A couple of weeks ago, a friend sent me a message about a book he’d just finished reading. “This book was terrible,” he said. “It was an urban fantasy novel, and the story was good, but the protagonist was just awful. The author’s name was female, but it was clearly written by a man. No woman would ever talk about themselves like that.”
“Like what?” I asked.
His complaint was that the female protagonist called herself a bitch on every other page, referred to herself as a slut a couple of dozen times throughout the book, and regularly described and critiqued her breasts and… ahem… more private areas. Despite the magic, mystery, and action that should have been the focus of the story, the protagonist spent more time objectifying herself than actually engaging with the plot.
For my friend, the lowest moment came after the protagonist had a one-night-stand with a male love interest. While the man was still asleep in bed the next morning, the protagonist sneaked off to the shower and harangued herself: “Why am I always such a dumb slut when I’m drunk?”
As it turns out, my friend was wrong: the author is a woman. Plus, of course, in real life, women–especially young women–talk about themselves like that quite frequently. “You’re a 40-something man,” I said. “You’re not really the author’s target audience.”
But then I got to thinking. Who is the target audience for this book? And how does it affect them?
Changing the World
At the Writer Unboxed Unconference last year, Donald Maass finished his workshop with a question.
How do you want your novel to change the world?
“The purpose of writing a novel is not to get published,” he said. “Every person has a story and purpose, a powerful message. How do you want your novel to change the world?”
Julia Munroe Martin wrote about her reaction to the question here. It was an incredibly moment at the end of an incredible week, and it’s a question that I come back to time and time again when I’m writing.
It’s a question that came back to me anew after talking to my friend about his reading experience.
How does that novel–a novel that has the protagonist regularly calling herself a dumb slut–change the world?
Words and Authenticity
I don’t really believe in demonising words just for existing. The word ‘slut’ is a word that exist; it gets used; it gets used by young women to refer to themselves. There are entire organisations devoted to the idea of “taking back” the word slut. While I don’t necessarily agree with their methodology, I get it. Women want to take the sting away from the word.
But that protagonist, crying in the shower that she’s a “dumb slut when she’s drunk”, she’s not feeling empowered. She’s not taking back the right to be and act and dress as she chooses.
She’s perpetuating and internalising the patriarchal idea that a man who has a one-night-stand is a legend, but a women who has a one-night-stand is a dumb slut.
And the worst part is, it’s completely authentic.
Where is the line?
Where is the line between writing an authentic character who represents reality for so many young women, and writing a positive representation of young women that will, as Donald Maass says, change the world?
Where is our responsibility, as writers, in writing characters who represent a better word? Should we follow the advice of the poets Salt N Pepa?
Let’s tell it how it is, and how it could be,
How it was, and of course how it should be.
Or should we stick to creating authentic characters who actually exist in this world?
I don’t have an answer for you. Perhaps you have one for me.
But I can’t help thinking that, somewhere out there, that book my friend disliked so much found someone in its target audience. A nineteen-year-old woman, looking for a pleasant escape into magic and mystery, stumbled across a book where the protagonist–a capable, confident, butt-kicking hero of her own age–had sex with someone, and then described herself as a “dumb slut”.
How will that change the world for her?
Where do you draw the line between authenticity and positive change? Do you think about these issues as you’re writing? What do you think about representations of women that reinforce patriarchal models of thought?
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