I’m going to address this issue of by addressing my own experience: I used to struggle to write strong women.
Lack of representation had a lot to do with it. In my time, I had brief exposure to Wonder Woman and Princess Leia – but Wonder Woman was canceled, and Leia was forced into a metal bikini and degraded.
It was a pretty consistent pattern. No matter how strong the female characters were, they screwed up and needed rescuing, or were weirdly sexualized AND infantilized, like Supergirl, who always wore a crop-top and Disney gloves.
Great imagery there, folks. Though it does lead to this, which is amusing.
In my books and on my screen, the characters who got things done were male, so it should come as no surprise that those were the characters who populated the universe in my head. When I played pretend, I was a male character. When I wrote characters, they were all male.
I realized this difficulty when, after my debut (which is from the POV of a 19-year-old male), I tried to write a similarly engaging female, and discovered I couldn’t.
This was terrifying. Every female I wrote came out whiny or weak, existed merely to further the male’s storylines, and simply weren’t anything like the strong women I knew in real life.
I overcame it through great and terrible effort. Learning to write Katie Lin took everything I had.
It helped that I’d shared some of her experiences.
I, too, had to flee an oppressive and unjust system – and it cost me familial relationships.
I, too, have had to figure out who I was and what that meant, carving my own identity out of unfamiliar soil.
I, too, have had to ask the awful questions of “What is femininity?” and “Do I even need to have it?”
Why am I sharing this? Because my struggle to find Katie’s voice comes from a lack of representation, and that struggle woke me up.
Why Representation Matters
Representation is part of figuring out identity.
This isn’t a new concept. Governments have worked for years to control the narratives told to children because they know those tales determine who people are. Want a nation of good soldiers? Spin tales of glory in war and noble soldiers. Want homosexuals to be pushed out? Tell tales that always show them psychotic, or as perverts, or as worse.
Want women to stay in their place? Show over and over that females who fight the system and don’t want kids or an authoritative husband are terrible, and that only good, quiet mothers and wives win. In fact, go ahead and show that a woman’s worth is determined by how much men want her, and just see what happens to the psyche of the girls who read it.
Oh, wait. We already know.
It’s true that these tropes have been subverted a lot in recent days, but I didn’t grow up seeing strong women represented – and neither did the rest of my generation. I was so hungry for it, but about the best I could find was Nancy Drew (not exactly a feminist icon). I ended up writing fanfiction of Tolkien females because there just wasn’t anything else out there.
My struggle to find representation didn’t even include things like skin color or religion. As a white sorta-kinda-Protestant, I have yet to see myself regularly portrayed as the terrorist, the thug, the thief – unless, of course, the thief is also sexualized in a catsuit.
But even then, I wasn’t free. I grew up believing my dark hair was bad because the beautiful women were always blond. What the hell would seeing no one with my skin color have done to me?
I grew up thinking in order to be strong as a female, I had to be more like men – the more masculine I could be, the stronger. In fact, homophobic slurs were the order of the day. What the hell would all this have done to me if I weren’t heterosexual or happened to be gender-nonconforming?
My experience barely penetrated the depth of problems we have as a country when it comes to diversity in our stories, and it still did me a hell of a lot of damage.
Representation matters. I know that young, white gents who can find themselves as heroes in any genre don’t get this, but I urge them to try. We NEED diversity in storytelling. We NEED diversity in media.
What about you? What was your experience?
As the next generation of storytellers, we are the ones who can and must make this difference. The power of self-publishing means you can no longer be stopped by biased gatekeepers, either.
We can do this.
If you want to talk, good news: so do I. Reach out here.