01 AM
Lori Gildersleeve Says:
The idea that “women” can’t hate “women” is false; individuals stand out from the crowd and can easily rise above such generalizations. But culturally speaking, you are correct that boys are typically treated as the “superior” gender. A Chinese woman became an astronaut, and you would have thought the world was ending, no matter that her male colleagues were just as talented. But coming from a small-town culture with rigidly defined gender roles left me with a distinct dislike of my gender, both in myself and in others. Because I did not conform to those stereotypes I was ostracized, bullied, and tormented for more than 17 years. I’m 30 now and still not comfortable in my own skin. Men spend more time staring at my boobs than my eyes during conversations. Women spend more time critiquing my hair/make up/clothes than my discussion/arguments. Why shouldn’t I dislike women? Why shouldn’t I dislike men? In general, I’d say my upbringing and western society has turned me into a hermit at best. From a literary perspective, just because a book features a protagonist who openly dislikes his/her own gender should not preclude you from reading it. There are lessons to be learned from these stories, particularly about how we should treat one another as human beings and not as gender objects.
September 19th, 2012 at 9:07 AM
6. Justine Says:
Lori Gildersleeve: Why shouldn’t I dislike women? Why shouldn’t I dislike men?
I guess I would say you shouldn’t for all the reasons I gave in the post above. Because not all women are the same and not all men are the same. And that holding an entire gender responsible for the hurts that have been done to you leaves you, as you say, alone.
just because a book features a protagonist who openly dislikes his/her own gender should not preclude you from reading it.
As I say in the post above there are several reasons I will read books that feature that kind of protag. You’re right they can be very illuminating. However, this post was in response to the cliche of the one girl who is cool unlike regular boring girls. Where the book endorses the idea that girls are inferior and should be avoided. That I have a problem with as I outlined above.
I am so sorry you grew up in such an awful town. I am so sorry that way too many of us grow up in similarly oppressive communities.
guest: maybe next time you could avoid slurs?
I chose the word “dyke” because that is the slur frequently used against girls and women who don’t fit the girly stereotype regardless of their sexual orientation. It’s the word that was regularly thrown in my face at the non-alternative high school I attended.
September 19th, 2012 at 9:12 AM
Agree totally. It’s distressing to me how insistent people are that my children should be *this way* due to their sex. I try to challenge assumptions but they look at me like i have two heads.
September 19th, 2012 at 10:04 AM
Not This Time Says:
For the record, I’d just like to point out that while ‘dyke’ can be used as a slur, it’s NOT a slur, it’s valid self-identification. I don’t think it should be avoided(?!), like comment #4 so-strangely suggested.
And I used to be a girl who hated girls, for all the reasons you listed, but because I was a teenager and it was the nineties, the tools for understanding patriarchal pressure were out of my grasp. Even with a supportive family who shared out work by opportunity instead of gender roles, those attitudes still poisoned me through media, peers, and authority figures.
I’m trying to make up for it now by helping with those millions of books.
September 19th, 2012 at 10:26 AM
Holly W Says:
I understand why you used the word “dyke” Justine, and it is used the way that you used it unfortunately! I used to cut my hair short because I liked the style of it, and JUST because I had short hair, my Uncle used to call me a dyke, it still hurts to think about, like it was a hair cut, talk about stereotyping and generalizing! Needless to say I do not speak to him at all if possible. And to “guest” you are right, that word is ew, however, it does not keep people from using it, the same way that they throw around the word faggot to males, does it make it ok? NO!! But she was using it as a for instance, we have understand the difference and learn from it.
September 19th, 2012 at 10:27 AM
Personally I perceived this attitude more so in some of my fellow female fandom members than in female characters in books. Some of the female members of the romance and UF fandoms I’ve participated in online have exhibited extremely negative attitudes towards female characters.
September 19th, 2012 at 10:46 AM
I was a girl who hated girls. And I remember why I did, too. And I knew most of why I was doing it, even back then.
I denied pink and skirts and makeup and all things girly because I liked Power Rangers and superheroes and the idea of being cool – but these were all “boy” things, growing up. I also did it because I didn’t want to be shamed and teased and dismissed for being girly. I did it for recognition and attention – I thought I was special if I was “different” and “one of the guys”. (In reflection, it really never did anything for me). I did it because I was afraid of being pigeon-holed; I knew that if I admitted liking unicorns (and I did), or romance, or wanting to cry over a movie, or anything else considered unequivocally “girly” it would be defining, an unshakable impression that people would have of me.
The truth was I liked all of these things. I liked the color pink, and I liked skirts (when it wasn’t freezing, and when I wasn’t forced to wear them for my school uniform – we actually COULD NOT wear pants), and I have come to enjoy makeup. I still love superheroes and action movies and romantic comedies. I’m still afraid to cry over movies or books where other people can see, even other girls. I’m still afraid that wearing makeup and dressing how I like will make me seem frivolous with men and silly with the wrong crowd of girls (the, girls-who-hate-girls crowd). I’m afraid that being “girly” will invalidate me and be taken as proof by people who believe such things (some of whom are people that I know) that I am inevitably this way because I am a girl, not because this is what I like and this is what I don’t.
