Tag Archives: equality

Why are male UF protagonists badass and female protagonists… not?

I have been noticing this for a while. Although we have all these ‘strong female protagonists’ in urban fantasy – to the level that an author friend of mine said it was nearly impossible to get a publisher interested in a book with a male protagonist – I’ve noticed a disturbing theme.

Giving the protagonist a personal stake in solving the problem is a recognised way of upping the tension in the book: you, the reader, care about what happens to the protagonist. If they are in personal danger, rather than simply solving an interesting intellectual puzzle, this makes the book more exciting.

So, when you look at Book 1 (and often later books too) in an urban fantasy series, you often find that the first problem the protagonist has to solve has some kind of personal element to it, or something from the protagonist’s past is going to come back to bite them (sometimes, in urban fantasy, literally).

So, let’s have a look at who we’ve got.


  • Harry Dresden. Badass wizard. His problem: he killed his evil black-wizard foster-father/mentor (Justin DuMorne) with magic in a fair fight and then killed the monster DuMorne sent after him. Killing people with magic is against the Laws of the Magic, so the White Council is after him even though it was self-defence.
  • Alex Verus. Badass wizard. His problem: he killed his evil black-wizard fellow-apprentice and escaped from his black-wizard evil teacher. Now he just wants to be left alone to run a magic shop, but nobody believes he isn’t a black wizard himself (even though he isn’t), so he’s fair game.
  • Atticus O’Sullivan. Last of the Druids. Seriously badass. Currently running an occult shop (there’s a lot of that going around) and protecting a magic sword. Practically the first thing he does in Book 1 is to see off a whole bunch of attackers without much trouble.
  • Lucian (Lucy) Colt. Badass debt collector with an MA in Art History. Ends up even more badass when given a demon heart transplant, the alternative being death.
  • John Charming. Monster-hunter – until he got turned into a werewolf. Badass. Now runs a bar.


  • Owl. Gets kicked off a PhD programme for talking about the supernatural, and then offends some vampires, thus needing to accept a job from a badass dragon in exchange for his protection, thus Book 1.
  • Elena Michaels. Werewolf… and trying to pretend to herself that she isn’t one.
  • Rachel Morgan. Starts the series with a price on her head because she breaks her employment contract without having the money to pay it off. Continually has to be rescued from the consequences of her own screw-ups by her co-workers.
  • Georgina Kincaid. Bottom-of-the-pecking-order succubus. Moons after male character, allegedly-sexy Seth, because she can’t have sex with him without ripping out his life force. (So I didn’t find Seth sexy at all. So sue me.)
  • Kitty Norville. Bottom-of-the-pecking-order werewolf. Although Kitty seriously improves over the series.
  • Luna Wilder. “Tough-as-nails” werewolf police officer… who can’t control herself around her chief suspect.
  • Meg Corbyn. Sweet, but needs protecting from everything.
  • Anita Blake. Necromancer with more ‘issues’ than the National Geographic.
  • Samantha Martin. Imp. Book 1 happens because she can’t control her hellhound and gets blackmailed into helping track a killer. Because, of course, nobody would do that unless forced to.
  • Alex Craft. She’s the family embarrassment. Has to be rescued from certain death by… Death.
  • Jade Crow. She’s on the run from a powerful sorcerer, and only wants to be safe and have a quiet life. Only gets involved in the plot because she is accused of dark magic and has to clear her name before she is executed.

Is it only me that thinks that these supposedly ‘strong’ female protagonists are often… not? They may be able to kick ass, but a common theme seems to be that they have got into the situation through their own stupidity and/or carelessness, or complications arise because of their lack of ability to control either their emotions, their hormones, or their power. They also frequently need rescuing by other characters, often (though not always) male.

Their motive for getting involved in the plot also tends to be self-protection: they’re threatened, blackmailed, or otherwise forced into it. Conversely, the men are more likely to act of their own volition to protect others.

Compare this to most of the male protagonists, who most definitely have their shit together. If they’re ‘outsiders’, it’s usually because they’ve Done The Right Thing, and the authorities are corrupt/blind/ignorant/stupid/all of the above. They don’t tend to need to be rescued by anyone else, and if they have issues, they don’t whine about them.

Don’t get me wrong – I actually enjoyed a lot of the series above with female protagonists; Kelley Armstrong, particularly, is one of my favourite authors (and for seriously badass, see Casey Duncan in City of the Lost). It’s just that I would really, really like to see a few more heroines who don’t need to be rescued, who don’t get themselves into stupid situations through their own idiocy/carelessness, aren’t running away from their problems, and who actually have their shit together. Why is that so hard?

What do you think? Is this an observer effect, or is it real? Is there something about female characters that makes authors – mostly female! – want to write them as less badass and more vulnerable than the men?


Jane Yellowrock, in Faith Hunter’s Skinwalker series. Definitely doesn’t need to be rescued. 🙂

Addendum 2:

Carro (see comments below) has noted Joanne Walker of the Urban Shaman books – an Irish/Cherokee cop and mechanic (and shaman, obviously) as another heroine who doesn’t have to be dragged into the plot at gunpoint. Proactivity rules! 🙂

Writing Women in Traditionally Male Roles

Thankfully, we’ve got beyond the idea that a woman’s place in literature is to be the hero’s (prospective) love interest, and to scream and break her ankle a lot. However, I don’t think we’re quite at the stage where we’ve got it right yet – this is not surprising. What gets written in books reflects (at least in part) the author’s experiences – whether experiences in life, or what they’ve learned through deliberate research. And society has not yet figured out gender equality. To be fair, this is a pretty big ask, given how many thousands of years has been spent on the patriarchal model. It’s a bit much to expect all of that to be binned in a few decades. We’ve made a lot of progress since my grandmother’s day, when women were expected to give up their jobs when they got married, and it was normal to have the “women’s pay scale” (less) and the “men’s pay scale” (more) for the same job. We can recognise how far we’ve come, while still acknowledging that we’ve some way to go yet.

One of the less obvious issues is, what do we mean by equality?

Some kinds of equality are easy to define: women should get paid the same as men for doing the same job; men should be allowed to be midwives, and women should be allowed to be soldiers. More subtle are things like the value we put on different job roles, and different personal qualities. Traditionally female/caring roles tend to be valued less than traditionally male/aggressive roles. Personal qualities seen as traditionally “feminine”, like being caring, or diplomatic, are seen as less valuable or praiseworthy than traditionally “masculine” characteristics like aggression. When we look at literature, where there is currently an emphasis on “strong female” protagonists, especially female characters who adopt traditionally male roles (e.g. warrior/soldier) it’s interesting to note that these women are often written with so many “male” characteristics, that the impression is (quoting from someone else) “a man without a cock”.

Now, how much of this is just gender-bias, and how much is true? Is there really a psychological difference between males and females which should be written into a character?

