Overcoming Object Love: How to Write Female Leads Who Are People

My goal in this article isn't to explore the complexity and pitfalls of gender representation. Instead, I want to simplify the issue and teach you how to overcome an insidious (and painfully common) writing disease: Object love.

Sometimes we write characters who are people. Sometimes we write characters who are objects, objectives, or incentives. Even worse are the times when we write characters as objects and fail to recognize that we've done so. We come to praise characters for being such shiny and valuable things. We even love them for being less than human.

While male characters sometimes fall prey to this kind of "object love," the disease affects female characters at a disproportionately high rate, so the portrayal of female characters will be my concern in this article. (For the record, it all applies to men, too.) Rather than trying to guide you through the Gordian knot of cultural factors, value systems, and unspoken consumerist stories that make this sickness so popular and destructive, I'm going to show you how to slice through the issue with a few simple questions.

Yeah. You're asking the wrong question.

Too often, the phrase "strong female character" is used to describe women who are portrayed as fully human. This is problematic for two reasons. First, it's simply inaccurate that "strong" is the same as "human"; a character can simultaneously be powerful and two-dimensional. And second, it points to these female characters as exceptions.

Shannon Hale puts it beautifully when she explains how she answers the question of why she writes strong female leads.

Usually the way I answer the question is to say, 'I think I'm writing realistic female characters.'

But of course no one asks 'why do you write realistic female characters?' because that would be silly. Surely every author seeks to have realistic characters. Why I wince is 'strong females' doesn't seem to be considered synonymous with 'realistic females,' and in my experience, they should be.

And she's not the only one to take issue. Neil Gaiman tackled the question of "strong women" in a BBC interview:

People say, 'Well how do you write such good female characters?' And I go, 'Well I write people.' Approximately half of the people I know are female and they're cool, and they're interesting, and so, why wouldn't I?

In a 2012 interview, George R. R. Martin had the following exchange:

Interviewer: I noticed you write women really well and really different. Where does that come from?

George R. R. Martin: You know … I've always considered women to be people.

And my favorite has to be Joss Whedon's response, as re-told at an Equality Now address:

Interviewer: So, why do you write these strong female characters?

Whedon: Because you’re still asking me that question.

You're picking up on the pattern, right? The writers hailed for their renditions of "strong women" were not trying to make those women strong. They were simply trying to make those women people.

But those aren't people. They're just shiny objects.

It's worth taking a step back and looking at tropes in the portrayal of object love characters that can seem to make them strong or complex. When we're after deep humanization, having a well-developed character is insufficient. A character can be interesting, independent, powerful, filled with all kinds of human emotions, and can still be an object. An attractive, multi-layered, desirable object—but an object nevertheless.

All elevation is a form of alienation. Characters without flaws aren't people.

Sometimes the issue is that the major traits and strengths of the female character in question boil down to physical characteristics that double as sex appeal. If the character is graceful, beautiful, and able to fearlessly pursue what she wants, you're not describing a well-rounded human. You're describing the female lead for a porn flick.

The most well-intentioned objectification I see comes in the form of praise. Women are portrayed as so extravagantly beautiful, mysterious, and amazing that they cease to be human. If the women being written are being worshipped, they are not being humanized. All elevation is a form of alienation. Characters without flaws aren't people.

Does this mean that such objectifying praise (both in the directly sexual and the more subtle forms of elevating alienation) will receive a negative response?

Well, no. Not necessarily. Even savvy female readers may like the idealized woman. But rather than looking at the thumbs up or thumbs down you receive, look at the points of reference your readers have. If readers already anticipate that female characters will be portrayed as objects, what's preferable? To see them represented as low-value objects or high-value objects?

We can do better than that. We have to.

A quick note on the broader context.

With the zoom lens going right in on the character, you're likely to miss the real source of the objectification.

Oddly enough, with the zoom lens going right in on the character, you're likely to miss the real source of the objectification or humanization. The questions that need to be asked look at the context of the character's actions, origins, and outcomes in the story itself. But before sharing some of those questions, let me make a few notes about the broader cultural context we're reading in.

