Gender bias, domestic violence, and writing women of equality.

Reporter: So, why do you write these strong female characters?

Joss Whedon: Because you’re still asking me that question.

I normally don't chase current events in this blog, there are plenty of other writers that do it better than I ever could, and that is not the purpose of this site. I had been toying around with the idea of writing a post about writing genders other than your own, in a way to open a discussion about the many difficulties that can spring up in doing so, and how popular opinion can sometimes make it so no matter what you do, you're wrong. I would find myself with an open window, a blank white page and a blinking cursor in the upper left hand corner of the screen, and realize I didn't know how to begin. 
It's a common enough problem for writers, the most common one of all, in fact, but current events involving Christy Mack, Rhianna, and most recently Ray Rice and his wife (undoubtedly there are others as well that I am missing) gave me the starting point I was lacking. 
This is not going to be another "The men of the world are 100% of the problem" posts, nor is it going to be a "she was asking for it" post. Anyone looking for either of those points of view here are going to be disappointed. This is going to be a post about responsibility in regards to abuse of any gender. This is actually going to be a post about modern day feminism, and before any men reading this post groan and close the window, you should remember that I said this is about responsibility. Not just the responsibility of men, or women, or parents, or the courts/police. I see this as everyone's problem, and everyone needs to be pulling their own weight. The first part of that is cutting through the bullshit of what people are really looking for when they say the word "equality" nowadays. 
I suppose I should get this out of the way up front. If someone physically beats the shit out of someone, it is assault and they should be prosecuted for it. Notice how I didn't start that sentence out with, "When a man". That's because the law, outside of public perception, does not specify genders. Yet that is what I am seeing a lot of in the comments of people online, and the overwhelming message in the media is one that makes pains to specify that this is strictly a men beating on women problem. I see a lot of "A man should not hit a woman!" Of course a man should not hit a woman. There are laws against anyone hitting anyone, like I said, it's called assault. 
Again, Ray Rice is clearly guilty, and he should be prosecuted even though his now wife is refusing to press charges. There is never an excuse to hit someone like that, and he should pay for his crime. His wife should have charges brought up on her as well, because she clearly instigated the fight and struck him as well. If this was a scene between two women, a jury would likely consider it a case of self defense. Since he's a 200lb+ running back, and able to drop her with a single punch, it is seen differently. Even putting aside all questions of equality, men are taught their entire life that it is wrong to hit women. Personally, I was brought up to never hit a woman. Never. If they are coming after you with a knife, you are expected to wrestle the knife free from them and throw it away, then call the cops while you restrain her (without causing physical damage) until the cops arrive. This is the correct way to handle the situation, but not because she's a woman. Because she's a human being. So there's no defense for Ray Rice. He will get what the courts decide he is due. It won't be enough for some, and the rest will think it's too harsh, there is no pleasing everyone. 
I'm sure the data says that men are the worst offenders, but I think it's dangerous for anyone seeking equality to look at it that way. Check out this video, which is at least six years old. A major news organization actually conducted research to see how society views a man abusing a woman versus how they view a woman abusing a man. I'll leave it here for everyone to watch, and I want you to really think about it as you're saying to yourself, "yeah, well......" because they actually ask the people walking by what they thought when they were walking by and seeing the abuse. 

It's not equality if one gender can attack another with impunity and the other is instantly demonized. If we really want equality, then people need to stand up and make sure that the rules are enforced for everyone, not just those you consider to be in a position of being weker physically. If men aren't able to defend themselves against someone who knows that they can do whatever they want short of pulling out a knife or a gun and it will be socially acceptable, then who is the weaker gender?

Again, I'm not suggesting that men should be allowed to hit women, I'm suggesting that neither gender should be allowed to hit the other one. Assault is assault, and if a specific demographic wants their demands of equality to be taken seriously, then they need to be ready to accept the responsibility that comes with that equality. Equality isn't just making more money, or gaining power over other people, it's pulling your weight when it comes to the less glamorous portions of life as well, if needed. 

Am I suggesting that all women be able to open pickle jars on their own, or kill spiders as well as the men, or defend their man if a robber pulls a gun? Not necessarily. But the assumption that a man unwilling to do these things is less a man is just as sexist as implying that Ray Rices wife never would have been hit if she was in the kitchen where she belonged. 