Partly, this depends on how much of gender differences in behaviour are genetically determined, and how much is social. If we believe that there is no real psychological difference between men and women, and that all apparent differences are due to social conditioning (which a character may ignore or overcome), this has two consequences:

  1. Homo sapiens would be just about the only species that doesn’t have differential gender roles. Just about every animal species I can think of has differential gender roles between the sexes – whatever those roles might be. Since animals presumably act mostly on instinct, this must mean that in the majority of cases, females have different instincts to males.
  2. Gender dysphoria/transgenderism could not exist. You cannot simultaneously declare that there is no difference, psychologically, between males and females and then say that it’s possible for a person to be physically male and psychologically female (or the other way around). The most you can say is that you have a person of one gender who expresses the characteristics demanded of the gender role of the other gender, and societally-dictated roles are so iron-clad that it’s easier for that person to declare themselves to be the other gender, than to say that they are gender A but prefer the things that gender B is supposed to prefer.

So, yes, there’s a lot of societally-determined gender role enforcement going on – but I don’t think that we can say that there is no real psychological difference between men and women.

So, if we accept that men and women are fundamentally different, psychologically, then what does that mean for writing?

For instance, I attended a fantasy convention this year where in all seriousness one of the panel discussions was “Can a female character be an anti-hero?” I think that – given the context – the organisers were doing the “women are nice and good and moral, and men are base beasts controlled by their lusts” angle, but what this actually means is “Do women have the full range of moral and emotional responses that men do?”

Another example of rampant sexism is this article in Writers’ Digest, which defines male anti-heroes by what they do, and what their morality is, and female anti-heroes by their appearance (smudged lipstick), who they have sex with (men she doesn’t know well), and an inability to fit into traditionally female roles. Admittedly, this was published in 2008, but seriously…!

However, sexist these two examples may be, but they do have one thing right: men and women are psychologically different (just not in the way these examples assume). It’s obviously a sliding scale in both cases, with some overlap – but writing a female character does not mean taking the “easy way out” and writing a male character then adding something stereotypically female, like an obsession with shoes. Or crippling self-doubt about her looks or attractiveness. Jack Reacher and James Bond don’t have problems with self-doubt, so why should your heroine? If we accept that women and men are psychologically different, writing a female character who is essentially male (or is a caricature) can be just as sexist as writing only female characters who scream and break their ankles a lot. Equality is not achieved if the result is to obliterate femininity, or present a one-dimensional view of it.

So, how do you write a character who is female, yet does traditionally “male” things, without making her into a caricature, or just “a man without a cock”?

Furthermore, if we accept that women and men are psychologically different, this will affect how they respond to the situations they encounter, and how they relate to the other characters in the book. What is it like to be female when most of your co-workers are male? What are the characteristics of women choose to move into traditionally male roles/jobs?

To be fair, I don’t have the answer to this. My mother would be the first to tell people that I never got the hang of femininity myself, so I’m hardly in a position to explain it to anybody else. My advice would be to go and talk to women who do things similar to your “strong female” protagonist. Or if you don’t know anyone like that, read words written by those women and listen to interviews. At the very least, read about such women – what problems did they encounter, how did they handle it, how does history see them? How did their contemporaries see them?

Here are some suggestions:

Women working in traditionally male roles

Diaries and Memoirs

Women who dressed as men

Diaries & Memoirs

Other Non-Fiction

Women who have worked in traditionally male roles (personal experience) and are now authors

Women who have researched women in traditionally male roles

  • Mary Gentle. Did an MA in War Studies at the University of London, looking at the roles of women in combat/war. Wrote Ash: A Secret Historywhich is a sort of weird alternate-history/fantasy/sci-fi novel/series about a female mercenary, starting in 15th century Europe.

Fiction written by men or women who have not performed those roles, about women in traditionally male roles

These authors don’t have personal experience (as far as I know) of being a woman in a traditionally male role, but either I’ve read their stuff and I think it’s well done, or someone else has mentioned it as being good.

I intend to add to this list, as and when I can. If you have additions you would like to suggest, please comment!

Review: Spell Blind

Spell Blind
Spell Blind by David B. Coe
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I knew I was going to enjoy this book within the first couple of pages; with a hiatus for doing work, I stayed up late to finish it.

Justis (Jay) Fearsson is an ex-cop turned PI, and his ability to do magic is not only an advantage in his line of work, but also the reason why he’s ex-, rather than just cop. Magic has a pretty steep price, but Fearsson is willing to pay it, and keep paying. This was one of the things I really enjoyed about the book – the ability to do magic was almost an addiction. Fearsson pursues magic even though he knows what it will do to him eventually – but, to him (though not to some others) it’s worth the price.

A serial killer who is also a powerful weremyste (sorcerer) is on the loose, killing a person every moon. Fearsson worked the case while he was a cop; his ex-partner, still on the case, needs his input when there is a new murder.

The action plays out over a few days, with much excitement and danger, and an increasing awareness that Fearsson is in way over his head (of course, it wouldn’t be a very exciting novel if he wasn’t).

Fearsson’s love interest, I liked. Other reviewer(s) didn’t, but I found her to be exactly the sort of woman who would do well with him: smart, driven, honourable, and not willing to take any crap from him or anyone else, but also capable of having fun. She’s got her own priorities, and (thank you, David B. Coe) she doesn’t gratuitously interfere in Fearsson’s investigation or put herself or him in danger through being an idiot.

For that matter, Fearsson’s ex-partner, Kona (nicknamed after the coffee, because that’s what she always drinks) Shaw, was another great character. One thing I particularly appreciated was that Coe has a gay black policewoman without waving a big flag saying “Hey! Diversity credentials!” Kona is who she is, and the most important thing about her is that she’s a really good policewoman and a really good friend to Fearsson – not her race or her sexuality, which are very much in the background. She’s in the book to do her job, not to be a representative character.

Coe also managed the ending very well. I was wondering how he would do it, given how deep the doo-doo was in which Fearsson was swimming/drowning. Since there’s a second book in the series, it’s obvious that he must survive – but how? The way Coe did it, in the end, I found was very satisfying – no massive stroke of luck, no sudden wild inspiration, “It’s a million-to-one chance but it might just work…” Just… a good way of doing it.

So, all in all, an excellent start to a series. I’m going to start reading the second book, His Father’s Eyes, which just came out recently. I want to know what happens next…

View all my reviews

Who has the right to write?

Just lately, I’ve been thinking about gay romances.

I read them. I also read heterosexual romances.

The reason I read the romances I do, and the reason I like reading them, is because both characters are intelligent, sensible human beings. None of this crap about the whole storyline basically being the result of one of them not telling the other one something important. No wilting. No getting pregnant by accident on a one-night stand. (Yes, I know it still happens despite the availability of contraception since the 1960s, but really do you expect me to respect a heroine who has sex with a stranger without using protection?)

Strangely, this pretty much limits my MF romances to historicals – most of the contemporary heroines seem to be wilting violets who run away a lot, or get themselves into stupid situations that require them to be rescued. By a man. It’s the historical heroines who do interesting things, who stand up for themselves or someone else, who won’t be pushed around.

On the other hand, in M/M romances, I don’t have to cope with one of the two protagonists being someone I want to slap some sense into. I like some vulnerability, but M/M romances tend to be a lot better at avoiding wimpy.

So, a story with two guys in it is a lot more likely to have two characters who are my kind of person.

And, a lot of M/M romances are written by women.

But if you look about on the internet a bit, you find that there’s quite a bit of debate about whether women have the right to write M/M romances.

This sounds awfully familiar. Nobody is saying “gay writers have no right to write about straight women”, but, hey presto, we’ve got a bunch of people trying to limit what women are allowed to do… again.

