Fridging Weakens Male Characters Too

GreenLantern_02_300_8430The thing growled in the darkness, blood dripping from its claws. Dirk took a step forward, pistol in one hand, lantern in the other. The creature took a step back, turned and raced away. For a moment, Dirk sagged with relief. Then he looked down and realised that he was too late. A body lay in the doorway, slowly turning as cold as the flagstones beneath it. An all too familiar face looked up at him…

I was thinking today about an upcoming scene in the book I’m writing. I’m planning to kill off a minor character to demonstrate a threat and crank up the tension. It’s not exactly a novel tactic – writers use it all the time. When it’s done well, it’s very powerful. When it isn’t, you get tropes like Women in Refrigerators, where significant female characters die just to motivate their male counterparts.

As I pondered this scene, I realised that I was falling into the trap of that trope. I had two characters whose deaths would fit the plot, and I’d defaulted to killing the female one. My protagonist likes her more than the male character. Her death would provide greater motivation.

That was when alarm bells started to ring in my head. It might make a stronger motive to kill this character, but it would also perpetuate a troubling trope, one that contributes to unequal representation in culture, to the positioning of women as less important.

It was only as I stepped back from that thought, considering what would happen if I killed the male character, that I realised something else. Killing off the character my protagonist cared about, making what followed partly about vengeance, didn’t make for a better motive – it made for a shitty one.

If a friend of my protagonist dies and he sets out to avenge her then his motive is personal. It’s about his emotions. But if someone he doesn’t like dies, and he still sets out to deal with the perpetrator because every life matters, then he’s living up to a higher moral standard. He’s protecting everyone, no matter who they are. He cares about all of humanity.

Developing my character’s story through the death of someone he doesn’t like makes a more powerful point about the moral values and strength of character on display. He would be weakened as a character by making it personal.

I don’t know if this has been said elsewhere in relation to women in refrigerators, but it’s the first time it’s really struck me. This vengeance-fuelled trope doesn’t just weaken the representation of women and so the value assigned to them in society. Like so many gendered tropes, it does the same for men. It normalises vengeance and anger as better motivators for them than moral values or making the world a better place, and that’s a terrible message to send. We become better if we can look beyond the personal to do what’s right.

So I’m definitely not killing of that female character. I’ll still get a death in to keep the story going, but it’s the male character who will die. And my story will be more powerful for it.

Hard lines and heated words – the challenge of discussing science fiction and fantasy

I love science fiction and fantasy, and I believe that nothing is better for those genres than the ability to critically discuss them, to offer challenges and insights to each other, to find our weaknesses, celebrate our strengths and build on both.

That’s why I often hate getting into debates about them on the internet. What should be a forum for development and growth instead becomes a source of deep division. Why?

The symptoms

Recent controversy around the Hugo awards is a good example of how this goes down. A group of writers and fans with a broadly right-wing agenda campaigned to get their favourite writers onto the ballot. They succeeded, and in response more liberal fans cried foul. Much vitriol was spewed. I mostly ignored it but it still made me sad because of the tone taken by people on both sides.

Discussions of feminism and geek culture are among the worst I’ve seen. Both sides of these debates put huge efforts into pushing forward their point of view, rather than listening to each other’s perspectives or trying to understand where those viewpoints come from. It tends to get very ugly very fast, and though I care deeply about these topics I step away from discussions that look angry, unproductive and emotionally draining.

The disease

In my opinion, the problem is that these debates become a matter of attack and defence, rather than an attempt to learn from one another and appreciate other points of view.

It’s natural that this would happen. As fans of all things nerdy we’re used to being ostracised and attacked, to the point where we see ourselves that way despite the increasingly mainstream position of our culture. That makes us incredibly wary of any perceived attack, ready to leap in and defend what we love. It’s one of the reasons why the insightful videos of Feminist Frequency receive as much scorn as admiration. People see a critique of an aspect of something they love and they feel it as an attack on their cultural identity. They feel hurt, and they respond as such.

But of course these counter-attacks put the feminists, or the right-wing science fiction writers, or whoever it is on the defensive. The fight goes back and forth, becoming increasingly bitter. A love for or hatred of Feminist Frequency becomes a badge of honour, to be defended in itself. Positions entrench preventing either side from hearing the other. They might win more supporters through these public spats, or they might alienate casual observers, but what they won’t do is change each others’ views.

The cure (well, mine anyway)

Tom Bramwell has written an excellent piece on this problem and video games, and if you take away one thing from this post it should be to read his article. What I took from it is this – we need to listen. Even if I abhor someone’s opinion, I can achieve more through listening and understanding why they hold that opinion than from repeating, rephrasing and defending my own arguments, hammering them into a defensive stance. Proving ourselves logically right over and over again doesn’t matter. Understanding why others disagree with us does.

I’m not saying that you should not stand up for what you believe in. Far from it. I firmly believe that women are under-represented in science fiction and fantasy and we should change that. But I also believe that the best way to achieve change is to express my view, then step back from the debate and listen. Not to defend my position. To understand rather than berate.

And yes, this is not just a science fiction and fantasy thing. It is a universal thing. It is as true of politics and religion as of which Star Trek captain was best (Picard). But sf+f is where I live. It’s what I’m passionate about. And so that’s where I start trying to treat this differently.

And if you’ve never seen Feminist Frequency then here’s a taste. I think it’s excellent, if occasionally flawed. Other opinions are available.