The Unlikeables: Unlikeability in Male vs Female Characters

| Wednesday, September 18, 2013

When you're perusing online YA book reviews, as many of us are wont to do, you'll often notice a whole lot of contradictions in the way people view girl protagonists. A whole lot of people have written about how girl characters just can't win, no matter what they do.

It certainly seems that regardless of personality, characteristics, strengths, weaknesses, actions, inaction, or otherwise, there are always a few things you can expect to find within any batch of reviews. First and foremost, accusations of being a Mary Sue. It doesn't really matter if the character is too perfect for words or completely imperfect in every way, someone will accuse her of being a Mary Sue. It's like the Godwin's Law of YA. The Mary Sue Law, perhaps?

Other accusations one can expect to find for practically any female protagonist? Weak, boring, bratty, bitchy, limp noodle, pathetic, obsessed, selfish, wishy-washy... the list goes on, but you get the gist. The common theme is that there is always something wrong with her. She's never good enough.

And that's the MAIN CHARACTER. The "good" girl. The one we're supposed to root for. It's not even TOUCHING on lady villains.

Lady villains, man. Not even pure villains... any woman who detracts from a man's story. You've hardly ever seen a group so loathed. Especially when they're getting in the way of the shippers. Woe be the woman who steps between a non-canon m/m slash ship. And if they're cruel, calculating, clever murderesses? HOO BOY. Never mind that mean, nasty, angry asshole boy/men characters are often lauded as *sassy* and *wounded* and *sexyyyyyyyy.*

Why is it, exactly, that unlikeability in men is revered (they're sometimes called ANTI-HEROES, for crap's sake) while unlikeability in women is met with derision? People are ECSTATIC when a "bad" lady character bites it. They LAMENT when an equally awful dude gets the axe. And writers often indulge this preference, subconsciously or not.

I witnessed a recent example of this in the Teen Wolf fandom at the close of the last season. Major spoilers for all three seasons ahead! You've been warned!

omg so sassy!

If you're unfamiliar with the show, let's do a quick rundown of the season's antagonists.

1.) Peter (man) - Alpha werewolf; sire of the protagonist for purposes of building his own strength; murderer of previous alpha, who happened to be his niece/fan favorite's sister. Dies via fire/throat slashed, then is resurrected in perfect health and allowed to rejoin the "good guys." Continues to manipulate everyone for his own gain.

2.) Kate (woman) - Female MC's aunt. Hunter. Manipulative murderess who seduced a fan favorite and then murdered his entire family via arson because all werewolves = bad. Dies via slashed throat, stays dead.

3.) Gerard (man) - Female MC's grandfather. Hunter. Manipulates another character/supernatural being to commit several murders in order to ultimately manipulate the werewolves into biting him so he can survive his terminal cancer. Betrays his family, tortures and murders characters in cold blood, is generally horrible. Suffers a supernatural sickness... which he survives, in addition to the aforementioned TERMINAL CANCER. Remains alive, albeit under constant care.

4.) Victoria (woman) - Female MC's mother. Hunter and "decision maker" for her clan/family. Tries to kill male MC out of misplaced desire to "protect" her daughter + bias against werewolves. Is bitten and dies via assisted suicide rather than turn. Remains dead, occasionally appears in visions/flashbacks.

5.) Deucalion (man) - Alpha werewolf. Blinded by Gerard after failed peace negotiations (Gerard's fault), becomes vengeful. Murders his entire pack for power, inspires others to do the same. Is not above murder to further his own ends. Makes multiple attempts on the lives of our heroes and manipulates them for his own gain. Is defeated, but not before having his sight magically restored by the female villain. Is allowed not only to live, but is released to his own devices to "think about who he used to be."

6.) Jennifer (woman) - Druid gone bad. Was brutally assaulted, disfigured, and nearly killed by someone she considered a friend. Becomes vengeful. Proceeded to murder innocents in an attempt to seek revenge. Makes attempts on the lives of our heroes and their loved ones. Dies by having her throat slashed... twice. Remains dead.

Weird pattern arising here, right? I'm not even getting to other minor "bad" characters, where again a woman of color was killed and remains dead (Kali), but two of the white male "bad guys" appeared dead but then came back (Aiden and Ethan). I do want to note that the character Ethan is also gay, so I'm less bothered by this... although a show lauded as so LGBT-friendly still killed off a lesbian earlier in the season.

Hm. Hmmmmmm.

