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The OTHER Women in Today's Literature

CuddleBuggery: The OTHER Women in Today's Literature

This page has moved to a new address.

The OTHER Women in Today's Literature

CuddleBuggery: The OTHER Women in Today's Literature

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The OTHER Women in Today's Literature

I'm certainly not the first, nor will I be the last to expound on the issues of representation and quality of female characters in YA Paranormal Lit and even in the Urban Fantasy and Paranormal Romance Genre.
However, I am currently reading Simone de Beauvoir, and like millions before me, I’m currently in sparkle-eyed, obsessive admiration of her…
Seriously, she does strange things to me… like turn me into a dreamy anime girl…

Simone takes her readers through a profound, deeply insightful look into the continued failure of the modern and not-so-modern feminist movement.  One of the biggest reasons for the protracted and difficult struggle women have had in order to win equality and basic human rights is our inability to unite together into a single cause.

As Simone points out often, women are often tied to their homes with a greater sense of responsibility to their family than to their gender.  They don’t always mix well with women of different social strata since they are usually unable to adequately sympathize with each other and usually have completely different yet, in the end, complementary needs.

I think they find it hard to relate to each other…

So what are these three different, but intimately related genres teaching us about OTHER women, and I’m not really addressing the shitty quality of female protagonists, either.

Representation of the OTHER Women in Literature

In almost EVERY SINGLE YA, PNR or UF I’ve read, other women are the bad guys.

Dr. Evil
Exactly this ridiculous, only female.

If it is a story centred around a school then you will have your bitchy, evil, female MeanGirls. If it is an Urban Fantasy or Paranormal Romance women will either feature rarely or if they do, they are either a plot device (more on that later), ridiculed by the text or evil.  The only exception to this rule is a series based on a group of characters who hook up with the Twue Loffs over a series of books, like Black Dagger Brotherhood or Karen Marie Moning’s Highlander Series.  Then they’re all allowed to be friends after the fact but during their own novel's, they're almost entirely the only women present!

The Plot Device Woman, The Ridiculous Woman and the Anti-Protagonist

Often this woman exists as the sole friend of the Protagonist’s.  She is there as a counter-weight to make the (usually) already lacklustre female protagonist look more interesting.

For example, Nora’s Vee from Hush Hush
**I would like to point out that I am naming these characters in a function that clearly shows they belong to the protagonist because they wouldn’t exist except as an extension of the protagonist.

Vee is often described by Nora as overly-curvy.  She is simple-minded (this is me being polite to a non-character), desperate, boy-driven, reckless and ridiculous!

Her function is to allow drooling over Patch, which Nora can’t be seen doing because then she would, apparently, look ridiculous.  Thus that is Vee’s job.  She’s also needed to further the plot and is easily discarded when not needed to make this book more ridiculous than it already is.

The same could be said for Luce’s Penn in Fallen and Ever’s Haven in Evermore.

They serve to do what the main protagonist can’t and dress the protagonist and make her pretty, whilst reminding the reader how ewnique the heroine is and that she’s cool because she’s not into all that “girlie shit”.

The Evil Women

I’ve read a number of books lately in which there is not ONE positive female character other than the protagonist.  Surprisingly, Kathy Reich’s Virals come to mind as the latest, and most unexpected entry onto my list of Books Lacking Positive Female Representation.

I’m not kidding when I say that not a SINGLE female character in this book is in anyway positive with the sole exception of the protagonist.  Almost every male character in this book turns out to be either: awesome, nice, good, misunderstood or wronged.

The girls at school are complete bitches who the female protagonist describes as stupid and uninteresting, her father’s girlfriend is nothing but a mindless society girl and that sums it up.

Similarly with Jessica’s Guide to Dating on the Dark Side.  Another disappointing entry onto the list, despite my enjoyment of it.

The more obvious entries would be: Shiver, The Iron Witch, and a bevy of rubbish YA literature.

The Non-Existent Women

Bitten by Kelley Armstrong, one of my favourites, has virtually no other female characters in it and the one woman who becomes a female werewolf (in a sequel novel) is a stupid, manipulative liar who we’re supposed to despise and ultimately pity.

Anita Blake which is supposed to be ALL ABOUT woman power and yet women are, for the most part, non-existent in her world.  When they are finally represented they are either evil, useless, incompetent or vindictive.

A number of novels, such as Stray by Rachel Vincent, and the aforementioned Bitten simply remove the hassle of creating ANY female characters from them by creating a mythology in which women aren’t powerful enough to become paranormal creatures and the female protagonist is one of the sole exceptions. 
To a lesser degree, the Mercy Thompson series also does this and one has to wonder why?

Why Do Authors Do This?

As mentioned above, for a number of reasons.  A diamond looks less special when it’s surrounded by other diamonds and a quartz looks even worse surrounded by diamonds.

Their protagonists aren’t really unique, special or amazing (in most cases).  Luce, Ever, Grace, Nora etc aren’t all that distinguishable when you pile them all together.  If you were to create a story featuring all these characters then it would probably have a lot of girls who all sound and act almost entirely the same.

Similarly many Paranormal Romance Heroines and Urban Fantasy Heroines are only distinguishable because of their different powers or abilities or SPECIES.

How different are Stormwalker’s Janet Begay and Moon Called’s Mercy Thompson, really?
Or Kim Harrison, Anita Blake, Gin Blanco and Cassandra Palmer?

