by Carrie Jones

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At our recent Westwind meetings, we editors have found ourselves discussing the same topic again and again. Besides noticing that writers spend too much time thinking up earth-shattering metaphors and not enough time developing the finer points of their plots, we have discovered that many female characters are disappearing from short stories right before our eyes. Well, they are present, to be sure. But our fellow student-writers spend less and less time developing their female characters outside of their functions as “The Protected One,” “The Loved One,” “The Domestic Goddess,” “The Nurturer,” or other variations on absurd female stereotypes.

Several weeks ago, we discussed a work that depicted a particularly flat female character. This was not the first element of the story that we debated. Rather, we spent most of our time working out whether the plot was plausible, the tone of the story worked, and the relations between the two main characters seemed authentic. But then one of us asked about the third (and final) character in the play, the girlfriend. We hadn’t even considered her a significant part of the story at first. But how could she not be important in a story containing only three characters? After discussing, we decided that she existed in the play almost entirely as a prop for the two male characters.

Quite a few of our recent submissions have included many flat female characters like this one. Authors leave these characters underdeveloped, rendering them mediums through which the men define themselves rather than actual characters who act like human beings. When I see this happening in fiction, I attribute it to several factors, some more ridiculous than others:

  1. Our patriarchal society promotes the invisibility of women in fiction. In our culture, women are often represented as secondary figures to their male counterparts. It would follow, then, that fiction sometimes presents women in order to promote the psychological depth of male characters. I would like to think that this excuse does not fit here because it ignores problems that writers can solve more feasibly, and it also just seems like a cop-out excuse. I offer the next possible reason as an equally ridiculous proposition.
  2. Stereotypes of the lone male writer tend to show them as hermits. If this stereotype were true, it would mean that they would hardly interact with women in real life. Because they wouldn’t interact with women, they would have no idea how women talk or act. Yeah, ridiculous. Just thought I’d throw that out there for that lonely writer for whom that is true. I’m sorry, buddy.
  3. Other American literature presents women this way. Since great writers influence one another, this trend passes from generation to generation.
  4. Popular culture, in addition to literature, presents women in subordinate roles. One of our staffers, for example, brought up the concept of female characters as “Women in Refrigerators,” a term comic book readers use to speak about the subordinate roles of women in graphic novels and comic books. Popular representations of women manifest themselves in similar ways regardless of the artistic medium, and I think we need to work to bring women to the forefront in both comics and in good fiction.
  5. In general, writers look down on “chick lit.” I often hear women recommending amazing books to men, only to qualify their recommendation with, “but it’s kind of a girly book.” If I’m not mistaken, Ernest Hemingway was kind of a misogynistic creep, but I can still get through his long meditations on hunting and war and fishing and bull fighting and scotch. I can even comprehend these descriptions and feel empathy for his male characters. Because these writers think that exploring the female psyche would somehow damage their important and universal artistic message, they ignore women’s motivations altogether.

Whatever the reason, I would like to say, quit it! We’re tired of reading stories where authors ignore women. If you bring women back into the picture and then make them three-dimensional, you’ll find your stories improve as well.

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