But at least now I am fortunate enough to know what the problem is. It’s not girls who give girls a bad name; it’s that society undervalues us. It hasn’t done much for my insecurity, but it has done something to improve my attitude and channel my disapproval in the right direction.
Thanks for this post. I’m sick of these sorts of books, too.
September 19th, 2012 at 11:28 AM
Malinda Lo Says:
Re: “dyke” — This word is clearly understood differently by different people. Among a lot of lesbians (but not all), “dyke” has been reclaimed as a word of pride. It is used, for example, at the annual Dyke Marches that take place in NYC and San Francisco during Pride weekend. It is used as a term of self-identification by many queer women (and “queer” is another word that some people still find offensive while others find it self-affirming).
That said, “dyke” can clearly still be considered a slur, and in some contexts it is. I do not believe that the context in which Justine used it was offensive, even though she was reporting a usage of it as a slur.
Honestly, it makes me sad that even seeing the word can make some people go, “ew.” I see the word and I say: hell yeah. There is nothing wrong with being a dyke. We wear the best boots and we love women.
Also: good post!
September 19th, 2012 at 11:51 AM
krupke: It’s not unusual for urban fantasy books to have female main characters who hate women in them, so the fans don’t pull it from nowhere. The books they’re reading are telling them it’s okay.
It’s often not done in the obvious way of the character saying she hates all women, but it’s still there. She’ll have no female friends, she’ll have poor relationships with female relatives compared to male ones, and any women she meets will do bad things (to justify why she hates them). She’s presented as objectively better than all the women around her.
In real life, someone could have that situation due to poor luck, but in a book, the author chose to make all the other women useless or hateable.
September 19th, 2012 at 4:14 PM
14. Justine Says:
Thanks everyone for the further comments on the word “dyke” My favourite use of it is at the annual Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras in Sydney where the parade is led off by the Dykes on Bikes who are deeply awesome.
Not This Time: I’m trying to make up for it now by helping with those millions of books.
Feels good, doesn’t it?
Polenth: It’s often not done in the obvious way of the character saying she hates all women, but it’s still there. She’ll have no female friends, she’ll have poor relationships with female relatives compared to male ones, and any women she meets will do bad things (to justify why she hates them). She’s presented as objectively better than all the women around her.
All of this. I just put down the first book in a very popular series that was very well written but, oh my, I could not deal with the girl hating.
There are many wonderful UFs that don’t do any of those things. Wonderful romances too that are full of close relationships between women.
September 19th, 2012 at 4:45 PM
But the boys were the ones who were *nice*.
From the age of 12-16 I was trapped in a class full of girls who I might or might not have liked, but as they didn’t like me, I couldn’t say.
From 16-18 only one girl in my sixth form classes would acknowledge my existence, and for her I was an “in school” friend only.
At university the women’s group I belonged to was rather keen on gender policing; the lesbian group even more so (to the point that it took me two years to date the woman I was very much in love with, because they didn’t approve of her).
If I hadn’t known my mother’s friends (all feminists) then my understanding of the world to come would have been seriously skewed also. Even so, I was well in to my twenties before I trusted the women in my peer group. And I still look back and want to say to my younger self “it will be ok, really”.
So while I understand what you are writing, and how you want that to influence the things people write, and I basically applaud that, when you wrote “I have no time for anyone, who on the basis of a poor experience with a very small sample size, declares that all women are dreadful” it felt like a slap in the face, because I remember being that person, and remember that the sample size might have been poor, but there was no way to escape it for six very long, very vulnerable years.
Looking back (and even then to an extent), I can see how much the other girls’ reactions to me were structured by aspiration and by class (I had gone from being the working class kid in my elementary school to the middle class kid in the high school) but it didn’t stop the loneliness, the stress, and the near nervous break down when I was 14.
September 19th, 2012 at 6:01 PM
I can’t deny that you have a point. Women are infinitely more varied than many people give them credit for. But as someone who spent a good chunk of her life not relating to women at all, I can also see where some of these so-called “woman-haters” are coming from, too. I’m looking at this through the distorted lens of teenagehood, mind you, but when I was the age that most of the YA protags are, I didn’t much like or relate to girls because all they seemed to care about were clothes, makeup, boys (and to some degree, having sex), and a hundred and one other feminine things that just plain baffled me, but that everyone expected I should be able to understand by virtue of the fact that I have boobs and a vagina.
Looking at it through the eyes of an adult, I see now that what I disliked wasn’t the women or girls in question, but the assumption that I should understand and be like them, or at the very least relate to them, because I was a girl. And I couldn’t, so I got angry. And I directed that anger not at the people who were assuming those things, but at the people who acted the way I couldn’t relate to in the first place.