This isn’t universal; gay male opinion seems to be pretty much divided between “Women – get thee to the kitchen/get thee to Mills & Boon” and “I don’t care who is writing romances about gay couples as long as someone is; let’s have some books about gay characters who don’t die in the end.”

Because, let’s face it, until recently, writing realistic fiction about gay couples, whether male or female, probably wasn’t going to be very cheerful – but particularly for men. Not only was there AIDS to contend with, but society has always been much harsher on male homosexuality than female (usually because female homosexuality just gets ignored). But everyone needs some feel-good fiction at some point, and I’ve read several posts from gay men, basically saying that M/M romance may not be incredibly true to life, but they wanted a happy ending. Which gay fiction written by gay men wasn’t providing, being – as far as I can tell – the equivalent of literary fiction, which is not known for being bright and upbeat.

I wonder whether gay men, being men, have the same hang-up about reading romances as straight men? As in, real men just don’t . So although 16% of romances are bought by men (according to Romance Writers of America), gay men were – once again – deprived of something that straight men had. Not only the opportunity to openly have a relationship with the partner of their choice, but also to read about romantic happy endings that featured people like them.

OK, so a lot of M/M romance is read by heterosexual women. Why is that a bad thing? Gay men read about straight couples. Why shouldn’t everyone read what they want? Reading about people who are different from you is supposed to broaden the mind, isn’t it?

Then, of course, there is the politicisation of writing. That straight women shouldn’t be allowed to write about gay men, because it’s not their story.

So how come Oscar Wilde was allowed to write The Importance of Being Earnest? Which, as I recall, was all about straight couples. What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander – unless we’re trying to say that gay men can write what they like, but straight women have to do what they’re told? (Again.)

Of course, set against this, we have the calls for ‘diverse books’.

So, on one hand, straight female authors are being told that they should restrict their writing to straight characters; on the other hand, they are being told that the world needs more ‘diverse’ characters, i.e., gay and ethnic minorities (bearing in mind that everyone is an ethnic majority somewhere).

Both cannot be true.

We cannot say, on the one hand, that a straight white author is only allowed to write straight white characters (because anything else is not their story), and on the other, lambast that author for not writing gay or ethnic minority characters.

What is wrong with an author simply writing the story they have in their head? If a character in your head is gay, then they’re gay. You can’t suddenly swap their gender or sexual orientation – it just doesn’t work like that. Why should I have to censor my writing because I’m not gay? And why should I be made to feel guilty on the one hand for including gay character, and on the other hand for not including them?

The “you shouldn’t write about that because it’s not your story” idea, though, is worse than just making writers feel guilty for writing. It means that it limits who is allowed to write about what – it’s censorship under the guise of ‘respect’ and ‘political correctness’. And what happens, when only gay people are allowed to write about gay characters? Well, since gay people are a minority, how many books with gay characters do you think we’re going to get if we rely on gay people to write them all? An awful lot of gay people would have to give up their day jobs in order to write the requisite number of books.

Or, maybe, we should just let people who already want to write get on and write them. Maybe, just maybe, we shouldn’t worry about political correctness, and whether the author is male or female, straight or gay, human or robot or dancing bear. Maybe we should just think about the quality of the writing. Maybe we should just be happy that somebody is including gay characters. Yes, m/m romances are cheesy a lot of the time – but then so is pretty much every m/f romance! The whole point of the romance genre is that it’s boy meets girl (or boy meets boy, or girl meets girl, or whatever), boy loses girl, boy gets girl back, happy ever after. It’s a fun read. It makes you think that there is happiness and love in the world, and that sometimes, love does conquer all.

It’s not meant to be politically correct, it’s not meant to send any kind of message other than ooh, that’s so lovely, and it’s meant to be fun.

Remember fun? That thing you had before you had political correctness? Before you had to worry about diversity and who had the right to write exactly what storylines?

And, to be topical, why, why, why are we praising Charlie Hebdo for publishing nasty, racist, disrespectful cartoons which mock a minority’s culture and religion and calling it “freedom of speech” when at the same time people are trying to argue that women should not be writing books that portray a minority in a generally positive (even if not exactly realistic) light?

I think I’ll let them all go to Hull and I’ll write whatever I like.

Gay fiction vs m/m romance

Today, I came across a blog post written by a gay male author, bemoaning the proliferation of ‘m/m romance’ (which is, apparently, a very different thing to ‘gay romance’). The reason for this is because he considered that ‘m/m romance’ was written by heterosexual women for heterosexual women, and was totally unrealistic. Furthermore, Real Men Don’t Read Romance.

I wrote a very long reply, which I then decided not to post. Firstly, because the original post was written in 2011, and secondly because contradicting someone’s cherished opinions is never a particularly good idea, unless you enjoy arguments.

However, the very long reply did contain some things I didn’t want to lose, so I thought I’d put them here. The coward’s way out – stick your contradiction somewhere else!

I found it interesting because the whole tone of the blog post was that women had no business writing gay male characters (or possibly male characters at all) because they were crap at it. And women certainly shouldn’t be writing about gay male couples for a female heterosexual audience.

I’m old enough to know that being a member of an oppressed group does not make you sympathetic to other oppressed groups. In fact, it often makes you oppress other people all the more because at least it means that you’re not at the bottom of the pile. It’s a very human, although not very praiseworthy, trait.

Likewise, there is the tendency to think that if you are a member of an oppressed group, every other member of that group should toe the line you set, or they’re doing it wrong, just as feminists have a history of insisting that women should do things their way – instead of women being allowed to make their own choices.

There were several distinct points, which made for interesting thinking:

  1. Heterosexual women are invading gay men’s literary territory.
  2. It’s not OK to write about gay characters if you’re heterosexual.
  3. The characters in ‘m/m romances’ are not realistic gay men.
  4. M/M romances (written by and for heterosexual women) are taking over and squeezing out real ‘gay fiction’.

So, taking it from the top, there is a – natural – tendency for minorities to build a wall around what they perceive to be “theirs” and attempt to keep everyone else out. So it’s not OK for a heterosexual woman to write fiction with two same-sex protagonists, because, hey, you’ve got the whole rest of the bookshop, why are you invading our section too? Where do you get off writing about things you’ve never experienced? (Especially when the experience has been acquired at such a cost for so many of the people who have it.)

In doing this, we forget that if we demanded personal experience before novel-writing was allowed, Tolstoy wouldn’t have been able to write Anna Karenina (on account of not only not being female, but also having not thrown himself under a train).

There is also the problem of expectation and familiarity. You complain that m/m romances are unrealistic? Do you think heterosexual genre romances are true to life?

Looking at the blurbs for a lot of heterosexual romances, several thoughts come to mind:

  1. If any real woman acted like heroines in many romances, she would never have reached adulthood. She would have died of terminal stupidity by the age of eleven.
  2. If any real man acted like that, the woman wouldn’t go all gooey over him: she’d slap his face and stalk out. Or at least, she’d dump him. Or run away to a shelter. (Alpha males, like alien invasions, are cool on the page but less attractive in real life. In real life, we call them assholes, because they’re dictatorial, inconsiderate and controlling.)
  3. Possibly, the alpha male wouldn’t get the chance to be dumped, because by the time he was old enough to have a girlfriend, his little playground friends would have beaten the snot out of him for being such an insufferably arrogant little… something.
  4. From my own observation, love-at-first-sight where two people know they’re going to get married/spend the rest of their lives together from practically the moment they meet, and are sickeningly lovestruck from then on, does exist. But it’s not very common. But going by romance novels, you’d think there was an epidemic of it.