It is not only possible but necessary that some female characters should "fail the test" for some of the questions I'm about to give you. For example, a woman could remain deeply human while feeling insecure about who they are and discovering their self-definition thanks to the actions of a man. She could be trapped and unable to escape without the help of a man. She could be the lone female friend of a male character. If any of these happened as the exception to the rule, they could be just fine.

The problem is, as long as these tropes remain the norm, there can't be any exceptions. And that means that it's almost impossible to legitimately call any use of these tropes okay just because it works well for the story in question. The problem isn't the answer itself but the pattern of answers, and as long as these norms continue, each story must answer to them—either by denying or reinforcing the pattern.

And now for some better questions.

Okay. Enough preamble. Here are questions to keep asking yourself as you create female characters.

Whose story is being told?

It would be nice if women took on the central role 50% of the time, but this question still applies when your protagonist has a Y chromosome. Every character you bring on stage should be the protagonist of their own story, even if it's not the one you're actively telling—and that's doubly true for female leads who take on a romantic role.

When the female character or characters are explored only to the extent that they play into the male protagonist's plot, their lives are being used as building blocks for the men around them. And just so we're clear, blocks are objects

What roles do other women play in the story?

If you have only one woman in your story, you may have a problem. The Bechdel Test, invented for film, can easily apply here. It asks three simple questions. First, are there at least two female characters who have names? Second, do they talk to each other at some point? Third, do they talk about something besides a male character?

By having a single well-developed woman amidst a sea of objects, you're relegating her to the role of token. Yeah. Tokens are objects.

Where does the woman get her power?

I would hope you don't need me to explain why it's an issue when women have no power in your story. But power can also come from sources that objectify the female character. Is sex appeal the only source of strength? Playing into the whimsically unrealistic spontaneity of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl?

In other words, do the roles that empower the woman simultaneously portray her as a resource intended for the physical or emotional gratification of male characters? If so, don't confuse her for a fully developed character. Powerful objects are still objects.

Who defines the woman?

Who defines the female character? Is she self-defined or does she have her importance bestowed upon her by a man? These acts of definition can be subtle and difficult to identify, but you can often spot them by asking yourself what the woman's identity would look like if all the male characters around her suddenly vanished.

The other day, I found myself discussing sexism in Dr. Who with my father (as one does). We talked about Moffat's writing, and I explained why the pattern of female identity was so distressing. In Sherlock, "The Woman" gets all her power from sex appeal and is ultimately "Sherlocked." In the Matt Smith era of Dr. Who, Amy Pond starts as a kiss-a-gram, works her way to being a model, has a forced pregnancy, and has a life revolving around her relationships with the two male leads of that ensemble. But the pattern took on its most distressing and explicit form when the series seven finale had the following exchange:

Clara Oswin Oswald: I don't even know who I am!

The Doctor: You're my impossible girl.

As long as the woman needs the man to tell her who she is or receives her identity entirely through how she connects with a man, she is not her own character. She is a mere extension of the men around her. She is a byproduct rather than a person.

Why do these questions matter?

Why is it so important to write characters as people? Quite simply, stories create the lives and roles we inhabit—and there are questions about those lives that still need to be answered. In a world where we're trapped in roles and consumerist cycles that objectify all of us, how do we connect? How do we build lives for one another? How do we survive at all? 

My answer is: We can't. So it's time we start building ourselves a better world.

Robbie Blair

Column by Robbie Blair

Robbie Blair is a world-wandering author and poet who blogs about his adventures, the writing craft, and more. He was doomed to write when, at just three years old, his English-professor father taught him the "To be or not to be" soliloquy. Robbie has since published more than a dozen creative pieces in literary journals (including Touchstones, Enormous Rooms, Warp + Weave, and V Magazine). Robbie Blair's website is loaded with travel narratives; original creative work;  writerly humor; pretty pictures; writing games, lessons, tips, and exercises; and other uber-nifty™ content.

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Comments

Thuggish's picture
Thuggish from Vegas is reading Day of the Jackal February 5, 2014 - 4:32pm

Here's something about this- often times, in life, in story, women are at the mercy of men.  Women are used by men, or supplementary to a man's action.  So are other men, as it happens, but if it's man using man we're okay with it, as opposed to man using woman. Apparently.  Woman using man is far less common in real life, why wouldn't fiction also be this way?  But when it is, it's also okay.  Apparently.

