If you are reading this and you are not DC Comics, you may or may not know that there is a kerfluffle going on right now on the intertubes about DC. If you’re not a comics reader, don’t worry. This post is not going to rehash the Kerfluffle in too much depth, and it’s not about comics. I don’t read comics. I don’t write comics. If you are a comics reader, don’t worry. I’m not going to make the mistake of ranting at DC Comics and attempting to take them to task for their sexist failings without having read the books in question.
What I really want to do is provide my not-inconsequential insight to help DC understand how to write better women.
In very brief, for those who don’t know, the Kerfluffle concerns DC’s recent releases of the first book of a rebooted Catwoman franchise and the first book of a rebooted Red Hood and the Outlaws franchise, which includes a female character named Starfire. Specifically, a lot of readers are furious at how Catwoman and Starfire are represented, and how their physicality, sexuality, and attitudes toward sex are represented.
The first article I read about it is here. I imagine a simple google search will bring up lots more takes on it, if you’re curious. But, since this post of mine is not about comics, and since I haven’t read the books, that’s all I’m going to say about it. But it has gotten me thinking.
I lost a whole day reading the comments on that article. Female comics readers are pissed about this. Really pissed. Some male comics readers agree, but others are angry at some of the female comics readers, and think the female comics readers are not fully appreciating how a strong, sexy woman being unashamed of her body and unashamedly pursuing sex when she wants it indicates a Strong and Liberated Female Character. Some pointed out that maybe Starfire’s going after no-strings-attached sex whenever the urge takes her is setting the stage for future character development. One or two comics readers suggested that being bothered by this indicates a prudish nature, or possibly a tendency toward (I was horrified to learn that this is an actual term people use, and I’m kind of horrified to be typing it right now) “slut-shaming.” Some comics readers said that if other comics readers are bothered by the portrayals in comics, those bothered comics readers should go and buy something else.
Now, I was just as shocked as you to learn that there are female comics readers. I fully assumed comics readers were all male virgins who live in their parents’ basements but refer to their basement rooms as their “man caves” or “bachelor pads.” But NO! HARK! There are female comics readers, and from my vasty research yesterday, there appear to be a whole flipping lot of them. Presumably they have money to spend on comics, because a lot of them bought these books, which is how they subsequently got their underpants in a twist.
Another thing I learned from my research is that evidently the comics industry is having some financial difficulties, and this is one of the reasons for the reboot of these franchises. If this is the case, then DC Comics could really benefit from writing characters that don’t cause female comics readers to hurl books away in disgust and vow to take their business elsewhere. Because if your business is down, any business you lose is bad, and business you don’t lose–or, even better, business you gain–is good. I know this because before I became a Professional Writer I was a Professional Retail Manager. I speak from some experience.
So, DC, I am going to help you out. Out of the goodness of my heart. Below I have compiled Kate’s Tutorial on Writing Strong Women That Female Readers Won’t Find Laughable, for Male Writers Who Think Making Women Look Sexy and Having Them Be In Charge of the Sex They Have is Enough.
Now, having done a whole day’s research on this, I understand that your target market is not comprised of the female comics readers, and that you are in the business of providing fantasy and wish-fulfillment to the male comics readers. But I want you to remember that this tutorial is designed to help you increase your market share by not freaking out and horrifying female comics readers, because that means more money for you.
I would also like you to breathe deeply, DC, and remind yourself that if any of this sounds completely radical and paradigm-shifting, I’m only suggesting you compromise your principles for the sake of the money that’s at stake here for you to gain or lose. And in the end, we’re talking about just that: a compromise. You can still have comics your male comics readers will love! You don’t have to take out all the hot bodies and skimpy clothes. But you might have to write better women in order to earn them.
Point the First: Female readers will not stand for badly-written women. They get particularly insulted by badly-written women having sex.
