Saturday, December 29, 2012

Girl Books

When I'm not sharing observations about pop culture or doing my "real people job" (you know, the one that pays my bills), I write fiction.

I did National Novel Writing Month (Nanowrimo, to those familiar with it), and managed by miracle and sleep deprivation to pound out 50,000 words in a 30-day period. And some of those words were not-horrible.

Though I've been writing for most of my life, I'm an unpublished amateur. Which is fine; if I'm going to have any bit of work with my name on it floating out there, I'd want it to be a good as I could make it, so not having my work seen by anyone but me and a few friends suits me.

But I would, eventually, like to be published. I think most people who write on a regular basis (or even an irregular basis, really) want that.

Here's the problem: I'm a woman who likes to write modern Fantasy, and I don't necessarily write for a strictly female audience.

To say that my gender kills my chances to be published in the genre of my choice is an exaggeration, sure. But, according to an article on science news website io9, The Wall Street Journal reports that female writers of Fantasy and Science Fiction are encouraged to use male pseudonyms--or at least, gender-neutral pen names-- if the editors believe that their novel will appeal to boys.

The article quotes an editor at Penguin:
"It sometimes makes sense for a female author to use a pseudonym, particularly when the main characters are male, or when it's a genre with a strong appeal to men, like military science fiction, certain types of fantasy or gritty thrillers," says Penguin editor Anne Sowards, whose fantasy authors K.A. Stewart, Rob Thurman and K.J. Taylor are women. ...
"For a new author, we want to avoid anything that might cause a reader to put a book down and decide, 'not for me,' " Ms. Sowards says. "When we think a book will appeal to male readers, we want everything about the book to say that-the cover, the copy and, yes, the author's name."
This mindset, while certainly sad, isn't new. The Bronte sisters, Louisa May Alcott, and plenty of other women have used male names or vague initials to assure that their work reached its audience. And then there's S.E. Hinton, who used her initials to make sure that male readers weren't deterred from The Outsiders, her debut novel inspired by two gangs present in her school. And J.K. Rowling, who was told that her series of novels about a boy wizard wouldn't sell if the name Joanne was printed on the cover.

There's an overwhelming belief in the market that women and girls will read books by male authors, but boys and men won't read books by female authors (there's a similar opinion regarding race--people of color will read books about white people, but white people won't read books about people of color, but that's a whole other post--or six-- for a whole other day).

Why is that opinion so widely held?

I've said before, I think, that masculinity is more strictly enforced than femininity, and that's what this line of thinking probably goes back to. At some point, boys are taught--implicitly or explicitly-- that liking things like "girl books" is makes them girly.  Which, in American society, is something that it is most definitely not okay for a boy to be. After all, what could be more girly than a book written by a woman--especially if it's one told from a female perspective or one with a female as the main protagonist?

That's just my theory, of course, but I think it holds some weight.

I'll leave you with a quote from the Tumblr of Shannon Hale, author of Goose Girl and a number of other Young Adult and Young Adult Fantasy books. In this post, the author discusses why boys don't read "girl books." The post can be read in its entirety here.
Another staple in my signing line is the family. The mom and daughters get their books signed, and the mom confides in me, “My son reads your books on the sly” or “My son loves your books too but he’s embarrassed to admit it.” Why are they embarrassed? Because we’ve made them that way. We’ve told them in subtle ways that, in order to be a real boy, to be manly, they can’t like anything girls like.
Though sometimes those instructions aren’t subtle at all. Recently at a signing, a family had all my books. The mom had me sign one of them for each of her children. A 10-year-old boy lurked in the back. I’d signed some for all the daughters and there were more books, so I asked the boy, “Would you like me to sign one to you?” The mom said, “Yeah, Isaac, do you want her to put your name in a girl book?” and the sisters all giggled.
As you can imagine, Isaac said no.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Merry Christmas!

I'm not actually writing new content today, but I didn't want to get off-schedule again so soon after getting back on track.

Hopefully you're all safe and warm and happy today.

There'll be a new, content-filled post on Saturday, but, in the meantime, here are some clips from NBC's Community, which is one of the most diverse and creative shows on television (and it comes back on October 19th--which is happening on February 7th).

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Action Girl

I love a good action series. Sometimes I love a bad action series.

Even the most gentle among us wants to see a good ass-kicking now and then. Part of the draw, I think, is getting to see people like us--people that we can relate to--doing crazy, amazing things and taking charge. It's part of why characters like John McClane and Batman and Hercules are so lasting in pop culture as a whole and American pop culture, specifically.

There's no shortage of male action heroes. They're plentiful and varied--though, admittedly, over time many of them start looking the same (compare video game heroes--the same scarred, angry, bald white guy shows up over and over, but that's a post for another day). The female version of this character type, The Action Girl, while it's being seen more and more in various media, does not saturate the market in the same way.