You think gay men are written unrealistically? Have you read any of the many, many romances starring ‘desert sheikhs’ lately? (And let’s not get into the little details of massive historical inaccuracy and general implausibility of plots.)

Having read heterosexual romances and m/m romances, the male characters in both seem to be at about the same level of realism. That is, they’re idealised rather than realistic. The gay guys in the m/m romances weren’t much like any of the gay guys I’ve met in real life – but the same applies to the straight guys. Yes, any young gay person picking up an m/m romance isn’t likely to get a very accurate idea of what a gay relationship is like. But the same is true of a young heterosexual person picking up the average Mills & Boon romance. At least we have equal-opportunity inaccuracy.

Romances are not meant to be realistic. If they were, there would be a lot less soulful gazing into each other’s eyes, and a lot more about whether leaving your underwear on the bedroom floor is more, or less, disgusting than forgetting to remove the pantyliner from your knickers before putting them in the laundry bin. Even the relationships themselves are unrealistic. There is almost always a large ‘power gap’ between the protagonists: billionaire/secretary, lord/poor girl. It’s nice to be able to imagine being swept away to a life of pampered ease – less nice to think that you’d spend the rest of your life being called ‘gold-digger’ behind your back and having your husband remind you what a favour he did you by marrying you. Even the romances with a less-obvious power gap often have the man coming to the woman’s rescue in some way.

Yet we don’t question this, because that’s the way romances just are. Alternatively, maybe we don’t question it because we really believe that all women are silly creatures who can’t cope on their own and really need a man to take care of them. Surely not.

Romances are the ultimate in escapism, because – like the lottery – it could be you. Probably it won’t be, but for the span of a few hours, you can pretend that a desert sheikh will sweep you off your feet and whisk you away to his seraglio where you will not have to do any ironing or washing up or attempting to reason with your appalling boss. You don’t need to think about the implications of such a life (or even the fact that the word ‘seraglio’ is actually Italian), such as the lack of personal freedom.

And a romance, by definition, has at its centre two (or however many) people who end up in a committed relationship. Furthermore, what makes a book a romance isn’t just the getting-together, it’s how they get there. If it’s dealt with in a serious way, it tends to get filed as ‘literary fiction’ (or ‘gay fiction’ if the characters are both the same gender). If there isn’t much mushy stuff but there are spies and murders, then it’s a thriller. ‘Romance’ is what it gets called when the mushy stuff takes priority over everything else.

Alternatively, I’ve heard it described as, if it’s aimed at women, it’s a romance – if it’s aimed at men, it’s a thriller/mystery/etc. The example I read was the Bourne Identity. Because it’s aimed at men, it’s a thriller. If it was aimed at women, it would be marketed as ‘romantic suspense’.

If we are talking about reader expectations, then the problem is not that a bunch of heterosexual women are horning in on gay men’s literary territory (and really, given that men who write romances tend to do so under female pseudonyms, this is not an entirely safe assertion to make), and nor is it that there’s a difference between the ‘real’ gay fiction written by real gay men and the dodgy fake stuff written by heterosexual women – it’s bad blurbs and covers.

Bad blurbs is not a problem confined to the non-heterosexual book market. If you pick up a romance expecting a thriller, or a literary novel, then of course you feel disappointed, regardless of whether or not you are gay. Likewise, if you’re after a romance and you end up with Great Expectations you are justified in feeling peeved. But is that because the romance novel or the literary novel is inherently bad? No – they just haven’t been marketed to the audience that wants to read them.

By the ‘audience’, I do not mean people being classified by their sexuality, or even by their gender. Why should a gay man not want to read a romance (according Romance Writers of America, 16% of romance-buyers are men)? Why should a straight woman not want to read a thriller? Why, in fact, should a person be put in a box dictated by who they have sex with?

It is also a mistake to use classifications in mainstream media and databases that are only accessible to the ‘in-crowd’, or mean one thing to the ‘in-crowd’ and another to everyone else. If ‘m/m fiction’ means ‘trashy romances written by heterosexual women for other heterosexual women’, and ‘gay fiction’ means ‘proper books written by gay men about and for gay men’, this may be a distinction that is plain to the gay community, but if it’s not plain to everyone else, there is going to be confusion. Confusion is not good when constructing databases.

It may now be time to recognise that there are enough books about non-heterosexual characters that ‘gay fiction’ just isn’t specific enough to contain them all – just like ‘heterosexual fiction’ isn’t. And why should it be? I came across in a tweet from a gay man the other day, regarding ‘gay marriage’, or, as he calls it, ‘marriage’. Because he doesn’t have ‘gay lunch’ or ‘gay park’ his ‘gay car’. Maybe he doesn’t read ‘gay fiction’, just fiction that might include gay characters.

That is the thing about being socially acceptable. You start becoming part of the mainstream, rather than a segregated minority. Losing the in-crowd, exclusive-club feel is the price of not being excluded. You can’t exclude everyone else while expecting to be included yourself. If being gay is OK, then people who aren’t gay start writing about gay characters. Some of it’s good, some of it’s bad (a bit like heterosexual characters). And, shock horror, people who aren’t gay start reading about gay characters.

I think the thing to do, when classifying a book, is to think: Where would I file it if the characters were heterosexual? And file it there – with an extra tick-box for straight/gay/whatever. Anything that is about the trials and tribulations of being gay can therefore be left in ‘gay fiction’ which becomes a specific home for that kind of thing, like ‘feminist fiction’. It may make it hard, initially, to find ‘books with gay characters’ in bricks-and-mortar bookshops where a book can only be filed in one place, but it’s easy enough online.

Personally, I see it as a sign of hope that non-heterosexual characters are increasing in frequency. The more variety we have, the more minorities we include in books – in roles other than cartoon villains (like the Jews in nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century fiction) – the more chance we have of beating prejudice and ignorance. Yes, reading m/m romances might not give you a very accurate idea of a gay male relationship (particularly not if it includes werewolves, which I’m pretty sure that most gay male relationships don’t), but at least if people are used to thinking gay = fun/sexy/decent, they aren’t thinking gay = lock up your sons.

You don’t increase your visibility in society by preventing people from including you in the narrative.

We Need Diverse Books…

I came across the “We Need Diverse Books” campaign recently. Two thoughts sprang to mind:

  1. I really hate this use of the word “diverse”. Hate it hate it hate it.
  2. This is not as simple as people who start campaigns think it is.

The word “diverse” means, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, “showing a great deal of variety, very different.” We already have diverse books. There are books on quantum physics, geology, embroidery, vampires, sailors, aliens… how much more diversity do you want?

Of course, the campaign for Diverse Books doesn’t use the word “diverse” in that way. They have limited the definition of “diverse” (stripping it of most of its diversity!) to mean only racial, sexual or disability diversity. This annoys me because it seems to imply that the only diversity that counts is racial, sexual or disability. And, following from that, that a book character’s race, sexuality or ability status are the only important things about them – and hence, about real people. Whatever happened to the concept of concentrating on a person’s character rather than their race?