It's like... male villains tend to live while EVERY. SINGLE. FEMALE. VILLAIN. DIES. Even the male villains that DID die are somehow given a second shot through resurrection or MAGICAL HEALING.

This is not a mistake. It's not a single skewed example. There have literally been SIX "primary" antagonists, split evenly between the genders, and every single "evil" woman died while every single "evil" man lived.

The reaction in the fandom is even more troubling. If you even begin to scratch the surface, you'll find fans REJOICING at the deaths of these female characters. They deserved it! They were so awful! Bitch got what was coming to her!


Meanwhile, the male characters (particularly Peter and Deucalion) are completely excused of any wrongdoing because they are so *sassy* and *sexy*. Give a dude villain some sarcastic one-liners, tragic backstory, or a few deadpan eye rolls and he becomes a fan favorite no matter what he does.

I doubt I have to even tell you my theory for why this happens, but I'll do it anyway: women, in general, are socially confined to a very strict set of behaviors and expectations. If they put a toe out of line, they become stigmatized (brat, bitch, selfish, slut). If they DON'T put a toe out of line, people still find a way to stigmatize them (boring, stupid, pathetic, weak). Women are considered Strong Female Characters if their "strength" is suitably masculine -- physically strong, fighter, acts like a bro, all without sacrificing her (heterosexual) sexuality and attractiveness (to men). If their strength is derived from emotional intelligence, compassion, or vulnerability, then they are not "strong." See: recent criticism of Mako from Pacific Rim for not being "feminist enough" because she... cries and respects her father figure and isn't perfect at her new job immediately. Despite the fact the she is THE key player in SAVING THE WORLD. Even Buffy freakin' Summers is referred to as "whiny" when she's being all... ugh... emotional.

That's a complicated mess right there. Even mainstream (white cislady) feminism demands perfection and lack of emotion from their heroines.

On the flip side, naturally, men are excused for asshole behavior because 1) we are simply taught that men are more valuable in general, and 2) behavior that would be considered "bitchy" or "psycho" or "slutty" in a woman is applauded in men. He's clever! He doesn't put up with anyone's shit! He's assertive! Even manipulative bastards are considered "charming" instead of horrible. He knows just what to say to get everyone to do what he wants! What a charmer!

Over and over again, we see male villains (or so-called "anti-heros") lie, cheat, steal, murder, torture, rape, use, belittle, crush, and manipulate. They can do it for power, for revenge, for lust, for pride, or for giggles. Doesn't matter. In the end, they are still awesome and sassy and fun to watch.

Women who do any of the above -- even women who don't -- deserve to die and stay dead because no one wants to hear their stupid mouth. See: the fandom's reactions to Walter White (super awesome badass anti-hero!!!!) and Skyler White (bitch! bitch! weak bitch! KILL HER OFF!) from Breaking Bad.

This goes even deeper. In literature, it's considered significant, deep, and well-drawn to create an unlikeable protagonist... as long as it's a man. Lolita, anyone? Very few would confess to actually liking Humbert Humbert because the dude is intentionally a creep and literal pedophile, but they respect the construction of the character and the creation of the work. You don't hear about woman characters who receive the same level of respect. Any woman who gets in the way of a man's story is horrible and needs to die, any woman who doesn't fit Western society's idea of womanhood is horrible and needs to die, any woman who stands up against a villainous (but so charming!!!) man should probably die, too.

I'm not saying anything that hasn't been said before, but I always think it's worth reminding people to really sit down and explore their "preferences" for male characters over female characters. Why do you just ADORE this tortured, angry man, but you can't stand this tortured, angry woman? Why can you forgive this guy for being a literal rapist and murderer because he's got awesome style, but this woman who dared to use someone for her own gain deserves to die a million deaths?

Do you have thoughts to share, readers? I love thoughts!

Disability in Kidlit: An Interview With Corinne Duyvis

| Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Photo by Maija Haavisto
I have a special treat today, dudes :)

Everyone, please welcome Corinne Duyvis to the blog. Corinne is one of the co-founders of Disability in Kidlit. Her debut YA novel, OTHERBOUND, will be released in 2014. Hi, Corinne!

We're here to discuss Disability in Kidlit, which is a fantastic project in the vein of Diversity in YA. Both blogs highlight communities that lack appropriate representation in the YA and Kidlit spheres, and feature content and books created by the community members themselves.

Corinne, would you share your motivation for helping co-create this project?

Hi Steph! So glad to be here.

