The other half of the species
*NOTE – There are mild spoilers for The Avengers ahead, as well as some trademark ramblings. Go forward at your peril*
That’s a hell of way to start a thought, but not an uncommon one, I suspect. Said thought, or rather, line of thinking, was kicked into being by Juliet E. McKenna’s blog post on the portrayal of women in The Avengers; particularly, the strong, self-defined characters of Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow and Cobie Smulder’s Maria Hill.
Being of nerdly persuasion, I have of course seen The Avengers (twice…). While I’m not going to review it, I will say that I think that if you want to see what a great comic book looks like thrown up on a cinema screen, drop what you are doing and go see it now. The opening twenty minutes are not as good as they ought to be, but the dialogue is predictably sharp, the performances are excellent (Mark Ruffalo in particular is coming in for a lot of accolades, and rightly so), and the final third is a comic book fanboy / action fan’s greatest dreams come true. I mean really, its worth the price of admission for the various “Who would win in a fight between…” match-ups that this film could never have avoided, and gladly embraces.
Anyway, enough about my gushing praise for Joss Whedon’s creation, this is about navel-gazing.
Juliet E. McKenna’s post highlights the excellent treatment of the two women of the film (Pepper Potts also gets a look-in early on); they are strong, defined by their own actions and motivators rather than by their relationships with the men around them, and thoroughly capable of getting themselves out of trouble – no fear of any wailing damsels here.
And that is how is should be – we are talking about the Black Widow and Maria Hill here, two characters defined by their strength of character.
Scarlet Johansson’s performance is particularly good (the star, for me, after Mark Ruffalo), clearly revelling in a script which allowed her to be both strong and vulnerable. Cobie Smulder doesn’t really have anything to do in the film, if I’m honest, but in a film with this cast and these characters, some people were going to be pushed to the sidelines.
What does this have to do with me, I hear you ask? Well, Ms. McKenna’s post got me thinking about my own portrayal of women, both in what I’ve already written and what is to come.
I like to think that I am the product of what the various civil rights and equality movements of the last hundred years have been pushing towards – I honestly don’t harbour any feelings of inequality to anyone of differing gender or racial background. People are people, and are judged on an individual basis. [In all honesty, I reserve the flames of my strongest hatred for those that apply a label to an entire section of society who happen to share a single feature.] Whether this comes across or not is a different matter entirely, but its certainly true for the conscious part of my being.
I have already reflected, to myself, on the fact that my first piece of published fiction featured a female protagonist and POV. It was surprising insofar as everything else I’ve written has been from a male POV, but no more so.
Budapest Will Burn‘s protagonist, Anne-Cathleen, is not the type of woman Juliet E. McKenna is congratulating Joss Whedon on bringing to the screen. Her actions and behaviour throughout the story are defined by her relationships with men – even her great act of defiance and individuality took her from the hand of one man to another. The story is largely one of Anne-Cathleen’s disillusionment with the men she associates herself with, and the malaise that sets in as a result of finding herself alone, unable to trust anyone. It is a story of her struggling for agency, but never attaining it.
Does that make me a mysoginist?
Well, I certainly bloody hope not. I wrote Anne-Cathleen the way she is because that is the story I wanted to tell, and because (like it or not, and I happen to not at all) there are people out there, men and women, who suffer from the same dependency problems as she does. Some people are not strong, some people are not determined and some people get caught up in events larger than themselves and lurch from one certainty to another.
I have plans for Anne-Cathleen. They are not nice plans, because who ever heard of being nice to one’s characters? But through all the changes, all the heart-rending events that will befall her, she is never going to end up as a feminist’s ideal woman, because that is simply not who she is.
Should I be castigated for writing her as such?
Again, I hope not. Not all characters can be the self-actualising, self-determining, independent ideals we would like them to be, because not everybody in real life matches up to these ideals. Hell, not very many of us do; I surely don’t. Is not the key to writing great characters to make them believable, flawed like you and I?
I’ve once more hit that point in my writing stream of conscious that I’m off the beaten track and well into rambling territory. My apologies. I really ought to plan these things out first.
Anyway, the point of all this is thus: I shall not apologise for writing woman who are co-dependent and weak. I shan’t apologise for writing men like that either. Each character, like each and every person on this earth, is their own person. I feel no obligation to portray the female sex as strong, vibrant and independent; I feel an obligation to the story to fill it with interesting, believable characters, some of whom (like some people in this world) will not be role models, or even particularly good people.
PS: Just to be clear, no one was asking me to apologise – that came off as a somewhat defensive end to this post.