A Brief Word to the Literary Police
I just had someone–a friend of four or five years, who I am hoping to Christ right now doesn’t read this blog–refer to my latest story, when I showed it to them, as ‘chauvinist’.
I’m a voting, reading, cooking-when-I-damn-well-feel-like-it, full-time-working sort of woman. I’ve never worried about how to ‘catch’ a man, and the thought of whether or not men find me attractive doesn’t keep me up at night. It certainly doesn’t set me to water cleansing or tummy tucking or insane amounts of exercising, either. I’ve never looked at men as being, by nature, my superiors, nor do I put up with that attitude in anyone I come across. I have a wonderful boyfriend. I shave my legs when I damn well feel like it.
This said, you can imagine my surprise.
Then I reread it. I flipped through the pages, entranced. And–by damn–it was sort of chauvinist.
Because the main character, a sad and empty man, is a bit of a womanizer.
Because he isn’t a whole person. Because he had an absent father and a mother who was often too busy with other concerns to spare him much attention. Because he needs, in the course of the story, to learn and to grow. Because he doesn’t treat anybody well, up to and including himself.
The story, so far, doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test (if you don’t know what this is, check out Chris’s post here at Modern Fantastic about it). This isn’t to say there aren’t some strong and independent women in the course of the story, but it doesn’t. The sole viewpoint character is male, and is therefore a part of or overhearing every conversation in the story.
But does this mean it’s chauvinist?
I don’t think so. It might surprise you that I, a woman, have a fairly positive view of women overall (except the assholes, of course. But there are always assholes). My character, even, would, if he took a minute to think about it. His chauvinism hurts him, in the course of the story. The way he looks at women, in the complex tentacles of the Orestian myth, ultimately causes his downfall.
Because this is a story of his corruption, loss, and decrepitude as a moral human being. He isn’t ‘likeable’ in a lot of ways, though he is in some. He isn’t a friendly face. He’s a haunted and disturbed man.
I’m bringing all this up because I was very surprised at my own reaction. This person–again, a friend, who I’m sure knows I’M no chauvinist–put a damning word in front of my story.
I think, in our politically correct era, we tend to do this too much. A story that calls attention to chauvinism isn’t necessarily chauvinist. A story that calls attention to disparities between races or classes isn’t necessarily racist or classist. Literature was once the tool satirists used to flay open our society, expose the ugly bones and beating heart for what they were, bits and gristle. Sexism or racism or classism–all those isms that we decry regularly on social media sites, and hopefully also in public–are ugly things, and they belong to ugly people.
But even the nicest characters–even your viewpoint characters–are often a little ugly inside. And there are racists in our world, boys and girls. There are sexists, classists, homophobes and nationalists. These are ugly things, but they are a part of the world we live in. And, sometimes, these people don’t even recognize what they are.
And, sometimes, these things have to be shown too.
When I stub my toe, or cut my finger, or break a glass, I don’t say ‘sugar’. I say ‘fuck’.
Somebody else might say sugar, but I don’t.
That’s just how it is.
If I were writing a story about myself–if I were my own character–I wouldn’t have me break a glass and then go ‘oh, sugar biscuits!’. This isn’t true to my character.
I’m not condoning any of the isms we’ve mentioned. I’m just saying: sometimes, they exist.
Sometimes, a story is about people who look down on women, or who are racist, or homophobic. You might not be proud of this–you might not like it–but it’s a part of your characters. You can trust your audience, hopefully, to recognize that this isn’t a positive part.
And if your story holds an ugly truth, you shouldn’t sugar-coat it. If the ‘ism’ is part of your story, make it a part of your story. I lose a lot of respect for a writer who can’t bring themselves to tell the truth. I know I’m not the only one who does.