It’s easier to either feature other women in far worse light or to not feature them at all than to create a truly unique, vibrant, living, breathing character that can stand up to some competition.

What Are the Effects?

Competition, mainly.

As in, we’re all in one.

Other women aren’t there for solidarity and sisterhood.  In these novels, most of these women are far more comfortable around men and male companionship than they are around women.

Simone de Beauvoir speaks constantly about how men see women as Other.  The ones Not Like Him.  Yet, aren’t these books sending the same message?  Other women are Other.  They are either competition, in the way or something to be used to gain the prize: The Man.

Because in the end, that’s what most of the conflict stems from in these books.

Hot Guy likes Heroine.  Evil Bitch wants Hot Guy.  Evil Bitch attacks Heroine.  Heroine is more awesome than Evil Bitch and Hot Guy recognizes this.  Heroine Wins.

It’s a formula, too often used, that only hurts us and our perception of other women.  There is no sense of sisterhood or solidarity in these novels.   These novels routinely show us that our benefactors, peers and supporters are pretty much only men.

And hey, there's NOTHING wrong with men.  Many men have joined to help fight and continue to support women's rights around the world.  But we're certainly not doing ourselves any favours if society is teaching us to be suspicious, wary and uncomfortable around EACH OTHER.

I don’t believe fiction is the cause of this, merely an unfortunate victim and unwitting propagator of what is becoming a more and more prevalent and damaging view.


Blogger Cory said...

God, I've come across the evil other woman way too many times in YA and chick-lit. She's like a plague. And it's sad because I usually like her more than I like the heroine.

March 22, 2011 at 10:12 PM  
Blogger Lulu said...

I believe the term you're looking for is "foil." It's not a bad trope in and of itself and it's one of many ways to flesh out the protagonist. It should never be used to make the protagonist look "better" though, which is exactly what these authors are doing.

On an unrelated note, I'm going to have to call you out on your lack of netiquette. I notice that you're hotlinking your images straight from the source. Please don't do this. You're stealing their bandwidth, which costs money, obviously. You should get yourself an account at a free photo hosting service like Imageshack and upload your photos there, or upload them to Blogger. It's more work, but at least the images aren't in any danger of being deleted or replaced. Plus, you won't look like an ass.

March 22, 2011 at 10:17 PM  
Blogger K said...

Same here. I'm all in for Marcy Miller taking over the world in "Silence" and sentencing Nora to a painful death.

March 23, 2011 at 2:48 AM  
Blogger Kate said...

There are still good examples of fiction that doesn't demonize other females. Maybe this is a new trend, I don't know. I know I agree with you.
You know what other plot point I HATE HATE HATE more than the evil bitch female(who still has SOME power)... I HATE love triangles. You mentioned one of them here, the two female triangle. I'm sick TO DEATH of the two male triangle. It's like everyone said, "Oh, Meyer made it work so great for her, so I'm going to try it too!"
ARGH. Excellent post btw. I can see I'm going to have to become obsessed by your blog. hahaha(I also added you on goodreads).

May 7, 2011 at 7:26 AM  
Blogger Regin said...

"Guy" literature (esp. sci fi) seems to be pretty free from this though on the other hand women there are often simplified caricatures or play very small roles.

July 22, 2011 at 10:44 PM  
Blogger Kat Kennedy said...

Regin, you're right. Guy literature doesn't have this issue but they have a whole set of new issues when it comes to female characters. There are exceptions, of course, like Garth Nix et al.

Kate, I also dislike the male love triangle. In general I don't like love triangles at all.

Thebloodfiend, I so agree. She usually has more spunk at least!

Katya, we must plot!

October 6, 2011 at 3:08 AM  
Blogger Kat Kennedy said...

Luisa, I honestly had no idea about this! I will load pictures onto my photobucket and use them from there from now on. Thank you for letting me know.

November 18, 2011 at 2:53 PM  
Blogger Lady Jaye said...

I think this also plays out in real life too - the lack of sisterhood or camaraderie with other women. I can't count how many times I've heard women say "Oh, I can't be friends with other women; they're too bitchy. I prefer guys; they're more easygoing."

December 28, 2011 at 4:04 AM  
Blogger Kat Kennedy said...

Lady Jaye,

I, too, hear this all the time and I think it's one of the biggest lies we tell ourselves.

I exist in a community of women who care for each other and serve each other's needs. I think this is a propagation of the lie of Other that Beauvoir talks about in the Second Sex.

We're so used to seeing male perspective and knowing male characters in media that female characters are Other even to us.

As someone who didn't have a lot of girlfriends growing up, I found it hard to relate to women and went through long phases of only having guy friends but this wasn't an answer to my problem and when I joined the feminine community and learned to be one of them, I knew I'd never go back!

December 28, 2011 at 4:11 AM  
Blogger Lady Jaye said...

I never understood that.

I grew up in Ghana, a society that is very patriarchal, with our patriarchal traditions and religions, and then Christianity thrown into the mix - with a very anti-feminist interpretation of it too - so basically I had a profoundly antifeminist upbringing.

Not fitting into the mold of what we were told a woman should be, I needed female friends to be able to survive.

And you're right, guys are great, but there's nothing like having female friends. you know, shared bodies and lived experiences and all that.

December 28, 2011 at 5:08 AM  
Anonymous Tabby said...

I enjoyed this post, thanks for sharing

September 4, 2023 at 9:30 AM  

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