Monday, November 11, 2013

So. I See I'm A Girl. :/



When I was a teen, I spent a lot of hours wishing I’d been born a boy.

It wasn’t because I wasn’t happy in my own skin. It wasn’t that I looked at my face in the mirror and thought: that’s not me. It was just because I had seen the sort of person I wanted to be when I grew up and none of them were women.

Teen-Maggie loved all sort of books and movies, particularly thrillers and adventure stories. Like most readers and movie-watchers, I had a long list of characters I’d admired for sometimes very shabby reasons: Maverick from Top Gun, Sean Dillon from Jack Higgins’ novels, Howl from Howl’s Moving Castle, Tyler Durden of Fight Club, Athos of The Three Musketeers. The list was longer than that. By a lot. It was also all male. I wasn’t crushing on them. I wanted to be them. I wanted to be the wise-cracking adventurer with hidden depths, fearless and aggressive and bad-ass and car-racing and explosion-making and just . . . sexy.

I spent a lot of time looking for equivalent woman. But in movies, they usually wore spandex. And in fiction, they were called “sassy” instead of “funny.” And in real life . . . well, they didn’t exist in real life. At least not in my rural middle-class part of the world. How could you reconcile a funny, fearless adventurer with a Nurturing Mother Type?

I’ll give you a spoiler, in case you’ve never seen the hundreds of blog posts, articles, and generalized confessions of women feeling guilty about working away from home. You couldn’t.

So here was the moral of the story for teen Maggie: be born a boy, or take your toys and go home.
Don’t get me wrong, there were strong female characters in many of the books I read. They were just strong in different ways. When they appeared as secondary characters, they were the rocks the tempestuous men tied themselves to. They were the helpmeets and the scholars, the ones who did their homework and the ones who appeared with solutions at the last minute. And as narrators, they were often plucky and fearless and capable. But they were never just a female version of any of the people on my list of Dudes I Wished I Was. Where was the woman I wanted to be?

She didn’t seem to exist.

The thing is, girl characters mostly look different than boy characters. Even when written by women. We have hundreds of years of story-telling to tell us what a hero looks like, and what a heroine looks like, and that stuff is ingrained deep. It’s not that we don’t want to write women who are capable in the same way as men. It’s that it requires a helluva lot of imagination to overcome the weight of that narrative history. It’s one thing to write a better version of something you’re already looking at. It’s another thing to write something you haven’t ever seen before.

We talk a lot about strength in women characters, but not so much about the things male characters still have a corner on: humor, aggression, confidence, ambition. Heroes and heroines wear these things so differently still — look at the Avengers. Just look at it, okay! We’re still so stuck on gender roles. I’m reminded of it every time someone asks me about my masculine hobbies.
They’re not masculine hobbies. They are Maggie hobbies, thanks.

I wasn’t born a boy. And it’s taken me 31 years to finally become the person I wanted to be — 31 years to find a way to translate my list of admirable fictional role models into a woman I can actually be in real life. It took me that long to find a way to translate my often "masculine" interests into a "feminine" persona. It meant overcoming quite a bit of failure of imagination. Much of it mine.

Now I’m trying to translate that back into fiction. I really want a future-Maggie to grow up with a list of fictional role-models populated by both genders. I spent so many years depressed that I’d been born into a gender I didn’t seem to belong to. I want future teen me to know that she really can be anything she wants to be . . . and see examples of it all around her.
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