…And the way of all good things: Gender analysis, art, and cliches

4 04 2010

I’m in a very weird position vis a vis the Rifters trilogy and feminism. It’s one of those books that combines the things I absolutely wish more writers would do with the things I hate it when writers do, then problematizes the things I hate, and then goes back and reinforces them all over again. It’s all very complicated.

But, first, a standard disclaimer on fiction and feminism, because there are two things that always come up whenever anybody does a feminist or Marxist or Christian or in-any-way-postmodern critique of anything:

  1. It’s just a movie/book/interpretive dance!
  2. Why do you think everything good has to be feminist? You’re missing out on great movies/books/interpretive dances this way!

The first one already has an answer. It’s called Moff’s Law. The whole thing is worth reading; here’s a bit of the conclusion:

And most annoyingly of all, you’re contributing to the fucking conversation yourselves when you make your stupid, stupid comments. You are basically saying, “I think people shouldn’t think so much and share their thoughts, that’s my thought that I have to share.” If you really think people should just enjoy the movie without thinking about it, then why the fuck did you (1) click on the post in the first place, and (2) bother to leave a comment?

The second one, I mean, it’s worth clarifying. Someone online once said that everything you’ll see falls into one of four categories: This is good and I like it, this is good and I don’t like it, this is bad and I like it, and this is bad and I don’t like it. So I guess you could class my deconstruction of gender dynamics under the “I like/don’t like” part of this, or you could say that I think there are different kinds of good: There’s aesthetic good, and there’s moral good. I think of fairness, equality, and kindness (something in which I include feminism) as a kind of moral good; they don’t have to be in everything I watch, but I’ll think about them in everything I watch, and part of the fun of seeing/reading anything is looking at how those things line up.

So, to be clear, I don’t limit myself to only things that are already vetted for “goodness,” aesthetic or moral. And I don’t think that only feminist or anti-racist things can be aesthetically good, obviously. Alan Moore’s “The Killing Joke” is really weird from a feminist standpoint: Batgirl/Barbara Gordon getting crippled just to motivate the heroes is practically the textbook example of Women in Refrigerators, but even so, it’s a well-written, interesting, and entertaining story that is integral to the Batman we know today.

There is, however, one area where bad gender politics is pretty clearly a symptom of bad writing, and that’s in cliches. I don’t know why, but it seems like cliches are somehow innately conservative, and when someone “accidentally” writes something sexist into a book, or creates another “magical Negro” character, or a romantic comedy based on hackneyed gender roles, it’s not that they’re trying to be sexist/racist/whatever, or that they even necessarily think that way–it’s that they’re relying on the crutch of using ideas from the lowest rung of the popular imagination.

To stick with the comic example, let’s go with a 2005 Steven Grant column at Comic Book Resources complaining about the overuse of rape as a gimmick in comic books, in which he argues that

[Rape is] used far too often simply as a motivating factor, and to paint an easy, lazy characterization for a female character – she becomes “the one who was raped” – that mostly male writers use to avoid any real characterization…Screw “realism.” If you can’t come up with better storylines or characterizations for female characters, particularly heroines (or the hero’s girlfriend) than that, something’s wrong. At minimum, something’s derivative, lazy and uninteresting.

This is pretty much explicated in this comic:

Real science-fiction — the kind that postulates alternate universes, as opposed to just westerns in space — terrifies TV executives and alienates audiences, so the people who usually write sci-fi and fantasy are underpaid, undertalented, and too lazy to come up with another motivation for a woman that’s not vagina-related.

I know there’s the sense that calling someone “a racist” or “a sexist” is tantamount to accusing them of killing children, but if I say I have a problem with the way something works gender-wise in a story, it doesn’t mean I’m saying the story itself, as a piece of art, is bad. If you’re doing stuff like this, though–knock it off. You shouldn’t want to be a hack either.



One response

11 04 2010
Rifters and feminism: Love or Stockholm’s? « CYBERPUNKS NOT DEAD

[…] subvert this trope and completely confirm it, often several times sequentially. I’ve covered rape as character background before: It’s an easy way to give a female character motivation–it’s not enough to […]

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