For about four years in my adolescence, I refused to read books by men.
This was because when I was 12, I was so turned off by the way Fred Saberhagen wrote about women in one of his Book of Swords installments that I figured I better stick to women authors if I didn’t want to be either annoyed/angry/squeamish/grossed out by the way women were portrayed. (Although I don’t remember many of the specifics, I do know that a substantial part of the plot involved a male character trying to figure out how he could make a mermaid human so he could have sex with her.)
I broke my “no-books-by-men” streak when I was 16 and read The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle.
That book restored my faith in the world. Or at least in male writers. It reassured me that they COULD write about female characters in a way that wasn’t demeaning, a thin front for a male fantasy, or just plain off.
Fortunately, since then I have come across so many male writers that do this well (Wally Lamb, Neil Gaiman, Joe Hill) that I no longer have to keep a running list. More and more writers are getting a clue that writing about women is really writing about PEOPLE, not an ideology or a totally foreign species. (It probably doesn’t hurt that the publishing industry is over 75% women these days — Fred Saberhagen’s saga may not have moved forward without some SERIOUS revision were it submitted today.)
These days, usually when I come across male writers who still write female writers in a squickish way, they are mostly from a bygone era, which just prompts me to roll my eyes and wish more people would talk about the harm that is done by holding some of these books up as “classics.” (I could write a whole ‘nother post about the portrayal of women in the science fiction classics canon, but I’ll hold off on that for another day.)
Sometimes I come across these cardboard cutout/male fantasy female characters when I am doing a critique on someone else’s work. How I wish I had been available at this stage when the “classics” were being written by white, middle-class men and vetted by more white, male publishing execs.
But where does one start in deconstructing a cardboard character, in making her real? Comments like, “This dialogue feels stilted,” and “This is likely to turn off your female readers,” and “I can’t imagine a real woman thinking/feeling/looking like this” can only go so far.
Gillian Flynn may have delivered the world’s best writing advice for writing women characters in Amy’s diatribe about “Cool Girl” from Gone Girl.
“Men always say that as the defining compliment, don’t they? She’s a cool girl. Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot. Hot and understanding. Cool Girls never get angry; they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner and let their men do whatever they want. Go ahead, shit on me, I don’t mind, I’m the Cool Girl.
Men actually think this girl exists. Maybe they’re fooled because so many women are willing to pretend to be this girl. For a long time Cool Girl offended me. I used to see men – friends, coworkers, strangers – giddy over these awful pretender women, and I’d want to sit these men down and calmly say: You are not dating a woman, you are dating a woman who has watched too many movies written by socially awkward men who’d like to believe that this kind of woman exists and might kiss them. I’d want to grab the poor guy by his lapels or messenger bag and say: The bitch doesn’t really love chili dogs that much – no one loves chili dogs that much! And the Cool Girls are even more pathetic: They’re not even pretending to be the woman they want to be, they’re pretending to be the woman a man wants them to be. Oh, and if you’re not a Cool Girl, I beg you not to believe that your man doesn’t want the Cool Girl. It may be a slightly different version – maybe he’s a vegetarian, so Cool Girl loves seitan and is great with dogs; or maybe he’s a hipster artist, so Cool Girl is a tattooed, bespectacled nerd who loves comics. There are variations to the window dressing, but believe me, he wants Cool Girl, who is basically the girl who likes every fucking thing he likes and doesn’t ever complain. (How do you know you’re not Cool Girl? Because he says things like: “I like strong women.” If he says that to you, he will at some point fuck someone else. Because “I like strong women” is code for “I hate strong women.”)”
Now, make no mistake: Amy is a psychopath and does not, by any means, speak for all women. She definitely gets some things wrong when it comes to men (I hope.) But she is spot on in her assessment of Cool Girl.
If you are writing female characters, take a long, hard look at them. Do they look more like the women you know in real life, or do they look more like the women you’ve seen in movies where character development is limited to 2 hours, with most of that going toward the male lead? If your female characters look like a generic Cool Girl or your particular genre’s version of it, proceed with caution. Sure, you’re writing fiction and none of these people actually exist.
But you want your readers — including your female readers — to believe that they do.
So as much as you might wish she existed, if you want readers of both sexes to read and admire your work — Cool Girl has got to go.
And if you’re not sure whether Cool Girl is living in your story, give it to a female reader and ask her for her honest opinion — then gird your loins, don’t get defensive, and spend some time thinking about her assessment.
Your future readers will thank you for it.