Men are afraid that women will laugh at them; women are afraid that men will kill them. — Margaret Atwood
I was contemplating how a female protagonist in a mystery/thriller of necessity has to work differently than a male protagonist. Too often if a man is writing a female protagonist, she’s either written drop dead Hollywood gorgeous as an idealized sex toy, not as a real person, most of whom aren’t drop dead gorgeous and most of whom aren’t tall and thin. Or if he believes himself to be a particularly enlightened writer, she’s depicted basically as a man with boobs. But given the difference in size in and of itself that last can’t work. She has to operate with her wits and tongue and friends in low places, and if necessary fleet feet, not her fists, because trying to get into a one-on-one physical matchup with someone who outweighs you by sixty pounds and a shit-ton of testosterone-fueled muscle is a fool’s errand. She isn’t going to engage in the sort of monkey dance shenanigans that boys and men get up to (if you don’t know what I’m talking about, you’ve never observed the beginning stages of a schoolyard fight between boys, which are more about monkey hooting and howling than about actual fighting), and if she needs to kill someone she’ll just kill him, preferably with a distance weapon, she isn’t going to try to hammer him to death with her bare hands or do all sorts of posturing and talking about it. There isn’t much room for error in the life of the bad-ass woman protagonist, so if she has to get physical she will do so with the most deadly weapon possible as quickly as possible because if the bad guy gets his hands on her, she’s toast.
Add in sex. Sex works different for women. Sex for most women requires a lot more trust than for a man, because of that difference in size and strength. Despite that, women have sex drives too. Yet most depictions of female protagonists by men have their female protagonist either be basically virginal and asexual with no discernable sex drive, or have her slinking up to villains to use sex as a weapon. But you can’t use something as a weapon that a villain can basically just take from you. Neither of these extremes, asexuality or hypersexuality, are normal or healthy. Depictions of healthy sexual relationships between men and women in fiction with female protagonists, especially in the mystery/thriller genre, seems oddly scarce. One of the things I like about the fiction of Janet Evanovich is that her female protagonists do have a healthy sex drive and some healthy sexual relationships. But then, she isn’t a male writer.
There is a scene in “The Doorways of Winter” where the female protagonist has basically the same thought as Margaret Atwood above, knowing that this murderous drug dealer she is dealing with in an attempt to save a girl’s life could kill her with his bare hands with no more thought than swatting a fly and there would be very little she could do about it regardless of any bad-assitude on her part because she is just physically too small to deal with him without a firearm, which she doesn’t have. What she does have is a support network including both a retired cop and some very scary relatives to call upon to convince him that it would be a bad idea. But for women without that support network or without the wits and tongue to enlist them in support and convince the potential abuser that their existence means attacking her is a bad idea, well, that explains the domestic violence statistics.
Which is why the first thing domestic abusers do is cut women off from their support networks…
Do I think that it’s possible for a man to write a realistic female protagonist? I think the answer to that is “maybe”, but not easily. I sort of dodge the question by writing female protagonists who aren’t normal in some way. They were orphaned and abused, or raised by a predator to be a killer, or otherwise have an abnormal background that can be used as an explanation for them behaving in ways that normal women don’t behave. Still, I try not to treat them as men with boobs and instead make them abide by the same realities that normal women have to abide by, such as the realities of physical limits compared to most of the men they’ll encounter and things like bras and birth control and periods, and try to give them a relatively normal and healthy sex drive. I also try to avoid stereotypes. I don’t always succeed, but (shrug). So it goes.
– Badtux the Fiction Penguin
Exercise: “Depict a woman in your fiction.”
Emma put the food on platters in the middle of the battered table, then put out plates and silverware, worn spoons and forks and steak knives on pieces of paper towel. Emma nodded at Mara. Mara nodded back and walked to the door to the garage and opened it to the sight of a large tattooed man working on a Harley Davidson motorcycle, and Todd drinking a beer leaning against the opposite wall. Todd saw Mara at the same time that Mara said “Dinnertime!”
The large tattooed man turned. He had greasy black hair and was wearing a wife-beater t-shirt and blue jeans and combat boots that looked all stompy. He looked at Mara up and down, looked at Mara’s red sneakers and brown cargo shorts and khaki t-shirt and short brown hair, noted the solidity of her build but also clearly noting that she was fairly small and not a physical threat to him, and then said “Who the fuck are you?”
Not depicted as a seductress or sultry or a sex object. Could be gay (note, she isn’t), but could also be just a strong willed person who is practical and annoyed by pants that have insufficient pockets for all her treasures and hair that is a pain in the rear to take care of and gets in the way of her doing things she wants to do. Not at all the sort of description that I usually see of women (or a teenage girl in this case) in fiction written by men.