Can we be honest? About 1/2 of the reading public has just moved on at the phrase “female protagonist.” Since “women continue to read circles around men, especially in fiction and literature: 64 percent of ladies read at least one book in 2012 (and 56 percent read at least one literary book), compared to only 45 percent of men (only 37 percent read at least one literary book) why do we shy away from reading about women when most of us fiction readers are WOMEN? SEE STUDY
We tend to see men as doing and women as feeling, yet in the study sited above even when names were switched and men were feeling and women doing, readers felt they related to whomever was named Jack, not Jill.
As a novelist who writes about men and women who do AND feel I wonder why even I feel more ambivalent about female protagonists in my writing. Despite the study above my gut says there’s 5 things going on here as illustrated through my characters:
WEAKNESS: Katherine Weldon and her husband both carry with them burdens of childhood trauma, yet John Weldon’s weakness (morphine addiction) takes center stage. Katherine is blamed for somehow standing out and being subjected to a violent sexual encounter. I don’t believe we live in a rape culture, but I do believe that rape is so horrifying to most moral beings that until very recently people would rather read about a trip on a raft down a river (as a small aside: statistically, more men than women are raped each year–mostly in prison). In our modern age we don’t like butting up against a biological truth that, in general, women are weaker physically and at times more emotional. Sue me, but the ladies in SEX IN THE CITY and GIRLS are someone’s fantasy. If you want to write about women realistically you have to accept the fact that it’s probably going to get pretty messy.
LOVE DRIVE: Keep in mind that I blog what I ponder, fully aware that I don’t have all the answers here. Mostly just more questions: Why do women want to be men?
Thankful Crenshaw does not have a man’s sex drive. She has a love drive. She is driven by an overactive desire for deep love. I know women like this (I may be a woman like this). A woman like this is not flippant about sexual encounters. I knew one young woman who was flippant until her boyfriend deserted her at the abortion clinic.
Real women can compete with men on many levels, but unlike men, they have a harder time compartmentalizing. A sex drive fits easily into a box. A love drive spills all over the place.
Women carrying heavy machine guns, kick boxing in tight spandex and yukking it up at the bar later (wearing lipstick) just don’t sit well with me. Men doing the same thing minus the spandex and lipstick entertain me greatly.
JEALOUSY: Men seem to use jealousy to drive themselves forward. Women tend …to … destroy each other. Thankful is beautiful. She’s used her beauty as power and sadly misused it as well. Miss Peckham arrives with her modern ideas and her contempt for women like Thankful and feathers fly. It’s not a pretty picture. This is not men cock-fighting. This is women and pecking orders. This is blood and guts in a way we don’t want to see it. I wonder also if we as women readers don’t really want to see a successful woman to make us feel bad about ourselves. We want men with machine guns again or women pretending to be men.
IRRATIONAL FEARS: This does not mean women shouldn’t have their hands anywhere near the nuclear bomb button. What it means is that women unleash deep irrational fears in both men and women. The ability of women to have children is kind of weird. Even cavemen were awed. Awe is scary. Women access emotions and splatter them about when least expected. Men scatter. Other women sometimes scatter, too.
Men do a better job hiding the messy stuff behind action. Or maybe those compartments they have come in real handy. Be prepared as a writer to be shocked by your female characters. Wow, suddenly Katherine uses food as an outlet for freedom? Who would have guessed it.
RELATIONSHIP VS ACTION: A female character who isn’t concerned with relationships over action seems really alien to me. As a wife, mother, sister and friend I find it hard to imagine not sacrificing the limelight to another. In real life most women I know struggle at times with this. When writing about Lucy McCullough I walked a fine line. Somehow she managed to not only be strong and quietly heroic, but also generous and self-sacrificing. It’s probably why I have a love/hate relationship with her.
SO WHAT DO YOU THINK? Do we love men more or are we afraid of women?