So, then, it's entirely realistic to, say, fail the Bechdel test, is it not?  Especially in certain genres/circles/worlds/etc.  Do we want our stories to make social statements, or to read realistic?  I choose the latter.

And, while I'm on my soapbox, I dare say that sex appeal is one of the biggest forms of power for a woman in a tremendous number of situations.  Is rejection by women not one of the hardest things for a man to endure?  Is it not a powerful way to manipulate a man?  Do we men not generally like attractive women, even if they're bad people, because they're attractive?  

One more idea to chew on- what if it turns out, when we look at it objectively, that men tend to do things that are more interesting than women?  So we have 2- or 3-dimensional men doing things (let's say, running around shooting guns at one another for the simple example), and women are ancillaries to this.  An ancilliary is defined as NECESSARY to SUPPORT the main function.  So it turns out there aren't a lot of violent girls shooting guns like there are men.  Am I so sexist if I say, forget Bechdel, I say, so be it.  Money-penny (whatever her name was?) served as Bond's love interest in Casino Royal, let it be.

When it comes to a fully developed character- which is all I want- I don't mind if a woman is objectified or defined by men or their actions.  I don't mind if she isn't, either.  I only want her to read realistically to me, because I hate phony.  Same goes for male characters, by the way.

Robbie Blair's picture
Robbie Blair from lots of places is reading a whole stack of books February 5, 2014 - 5:41pm

Hey Thuggish.

You raise some good points. There are really two conversations to have here.

First, should we view writing as social activism? Should we build roles in an attempt to shape or reflect the world around us? I don't think there's an uncomplicated answer. You take a work like Lolita, for instance. It's a powerful reflection of hebephilia in the world. It doesn't portray it as evil. Not exactly. So where does that leave us?

When we encounter damaging roles in society that women model themselves after, do we try to portray women within the confines of those roles? Or do we try to re-shape the roles? Give them nuance? It's certainly true that the Manic Pixie Dream Girl or the submissive partner are real roles in society that women sometimes adopt (or at least seek to adopt). Recommended reading here is Laurie Penny's "I Was a Manic Pixie Dream Girl."

So it's easy to say that we should simply write the world as it is rather than as we want it to be. They both have value (realism and active response to the world around us). But I think using historical hindsight is a good way to re-imagine our perspective on the present.

Back in the age of slavery and the era right after the U.S. Civil War, was it good for writers to portray black people as unintelligent? That was the perspective of the time. And it's not hard to see why. Black people were forbidden from having the educational resources that whites had. They were economically disadvantged (to say the least).

And this distinction between "uneducated" and "unintelligent" leads to this. Second, are women in the real world "objects" in the sense that I've outlined here? And my argument is absolutely not. Sometimes, yes, but as the exception---not the rule. And that's the problem. The portrayal in media holds the reverse to be true.

In the real world, it is not that women are inherently submissive, inactive, or empowered by sexual self-objectification. These are parts of the social constructs that women must then answer to. The life of a woman attempting to live that fiction is far more complex than the fiction itself. The negative consequences of trying to embody those roles will manifest in both visible and unspoken ways.

In other words, a woman who is simplified to the role of object is generally unrealistic. As I note, it could be realistic if it happened as the exception, but the unrealistic element here is not the response but the pattern. Maybe an individual writer isn't responsible for breaking the pattern with their work, but if individuals don't take that responsibility ... who does?

SammyB's picture
SammyB from Las Vegas is reading currently too many to list February 5, 2014 - 8:42pm

Do men do things that are more interesting than women? Shooting guns and blowing shit up is not inherently interesting. It also doesn't make him strong or more multi-dimensional as a character. A character's  worth is often determined by which sex organ they have. There is a fine line to walk too. Much of what we do, as people in general, is determined by our interactions with others and how those people treat/view us. Characters are the same way. You can certainly argue that male characters are turned into objects in many romance novels. Most of them have a gleaming six-pack, perfect hair, and a sexy smile. They rarely have any real interests aside from their female lead and having sex with her. But the same happens in action novels too. Aside from shooting guns, blowing shit up, and having wild animal sex, what do they do? Sometimes they drink beer or hard liquor with their buddies. Sometimes they beat the hell out of each other.