I think most people in this country have no fucking clue what true equality is. Excuse my vulgarity, but they wouldn't know it if it bit them in the ass. I think it's a convenient point to whip out when they aren't getting something they want, and easily stowed when the status quo benefits them. Gender roles are being redefined every day, which is fine, such is the pace of progress. The assumption that anyone is "owed" anything usually causes hate and discontent.

Men get tired of expecting to be a chivalrous gentleman one minute, then being told they are worthless because women "don't need a man" with the next breath. I get it, women are stretching their wings after being oppressed for far too long, but that has never been an excuse for being an asshole. How many women cheered that Blu Cantrell song "Hit 'Em up Style"? What would the public outcry have been had a man that had been cheated on lit the girls collection of Louboutin's on fire, or wrote some derogatory epithet with a paint marker on their designer handbag, or blew up their convertible Mustang? 

Yeah, you might not want to think about it that way, but these are the current stakes of equality, things that women concerned about equality should no longer tolerate out of other women (let alone celebrate), just as men are expected to intervene in a fight that involves a larger man beating up someone smaller than them, be they man or woman.

Men are taking on more of the household duties as women are making strides in the workforce. I read an article just the other day that now that men are doing so, women are finding them less attractive and divorcing or leaving them for more "masculine" men. Is it a case of women not understanding yet what they want? They wanted men to help, and when they do, suddenly they aren't as desirable any more? My point is that there are going to be mistakes made, and this process will be as problematic and arduous as it is necessary. 

I think most people will agree that there is a ton of work to be done to end domestic violence. I think fewer people out there understand that confining our discussion to only stopping men from hitting women isn't equality. If you only look at one side of the issue, all that will happen is to provide legal protection for women to enact physical violence on men, and men will be expected to take it in much the same way that in the 50's a man could strike his wife and the general assumption would be that she deserved it. Oh wait, we've already seen in the video above that this is sometimes the case now. Neglecting to hold everyone to the same standard won't bring about equality, it will simply reverse the ancient gender roles women have fought so hard to overcome.

Is it going to be an easy transition all the time? No. For a long time, there will be men who are unwilling to see women as anything but vapid eyecandy, and while I am sure many of you are going to disagree with me when you read this, you may later understand this next paragraph as devoutly feminist. 

Women are earning their place in the workforce, because they have to. They can complain about equal pay and equal rights, expecting to be handed promotions and raises because they feel that they have earned it, and perhaps they have, but it's going to be a long climb to true equality, and they will have to prove that they belong every day to the very same misogynistic assholes that they feel are holding them back. There is no shortcut, and it's not fair, but it is the way it is. It will also mean that when you do get it, you will be able to be proud of it, because no one gave it to you. You earned it because of your work ethic and your talent, and you probably earned it five times over. Nobody will ever be able to take it from you, the pride of accomplishment. I'm sure that there must be a world out there where the most deserving person for each job gets it, but it isn't this one, at least not yet. 

When it happens, it's a good thing for everyone involved, because good people in positions of power make everyone around them better. My immediate supervisor at my day job is female, and I can't think of another person that would handle that job as well as she has. That has nothing to do with the fact that she's a woman, it has to do with who she is as a person, how hard she works and how much effort she has put in learning how to handle the different personalities of her workforce. It wasn't something she was great at on her first day in the new job, but any person on their first day in a management position is going to have to feel their way into the role. 

We need to start treating everyone equally, and while that means that we give everyone the benefit of the doubt, and adjust our opinions as we get to know them, it also means that we need to hold everyone to the same standard. Men don't get an out for physical abuse, and women don't get to play damsel in distress to get out of unsavory parts of being an adult. Neither of the above is as common as the news media would make it seem, but their both more common than they should be. 

All of that excessive amount of elaboration above really boils down to treating people equally. Right now, women have cultivated certain socially acceptable loopholes that they will need to stop exploiting in order to be truly equal with men. Men will need to stop being misogynistic pigs and recognize when a woman is capable of doing the job better. And both sides need to understand that hitting is not acceptable. It is assault and should be prosecuted as such. And both genders just need to leave someone if the relationship is not healthy, for whatever reason. There's a difference between unhealthy and the typical relationship issues that people go through, however. Knowing the difference is part of being in an adult relationship. We all still have a lot of growing up to do. 

