When I was a kid, almost all the women I saw in media were embarrassing.
Yes, I had brief exposure to Wonder Woman and Princess Leia, and they were great – but Wonder Woman was canceled, and Leia was forced into a metal bikini and degraded. Every other woman I saw in media, regardless of setup, was just… pitiful. Even if they were presented as strong and brilliant, they’d screw up somehow, be captured, and need to be saved.
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 at the same time.
Great imagery there, folks. Though it does lead to this parody, 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.
It took a LOT OF WORK to overcome. 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 to repress or destroy the LBGTQ+? Tell tales that always show them psychotic, or as perverts, or 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 weakened somewhat in recent days (we’ll just ignore the fact that Jurassic World told a generation of girls that if they didn’t have kids, they wouldn’t be fulfilled), 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.
I even grew up believing my dark hair was bad because the GOOD women were almost always blonde. Click To Tweet
- The Smurfs presented Smurfette as a brunette when evil and as a blonde when good.
- The old Archie comics presented the “better” girl (Betty) as blonde and the selfish girl (Veronica) as brunette
- The evil stepsisters in Cinderella were brunettes as opposed to her blonde.
- Teen Titans presented Starfire’s evil sister Blackfire as a brunette.
- This concept is so prevalent that there’s even a TV Tropes page on the Evil Brunette Twin
(Look, I know there have been some brunette representations in older Disney, but could YOU relate to Snow White beyond singing in the woods? Yeah, I didn’t think so.)
It Gets Worse
I may be brunette, but I’m white. I at least got to see myself onscreen sometimes.My struggle to find representation didn't even include things like skin color or religion. As a white, straight, cisgendered, sorta-kinda-Christian, I've rarely seen myself portrayed as the terrorist, the thug, the thief. Click To Tweet
Those with darker skin colors are often the bad guys or humorous side characters. That’s… horrible. What the hell kind of message does that send?
And let’s not even get into the fact that feminine things are both held up as a necessity and an evil. If you’re not feminine as a woman, shame on you – but being feminine means being weak (“pussy” is the insult for weakness, while having “balls” means courage and strength), not being able to throw well, not being able to fix things or understand manuals or math. Things girls like are almost always derided, from ponies to pumpkin spice.
Young male heroes who are lucky and abnormally skilled are Luke Skywalker.
Young girl heroes who are lucky and abnormally skilled are Mary Sue.
What the hell would all this have done to me if I weren’t heterosexual or happened to be gender-nonconforming? I don’t know – and while I can ally, I can’t possibly imagine how difficult that would be.
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 men who can find themselves as heroes in ANY genre may not understand 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.