I had honestly never thought about starting a project like this; the closest I came was planning an Autism Awareness Month project for April, which would’ve featured similar kinds of content from fellow autistic people. That project never came to fruition, partially because of deadlines, partially because, before I could reach out to potential contributors, Kody Keplinger contacted me about creating a disability-themed Tumblr together.

We’d previously discussed disability issues, both in terms of how disability is often portrayed (when it’s portrayed at all!), and in terms of real-life interactions. I jumped on the idea, and we set some guidelines and discussed the format it would take. I’m really happy with how Disability in Kidlit has turned out; more and more people are interested in the conversation around diversity that’s been happening in kidlit these past few years, and I think it’s great to have a place to focus on disability in specific.

What do you hope people will take away from what you and your co-bloggers are doing?

Well, our goals are twofold. One, we hope for Disability in Kidlit to be a place where anyone involved in MG/YA fiction can learn about disability. This includes reading about problematic tropes and well-written portrayals, as well as reading about our contributors’ real-life experiences, to show how different these experiences often are from what’s portrayed in fiction. This will help readers learn to look more critically at media portrayals, help writers to write disabled characters with respect and accuracy, and help editors to be more critical about the disabled characters in the novels they’re working with. And hopefully, the site will help all these groups realize there’s a dire need for more well-written disabled characters!

(Back in June, the lovely Day Al-Mohamed wrote an excellent introductory post for us which perfectly explains that need, as well.)

Two, we’d love to be a central hub for these kinds of discussions. We hope to maintain lasting connections with our contributors so that they’ll think of us if they ever want to write about a disability-related topic that’s been on their minds, or share their thoughts on a disabled character—or read other people’s thoughts! I can’t count the number of times I’ve read a novel featuring a minority character and was unsure what to think of their portrayal, and wished I could find a review or discussion by people from that same minority group.

You're featuring discussions about disability in kidlit from a wide variety of disabled authors and bloggers, which is fantastic. Could you speak as to why you feel it's important to hear discussions about disability from the mouths of the communities themselves?

There’s a saying in the disability community: Nothing About Us Without Us.

This is because very often abled people will speak on the behalf of disabled people. This happens across the board—in politics, in activism, in regular daily interactions. People make decisions about us without our involvement. Even when it’s well-intentioned, it’s extremely misguided. After a long history of being excluded, our voices and independence taken away, having policies and therapy forced on us ‘for our own good,’ and—in terms of media—seeing countless painfully bad portrayals of disability lauded as honest and insightful and inspirational

Well, people in the disabled community don’t agree on everything, but we’re sure as hell tired of that happening! The best way to learn about anything is to learn it straight from the people who actually experience it on a day-to-day basis: the medical aspects, the social aspects, the psychological aspects, and the regular daily-life considerations all people with disabilities must keep in mind, whether it’s taking medication on time, calling ahead to see if a restaurant is accessible, putting on prostheses, or carefully monitoring our exhaustion levels.

The more you listen to actual disabled people, the better range of perspectives you’ll get, as well. For some, disability is a painful and tragic experience. For others, it’s an inconvenience, or barely even a blip on the radar. Many people are proud of their disability or love certain aspects of it, whether it’s Deaf culture, a snazzy wheelchair, or the hyperfocus of ADD. The thing is, it should be up to us to decide how we feel about our disabilities, and us alone.

You yourself are autistic. It seems that autism, in the media and in the "real world," is often significantly mysticized or misrepresented. What's your personal biggest concern about the way we often see disability portrayed in the media?

Oh, don’t get me started about autism tropes! I’ll be here all day, foaming at the mouth. ;)

Specific tropes have specific kinds of consequences, of course. Inspiration porn results in people gaping at disabled people out on the street and calling them an inspiration for simply doing groceries or taking the bus. The disabled sibling trope results in people sympathizing with family members above all else, and considering disabled people a burden. The magical disabled person trope results in disabled characters being used as props, and never a complex, three-dimensional main character for the reader to empathize with—and we all know how important that is.

I could go on, but it all comes down to the same thing: disability tropes are present in practically all forms of media, whether it’s children’s literature, SF television series, or your local news, and flawed media portrayals of any kind have real-life consequences. They shape people’s opinions to a monumental degree, which is reflected in everything from politics to casual interactions at the grocery store.

What can media creators do to create a more balanced and nuanced portrayal of disabled characters?

Research, for one! We featured a great discussion post about that topic.

