Category Archives: Feminism

Confession Time: Female Characters

Romola Garai as Sugar in 'The Crimson Petal and the White'

Romola Garai as Sugar in ‘The Crimson Petal and the White’

There is going to be a certain amount of ‘coming out’ in this post.

My name is Rebecca and I am a writer who can’t write female characters.

Which is a bit weird, seeing as I am a 47-year-old woman, don’t you think?

A writer friend calls it creepy.  Maybe she is right.  I’ve tried, believe me.

My first novel (stopped counting at 250,000 words, but you get the picture) was centred on a young woman in Iron Age Britain.  Well, you’d think that.  She was the character on whom the story pivoted.  It was her point of view.  But that was the novel that gained me a certain reputation in my writing group. They banned me from using the words ‘massive chest’.  I think ‘muscular legs’ were also mentioned.  Needless to say, there were a lot of hunky Iron Age warriors running about, fighting for the right to have sex with my heroine.  Now I read back through the text, she seems like a structuring absence, an empty space at the heart of the novel.  She is a weakly drawn character.  She is two dimensional, a paper cut-out compared with the male characters.

I am considering resuming work on the book I’ve been wrestling with for a while, which is currently entitled ‘The Butler Did It’ – four years’ work, and I still haven’t come up with a better title!  This novel is centred around another young woman.  And I think that is the problem I’ve been having with it.  I just can’t get a handle on her.  I’m just not as interested in her as I am in the men who surround her.   They are the initiators of the action.  It is their requirements that force her into the situation which forms the centre of the story.

I can’t get excited about her.

I’m just not that into her.

Yesterday I was watching a TV adaptation of Michel Faber’s dazzling novel, ‘The Crimson Petal and the White’.  I hadn’t meant to, but it was on, so I thought I’d dip in, though I had seen it before, when it was first screened.

The central female character is Miss Sugar.

Wow.  If you needed a character that was a polar opposite to my ‘butlering’ heroine, you couldn’t come up with a better one.  Sugar is a dazzling, sinister, forceful, sympathetic, passionate creature.  She is a girl of 19, forced into prostitution by her mother.  She is a brilliant writer and voracious reader who crafts a novel of sexual retribution while her clients sleep off their hangovers in the bed beside her.  She is entrancingly beautiful, and yet she suffers with a horrible skin disease.  She longs to escape her profession, and yet she is the most sought-after whore in Victorian London.  She is transcendent, stealing every scene she is in, bonding all the other female characters together in a conspiracy against the male ones, who are either sinister and abusive, or weak and ineffeffectual.  For me, she is right up there with Jane Eyre, Becky Sharp and Elizabeth Bennett as one of the great female characters of literature.

The thing about Sugar is that she takes the situation that she has been forced into by predatory men, and turns it on its head, coming out triumphant.  That’s what my ‘butlering’ heroine is supposed to do, but frankly, she couldn’t triumph over the confines of a wet paper bag!

Conversely, my readers tell me that my male characters are psychologically complex, three-dimensional, tangible creatures.  I’m good at one gender, but not at the other.

Time to fix that.

Miss Sugar is my inspiration.  I’m settling down to rewrite my heroine.  To rewrite what I have written from her point of view.  To get inside her head.  Not exactly to copy Sugar, but to use her as inspiration.  To learn how to be sympathetic to my girl.  To admire her.  Which I don’t at the moment.

You have to like your characters (at least) in order to write them.  How can you propose to spend a minimum of two years with them, looking them in the metaphorical eye every day, if you don’t?

I#ll let you know how I get on.  And in the meantime, if you haven’t read ‘The Crimson Petal and the White’, you absolutely should.

Happy Creating,

EF

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There’s Been a Paradigm Shift

Exploring my soul, with the help of Danielle LaPorte's 'The Desire Map'

Exploring my soul, with the help of Danielle LaPorte’s ‘The Desire Map’

It’s one of Husband’s ‘I’m an academic’ jokes:

I’m sorry, Nigel, but while you were out, there was a paradigm shift, and (insert surreal Pythonesque situation or ironic or satirical statement here, e.g. … and now people are actually being paid for all the extra work they do.)