This is not to say that female readers are insulted by sex, or by women having sex. They are insulted by badly-written women having sex for the same reason that so many women who are bothered by porn are not bothered by romance novels. When badly-written women have sex in books and movies written by men, it’s hard for female readers not to notice that the characters they’re reading are only there to facilitate sex to the benefit of the male characters and for the purpose of titillating male readers. It tells them those books and movies are not for them. It tells them that, in the world of those books, women only exist to look at, salivate over, and have (or fantasize about) having sex with. It results in Kerfluffles.
Now, if you truly don’t care about any readers other than your male ones, by all means, carry on as you were. But remember that there are compelling business reasons to try and get yourself to care. And this is not to say that you can’t have titillation for the man-cave audience without alienating the rest of your readers. But you can’t half-ass it when you’re writing your female characters. You have to look like you gave more thought to her character than just picking a color for her latex outfit and answering the question, “under what circumstances would this chick have sex with this dude?”
You have to write better women. You have to write women who have personality that isn’t linked only to their sexuality.
Point the Second: Sexuality and assertiveness are not the same as personality.
We’re attacking a deeply-ingrained cultural belief here, so bear with me. One of the things that appears to shock male comics readers is that female comics readers do not always read “these female characters are in charge of sex and enjoying it on their own terms” as equalling “these female characters are strong and powerful and liberated and praiseworthy.”
I’m going to tackle this by outlining some common assumptions that you may be shocked to find are not always true.
- Women have issues with sex, therefore showing them having sex on their own terms is empowering!
- When it comes to sex, women have power over men, because men want to have sex all the time, therefore a woman can have sex with a man anytime she wants. Women, however, do not require sex the way men do, therefore they can say yes or no. That’s power!
- Generally it’s assumed that men are the ones to initiate sex, so having a female character initiate sex is empowering!
- Women aren’t as physically strong as men, so showing men at their physical mercy in sexual situations is empowering!
- Women who don’t agree with this are probably prudes or think women who have Liberated Sex are whorey. Liberated women will see that we’re talking about Liberated Sex and will applaud.
Now, look, I’m not saying any of these things are categorically false absolutely all of the time. But neither are they all categorically true, and if you use sex as shorthand for power or personality or character, you run the risk of having people draw conclusions like these:
- Women are not complete creatures in command of their own fates and desires until they demonstrate their power unequivocally in a sexual situation.
- It is necessary to see women exercising their empowerment in sexual situations to perceive them as being on equal terms with men.
Do I think that’s what you’re going for, DC writers? No, I do not. I think your male readers want to see their idealized women in sexual situations wearing as little clothing as possible because it’s a turn-on. I think they want those idealized women to be sexually dominant and capable of no-strings attached encounters because we’re if women were more like that in the real world, boys and men wouldn’t have to waste precious bandwidth trying to figure out how to approach girls and women at middle-school dances, high-school proms, parties and bars, or to figuring out the consequences of whatever happens after that.
I think you’re in the business of wish-fulfillment, and I think you think you are predominantly in the business of male wish-fulfillment. If I thought you really thought women had to be sexually active to be whole, powerful, or equal to men, I’d be disgusted, but I don’t think you’ve given it that much thought.
But another thing I learned as a Professional Retail Manager is that in business, as in life, perception is all. You wrote the books, you wrote the women, you wrote the sexuality. You own the perceptions you create. So you really do have to be concerned with how your motives are perceived by female comics readers if you want to have female comics readers. Some of which, by the way, are quite young, and should never, never be made to think their value and power come only from their bras and lipstick or from their bodies at all. When they buy bras, it should be because those bras are comfortable or functional or make them feel pretty. And that “feeling pretty” should be about that girl making herself happy, not about that girl thinking a push-up or some extra cleavage makes her prettier and/or increases her stock.
But I digress. This isn’t a tirade about writing women young girls can look up to. It’s not about actually doing anything positive for female comics readers. It’s just about not having female comics readers get their underpants in a twist and go on internet tirades that lose you money. And it’s about writing! So let’s talk writing.