I just don't know.

Oh, and I agree about Doctor Who. The recent companions have been... meh. Can we talk about Donna for a moment? She was probably one of the best companions on DW. She was fiesty, independent, and chose to hang out with The Doctor because she liked the adventure and enjoyed his friendship. There was never a romantic vibe between them and what happens to her? Donna had her freaking memory erased and all of her potential taken away. Her lust for adventure was gone, along with her independence, and she became a boring little wife. To say I'm bitter would be an understatement.

Sanbai's picture
Sanbai from the Midwest is reading The War of Art February 5, 2014 - 10:16pm

I'm with Robbie here, Thuggish. By insisting that "realistic" is repeating the fiction that society gives women and they try to fit themselves into, is not "realistic". No woman will ever be the perfect creature society craves her to be. Even a 6 foot model with smoking looks and laughing blonde locks drops an hour-long deauce in a public bathroom sometimes. She'll call her step-mom over her agent that day, clip a mirror off a parked car on her way home from the law firm, buy Grey Goose intead of Arbor Mist at the gas station and be too sick the next morning to go and wait outside of the home where her Epic Male Lead is About to Begin His Journey. 

And your statement : "When it comes to a fully developed character- which is all I want- I don't mind if a woman is objectified or defined by men or their actions." That's... did you read that before you hit submit? Objects are not "realistic"! And yet you say "Do we want our stories to make social statements, or to read realistic?  I choose the latter." Well, um no, you just admited that you don't like realistic and you do indeed like objects. That have nice female parts. 

Well, it's not to say writing that stuff won't sell - it will! Very well in fact! It just won't look very different from the other dusty old tropes we're so used to seeing.

Benjamin Joseph's picture
Benjamin Joseph from Southern U.S. is reading Knockemstiff February 6, 2014 - 4:57am

I like these articles, mainly because the novel I'm writing features a female protagonist in a somewhat lawless/bleak future landscape. Now, the easiest trap to fall into is to make her "tough, aloof, and independant" in order to render her as a strong, real female. But many women, like many men (like myself) are NOT tough, aloof or particularly independant.

I like to picture this generalized object of my female protagonist and then ask questions that challenge my notions of her. For instance, if my mental picture of her is some generically gorgeous badass with no interest in romance who only serves to kick ass and be cool, then I like to ask myself: What if she isn't pretty? What if she experiences a constant fear of rejection and insecurity about her looks (the way a lot of real people do)? What if she really does want a romantic connection? If she doesn't, why? What if she's not a badass. What if she's terrified? What could she do to overcome her fears and insecurities? What if she never does?

What may seem like just a mass of questions helps reveal a character to me. There's nothing I hate more that characters who fit into a mold. Sometimes if the answer to one of these questions subverts the picture in my head, I know that maybe it's something I should explore so that my character doesn't end up being what I want her to be, but rather what she is: a multidimensional, flawed, human being.

Dwayne's picture
Dwayne from Cincinnati, Ohio (suburbs) is reading books that rotate to often to keep this updated February 6, 2014 - 8:41am

@Robbie - Most times I like your writing, but this just misses a few things. 

First a lot of this is just bad writing in a generalized form.  It isn't sexism when the women, men, children of both genders, hermaphrodites, robots, aliens, and mystical creatures are all just horribly written.

Also, it almost seems like you are implying you can't write about a woman who is flawed or heroic without it being off.  And I think people have a point on the strong women question.  If Joss Whedon wanted realistic women he'd write some weak willed pathetic ones in, some normal work a day ladies, and some heroic ones.  A lot of writers seem bound and determined to have every lady be "AWESOME PROOF THAT SEXISM IS BAD!" and it just doesn't work.

@Thuggish - The Bechdel test is a rough tool.  If you have a novella about a man alone in the tundra trying not to freeze to death it doesn't really fit, but if you have 6 books about a large cast something besides men should come up at some point between two or more women. Then again, you could pass the test and still have a book that could summed up "Sexism is good".  