This all dovetails nicely into what I wanted to say about writing. The reason I included the above quote from Joss Whedon is because it can be taken more than one way. The concept of the "Strong Woman" is to me a laughable one. The concept of a "Strong Man" is equally laughable, yet our social gender bias made only one of those sentences acceptable.

I came up with a simple system for writing believable characters. want to hear it? 

Motivations + Resources = Character

That's it. As far as I'm concerned, each character is comprised of their motivations, what they want out of life, and their resources, what they have to use in order to reach their goals. It really doesn't need to be much more complicated at first than that. Oh, they will need description, gender, hair/eye color, nationality, personal history, etc. But really, it all boils down to Motivations and Resources. Beauty can be a resource to a small town girl trying to make it big in the city. It can also be a resource to a male dancer trying to put food on the table for his kids. People use what means they have available to them.

Their motivations need to be justifiable, and that helps you as a writer escape the "well, they're evil because they're evil" pitfall. There has to be a reason for their motivation, but it's pretty easy to come up with a justification for almost anything if you operate under the expectation that there must be one. 

In my novel pre://d.o.mai.n, the main character Miles Torvalds attempts to steal $1.5 million dollars from the federal treasury. Greed was too obvious a motivation, and a worn out trope as far as I was concerned. Additionally, I wanted you to be on his side, and I didn't have a George Clooney playing the part like he did in the movie Out of Sight to help me build that rapport. I needed a more believable motivation, and that is how his mother developed cancer and how the cure came with an astronomical price tag. 

Once I had that, I knew WHY Miles would attempt to steal the money. I had given him a believable reason for risking his freedom, something worthwhile to fight for. I also went to the effort of removing the legal options by having him exhaust them prior to the beginning of the novel. 

That left me with resources, which, as a poor kid, recently dropped out of college, would have to come in the form of the charity of others. He receives his sideARM from his cousin as a birthday present, and is introduced to ATLAS by an x-girlfriend. 

And then he was off an running.

My point is that if you start your character creation with motivation and resources, you aren't as likely to have to worry about sexism in your novels, because motivations and resources don't have to be gender specific. You see where your characters are exploitable (basically, what they need), and that's where you twist the knife. Sometimes that answer is companionship, and Miles has his issues with love/lust and loss in the book, but the female characters he comes across are more a slave to their motivations than they ever are to his needs. There are three main female characters in the novel. One is his mother (whose only real motivations are survival and the health of her family), the other wants him (but the prospect of them being together is problematic), and another that he thinks he wants but that doesn't want him (because she wants someone else, but there's a slight ambiguity as to why she wants him).

If you treat everyone the same, meaning that the equation above has to balance, then there are not one dimensional women that just want to be loved to the point where they will put up with anything, or the bad ass warrior chick who is bad ass because you want to write a "Powerful Female Role Model". That's YOUR motivation, not your characters. If you keep their motivations in mind, you will get women that have resources to achieve their goals, and whether they achieve their goals will be determined on how they use whatever resources are available to them. Be it looks, money, power, etc, they will have to make their way through your world just like the men. That's true equality. Not just that they are protected from men, that they are able to take care of themselves one way or another. That they don't need kid gloves or training wheels because their reach cannot exceed their grasp. Just like in real life. Should you choose to put obstacles in their way such as misogyny, an abusive partner, etc, how they escape that will come down to their resources at hand. 

Are they smart and independent enough to traverse those obstacles, or not? Again, resources. Resources need to be justified as well. They can't just be smart once they have a need to be. Deus Ex Machina in the form of an IQ jump from a concussion at the hands of another character? That's a quick way to devolve in to a loop like that of Walker, Texas Ranger, where Chuck Norris continued to uncover talents that nobody knew anything about (and even latent native american heritage) in order to overcome his obstacles. Resources need to be understood up front, and then any deviation from that set needs to be explained believably. 

Reduce your characters to their bases elements, and you stand a good chance of being able to write them from a perspective that is less tainted by whatever latent prejudices you may have (even if you try hard to overcome them).

And the rest of us, men AND women, need to remember one other quote:

"Be the change you would see."
-Mahatma Ghandi

"If you want equality, treat everyone equally. Don't be equal by dragging those around you down, be equal by rising up to meet them, and in those rare instances when you are able to rise above those around you, lift them up with you."
-That one's mine ;-)