So, the sex thing. Chuck Wendig’s blog today is about dudes writing chicks and the challenges therein. And I tossed in my usual two cents, but I’m on to Herr Wendig’s tricks – he starts these nifty conversations, then I write a few hundred words and post them ON HIS BLOG. Exploitive bastard, that Wendig.
Well not this time.
Anyway, my point over at TERRIBLEMINDS was that every human life is inherently unique, driven by experience, culture, family, nature, nurture, too much sugar, whatever. And, compared to the cumulative psychological baggage of all that stuff, the biological accident of genitalia seems trivial. I’ve known manly women, womanly men, and everything in between. But that observation feels glib, insufficient, cursory.
And then I glance at the bookcase and I see INFIDEL by Ayaan Hirsi Ali. OK, so it’s nonfiction and we’re supposed to be talking about writing characters. So sue me. It’s the story of a woman born into a fundamentalist Islamic family in Somali. (Haven’t read it? That’s OK, go do so now. I’ll wait. *drums fingers drums fingers drums fingers* Done? Good.) So I see INFIDEL and I think to myself sex doesn’t matter you say? Trivial you say? Here’s the story of a woman who’s entire life was defined largely by her sexuality, including with her barbaric female circumcision when she was just a girl. Imagine living within a religious and cultural construct so terrified of female sexuality that every girl has her clitoris ripped out at a young age – and not by a surgeon in a hospital under anesthetic, no. By some old woman with a knife in a tent. Imagine wives still being the chattel of their husbands, husbands routinely having multiple wives, and divorcing any wife they want simply by saying so. Imagine that and then say sex doesn’t matter.
But the thing was, Ali over came that. Through tremendous personal courage she found a way out of those circumstances and into a life she defined for herself. Where every woman she knew as a child succumbed to their circumstances, she did not. She rebelled against the entire milieu of cultural and religious mores in which she had been raised and without even the barest set of material of educational benefits most of us have known lit out on her own into a world and culture she knew not at all to redefine the parameters of her own existence.
And, woman or not, if that doesn’t make her one of the big swinging dicks, I don’t know what could.
OK, you say. Fine. But what does that have to do with writing characters? And I think the answer is this. If INFIDEL was a work of fiction (and I can only hope for the day when such a story can only be a work of fiction) the elements that made Ali’s sex important would be elements of plot and setting, not character. Her sex matters because the place and time and culture into which she was born make it matter. The STORY makes it matter. Maybe where we fail as male writers isn’t so much in the traits we give our female characters, but in the places we give them in our fictional worlds. Ali is at the center of her own story, and thus has to be the hero. And it is through that setting that her heroic character can be revealed.
So maybe it isn’t just the women we make up, it is the world we envision them in. If it is always a story centered around men, dominated by men, then the woman’s character can’t matter that much, no matter how rich or strong or compelling that character may be.
Wasn’t that the whole problem with the man/woman dynamic to begin with?