It’s difficult to write truly feminist fiction.
It’s sucky, but I think it’s true. Pretty much every author has some subconscious sexism and racism, because those are the messages that society delivers to us as “truth,” over and over again. The difficulty of writing feminist fiction is in overcoming these subconscious thoughts when creating fictional worlds, and being aware of the implications of whatever we write. Not always an easy task.
Think of all the fantasy authors who have spoken eloquently about women in fantasy and the need for more female characters, but whose first books feature a severe lack of female characters, simply because that’s what fantasy novels do and the authors weren’t aware of that imbalance at the time. A lack of female characters can feel truthful in fantasy fiction, because that’s how fantasy fiction usually is.
Or the strange argument that a story can have orcs and dragons, but it can’t have anyone not-white, because that wouldn’t be historically accurate. When challenged, it feels ridiculous, but it can have a ring of truth to readers and writers who are used to fantasy’s whiteness, and similarly used to a historical narrative that omits people of color.
And it’s not just absence that reveals these subconscious biases. It’s narratives where protagonists are “not like other girls,” it’s love stories with a hint of “creepy stalker,” it’s authors describing skin color with food because that’s how other stories do it, and it’s plotlines that seem fine at first but have messages like “don’t get too big for your boots, girls,” or “girls need to be rescued” lurking underneath.
The difficulty of the issue drives some writers to avoid the topic altogether. When male writers say that they can’t write from a female perspective, I’m sure that some of them, at least, are concerned about making mistakes. Even conscientious writers can decide that it isn’t their place to write a character with a different race or gender or sexual orientation from them, that these characters are better left to writers with more authority on the subject.
I think there are two important things here: all writers are at risk of screwing up. And all writers should take that risk anyway. Because yes, our subconscious biases may seep into our work, leaving them open to criticism. And I’m sure it feels awful to have your work be accused of having problematic elements. But it isn’t an excuse not to try. Writers need to engage with these issues, and interrogate their own biases and their own work, in order to change the default narrative that promotes these subconscious biases in the first place.
Which brings me to my book, A Wicked Thing, which comes out tomorrow. I didn’t have any particular feminist point in mind when I wrote A Wicked Thing. I just wanted to tell the story in a way that felt honest and realistic to me. Since this is my truth, there are definitely feminist moments in there. Whether or not they’re successful will be up to readers.
But I thought a lot, as I was writing and since finalizing the manuscript, about whether the book lived up to my own standards of “feminist fiction.” It’s almost impossible to tell, from within my own head, whether the book missteps — which is, I think, part of the reason that so many stories contain problematic elements. I doubt that the Doctor Who writers meant for Kill the Moon to be a pro-life allegory, or for the Baker’s Wife in Into the Woods to be punished for adultery with instant death. But the author is dead, as they say, and stories take on a life of their own when they are consumed by others.
I tried to be analytical about everything I did. If I wrote a character as white, or male, I tried to challenge myself about why I made that choice, if it can be called a choice, and whether it could or should be different. I tried to write female characters who feel real to me, and I tried to think about how the story appeared when viewed in the context of other stories. Do my female characters end up being rescued by male characters too often? Are there unwanted implications about relationships, or about what a girl “should” be?
And before this interrogation of my own work, I made some mistakes. In earlier drafts, this fictional world was far more white than it should have been. Sometimes I had relied on a male character to make things happen when my protagonist should have been in control. It’s easy to slip into comfortable stereotypes and well-worn tropes when we’re not watching.
Even when tackling my own choices, I made some mistakes. I chose to make Aurora the stereotypical blonde fairy tale princess, reasoning that this stereotypical appearance was important to the story I was telling, and that meant that certain other characters also needed to be white, because genetics. This cost me a lot of potential diversity, justified by something that wasn’t really that important in the end.
Overall, though, I hope that I’ve been successful. But that’s not really the author’s place to decide. All we can do is try as hard as we can to change the default narrative, interrogate our work and its choices, and always strive to do better every time.