The other day, a friend and I were discussing the movie The Fifth Element. My S.O. loves that movie. It is ironically one of the only science fiction movies that he enjoys. I chalk this up to nostalgia – not that I don’t enjoy the movie, the opposite, but it’s not really his kind of science fiction. His speed is more Interstellar or something else vastly cerebral.
Anyway, so my friend and I were discussing this and she mentioned that The Fifth Element would have been vastly better with some gender-flipping. The trope of the woman as sacred object, the naive woman who needed a man to save her and help her navigate the world, was tiring for her. Make Bruce Willis be Leeloo, and have Milla Jovovich be the tough cab driver with a mysterious past. I suggested going one further – keep Jovovich as the mystical Leeloo, and cast some hard-bitten older woman in Bruce Willis’ role. Her name could be Kora, or Ervin. You already have several speaking male side characters, including the very prominent role of the antagonist. Why not?
In a separate conversation on one of the social media sites I subscribe to, I found this post which talked about the role of female heroes in writing. I want to talk about how it made me feel in light of the above and in light of my identity as a writer. I swear it connects to the above.
Writing as a woman is hard, because you’re covered in sticky cobwebs of male gaze and you don’t even know it. The post above mentions male writers, but male writers, as male directors, are only part of the problem. They are a huge part of the problem, sure. But the other part of the problem is that we as female creators often perpetuate their tropes.
Unfortunately, even once you awaken to the tropes in question, it can be hard to shake them, mostly because there aren’t any mainstream models of the kind of story you do want to tell. You end up making it up as you go along. I was lucky. I found authors like Martha Wells and Laurie J. Marks early. I knew I loved what they were writing, but I didn’t really understand why. It took me years, four of them spent at an all women’s undergraduate college, to really recognize what it was that was so fulfilling about these stories for me. It was because those stories were written for me. They weren’t written for the male gaze, but for mine. The characters in them, both male and female, were not indefinably crippled by the assumptions that so often come up in our stories: the woman must be saved, the woman must be beautiful, the woman must be perfect, the woman must have volition, but not too much. She must not overshadow the male protagonist. She must be good.
Nowadays I have added a plethora of authors to my list who are writing the kinds of stories I want to write, and to read. Seanan McGuire, Catherynne Valente, Kameron Hurley, N.K. Jemisin – they are all doing amazing things, testing the boundaries of their genres, and generally rocking out. They are telling the kinds of stories that I want to tell
But it is still hard, despite that, to shake the tropes that have so often reoccurred in mainstream fiction and genre fiction. I still read through a story or a paragraph and realize, oh, I have done the thing that I did not want to do. I have reduced my character to her attractiveness, to her goodness, and not let any of the dark survive to give her flavor. Writing as a woman is a balancing act between being true to your heart and being pulled in by the assumptions you never realized that you were taught to make. You can guarantee that if you are true to your heart, someone will accuse you of being an SJW, of distracting from the story, of advancing an agenda. And if you get pulled the other way, if you give up – well, you have even more left to lose. It is hard.
But the best things in life are rarely easy. So chin up, buttercup. Write your heart.
(P.S. if someone wants to write that Fifth Element AU I will totally read it. Totally.)