April 10, 2012

The Female Template

We have the Mass Effect games but haven't played them yet. Apparently, besides crafting a terrible ending to the series, BioWare skimped on the option to play a female Commander Shepherd (the hero of the series.)  "Ms. Effect: The Rise of FemShep" by Richard Corbett argues that it's a good thing, that BioWare's apathy in making a female hero, inadvertently created "a powerful, non-sexualised, mature hero for a modern sci-fi story."

The article is worth a read even if you are not familiar with the Mass Effect franchise or don't play video games. As a writer, this section struck me:
"There are good reasons for this. Writers (of both genders) often struggle to write good female characters, at least in part because so many of them have been done badly. One of the biggest hang-ups is that 'male' is traditionally treated as as the generic template, with female-ness treated as something extra. Look at cartoon animals. More often than not, the males will simply be shown as funny animals, while the females are identified with bows, dresses and breasts.

The same applies throughout the English language. The word 'hero' conveys nothing specifically about the subject being a man - and of course, 'heroes' can be a group of either. 'Heroine' on the other hand is explicitly femine [sic]. All this leads to the unfortunate, but all-too-common double standard that while a man gets the luxury of being a collection of assorted, variably important traits, a woman is a woman first, and her traits defined through that lens.

At least part of Shepard's appeal is that she doesn't suffer from this. She is a woman, and that plays obvious roles in her relationships and the occasional ill-advised alien quip, but it's her other traits that take centre stage - her strength, her resolve, her commanding presence, and her status as Earth's greatest champion."
There are two very common failings you see when a male author writes a female character. Either the character ends up as a man with tits or as a hypersexualized fantasy. I've tried in my own writing to be conscious of those two mistakes. I think part of it comes from years of table-top gaming. Before I ever played in a group with a female player, every now and again, one of the guys would decide to play a "chick" and it was always painful to watch.

However, I've never thought about how easy it is fall into the idea of "male" as default template and female as an extra that in turn defines every other trait about the character. The next time I write a story, I'm going to try to create a character first and a woman second.
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