@SammiB -

Shooting guns and blowing shit up is not inherently interesting. It also doesn't make him strong or more multi-dimensional as a character.

Have you ever shoot a gun or blown something up?  I'm not being flip, just wondering, because I don't see how someone could not consider that interesting.  Sometimes horrible, but someone with a deadly weapon should get your attention.

@Sanbai - 

Thuggish said,

When it comes to a fully developed character- which is all I want- I don't mind if a woman is objectified or defined by men or their actions.  I don't mind if she isn't, either.  I only want her to read realistically to me, because I hate phony.

Not that he wants women to read like objects.  He has a point.  If you want a realism in your fiction, women are often objectified in real life. Some seem to seek it out. 

Thuggish's picture
Thuggish from Vegas is reading Day of the Jackal February 6, 2014 - 8:58am

For the record, I have blown things up, nothing alive, and it was fun.  Tannerite.  I recommend it.  Also, just because something is interesting doesn't mean it's good.  The Great Depression is very interesting, but I'd rather not go through it.  Supposedly it's an old Chinese curse to say "may you live in interesting times."

Also, I think we're in more agreement than it initially sounds here.  Dwayne accurately points out that women are objectified all the time, and many seek it out.  (Does that really make them nothing more than objects, by the way?)  But those who don't want to be objectified may still be.  Those who want independence may still be under the thumb of a man.  Those who are independent may still yearn for sex appeal.  People are complicated, mixed bags.  

None of this means that you can't have a great female lead with any traits you choose to give her.  (Hunger Games, anyone?)  But I don't think one should be compelled to, either.

Anyway, I maintain that it's not necessarily a bad thing to have women who act as objects for a story, any more than it is to have male characters doing the same.  I concede that in many cases it makes things much more interesting to have a female character who is complicated, three-dimensional, etc. etc. etc.  She can be vulnerable and downtrodden, she can be independent and strong, she can be somewhere, maybe oscillating, in the middle.  BBC's series Rome comes to mind.  But here's my ultimate point (I think): even if her environment makes her the object of men, or an object in men's actions that move the story along, it doesn't necessarily make her an object; and having one as an object isn't necessarily a bad thing.

Maybe the answer is to acknowledge that women can be objects to a story, or to us, (just like men, remember), but they aren't always objects.

SammyB's picture
SammyB from Las Vegas is reading currently too many to list February 6, 2014 - 10:21am

@Dwayne - Yes, I have. My two brothers and I grew up in a fishing, hunting, outdoorsy family. We lived on a property where our backyard was the woods. I learned how to shoot a gun almost as soon as I could walk. My oldest brother was in the Navy and I hang out with a lot of people in the military, so I get it. People do those things for work or for protection, etc.  My statement was more directed toward action movies/books, and Thuggish's comment that implied women are not interesting because they don't generally do "cool things" like shoot and blow things up. Characters can be flat and boring, even if you give them something to do in way of violent action.

 

I'm not sure if that clarifies what I was talking about. Lately, I feel like I can't seem to put my thoughts into the correct words to express what I mean.

Buckymook's picture
Buckymook February 6, 2014 - 2:29pm

@Dwayne, 'If you want a realism in your fiction, women are often objectified in real life.' That's true, but it doesn't mean the woman herself is an object. Take George R. R. Martin's 'A Storm of Swords' - Dany is constantly (and realistically) objectified by the men around her, yet she endures being objectified and steps out on top. She is a complex character full of doubts and fears, desires and ambition. She is not an object, but she is objectified. But for Dany, it is just another of her strengths.

 

P.S. I'm new here and not sure if this how it goes but I really enjoyed the article and loved the intellectual discussion thread afterwards...

Dwayne's picture
Dwayne from Cincinnati, Ohio (suburbs) is reading books that rotate to often to keep this updated February 6, 2014 - 4:16pm

@SammyB - And he has a point, in that things that many events that get your attention instantly are (mostly) cut off from women.  It may not be fair, but it is what happens.  You can have a boring, flat character doing interesting things, sure, but it is much harder.

