Ever ask if you can go to the bathroom and have a teacher say, “I don’t know. Can you?”
“Can” can take on a lot of meanings, but in this case, I mean, “How sexist am I allowed to be?”
We can’t deny that sexism has become a horrific witch hunt. Or rather a communist hunt as, hell, we can catch a few real ones at different times. Anyone anywhere doing anything can be called out on being sexist, and just the accusation can destroy a career.
It’s a fear that writers, male or female, constantly have in the back of our heads. Especially when it comes to romance novels, people can be incredibly pissy about the dynamic between men and women are portrayed. Stories that exclude women all together are insulting, all female casts that feature enough dislikable stereotypes will be ridiculed. Writing a smart, strong woman can be considered lip service, and if your warrior girl ever shows any maternal, sexual, or emotional weakness you’re still open for attack.
If it sounds like I’m suggesting this is always a bad thing, I don’t mean it that way. I too am extraordinarily unhappy with the way most women are portrayed in entertainment, and voicing those problems are an important part of coming to a better understanding.
But, unfortunately, feminism and sexism are such broad concepts that it is impossible to be safe from being targeted. They are so broad, in fact, that any “hater” looking for a method to destroy your book can find something, no matter what you do. And the worst part is that it will often work (at least on a few readers.)
I often hold my male characters to higher standards. They are usually the wiser one in the relationship, standing back to make sarcastic comments as the women actively—and somewhat deliberately—dig themselves into a hole.
But recently with the last two manuscripts I’ve found them becoming much more dislikable. The character Cyrus, the youngest and most ignored brother in a noble family, is snobby, and a little bit of a misogynist. I say little, not because he hates women, but because he doesn’t trust them (or anyone for that matter), is closed off, and is exposed to his elder brothers’ successful methods of bedding these girls.
When it came out that he didn’t like the peasants and was somewhat a slut-shamer, I was a little shocked. A part of me balked against it. As soon as he started talking about it, I couldn’t shut him up. I had to stop and consider. Though I considered him kind and not judgmental, I realized that he was. Incredibly so.
As the protagonist, I wanted him to be likable. I have long known that flaws are what make a character likable, but sexism, or any form of bigotry for that matter, was often unforgivable. A part of me wanted to immediately strip the page of his anger and go in a different direction. But another part of me said that it was a common character trait that avoiding discussing would be unnatural.
Considering the girl that would appear in his life in the next few chapters, I realized that he didn’t always have to be sexist. His motivation for it made sense. His insecurity, social invisibility, and hatred for his brothers made a clear pathway for his sexism. But, it also made way for a clear character arc. As his confidence and passion grew, inversely his fear and judgment would diminish.
I did go through and make his anger less hate-filled and more self-preserving. He still struggled with his disdain for any women who would lower herself to sleeping with his brothers, but he became more aware of his exact reasons for doing so.
I was fairly satisfied with the way he turned out.
But as I started The Plane (working title), Soel immediately showed his true nature. He is, by far, the least likable protagonist I’d ever met.
He puts so much emphasis on hierarchy and classism. It’s not as though he ever respected authority, or trusts anyone no matter their status. He looks down on anyone he thinks he can, and in that, his sexism came out.
From what I see, there are two major kinds of female sexism (versus male sexism, which I do believe exists).
The first is where the man cares too much about a woman’s opinion. The more commonly thought of form, it’s where he validates himself by how many women want to sleep with him, and if he feels he is incapable of gaining women’s interest, he has immense self-loathing, and often tries to pass the blame on girls themselves. In more severe cases, he self-soothes by attacking women verbally or, in some cases, physically.
But then you have the other, much more common, much voiced issue. The opposite, it is the disrespect of women’s opinion. This can be perpetrated either gender and has little to do with sex. It comes from people who are very sensitive to the most influential person in the group and acts accordingly in attempts to win their favor and, therefore, their power.
It is typical with these sorts of people to determine that the women of the group have no influence in the situation and will actively ignore them. Unlike the first category (in which their main goal is to impress the ladies), this person does not care about impressing, convincing, or even acknowledging the female conversationalists.
Soel is of the second group, and I fear so much so that he might be coming off as unrealistically asexual. So self-involved and oriented around his own problems, he rarely thinks about women. They are completely beneath his radar.
Not only does this make him look like an asshole, but then it leads me to question if my instinct in making him that way is to not lure him down the road of the first path: the self-loathing misogynist.
Women don’t give him the time of day (primarily because no one does), and I don’t know how that couldn’t affect him, an already angry person, without being angry.
He is not, for all his faults, insecure, and he doesn’t need women to validate himself. But does that mean he has no desire for sex? Is he a virgin? I don’t know. The plot has taken so much control that I don’t know what his sex life is.
Normally it doesn’t come up. Normally I can gloss over it. But in his world, it keeps coming up, and honestly, I can’t imagine him not thinking about it. The story follows his perception of the world, so when I describe a new female character, I feel her sexiness would be a natural consideration for him. And yet, I somewhat don’t want him to think about it.
Because he’s not interested in a relationship right now. Because, from my woman’s point of view, the sexual evaluation of a person with no intent to take action is an unappealing personality trait. Yet, from a rational point of view, (strange how I determine my woman’s P.O.V. and rational P.O.V. opposites), I think it’s natural, normal mindset, especially for men, and my attempts to gloss over his sexuality makes him less of a person.
How do I keep him out of a relationship without making him pathetic or an asshole?
These last few books have forced me to examine my personal views on gender, sex, and judgment, and I’ve learned that these subjects, which I have sought to avoid, are far more interesting when I confront them. Soel may be a jerk, but mostly because he’s forced me to confront the less romantic aspects of my mind. I've spent so much time considering how not to be sexist that it never occurred to me to actually discuss it.