It seems to me that by saying “we need more black characters so that black people will identify with them”, we are one step short of saying “black people only identify with black characters”, which is one step short of saying “black people aren’t like everyone else”, which is one step short of saying “segregation is better because then people will spend time with people who they feel comfortable with” and then just “segregation is better”. (Insert whatever “group” you like.)

It’s worrying to think that we are being encouraged to concentrate on differences rather than similarities, and to think that differences overpower similarities.

On the other hand, books are an important way of introducing people to things they haven’t encountered before. And since a book allows you to look into a character’s mind, you can find out things about being someone else that you could never learn by  talking to a real person (because there are some things you don’t ask even if you know a person very well!).

Which brings me to the second point.

It’s not as easy as the people running this campaign seem to think.

Taking race as an easy example, you can’t just take a character in your story and decide “OK, I need a black character… I’ll make her black.” If you make a character black, then you are not just changing hair, eye and skin colour: you are changing her family background, her culture, and probably her outlook on life as well. And what will that do to how she relates to the other characters and how she acts within the plot? If you change a character’s race, you could end up wrecking your whole storyline (and the same applies to any other characteristic with a major impact on a person’s life). For instance, if your main character is a wizard, then your character’s cutural baggage will become very important. A white person from the fairly secular UK would react differently from a white American from the Bible Belt, or from a Catholic Nigerian or a West Indian Episcopalian or an Asian Muslim. Even if a person does not practise the dominant religion of their culture, the cultural baggage will still inform their reactions.

Then, of course, there’s the avoidance of stereotypes. If you’re writing fantasy, you have an easy ride here, because culture is what you make it. If you’re writing in this world, you need to get it right. The more important your character is, the more detail you will have to give on their background and worldview – and the more chance you’ll get it wrong if that character has a background you’re not familiar with, or that you’ll end up writing a cringeworthy stereotype. And if you get it wrong, even slightly, you will not be given the credit for trying – you’ll be savaged. You will not get “Thanks to the author for attempting this” – you will get “This is patronising/insulting/demeaning”.

I’m relatively lucky in that regard; in one of my jobs at the moment, I’m the token white girl in the office so I’m exposed to Indian, Pakistani, West Indian, and Kurdish culture, plus a range of takes on Islam. In a previous job, one of my colleagues was an African nun (Catholic). But even so, I’d hesitate to write a main character who was black or Asian, because I just don’t know enough to be sure I’d get it right. I’d have to do an awful lot more research, and it would be the sort of thing that reference books wouldn’t tell me – the day to day detail of life.

Then, of course, there’s the story-believability of adding in characters of multiple races. If your book is set in a contemporary rural English community, a non-white character becomes less believable. Not only is 90% of the population of the UK white, but the non-white 10% is mostly concentrated in the cities. That’s not to say you couldn’t have a non-white character in a little English village – but you’d need a better back-story to explain it than you’d need for the same character in London.

If you’re writing medievalesque fantasy, the problem is different again: you’re writing about a period when travel is difficult. Immigration is likely to be rare, so your communities are going to be racially homogenous – unless there’s a very good explanation why not.

Even writing historical fiction, you have to be careful; if you are writing a character who is not native to the setting, where would your immigrant have come from, and why? And what opportunities would be open to that character, as an immigrant, in that time and place?

Moving on from race, there is the problem of sexuality. I tend to take the view that a person’s sexuality is only important if you actually want to have sex with them. Otherwise, it’s irrelevant. Likewise, in books, the author knows which way a character swings – probably – but a lot of the time it just isn’t relevant to the story, so why include it? In real life, you don’t know the sexuality of everyone you meet. Taking a real-life example, I’m doing a univerity course; I’m in the second year now. Only this year have I discovered that the guy who runs the coffee shop and (I think) one of the lecturers are gay. Not because they “look gay”, or because they said “by the way, I’m gay”, but because – in conversation – both mentioned their “partner” and used a male pronoun. And I’m not sure about the lecturer because he could have meant “partner” in a business sense.

We tend to make assumptions about people – usually that they are like us. I’ve had someone assume that I was male, for instance, because I was using a non-gendered internet handle and talking about swordplay to a guy. Alternatively, we assume someone conforms to the majority unless proven otherwise. However, we should bear in mind that assumptions are not reality. If a character’s sexual orientation isn’t specified, then why assume they are heterosexual? In fact, in the author’s mind, that character might be gay.

And there are problems with revealing a character’s sexuality. Whatever you do, whenever you do it, people are going to complain. If you make it known in the book that the character is gay, then it’s accusations of putting in the “token gay”. If you only reveal it later (should you be so lucky as to get a media interview) you are accused of keeping it secret to protect sales, or, conversely, revealing it – or making it up – to increase sales. If none of your characters are revealed as gay, then your book is not “diverse” enough.

Moving on to disability, this can be even more problematic than sexuality. In some ways, a disability acts like Chekhov’s gun – if it isn’t important to the story, why include it? And if you do because you want to be “diverse”, then you get accused of being patronising by including the “token disability”.

However, if you’ve decided your character has some kind of disability, this means more research if you are going to do it right. How do blind people make coffee? How do deaf people know when the postman is at the door? Then there’s the logistics of being wheelchair-bound – when travelling, do you ring the train station in advance so they’ll know to have one of those ramps ready? Or do you just buttonhole someone when you get there? How does it feel to self-propel a wheelchair, and how difficult is it to learn to do it?

The invisible disabilities are even more difficult, because they’re usually not something you could experiment with. It’s one thing to try to make coffee wearing a blindfold, but how can you really understand depression unless you’ve experienced it – or had a very detailed discussion with someone who has? How do you understand way someone with Asperger’s Syndrome sees the world?

Then, of course, there’s the difficulty of emphasis. Are you writing about a guy who saves the world (who just happens to have a disability), or are you writing about the disability? If you’re not careful, your story ends up like one of those awful Improving Books that adults give to children, to teach them what adults want them to know about death and divorce, and why Drugs Are Bad – all preaching and no entertainment.

But, of course, in the final analysis, none of this is as important as the fact that a story come from the writer’s imagination. If in the writer’s mind the character is white and male and heterosexual, making that character black and female and gay is unlikely to improve the story. In fact, forcing the character into a shape that doesn’t fit the author’s vision is likely to damage the story because that character will no longer be “natural”, and it will pull the whole story out of shape. I’ve experienced this myself: I had one character that I simply couldn’t make come out right. She always seemed to be slightly out-of-focus, and she didn’t fit into the character’s assigned place in the plot. Then I reimagined her as black – and suddenly, she fit perfectly. Not only did she come into focus, but her entire family did too, and so did her timeline going forward. That character is black not because I wanted to include a black character, but because it was right for that story.

So, in conclusion, “diversity” is all very well and good, but it’s not as easy as “just add some black/gay/disabled characters”. Characters are part of the story, and the nature of the character affects the nature of the story. Every author has a right to tell their own stories as they see them – however they see them.