A paradigm, in case you aren’t an academic, which I’m not, is a theoretical structure that helps scholars understand a particular set of data. A paradigm shift is when that structure changes.

I’m sorry, Nigel, but while you were out, there was a paradigm shift, and now the planet revolves around the Sun, and not you.

Yeah, its not really that funny if you aren’t an academic.

But there has been a paradigm shift, at least in this house.

I was originally going to call this post ‘Why I’ve Shelved Writing For A While’.

As I’ve been saying (probably ad nauseam) my word for 2015 is EASE. Part of EASE is caring for myself. Not putting pressure on myself. Letting go of all those SHOULDs and OUGHTs that I use to beat myself up because I’m so convinced I’m not enough. Not good enough. Not successful enough. Not ambitious enough. Not a good enough writer. Not a good enough housekeeper. Not a good enough person.

Over the holidays, I got to thinking about all the goals I’d set myself in the last few years. You know, all those deadlines that went whooshing by unheeded (Thank you, Douglas Adams, for that wonderful quote.)

They were all career goals.

Now let me add something important here. I reached puberty at a time when the women’s movement had reached its most rabid. Girls my age were expected to be able to ‘have it all’. We were given that expectation. We were reared to have dazzling careers. We still had the societal expectation that we must have a family too. We were on the rocket-ship to the top (no one had told us there would be a glass ceiling when we got there at this point, of course.) That is quite a lot of expectation to put on a kid when she’s 14 and doesn’t know what she wants to be today, let alone when she grows up. Plus I’d been told I would go to University from the age of 7. That’s even more weight to carry.

But because I’m a good girl, I set about fulfilling other people’s expectations.

I went to University and got a degree and then a Masters. I got a good job in academia. I talked about doing a PhD and had ambitions of being a professor one day. I met a lovely man and got married. I left my job and planned to go free-lance. When that didn’t happen, I took a job in the Not-For Profit sector, and decided that was going to be my big career: managing charities.

Then ME/CFS happened.

All around me, my peers were excelling, joining the professions, marrying gorgeous successful men, having families, building their own businesses and shining careers, earning lots of money and having lots of success.

Okay, I thought, I’ll be a writer. That’s what I’ve always wanted to do anyway, so I’ll be a success at that. Because I had to keep up. Because I’m a good girl. Because everyone expects me to excel.

Seventeen years later, the seven novels I have written have not been published by a conventional publisher, which means that by most of the population’s standards, I am not a real writer. I’ve published 54 stories online, many thousands of words, which have been well-received. But those don’t seem to count because they are fanfics, not proper fiction.

The paradigm of ‘have it all’ success is not working for me.

So I have decided to bin it, along with all those goal-setting handbooks that proliferate on the interweb at this time of year.

What would happen if I just concentrated on doing what made me feel happy?

(That sentence will put a lot of people’s backs up because for some reason we think you have to suffer to be happy/good/successful – thank you, organised religion.)

What would happen if I just concentrated on doing what made me feel well?

What would happen if I viewed myself as good enough?

So I am rethinking my writing. The way I write. What I write. I am trying to subtract what I perceive as other people’s expectations. I am asking myself:

What would I write if it was just for me and no one else?

Throwing out the expectations of others when they are the sole motivators for how you have lived your life and measured your ‘success’ for the last 47 years is not an easy or quick task. I have no idea of its even possible. But I certainly mean to try.

I’m in a time of deep contemplation. Exploration. Working out how I want to feel. What I want to be. What I want to do. What I want to stand up for. What I believe. What I love. What makes me happy. What I want to say. How I want to say it.

(Hang on, is this the adolescence/puberty thing I missed the first time around because I was being a good girl?)

Once I know, really know, I’m going to concentrate on those things. The things that make me happy. And if success by society’s definition happens, then so be it. If it doesn’t I’ll still be happy. Which sounds like success to me.

So watch this space. It will be interesting to see what new words and stories come out of it.

Happy Creating,

EF

 

 

 

 

Exhausted and Overwrought – and Deleting ‘Not So Innocent’

Following mature and thoughtful discussion in the comments section of my last post, I’ve decided to take ‘Not So Innocent’ off AO3.  The whole thing has upset me too much, especially since we are now facing a new personal crisis in RL.  Its just not worth it.

