Wednesday, 8 June 2016

We Need to be Wicked

Lucrezia Borgia, by Bartolomeo Veneto (1502-1546)

There's been some spirited discussion on my Facebook wall recent of this article and this one, so I thought I'd re-post my take on the subject. It originally appeared on the Sinful Press blog back in April. I've made some minor corrections for clarification.

 We Need to be Wicked 
Recently I bought an anthology of female-written fiction whose subtitle was “women up to no good”. Now this is not a book review, but I want to make it clear that these stories were well-written and well-edited and almost all really interesting, taken as individual pieces. Nevertheless I read the collection with a growing sense of frustration and finished up feeling thoroughly cheated.

You’d have thought with a title like that you’d be in for tales of villains, wouldn’t you? Criminals, wild girls, cheats, roisterers, spies, revolutionaries, murderers, rioters, conspirators, cunning manipulators, selfish bitches, fighters and rebels?

What we actually got, out of 35 stories, were 13 about women in sexual relationships with men who treated them badly (anywhere from ignoring them as they grew apart, way up to severe abuse), and the women reacting in various ways (from having a bit of a cry, up to revenge murder). Of the remaining stories, 12 featured women who did absolutely nothing ethically dodgy at all, and 4 had female protagonists who were miserably coerced into wrongdoing by some sort of external compulsion (usually family pressure).

These weren’t stories of Women Up To No Good, these were stories of Poor Downtrodden Wives and their Nasty Menz. These were stories of passive, conformist, characterless doormats pushed into a corner.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m most certainly not someone who thinks that all fiction should be socially improving or be about supplying good role models. I have zero truck with activists who think that misfortune happening to a female character automatically makes a Bad Story and its fans misogynists, or those who call on authors to be “punished” for killing off any gay character. A progressive take in fiction is a good thing, IMO, but the moment it becomes the only criterion then storytelling is dead.

So yeah, if you’re a writer – write what you like.

But hell, I do think there is a hole in feminist fiction, and a terrible distortion in the image women writers present our gender: selfless, sexless creatures victimized by nasty men with all the personality of sharks.

Clytemnestra, by John Collier (1882)
Because that’s JUST NOT TRUE, ffs! In real life, women do really bad things from selfish motives (and gosh, men have complex inner lives and are often altruistic!). Girls are bullies just as much as boys are. Women inflict verbal, mental, sexual and physical abuse on partners and children (the rate of domestic violence among lesbian couples is actually higher than male-to-female violence in heterosexual couples). They neglect their responsibilities and desert their families for sex and excitement. THEY WANT SEX WITH PEOPLE THEY ARE NOT MARRIED TO. They’re greedy, materialistic, cruel, and driven by status and power and money – because those are all human traits, not just male ones.

Yes, I get that women writers don’t want to shore up the old-school clichés of manipulative bitches and sultry temptresses – but putting 'our' people on a pedestal (and “we are all blameless victims” – such a low, dreary, shitty pedestal!) is not the solution either.

And good grief, what is this authors’ conspiracy that women characters don’t think much about sex? If that were the case, the multi-billion dollar Romance industry would drop dead overnight. They might be cautious for very good practical reasons about expressing it, but women in real life dream about, lust over and objectify men they don’t know. 

All. The. Time.

I’m a feminist. I don’t wish to finish yet another book of female-focused fiction thinking, “Well shit, I never want to read another woman writer again, pass me some Robert E Howard for fuckssake.” What I do want is to read about women doing thrilling things, about women driven by their unruly impulses, about women who make terrible life choices with heroic, ferocious passion. I want them to go on rash missions and shoot for the stars and stop being the eternal goddamn voice of dull respectability and caution. I want women to be heroes and villains, not just protagonists. I want women’s fiction – and women in fiction – to be as exciting and scary and dramatic and shocking as any written.

Women characters in fiction need more ego. It’s the fundamental basis of being an individual after all.
I want us to reclaim our lust, our agency – and hell yes, our wickedness.

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