Basically, it’s often painfully apparent when someone’s idea of disability is shaped only by other media, and not by reading about disability from the perspective of actual disabled people, let alone by talking to them. People assume they have an idea of what a disability entails from watching this TV show or reading that book, and that’s their starting point: from there, they imagine what it must be like to lose a leg or not to be able to hear…

And that’s the problem: writers imagine.

But when it comes to disability—or any marginalized group—people exist who know what it’s like. You don’t have to imagine. In fact, you shouldn’t, because it will be instantly obvious to those who know the first thing about the topic you’re discussing.

That’s not to say that the experiences and opinions of disabled people don’t differ, because they do. There is no One True Way of writing about disability. Still, there are a lot of common experiences, and any writer worth their salt must learn about those common experiences. Learn about the tropes, too, and exactly why those tropes are harmful.

Basically, there’s a whole de-programming process involved, where you have to un-learn what you think you know.

Only then can you kickstart your imagination. Write fully-formed, three-dimensional characters, whose disability plays a part in their lives but doesn’t define them as people.

Do you have any book recommendations from authors that you feel portrayed disability especially well? Suggestions for movies and televisions shows are also welcome.

I don’t, actually! I don’t want to fall into the same trap I described a few questions up and end up speaking on someone else’s behalf: my only personal experience is with autism and ADD, and I’ve been so short on reading time lately that I haven’t had a chance to read a lot of the books that I’ve been wanting to. (These books include HARMONIC FEEDBACK by Tara Kelly, ROGUE by Lyn Miller-Lachmann, and COLIN FISCHER by Ashley Edward Miller and Zack Stentz. I can’t vouch for these—yet—but I’ve heard great things! All the authors have AD(H)D or autism themselves, which makes me extra eager to read these novels.)

Though I’ve done research on several other kinds of disability than my own, I don’t feel qualified to yay or nay those portrayals when there are people in a much better position to do so. Disability in Kidlit has featured a number of positive reviews, though, including reviews of Francisco X. Stork’s MARCELO IN THE REAL WORLD and Jo Walton’s AMONG OTHERS, and we’ve also got a recommended reading list available. This list is very limited as it was purely compiled from suggestions from our contributors, but it’s a good starting point.

In terms of TV, I’ve heard good things from autistic people about PARENTHOOD (although there’s an episode that supports Autism Speaks, which is a terrible, harmful charity) and from D/deaf people about SWITCHED AT BIRTH.

(For those interested, Disability in Kidlit maintains a Goodreads account where we hope to keep an updated list of which MG/YA novels prominently feature disabled characters. This list is purely for reference purposes; we can’t vouch for these books.)

Would you mind linking us to a few highlights from the Disability in Kidlit blog?

I would freaking love to!

My own favorite posts include all our discussion posts, in which we posed a topic to our contributors and asked for their thoughts; such a great way to get a variety of perspectives!

In terms of reviews, I loved Sara Polsky’s post on Lois Lowry’s GATHERING BLUE; I’m also shamelessly fond of my own reviews about the autistic characters in Jennifer Castle’s YOU LOOK DIFFERENT IN REAL LIFE and Michael Grant’s GONE series.

In terms of regular posts… oh, this’ll be a long list. I loved both Maggie Desmond-O’Brien’s post about mental illness and medication and s.e. smith’s post about the Crazy Creative trope, as well as Kalen O’Donnell’s post about the odd ways people perceive ADHD, Cristina Hartmann’s post about misassumptions about D/deaf/HoH people, and, finally, Kayla Whaley’s post about the disabled sibling trope.

Do you have any parting thoughts for us?

In fact, I have three.

One: Although Disability in Kidlit originally started as a month-long project, we’ve since decided to keep it running on a semi-permanent basis. Posts will go live every Friday. We have some great ones lined up already! Keep an eye on our Wordpress feed or our Tumblr and Twitter accounts, and don’t hesitate to share your thoughts on any of our posts. We love to hear from readers!

Two: We’re still actively looking for contributors! If you identify as disabled, please take a look at the site and consider contributing if you dig what you’re seeing. You can find information about the kind of posts we want on our submissions page. We welcome people with all sorts of disabilities and backgrounds, though we’re particularly looking for contributions by disabled men and by people who belong to another marginalized group in addition to their disability—such as disabled people of color.

Three: Steph Sinkhorn rules. *blows kiss*

Aw, thank you kindly!

For those who are interested in keeping up with new content on Disability in Kidlit, I encourage you to subscribe or follow their Wordpress, Tumblr or Twitter (linked in the previous question). They should be starting up new posts this month. Thanks again to Corinne for her time and wonderful responses!

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