Right now, I don’t want to publish a fanfic ever again.  I just can’t face it.  I’ll get over that, I suppose.  I always do.  I certainly don’t want to spend today writing, as I had planned.

I want to say something erudite about the way women are treated by society, but I just don’t think I can.  I’ll just say this:

Jimmy Saville’s victims number in the hundreds.  More come out every day.

Accusations are now filtering out about not just sexual and physical abuse, but children being killed as part of sex parties by a ring centred in Westminster in the 70s and 80s.

Bill Cosby’s career is in freefall after accusations of rape.

Rotherham.

Birmingham.

Rochdale

Oxford

Telford

Syria and Iraq

Boko Haram

Women being executed for bringing ‘shame on their families’ by being the victim of rape.

Just about every photoshopped photograph in every glossy magazine published anywhere in the world.

Every diet company that preys on women’s poor self image.

Gala Darling’s recent revelations

Every girl who’s afraid to walk down her own street at night, but thinks the only way to be acceptible to her peers is to go out scantily dressed on a Friday night and get so drunk she can’t even stand, let alone take care of herself and keep herself safe.

Every boy who thinks that when a girl says no, she means ‘yes’ because she’s ‘playing hard to get’.

Every person who judges me because I don’t have children, or because I let my hair grow grey, because I’m not behaving like a ‘proper’ woman.

My husband’s 86 year old aunt, who weighs no more than 6 stone, telling me her thighs are fat.

And the fact that the acceptance of abuse is so ingrained in both my mind and yours that often we don’t even notice it.  Because I certainly didn’t.

EF

 

An Essay on Prammage*, or How Not to Take Your Own Advice About Adverse Criticism

*Prammage: noun, colloquial.  The act of throwing one’s toys out of the pram;  going off in a flounce or a sulk; a passive-aggressive act of self-harm or self-sabotage in response to not getting one’s own way; see also ‘cutting off your nose to spite your face’.

I was going to write you a lovely blog post about playing with language today, but events have taken an interesting turn, and I wanted to share them with you.

On Monday 17th November I posted a Lewis fanfic called ‘Not So Innocent’ that I’d had hanging around on my hard disk for a while.  It was written as a quickfic, and I found it again, and thought it was funny, so I decided to post it as a quickie and didn’t think much about it.  Being a Lewis fic, it didn’t get masses of attention, because the fandom is relatively small, but the person I posted it for as a gift liked it, and that seemed all that mattered.

This morning, Wednesday 19th November, I woke up to vicious criticism on both FF.net and AO3 for the story.  The reviewer basically accused me of condoning and inciting sexual harrassment and rape.

Hmm.

This didn’t go down too well with me, since I have been victim of both sexual harrassment and abuse.

I am also not in a good place at the moment, and my response to this unexpected attack was to delete the story on both AO3 and FF.net.  I have never written a dub-con or non-con story and I wouldn’t.  It disgusts me.  I have written quite aggressively dark stories that include child abuse and public humiliation sex, but which explore the psychological wounds that underly and result from them.  For anyone to accuse me of condoning sexually abusive behaviour was just too much.

I can’t be arsed.  I’ve got too much other shit going on in my life to bother with making myself a target for such oversensitive extreme-feminist bull.

As far as I was concerned, the reader had simply not identified the subtext which runs through the story, which is that all participants know exactly what is going on, and are party to it, an irony from which the humour is supposed to arise.

Obviously I didn’t make that subtext clear enough, I realised, as I stomped off to the bathroom to shower.  (I do most of my thinking and story planning in the shower.)  And then I really got to thinking:

Was my own experience of sexual harrassment at work being a ‘normal’ part of a woman’s career colouring my work?

FULL DISCLOSURE:  I have been on the receiving end of some serious acts of sexual harrassment in my younger days (before I lost my looks, haha!).  It was regarded with a shrug as something that went on.  Indeed, at some level, ‘Not So Innocent’ must draw on the experiences I had as a young academic at a number of conferences.

At one, I allowed myself to be seduced by an older man who was also the leader of a rival project.  He was charming and intelligent, and I was lonely and desperate for comfort.  It later transpired that he was only interested in me because he thought he could extract from me details of what our project was doing.