But Kate, you are saying. Hang on. What about the wish-fulfillment? Aren’t we doing that for female comics readers, too, by writing women who are beautiful and sexy and who every man wants?
No, you’re not. You may think every female wants to be the hot girl who can get any guy she wants. You may think every girl wants to look like a swimsuit model. First of all, that’s not necessarily true. Secondly, imagine meeting a real-world girl for whom those two things are true, and for whom those two things most define her personality. Now imagine that, for some reason, you actually have no interest in having sex with this girl. You’d probably find some reason to go somewhere else. I would. You’re not writing women that other women can relate to if that’s all you give them in the way of identity.
But Kate, you say. If this hypothetical real-world girl was also a SUPERHEROINE, we might stick around. What if she could not only kick ass, but she had some really fascinating superpower?
Not good enough. Fascinating isn’t good enough. You need compelling. Relatable. Human, even if she’s an alien. And just to up the ante, since we’re writing about retaining your female comics readers, could you please imagine that, instead of a girl, we’re talking about a hot man who can get any girl he wants and looks like a swimsuit model but doesn’t seem to have much more in the way of personality? Still want to hang out with him just because he can kick ass and has a fascinating superpower?
No, I didn’t think so.
You have to write better women characters, and you have to look at this as being something ENTIRELY SEPARATE FROM HOW YOU WRITE THEM SEXUALLY. Yes, a good writer with a good character could integrate the two, but if you were those sort of writers, this Kerfluffle would never have happened. So for simplicity’s sake, let’s just make your lives easy. A character who is strong and empowered and fully-realized needs to be those things before you throw sex into the mix.
Point the Third: A character’s personality needs to be unique and well-drawn and compelling for a (female) reader to care about her.
And let’s face it: you wouldn’t have kicked off a whole series where Catwoman is the main character if you didn’t want your readers to care about her. Sexuality can make a character alluring, and sure, you can draw beauty, but neither of those things make her really compelling and fully-realized. So you have to figure out how to write compelling women first. Then you can write all the sexiness you want, as long as it makes sense for that character.
So how do you give a character personality? Their actions, their choices, their friendships, the things that cause them joy and the things that cause them pain. But Kate, I hear you say, what if the decision to have sex is really a big decision? Doesn’t that tell us something about that character? Or if the decision to have sex is no decision at all? Doesn’t that tell us something, too?
Sure it does. It tells us something about how that character feels about sex. But if that’s all you’re giving me, you’re being lazy as hell and opening yourself up to those perceptions I listed above. Strength, integrity, character, personality–none of these things are best demonstrated through sexuality. And I’m not saying that sexuality necessarily diminishes any of those things. It just doesn’t tell me much about any of them.
Tying strength and power so completely to sex is taking the easy way out. It’s a shortcut. It’s obvious. It’s like giving the femme fatale red nails and red lipstick and a plunging neckline and expecting those things to tell the reader all they need to know about her. It’s unsubtle, and its inelegant. It’s what you come up with when you can’t–or can’t be bothered to–come up with anything more original. It makes it look like when you write a female character, instead of giving her personality, you give her a well-crafted attitude toward sex and a figure.
I guess I’m just saying that a well-written character takes work. Readers have layers, and they relate to characters through the lens of their own experience. There are filters for that lens, to continue the metaphor: the way a reader sees herself or wishes she saw herself, the way she thinks others see her and the way she wishes they did. So good characters need layers, too, and you have to find ways of showing those layers without having to peel off clothes to do it. Otherwise all you’re revealing when you finally do get them naked is skin.
In closing, I’d like to quote my Twitter pal, Victoria Dahl, who happens to be a romance writer and who was very, very annoyed by the Kerfluffle. Her commentary: “Don’t show me tits and tell me they’re muscle.” Don’t try and tell us they’re personality, either. We know better. And now you do, too.
Go write better women. And while you’re at it, write men who might possibly deserve five minutes of their time, and make them prove it before your female characters give them those five minutes, let alone access to their bodies. Maybe then your female customers will stop throwing your books at the wall.