Monday, July 29, 2013

Gender Flipping: Why I wrote Asleep

One of the experiences that has most colored my life is the simple fact that I am a woman. I'm happy being a woman, and there are some things I really love about it, such as shoes like these and Coach purses. My love for Coach purses borders on obsession. But there are some things about being a woman that I wholeheartedly dislike, such as the constant pressure for our bodies to look a certain way, being told I'm good at something "for a girl", etc. I could make a whole list, but that's not the intent of this post.

For as long as I've been a writer, I've been a reader and a consumer of various other forms of media. One thing that has always disappointed me is the lack of female heroes, particularly when it comes to movies and television shows. Female heroes are easier to come by in books, but even in literature--even in literature written by women--it is a very common thing to find a female character who needs a man to defend her, to give her a reason to live, to help her define her life. I'll put it simply: I don't like this.

Now, I have one caveat to add here: there are times when having a weak female character can serve a specific narrative purpose. It's not that I'm against weak characters, male or female. But what I don't like is this deeply-ingrained assumption that women need to have a man in order to function, and that there are certain things men can do that poor, delicate women can't. I also don't like the assumption that women are one way and men another. I'm sorry, I just don't buy it. Sure, we may have different biology, but men and women are people, and we share many of the same personality traits, character flaws, hopes, and aspirations. Society wants us to believe that men and women are so profoundly different, but I reject that notion.

Long, long ago, I wrote a book called The Eye of the Beholder. That book was a retelling of Beauty and the Beast, but the twist I wanted to put on it was to also tell it from the beast's point of view. Along with writing from the beast's point of view, I wanted to write a Beauty who wasn't afraid to stand up for herself, so that's the sort of Beauty I wrote. When I published the book, I thought I'd sell maybe 100 copies in a year. Imagine my surprise when I passed the number by a factor of ten.

Since that book was so successful, I started thinking about writing other fairy tale reboots. Confession time: I've always loved fairy tales and princess stories. Always. I love the frilly dresses, the dragons, the handsome princes, and everything that comes with them. What I do not like is that warrior princesses are so much less common than warrior princes. So when I chose to put my own spin on Sleeping Beauty, I decided I wanted to shake that tale up a lot. Instead of magic, I wanted to have the captured party be drugged, that way I could also tell the tale from their point of view and have them interact with the villain. I also decided that, instead of a damsel in distress, wouldn't it be interesting if it were the prince who was captured and the princess who had to save him?

I liked this idea, but I decided that, in the world I was creating for Asleep, I didn't want there to be anything out of the ordinary about a princess who uses her weapons to fight for the man she loves. I didn't want her to be the exception to some sort of rule. In the world I constructed, some women are warriors and some men are. Some of the monarchs running their Realms are men and some are women. Sometimes it's the women who go off to wage war, sometimes it's the men. What I did, very, very deliberately, was try to remove gender roles and, instead, focus on who the characters were as people. So Jess is the warrior, the confident one who wears the weight of her responsibility easily. Dev is the one who's more of a tactician, who has problems with self-doubt, who isn't convinced he'll be good at reigning.

What's the result? Well, reception has been mixed. Some readers were thrilled to read about a warrior princess, while others were a little confused by it. Some readers didn't mind the lack of magic while others didn't like it. This is kind of what being a writer boils down to: some people will like your work and others won't, which is not only fine, it's cool. The world would be such a boring place if we all liked the same things. I'm a huge fan of variety, so I'm all for people having differing opinions.

But the gender question in particular has been interesting to me. Lately, I've been watching a lot of videos and reading a lot about how women are represented in media. For an excellent summary with tons of great links to things like book cover swapping, how men and women are portrayed in advertisements, the treatment of female gamers, and the Hawkeye Initiative, read this great article on Junkee.

I am a feminist and not ashamed to call myself one, but feminism for me means total gender equity. It means men can be sensitive and cry, can become dancers, can play with baby dolls without fear of censure from society, a society that currently tells men they must be macho. It means women can be scientists, warriors, and able to provide for themselves without living in a 50s scenario where it's the man who calls all the shots. The status quo is good for no one, regardless of whether you're male or female, or if you identify with a gender other than the one you were born into. I want to get away from the male/female dichotomy. Instead, I just want us all to be people.

That's why I did a gender flip when I wrote Asleep. I want there to be more warrior princesses, so I wrote one. I want there to be more male characters who aren't afraid to show their vulnerabilities, so I wrote one. I understand that not everyone will be on board with that, that it will make some people uncomfortable, and I'm okay with that. But I'm not going to stop doing it because I know I'm not the only one who's been longing for warrior princesses.