Yes, “diversity” can help people to understand other people’s lives and experiences. But we also need to take care that the emphasis on “diversity” does not become an emphasis on “difference”, and then an assumption that the colour of a person’s skin is a measure of their worth as a person, or that the gender of a person’s life partner is more important than whether or not the relationship is a loving one.

Lend me your ears…

…and I will use them for hearing with, because mine currently aren’t working.

I don’t know what I’ve got, but I wouldn’t wish it on anybody, and it involves my ears being blocked. From the inside. No making an appointment to get my ears syringed and coming home with everything in Dolby surround-sound.

Currently, I’m existing on decongestants and painkillers, and generally being miserable.

It’s quite weird, not being able to hear properly (or chew food properly). I have to look at people directly in order to hear them; I wonder if I’m speaking too loudly (because I can’t hear myself very well). My balance is slightly off, and I feel like my mind is wrapped in a big pillow. I’m slightly disconnected from the world, as if there’s a barrier between me and it.

It’s been going on for several days, and it’s getting to the point where if you don’t lend me your ears, I will come and take them because I’m just that sick of not being able to hear.

Is this what it’s like to be really deaf? I mean, permanently.

In my last job, my second-in-department wore hearing-aids. She didn’t at first, and we started to suspect that she was a bit deaf when we had to yell two or three times to get her attention if she wasn’t facing us. Eventually, she went to get her ears tested and came back with two hearing aids. When she first wore them, she said that on the one hand (ear?) she hadn’t realised how many sounds she had been missing. Related to this, at first when she got the hearing aids, she found it difficult to pay attention to people, or to hold a conversation in a crowded room, because she would get distracted by background noise. I think this was because she had just lost the skill of listening to important sounds and tuning the rest out, so she had to relearn it. On the other hand, she said that sound through the hearing-aid sounded ‘artificial’, and she wasn’t sure that she liked it.

Then there’s Beethoven; deaf as a post. I’ve heard the joke that going deaf didn’t stop him hearing the music – it just stopped him hearing the distractions. But I wonder how he felt about it? Was the music in his head enough, or did he miss ‘real’ music?

What’s bothering me most is the feeling of not being quite connected to the world (although the rest of it isn’t much fun either). It’s playing Hob with my ability to concentrate. Do deaf people feel disconnected? Or is it the kind of problem you don’t have if you go gradually deaf, so you don’t realise you’re losing your hearing until you’re significantly deaf? If you’re deaf, what do you miss the most? How do you feel about it? Is it different for people who were born deaf, and if so, how?

A couple of my friends – a married couple – are disabled. The male half finds it difficult to accept that I can lift and carry stuff better than him. He’s an unreconstructed working class male, and my ability to pick up and carry heavy furniture hits him right in the manhood (even if I am careful with both ends of the bench). Intellectually, he knows it’s not his fault, but emotionally, he still feels shamed and frustrated by it. None of the rest of us resent having to do his share of the lifting and carrying, but he resents it enough for all of us.

It gets me thinking about disability… what does it mean, really? The word itself – ‘disabled’ – means ‘made-not-able’, as in, not able to do something. But then consider Douglas Bader – after losing both lower legs (one amputated above the knee, one below) he went on to become a World War II fighter ace. He could fly, drive, and dance (of which skills I possess only one out of three). Does he count as disabled? According to his biography, Reach for the Sky, Bader was certified – simultaneously – 100% disabled and 100% fit.

It makes me think, is it right to attach the ‘disabled’ label to someone just because they happen to have fewer legs than are issued as standard? Or because they are mildly dyslexic? Everybody with that label gets put in the same box, and once in the box, they’re not allowed to escape. Douglas Bader had to campaign hard to be allowed back into the RAF, despite the fact that he was capable of doing the job. Is a person still disabled if they overcome their disadvantage to be able to do everything any average person can do? If a person with no lower legs can do everything I can do, and can additionally do something I can’t, then who is disabled? Me or him?

In the UK, we have something called ‘positive about disabled people’. This means that, for companies subscribing to this, if you are disabled, you automatically get an interview for the job, if you fulfil the basic qualification requirements. This is supposedly because a disabled person might be disadvantaged somehow by being judged only on their application form. I fail to be able to get my head around this. Being in a wheelchair makes a person unable to complete an application form correctly? For dyslexia, yes, I could understand it, or any other disability that makes filling in forms difficult. But for all disabilities?

I wonder how disabled people feel about it? I’ve never had the opportunity to ask. I wonder if they feel the same way as I would if I found out I’d only got an interview because I was female? Under those circumstances, my first thought would be to tell the panel where they could stuff their job, and their obviously low opinion of women, if they thought I wasn’t capable of getting a job without special treatment. My second would be, if they give me the job, can I be sure that it was because I was the best candidate? Or was it because they needed a ‘token female’, or because their recruiting department had told them they needed more women so they’d better appoint the next one that applied for a job? What would my potential colleagues think? Would they resent me? Would they think I’d only been appointed because of my gender? How would that affect my ability to do the job?

Positive discrimination is a difficult area. On the one hand, one might say that it’s necessary in order to get minority ‘representation’ in under-diversified areas. But on the other hand… what if minority groups don’t want to be part of that particular area and that’s why they aren’t there? I mean, an extreme example would be the severe lack of diversity shown by the low level of Muslim participation in the pork-butchering trade. They aren’t there because they don’t want to be there. And if they don’t want to be there, it would be wrong to force them to participate, and a waste of time and effort to try to persuade them, no matter what we think about ‘diversity’.

This leads me to think of communism. It may be apocryphal (and probably is), but I heard the following story:

A group of Westerners is on a guided tour of a Russian factory (during the communist era). Of course, all the factory people speak Russian, and the Westerners have an official interpreter with them so that they can understand what the workers say. They are introduced to one chap, and when asked what he thinks of communism, his words are translated by the official interpreter as: “Even though I have won a Nobel prize, I still work in this factory under the same conditions as everyone else and I am given no unfair advantages.” However, unknown to the official interpreter, one of the Westerners speaks Russian, and later on, in their hotel, he tells the others that what the Nobel prize-winner actually said was, “I won the Nobel prize, and I still have to work in this crappy factory for the same crappy wage. What do you think I think about it?”

Equality is important, but equality of outcome is impossible. People are not equal; we have to admit it. There are people cleverer than me (not many, obviously), more beautiful than me, more graceful than me, more likeable than me. Our gifts are not all the same. To enforce equality of outcome by artificial means – by steering people into places they don’t want to go, or preventing from them achieving things they could be capable of – is to destroy freedom.

The only equality we can assure is equality of opportunity, so that everyone has the opportunity to be free to make of themselves what they choose.

Equality of opportunity, however, is much harder to do than a top-down imposition of equality of outcome. It means that we can’t just say ‘we need more women; if a woman applies for the job, you have to appoint her’. It means we have to actively engage the female population and locate those women who want the job, and encourage them to apply on equal terms with the men. And then, if not many women apply for the job, then we have to accept that it’s probably because it’s not intrinsically attractive to most women and they’d rather be doing something else. The same applies to other minority groups; true equality means allowing everyone to be self-selecting, but making sure that the opportunities are there to be selected. No wonder it’s easier to enforce positive discrimination than to make sure that discrimination of any kind isn’t necessary and doesn’t happen.

