I think the question of what makes a strong female character often goes misinterpreted, and instead we get these two-dimensional superwomen, who maybe have one quality that’s played up alot. Like, you know, a catwoman type. Or she plays her sexuality up a lot and it’s seen as power. But they’re not strong characters who happen to be female, they’re completely flat, and are basically cardboard characters. The problem with this is that then people expect women to be that easy to understand and women are mad at themselves for not being that simple. When in actuality, women are complicated. Women are multi-faceted, not because women are crazy, but because people are crazy and women happen to be people.
And that’s the part that disturbs me. The heart of the question implies that if a male character is “strong” that’s to be expected, because boys and men are strong. Normal. Default. Go about your business. But if a female character leads a story, does stuff, has a voice and a purpose and changes her life or others’ lives or starts or stops a war or makes a stand or has power then it’s newsworthy, because that’s not expected, not true to life. Not normal. Not our default assumption about girls. So stop and take note. I know I shouldn’t still be surprised by that question, but I am, every time. When I began writing novels, I assumed I wouldn’t have to prove my right as a woman writer or have to dig out a place for female characters. I thought people who had come before me had already done that, writers like Tamora Pierce, Robin McKinley, Anne McCaffrey, Ursula LeGuin. I felt like I didn’t have the burden of screaming back at the world, “a girl can carry an action story, look, look!” While writing I’d decided that sexism didn’t even exist in my fantasy worlds and I never had to wrestle with it. In my worlds, girls do stuff and nobody thinks two things about it. But it turns out that my books aren’t published in my fantasy worlds. They’re published in this world.
But why? Women today make up more than half of the population, and 80 percent of the fiction market, yet we are still considered a niche. The fact that ladies read is still somehow news, and whenever too many of us pick up one particular book, like 50 Shades of Grey, commentators dissect the contents for clues as to what women (all of them) are thinking. As Jessica Grose detailed in Slate earlier this month, books written by women—like her own debut novel, Sad Desk Salad—are often instantly subjugated as “for-girls-only,” marketed as something lesser-than, and then unfairly scrutinized. “[W]hy, for instance, was a series like Twilight so much more critically derided than Steig Larsson’s Millennium trilogy? Both sets are huge best-sellers, and both are horribly written (unless you like elaborate, repetitive descriptions of sandwiches). But Larsson’s were never painted as embarrassing, pathetic props for bored housewives (or their husbands),” Grose wrote. “Larsson’s weren’t sneered at by the critical class the way that popular books in women specific genres tend to be.”
Still, [Junot] Diaz admits that writing in a woman’s voice comes with certain risks. “The one thing about being a dude and writing from a female perspective is that the baseline is, you suck,” he told me. “The baseline is it takes so long for you to work those atrophied muscles—for you to get on parity with what women’s representations of men are. For me, I always want to do better. I wish I had another 10 years to work those muscles so that I can write better women characters. I wring my hands because I know that as a dude, my privilege, my long-term deficiencies work against me in writing women, no matter how hard I try and how talented I am.”
For one of the most lauded writers of his generation to say he needs another decade of practice to write better women is no small thing. But Diaz told me that he’s often appalled by the portrayals of women in celebrated novels.
“I know from my long experience of reading,” he said, “that the women characters that dudes [write] make no fucking sense for the most part. Not only do they make no sense, they’re introduced just for sexual function.”
He gave a high-profile example, though he wouldn’t name names.
“There’s a book that came out recently from a writer I admire enormously. A woman character gets introduced. I said, ‘I promise you, this girl is just here to throw herself at the dude, even though the dude has done nothing, nothing, to merit or warrant a woman throwing herself at him.’ And lo and behold. This brilliant young American writer, that everybody sort of considers the god of American writing, turns around and does exactly that. When I asked my female friends, we all had a little gathering, and I was chatting. I was like, ‘Have you heard of a woman doing this?’ They’re like, ‘Are you fucking nuts?’”
On the other hand, Diaz said, “I think the average woman writes men just exceptionally well.” He cited Anne Enright, Maile Meloy, and Jesmyn Ward as examples of younger writers who write great male characters—and pointed to two of his idols, Jamaica Kincaid and Toni Morrison, as timeless masters. But he also detects an across-the-board improvement even in woman-penned books that are less than high-brow, especially in Young Adult fiction. “Look how well the boys are rendered in The Hunger Games,” he said.