@Buckymook - And in a large 3rd person narrated series you see that.  If it was a single book from 1st person from a male point of view I don't think we would, or at least it would often seem fake or forced.

sean of the dead's picture
sean of the dead from Madisonville, KY is reading Peckerwood, by Jed Ayres February 7, 2014 - 7:18am

I think I've seen about a hundred articles by now about how to help men write realistic women characters in their stories. 90% or more have been written by men (no offense, Robbie; this post is in no way meant to criticize your article). And nearly every one has a bunch of men throwing in their two cents about how this part is wrong, and this part is exaggerated, and this part is irrelevant, etc... And then a female will add in her opinion, you know, one derived from ACTUAL LIFE EXPERIENCE, and she will also be debated.

I think the fact that all of this happens, the over-abundance of articles, the debates afterward (nothing wrong with debates, of course), the entire scenario, is telling in and of itself.

Maybe men just need to pay attention to women in their real lives a little better. We all have someone in our life that is not a man, don't we? A mother, sister, daughter, girlfriend, wife, grandmother, aunt, cousin, friend, co-worker, ex-, neighbor, waitress you drool over at the restaurant by your house...whatever. The point is, we all know women. Why is it that "we" can't write them? We don't need class after class, article after article, telling us how to write men, do we? Why not?

It just kind of seems like if we all paid a little closer attention to people in our REAL lives (not the characters on tv or in books, because they aren't real and, depending on what we're watching or reading, may not be written or developed very well) we wouldn't need to constantly debates topics like these.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I've got to run off to my Feminism 101 class, taught by Joss Whedon, Kevin Smith, and Quentin Tarantino.

Dwayne's picture
Dwayne from Cincinnati, Ohio (suburbs) is reading books that rotate to often to keep this updated February 7, 2014 - 9:04am

Sean, the only time I've seriously been told I was a sexist* was when I showed some of my writing that portrayed women in a similar to real women I respect.  Tough, good women working horrible, demeaning jobs.  They had pride in workman ship (no pun intended).  The men in their lives weren't much help at the time, and they didn't have better choices as much from lack of education and social standing as gender, maybe more so.  

It breaks my heart that some of the best women I've known spent years literally cleaning other peoples crap.  That kind of work was a big part of how Ma took care of me when I was young, and she wasn't the only women spent that money on me.  But if you show that kind of woman, especially in a positive light that respects the sacrifice, many people don't take well to it.

So yeah, I'll write about women I respect because you know, forget them, but it ain't as simple as 'write about real women you know and care for'.

*EDIT: Probably not what you are thinking about you silly rabbit!

sean of the dead's picture
sean of the dead from Madisonville, KY is reading Peckerwood, by Jed Ayres February 7, 2014 - 8:36am

@Dwayne...did you say in your story that, in your opinion, these women didn't deserve more because they are women? Or that it was their "place?" Or did you constantly call them derogatory names?

If so, then yeah, maybe you're a sexist.

If not, then I don't believe you were being sexist at all, and the people who said you were may have been mistaken. If I write a story with a character that is a homophobe, that doesn't make me a homophobe. That is the character in the story. So just because you wrote a woman in a demeaning job doesn't make you a woman-hater. 

And no, it's not as simple as "write about real women you know and care for," but I do believe that if we all just pay attention to each other, we can pick up on details of how we each think and deal with obstacles and react to different things and show emotions.

I think the other thing we could all do is just be honest and stop thinking we are so damn cool and just ASK. If I was writing a story, and I got through a chapter and re-read it and worried that maybe I was writing a female character wrong, maybe I could just ask my wife or a friend, "Hey, I have this part in a chapter, where a female character does and I was wondering, does this seem like an appropriate reaction/response?" There is no harm in that.

 

Dwayne's picture
Dwayne from Cincinnati, Ohio (suburbs) is reading books that rotate to often to keep this updated February 7, 2014 - 9:04am

did you say in your story that, in your opinion, these women didn't deserve more because they are women? Or that it was their "place?" Or did you constantly call them derogatory names?