Equality means treating people as people, not as the contents of boxes marked ‘male’, ‘female’, ‘white’, ‘black’, ‘Asian’ and so forth.

It matters in writing, too. How many times have we seen either the book or film where every single character is white, in defiance of probability? (ThirtySomethingBride talks about that on her blog.) Or, just as bad, the ‘token black guy’, or the ‘token disabled person’? But how do you manage to get it right? Do you have to do some kind of mathematical analysis of the characteristics of your characters’ social group and work out what proportion should be from which ethnic group, and whether you’ve got enough people that you need to make someone disabled (and if so, what disability should they have)?

Taking myself as an example, since I’ve admitted that I’m writing the world’s slowest-developing novel, one of my main characters is black. I don’t know why he is, but he is. He came into my mind that way, and I knew his history practically from birth. I don’t think I could make him not-black if I tried. I’d have to delete him entirely and start again. So I’ve got five main characters, of which one is female, one is a black male, and the other three are white males. According to Wikipedia’s article, the 2001 census said that 90% of the population of Britain identifies as white. So does that mean I have to make my black guy into a white guy because black people are now over-represented? (Women are different: there’s a reason why the team is only 20% female.) Does this mean that I now can’t add an Asian guy, because even if I upped the team to six, this would mean that ethnic minorities would constitute 33% of the team instead of the correct 10%? Does this count as positive discrimination, and/or unrealistic, and can I be criticised for that?

Sometimes, I think I should stick to something safe and simple, like alligator dentistry. This author lark seems to have more hidden dangers than the Australian Outback.

How do you deal with it? Do you ignore it? Do you consciously add in characters to make sure that your book has all the right ethnic/gender/sexuality/etc groups? Or are you in the happy position that it all comes naturally to you?

Why I am not a feminist

I’m not a feminist. Never identified as one; never wanted to be one.

I’m an equalitarian.

Firstly, there’s the word itself. ‘Feminism’; I’m no linguistic expert, but it seems to have its roots in the belief in the superiority of, or at least support for, the feminine against the alternative, or alternatives.

Why don’t I like that?

Because I don’t believe women are superior to men; neither do I believe men are superior to women. Each gender has its strengths and weaknesses, but neither is better than the other. Equal, but different. Additionally, I don’t believe that all women (or men) are the same, that they can be easily put in a box marked ‘feminine’ or ‘masculine’. People are people; some women act or think more like the average male than like the average female, and the other way around. If I am a feminist, then what am I supporting? A chromosome type, regardless of the qualities that the person expresses? Or if it’s a set of personal qualities, then what if I don’t feel I share them?

The difference in male and female cultures is not just down to societal conditioning; on a population level, men are bigger, more aggressive. It’s a biological thing. Testosterone and all that. It’s hard to separate nature from nurture – do fewer women take part in traditionally male pastimes and careers because they just don’t want to, or because of lingering societal pressure even when the way is officially open to them? – but the research says that men are different from women. End of. So if we agree that men and women are fundamentally different on a population level, what about those individuals who fall outside gender norms? The girl who likes combat sports, and whose friends are mostly male? If we’re talking about feminism as promoting the feminine, does she count? She doesn’t display the ‘usual’ feminine traits.

If we’re talking politically, that feminism is about changing women’s status as the second sex, discriminated against either openly or subtly, why don’t I connect to that? Even as a not-very-feminine woman, surely I can relate to that?

Well, yes and no. But for me, it’s not about ‘up the women’. It’s about equality. For everyone. It’s not just about women wanting to be engineers (in case anyone was wondering, I don’t) and soldiers, and not having it implied that they have to sleep with the boss in order to get promotion. For me, it’s also about men not being discriminated against – being able to be primary school teachers without their female colleagues looking askance at them and treating them like a paedophile-in-waiting. About men being able to be midwives, if they want, without anyone making comments about them only wanting to do it because they get off on it. (To which I would reply, in that case, what about lesbians, and also, sack all the male gynaecologists too.)

Everyone has the right to make their own life choices without being discriminated against, not just women.

Then there’s the whole dungarees-thing.

I’m not against dungarees per se; I even own a pair. But even though dungarees are not nearly as fashionable as they used to be in feminist circles, their ghost is still alive and well and rattling its chains.

This is the school of thought that says that since high heels and nice dresses are symbols of male-dominated society and thus the subjugation of women, a feminist does not wear them because that’s Selling Out.

I mean, WTF? To be a feminist, I have to look dowdy?

Firstly, I object to anyone trying to make my wardrobe choices for me. Secondly, by refusing to wear high heels just because men see it as sexy, that leaves a woman’s wardrobe choices still in the hands of the men. The dungarees-wearers are still the prisoners of male choices, as it were – only instead of wearing high heels because men find them sexy, they’re wearing dungarees because men don’t find them sexy. Personally, I think that’s even worse, because not only are they still allowing others to make their decisions for them, but they also end up wearing something that they don’t like either. Which is, to me, a net loss and I find it hard to see how that could possibly be thought of as an advantage. Bra-burning (or not wearing) is another. I’m not making any comments on my level of endowment, or otherwise, but I will remark that the bra performs a very practical function, especially if one is going to do something more strenuous than a little light flower-arranging, or leaflet-distribution.

I prefer to be an equalitarian and wear what I please, without reference to whether people I don’t even know might consider me a sex object, or not. My choices are my own.

Then there’s the modern feminists who are now saying that it’s not just right for a woman’s place to be in the home, it’s better. A wife and mother is the best thing anyone could possibly be, and it’s an option only open to women. Women should stop wanting to ‘compete with men’ and concentrate on the things they are ideally fitted for by nature, which are more worthwhile, more morally valuable, than ‘men things’. Women should celebrate being women.

This kind of thing doesn’t leave me speechless, because very little ever does (have you noticed that?). But it does make me spitting mad.

This is another reason why I am not a feminist. I object to being defined as a person by my chromosome type, even if it’s a superior chromosome type. Allegedly. A patriarchal society puts all women in a box, saying ‘Women are all like this; these are the things they are good at, and these are the things they are bad at.’ Assigning qualities such as nurturing, compassion, gentleness, and so on to women and then lauding these qualities has a long tradition. It’s been going on for thousands of years, and usually been done by men who wanted to keep women subjugated. Now the feminists are doing it. This can be translated as ‘You can put us in a box, but that’s OK because we like it there; it’s a good box. We don’t want to go outside the box.’

I don’t want to be shut in a box, even a nice box. I want the freedom to choose whether to be a stay-at-home wife and mother, or a top-flight professional, according to my personality and talents. I don’t want it forced on me by anyone else, even by people who say that one way is ‘better’.

To finish with, I have a little illustrative story. It’s true, although it didn’t happen to me; it was told to me by the person to whom it happened.

The year is 1983; the height of the Cold War. The Russians have shot down a South Korean airliner; things are tense, to say the least. And CND (the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) is holding a protest at Greenham Common, outside a Royal Air Force base which is one of the two from which planes would be launched equipped with the nuclear Cruise missile.

A young man, an ardent member of CND, goes on an organised bus trip to the protest camp. Wandering around the camp, he encounters a woman and makes some perfectly respectable comment (about the weather, or the camp, or the protest). He is told to “F*ck off, we don’t need any more men around here. Men are the cause of all the problems.” Supported by her friends.