Even as I grew older and started to understand that wow, skirts are actually comfortable and I like wearing them, I refused to. For the sole reason that people out on the street would see me wearing a skirt and assume, “Hey look, a person who’s feminine,” and follow that assumption to include the fact that I must relate to them somehow. I hated it. I hated the thought that people would make that assumption about me, based solely on one article of clothing that I wore. I saw wearing it as some final failure, like I was giving in to something that I didn’t want to be a part of.
And yes, I won’t deny that some of that came about because many people still view women as a lesser gender then men. I once worked in a job where, as a female, I was told I wouldn’t have to do heavy lifting. The boys will do that. Never mind that I could, and repeatedly went out of my way to prove that I could. Nope, lifting heavy things in a man’s job. Don’t worry my pretty little head over it.
But in fairness, I couldn’t relate to nor understand men any better. If women were fashion-conscious pretty things, then men were agressive sports-freaks, and that wasn’t my thing either. Yes, I gender-stereotyped. And sadly, it took until my mid-20s to come across a decent group of people who didn’t actually fit the majority of those stereotypes. That didn’t exactly help matters.
But ultimately, yes, it comes down to assumptions. But not only assumptions about whether one gender is weaker than the other. Or at least not in my case. Even if females had been seen as completely 100% unequivocally equal to men, I still wouldn’t have been able to relate to females and thus would have been intimidated by them and, in my teenage confusion, lashed out and said that they were stupid and I hated them. And still what I would have meant is that I hated what people assumed about me based on one things that I didn’t choose about myself.
September 19th, 2012 at 9:29 PM
I’ve had an ambivalent relationship with girlyness over the years, but I seem to have found a comfortable way of living now. But I admit that I’m often reluctant to be seen publicly reading a romance. But yeah, a book in which the protag presents herself as an honorary man is one I probably won’t finish.
September 20th, 2012 at 12:11 AM
I don’t dislike ALL women. But as a general rule, I’m more likely to be comfortable around men. It may come from having better experiences with male bosses than female (including the only boss of either gender I’ve ever had whom I truly despise and consider a worthless excuse for a human being having been female). Or with having a generally poor formative experience among other children with the girls being by far nastier than the boys. It has nothing to do with being girly (I can hang with the girly girls–I’m a ballroom dancer, I kind of live girly for my fun stuff and would rather wear dresses and makeup when the situation arises.) Maybe some of it comes from working in kitchens where most staff are male and it’s not a touchy-feely “sensitive” environment-you have to earn respect and carry your load. At times literally. You’re not a girl or a boy on the line, you’re back of house, allied against “them” (management, FOH, servers who screw up your orders, sometimes the dishwashers just because there has to be SOMEONE lower on the food chain.) Maybe it’s being raised by parents who didn’t especially emphasize the stereotypical gender things. I had some dolls, I had LOTS of model horses, but I was certainly never prohibited from playing with cars if I wanted. (I rarely/never did. Now I want to play with REAL cars. Thank you, Top Gear–which, btw, was introduced to me by a male ballroom teacher from Britain. I was staying with him and his girlfriend before a competition, he put Top Gear on, and I was hooked. He never seemed surprised I liked cars, just that I could follow British humor.)
Which kind of brings me to what might really be it–I don’t think I ever really have had a male authority figure (teacher, boss, etc) where I’ve had a really BAD relationship. While female authority figures, it’s almost always combative and extremely frustrating for me. The exceptions are the two times (my first pro cooking job and my latest one) where it was food service and I had a head chef who was a woman. With male bosses or teachers, the expectation has been that I do my work, and excellent work beyond the norm is noted. It’s just much less dramatic than trying to parse out what my female bosses have wanted. Plus there isn’t quite as much ‘social’ pressure being around male bosses or coworkers. We’ll TALK–like at new job, I talk about my old ones–but there’s no expectations that it’s anything important. I don’t actually care about a coworker’s kids or marital problems or vacations, and with female bosses and coworkers there appears to be some sort of expectation I care. I’m constantly being judged on things not relevant to the actual work.
I wouldn’t say I DISLIKE women as a collective, but in my experience, as a general rule, dealing with other women is much more stressful than dealing with men. ESPECIALLY the “modern” woman, where I always have the feeling I’m being judged for not feeling victimized enough. I can see how “I hate girls because they’re all girly” would be trite in fiction, but I can also see female characters who just aren’t into being all “girlfriends” and wouldn’t seek out women actively as friends or feel some odd kind of kinship with everyone who shares the same sex chromosome type.
September 21st, 2012 at 1:20 PM
This is an awesome post. I was going to hop on and write a really eloquent comment agreeing with all of this, but I can’t think of anything that has already been said.
So I’ll say this instead: there is nothing blander or more irritating than an ABBA song at full volume.
September 24th, 2012 at 12:18 AM
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