No, because I'm not a character in my own story.  Am I in Bizzaro world that I have to say this, but I think that you can have a little subtlety in a story, even on touchy subjects, without it being prejudice?  Do I really have to come out with a footnote in my story that women are people?  Does the main character have to talk about how bad he feels about them being treated that way?  

I think the other thing we could all do is just be honest and stop thinking we are so damn cool and just ASK. If I was writing a story, and I got through a chapter and re-read it and worried that maybe I was writing a female character wrong, maybe I could just ask my wife or a friend, "Hey, I have this part in a chapter, where a female character does X and I was wondering, does this seem like an appropriate reaction/response?" There is no harm in that.

Umm... Not to be smart, but isn't that what the workshop is for?

Thuggish's picture
Thuggish from Vegas is reading Day of the Jackal February 7, 2014 - 9:15am

@Sammy-

I did not mean to imply that women don't do cool things, or interesting things.  I don't want anyone to think that.  My point, rather, was that in many- maybe the majority of- cases, the interesting things in fiction (at least to me, a guy) are dominated by guys.  I was watching The Town the other day (good movie, Ben Afflec, who'da thunk?), and it's a great example of what I'm talking about.  There are about five major characters, a few more minors.  Two of them are female, both could easily be argued to be objects of the story- and of the men in the story- because they're being used the whole time by men, or having their paths dictated by the actions of men.  But that's how the story goes, and it makes sense to do it that way.  It only makes sense to do it that way in this case.  After all, it's a movie about bank robbers (an "interesting subject").  Realistically, bank robbers tend to be guys.  The FBI agents chasing them tend to be guys.  Even the criminal Irish mob bosses they answer to- exclusively guys.  They also tend to be the kinds of guys who will use people- men and women alike- to get what they're after if necessary.

What I cringe to think about is the *forcing* of a female character into a role where she doesn't belong, just to have a "strong, independent" (or whatever) woman in the story.  It's fiction's equivalent of promoting a woman into a position in some business she's less qualified for than a man up for the position, just to have a woman somewhere higher on the ladder.  (Which I am obliged to say is just as bad as promoting a man over a woman because he's a man and not a woman.)

 

SammyB's picture
SammyB from Las Vegas is reading currently too many to list February 7, 2014 - 5:16pm

I catch your drift, Thuggish.

Oh, and I just noticed that you and I are both from Vegas. Have you ever noticed that the treatment and representation of women in this town is pure objectification? It drives me absolutely insane. However, I know quite a few feminists/independent women in this town who are strippers with a MA/PhD. They work in a club because they make more money and some enjoy the job itself. That role (a stripper), in fiction, is often used to objectify women. However, I wonder if it is possible to represent a well rounded, fully fleshed out character who happens to be a stripper and not be told that she is merely an object/being objectified/a poor representation of women. Anyway, sorry, that just popped into my head.

Thuggish's picture
Thuggish from Vegas is reading Day of the Jackal February 10, 2014 - 2:40pm

Meh, it's pure objectification on the strip, maybe, but most of the city is disconnected from the "Vegas, baby" that the rest of the country visits.  Casinos are nothing more than part of the landscape waaaay over there.

Personally, it doesn't bother me to objectify, or more spefically, see someone being objectified, especially in that context.  It's not as glaring, but it also happens to men, and I still don't care.  Girls want to show off their bodies and be drooled over, so be it.  Guys want to throw money around to get those girls' attention, so be it.  Someone else doesn't want to participate in either, so be it.

I guess the way I see that is by admitting the dirty little secret, which can be found on Maslow's heirarchy of needs- intimacy is level three, family, friendships...  achievement and all that is way up at four, but good ol' sex (i.e. humping and getting off) is at the bottom, alongside food, shelter, and breathing.  It's foundational.  Myself as an example, I love women, I love my wife, for all sorts of deep reasons.  But sometimes (lots of times) I just want to oggle, grope, and get off.  We're all like this, at least I recognize/admit it.

I think you're on to something interesting when you want to make a story about someone who's a stripper but not JUST a stripper within the story.  The reason it's so interesting is that in many ways she is an object, but in others she isn't.  I like dichotomy.  I think it's one of the most real ways to portray people.