There are a lot of reasons for this--maybe you remember Warner Brothers making waves in 2007 by saying they would no longer produce films with female leads? -- and this year, editor Frank Parlato, Jr. of the Niagara Falls Reporter made it pretty clear what he thinks of female-led movies when he was approached by a writer who had reviewed Snow White and the Huntsman and, in spite of the eyebrow-raising content of his response to the reviewer, it's depressingly not hard to image that there are plenty who share his views.

Then there's the perception that action films that star women can't succeed; people tend to back this up by citing films like Catwoman and Suckerpunch (which, if we're being honest here, are indeed lousy films, and both, incidentally, are great examples of Male Gaze in effect), and that's sort of like judging every Sean Connery film by League of Extraordinary Gentlemen--which is to say that it's unfair and only provides a narrow view of the subject,only looking at one not-so-great example, and it doesn't take into account things like the marketing the movies get, the writing, the star-power behind the film, and other factors in what makes a movie sell.

But sometimes, action movies that star women as the hero and not the victim in need of rescuing do get made. And they do sell.

Consider two of the twenty highest-grossing female-led action films: 1979's Alien starring Sigourney Weaver as Ripley and 2010's Salt starring Angelina Jolie as the title character. Ripley and Evelyn Salt are two very different and interesting characters that share an unusual trait: neither character was written for a woman.

When Dan O'Bannon and Ronald Shusett wrote the early drafts of the script for Alien, the characters that comprised the crew were to be "unisex and all parts are interchangeable for men or women. Ripley's gender wasn't decided until Sigourney Weaver was cast in the role.

Gender is not a factor in Ripley's actions at all--even in scenes in which she's clad only in underwear and a t-shirt, Ripley's not played for sexuality. Issues of femininity never come up. The actions demanded by the situation are the beginning and end of Ripley's motivation.

And then there's Evelyn Salt.

As the story goes, Tom Cruise was approached to play the title role in Salt--Edwin W. Salt. Cruise, not wanting to play a role so similar to the one he played in the Mission: Impossible films, declined the part, and Edwin became Evelyn, a vehicle for Angeline Jolie, who had already seen some success with the Tomb Raider franchise. Rather than trying to rewrite the script with a female in mind, the minds behind the film changed the character's name and left almost everything else untouched. In fact, the only major change was removing the children that Edwin was written to have (which does give the message that a woman can be an action woman or a mom, but not both, and that's kind of crappy any way you look at it).

But a female action hero doesn't have to be portrayed with masculinity or without gender at all to be successful.

The top-earning female-led action film came out earlier this year, and set sales records for movies with a spring release.

The Hunger Games, the first movie in a trilogy based on the books by Suzanne Collins, was wildly successful. The second film in the series, Catching Fire, is already in production and looking towards a November 2013 release. Judging from the buzz about the movie online and the success of the book series, the second film will be just as popular. And this is with a female character that was written to be female. Katniss's gender, while never a focal point in the story, is not ignored. She dresses up (though, granted, it's not because she wants to), she thinks about boys--at least, when she's not focused on surviving, which isn't often, but her understanding of her more romantic emotions does play a part in her character development--she's a girl. She just happens to be a girl who can fight.

There are plenty of examples from other media--Buffy, Wonder Woman, Captain Marvel, the Abhorsen trilogy, Charmed, Warehouse 13, Lost Girl, and tons of female-led anime.

One of the most shining examples of strong, action women on television has been Avatar: The Last Airbender and it's follow-up/sister series, The Legend of Korra. Both of these series are among the most popular animated shows of all time, with fans of all ages and all genders. And these two shows have some of the greatest female characters on television.

 Okay, Pema may not actually fight much, but she's definitely a tough lady.

(And these are just the good guys.)

So, what's the secret, then? How can we get more characters like these?

It's in the writing, really, when all is said and done. In his essay "Why I Write 'Strong Female Characters,'" novelist and comic book writer Greg Rucka, says this about writing strong women:

Writers don't write Men or Women or Dogs or Salmon. Writers write characters, and at our best, if we do it well and with care and with thought, we invest in those characters a spark of life, a realism and nuance that makes them believable and relatable. We seek to craft characters who inspire empathy, characters our audience will care for, and as a result, will care about what happens to them, and thus will share the journey we have charted. A story, after all, is the character's journey. No character - no well-created character, at least - is defined by only one trait, by one aspect.
 That's why characters like Ripley, Katniss, Salt, Katara, Buffy, and so many others are so popular--it's the same reason why so many male characters are popular.

They're characters. They have flaws, passions, motives, and interests that make viewers and readers care about them.

So, how do you write a great female action character? It's like Greg Rucka says.

"The Quick Answer goes like this:
Q: How do you write such strong/well-realized/positively portrayed women?
A: I don't. I write characters. Some of those characters are women."