The young man, astonished by this, leaves, and goes to talk, instead, to the guard on the other side of the wire. This guard is female. And they have an interesting talk about nuclear disarmament, the political situation, the protest, and several other things.

After that, the young man left CND.

OK, the moral of the story?

Well, the obvious thing is that, as my friend remarked to me, that kind of uncalled-for rudeness is enough to make even a man who supports equality into a male chauvinist. Talk about shooting yourself in the foot.

But think, we have two women here – who was the better ‘feminist’?

Firstly, the dungaree-wearing (she was, apparently, with a lumpy jumper) political activist feminist who antagonises the very people she should be trying to make into allies?

Or the guard who has forged her career, presumably successfully, in a male dominated area? She proves, every day, to everyone she meets, that she – a woman – can do ‘a man’s job’.

Yes, we need political activists – but we need people who do not automatically see everything as ‘if you’re not with us (and we define that by criteria such as chromosome type, so not everyone is allowed to be ‘with’ us whatever their beliefs) then you’re against us.’ We do not need people who are gratuitously offensive, or who play up to negative stereotypes, thus giving ammunition to our opponents. We need people who will show that women are to be respected, that we can be trusted with authority (a weapon as dangerous as the female guard’s rifle). We need people who can show that women are equal, and therefore it is wrong not to treat us as such.

We also cannot afford to see equality for women as a separate issue to equality for people of all races, or for people of all sexual orientations, or all ages, or equality in any other area. Equality is equality. Inequality spreads, like disease; you can only wipe it out if you wipe it out everywhere.

Feminism, Ethics, and What I Think

Today I have been reading Caring: Nurses, Women and Ethics (my ingenuity knows no bounds when it comes to avoiding finishing reading Alchemystic).

It’s basically about the development of a specific nursing ethics system, and what form such a system should take. Previous authors have argued for an ‘ethics of care’; Kuhse, the author of this current book, argues that basing nursing ethics on an ethics of care is not only a bad thing in and of itself, as care ethics is a fundamentally flawed approach, but it also contributes to the professional disenfranchisement of nurses (and thus women) by giving them an ethical approach that does not equip them to discuss ethical subjects with others. Kuhse argues for a ‘just caring’ approach. Although she does not utter the words ‘virtue ethics’, she is arguing for an ethical paradigm that combines principlist with virtue ethical approaches.

In her discussion, Kuhse refers to the history of feminist ethical and philosophical thinking, and some rather interesting points are unearthed. Historically, women have been regarded as ‘lesser’ than men – less intelligent, less capable of reason, less capable of rational morality. Women, instead, have been praised for passivity, docility, obedience, and respectfulness. A good woman, say many of the great thinkers of history, is a woman who looks after her husband and children, does what her husband tells her, and provides him with unconditional love and approval. While a virtuous man is brave, honourable and principled, with the intellectual capacity to discern what is right and the courage to fight for it, a virtuous woman is very different. A virtuous woman is gentle, loving, kind, and caring. Her concerns are within the home and family, not directed towards the outer society.

There has been some research done on the way men and women approach moral problems; men, it is said, tend to see moral problems more like a mathematical problem with people: you add up the risks and the benefits and come to a decision. Women, on the other hand, tend to think more about relationships and personal responsibilities.

Certain authors, therefore, have advocated a specific ‘feminist ethics’, based around the ‘caring’ female virtues, whereby the right thing to do is the most caring thing; principles and rules are too restrictive and simplistic, and should be abandoned.

One can see the allure of this: if women are naturally more inclined to a caring-based process when making ethical decisions, surely this should be explored, and even celebrated? As feminist authors have pointed out, the traditionally male rule-based ethical systems don’t seem to have produced a utopian paradise. Maybe it’s time for caring feminine ethics to come to the fore?

Unfortunately, in a blog post, there just isn’t enough room to do justice to the arguments on both sides. So I’ll make the points that occur to me.

As Kuhse says, a pure ‘care ethics’ approach fails abysmally because without principles, how do we know what we are supposed to be caring about – or for whom? To what extent? When? A care ethics approach also assumes that the only persons to whom we have any kind of moral responsibility are those with whom we have a caring relationship, and therefore denies that we have any moral responsibility towards strangers. Additionally, without clearly articulated principles, it’s impossible to discuss ethical theories in any more detail than “I feel…” and “I think…” These are clearly serious weaknesses in a moral theory.

However, quite apart from care ethics’ weakness as a moral theory per se, even more worrying is what it potentially says about women. By marketing care ethics as a suitable ethics for women, its proponents – feminists! – are reinforcing the woman’s role as a caring one, where reason and logic are not only not expected, but not desirable. These feminists simply say that being caring is better than being logical; an emotional decision is better than a reasoned one. Why would any woman want to be logical when she can be caring?

To me, this is simply playing into the hands of the male chauvinists:
MALE CHAUVINIST: “Women are better fitted to caring roles, such as wife and mother, than logical, technical roles like being doctors and lawyers and bankers.”
CARE ETHICIST: “Yes, but caring roles are better; it’s far more praiseworthy to be a nice person like a mother or a nurse than a cold-hearted logician like a doctor or a lawyer or banker.”
ME: “What about me? I don’t want to be a mother or a nurse. I want to be a lawyer.”
MALE CHAUVINIST & CARE ETHICIST (together): “Then you are a bad example of womanhood! You should learn to know your place and relish the caring role for which Nature intended you.”

The care ethicist, then, has bought into the male chauvinist opinion that women are not fitted for logical thinking and reasoned argument, but comforts herself by declaring that logical and reason are not qualities worth having anyway. Fox and grapes, anyone?

This Fox has a longing for grapes:
He jumps, but the bunch still escapes.
So he goes away sour;
And, ’tis said, to this hour
Declares that he’s no taste for grapes.

This way of thinking seems to be found amongst quite a few vocal feminists, and I find it deeply disturbing. Not simply because it perpetuates the image of the Ideal Woman as the wife and mother (with some feminists now declaring that motherhood is, indeed, the highest calling of any human being and women are therefore better than men because men can’t be mothers, poor things) but because it reinforces the impression that women are unfitted for many roles in society – often the most respected or lucrative. It also reinforces the belief that all women think the same way. Feminist ethicists of this type seem to believe that all women want the same things, and can therefore be put in the same conceptual box (labelled ‘CARER’).

Also, almost worse, it drives a wedge between men and women. It perpetuates the existence of the ‘gender war’, where the name of the game is prove one’s own gender superior to the other. Whatever happened to recognising that women and men in general may think differently, but neither one is necessarily superior?

Personally, I’m an equalitarian. I don’t believe that women are better than men, or vice versa. I don’t believe in ‘men’s jobs’ or ‘women’s jobs’; I believe that a person should pursue the occupation for which he, or she, is best fitted by character, intelligence and inclination. I don’t think that there is any such thing as a ‘feminine ethics’ or a ‘masculine ethics’ – there is only ethics; the same system should apply equally to everyone, and should be applied equally by everyone. While logic and reason do not have all the answers, neither does an emotion-based approach; a fusion of both is required, something that is neither masculine nor feminine, but only human.