And this is where the question of consent comes in.  We had fully consensual sex that night, but it turned out that we were consenting to two different things.  I thought I was consenting to beginning an intimate relationship with long term prospects.  He thought I was consenting to being exploited for information.  The question of consent between two people having sex turns out to be a lot more complicated than just ‘do you want to, or not’.

My own experience of conference ‘pursuits’ is not something I have examined much before, except to realise that its pretty exploitative, but I can see that in writing ‘No So Innocent’, I’ve displayed some attitudes that I had internalised without thinking.  Instead of thinking: ‘this is what happens’, maybe I should have realised: ‘this isn’t something that should happen.’

I began to reflect on ‘Not So Innocent’ in a different way, by considering what both James and Lewis are consenting to, and what Innocent is implying.  Would she really go through with her threat?  I think not. I think she’d sit James down on the end of her bed and give him a good talking-to about how much he loves Lewis, and how much Lewis clearly loves him.  I think I knew that when I was writing it.  I think James knows it too.

And even if they did have sex because he chickened out with Lewis, I think it would be lovely, passionate, and above all, uncoerced.

There was intended to be a sexual frisson between James and Jean.  I wanted him to be torn to a certain extent, attracted by the prospect of Innocent’s considerable charms.  I happen to think she’s a very sexy woman, and I think James sees that, just as she finds him attractive.  I realised I underwrote the irony because while I was writing, I wasn’t sure how the thing was going to end – and I secretly wanted James and Innocent to end up in bed together.  That is the danger of publishing an unpolished quickfic.

As for the scene where James gets into bed with Robbie, I honestly don’t think there is a consent issue there.  Robbie is clearly consenting, and if he wasn’t, he’s quite capable, both in terms of physical strength, and authority, of ejecting James.  In my opinion, it is clear that they are also both consenting to the same thing, and they both know it:  the start of a loving relationship, and the end of their unrequited yearning for each other.

And yes, it would be different if it were a man getting into a woman’s bed uninvited, or a man threatening a woman with seduction, but that isn’t what is happening.  These are two people who are in love, finally being pushed through their inhibitions by a fond friend.  The fact that they happen to be co-workers, with the ensuing power-politics, becomes irrelevant in the face of love.

I wish I hadn’t deleted the story, because I have deleted the comments of the readers as a result.  I wish I had left it so that people can make up their own minds.  Because, if nothing else, this story might make people rethink attitudes at work that they have previously taken for granted as normal, as I have.

I also think its a work I have clearly under-written in terms of subtext, and all the participants’ complicity, but I’m not going to rewrite it, or change it in any way.  I want it to stand as a testament to the fact that I will no longer throw my toys out of the pram because someone doesn’t like my work.

I have never censored myself because of a review, and I won’t start now.

So I’ve decided to republish ‘Not So Innocent’ on AO3, so that you can make up your own mind.  I’d love to have a discussion with you on the subjects raised, either in the comments here, or on AO3.

I’ll look forward to hearing from you,

love EF

Bun

bun“You know I love you, and I don’t want you to take this the wrong way, but-“

(That’s always the point when you just know you are about to be gently insulted…)

“-wearing your hair in a bun like that puts ten years on you. You’re a beautiful woman and you don’t make the best of yourself. I only want to see you looking as pretty as I know you can, but that hairdo just makes you look old, and you’re not.”

Oooooo-kay.

Wearing my hair in a bun just became a political act.

She’s my best friend, and I love her. And yes, you sometimes need a best friend to tell you that that shade of pink really does nothing for you. Who else can tell you stuff like that?

But why did she have to pick my hair?

Let me explain – because there is so much back story to this one that I hardly know where to start.

I stopped colouring my hair about two years ago. I live on benefits so I can’t afford to get it coloured at the hairdresser, but it was more than that. Dyeing at home is messy, time consuming and frankly exhausting, especially when you have a chronic illness which makes holding your hands above your head pretty near impossible. And exposure to the chemicals really is ‘a bit not good’.

So I am going grey. That in itself is an act of defiance.

We went to a 60th birthday party recently, with guests who were generally aged 45 or over. Mostly well over. Of around 30 women there, I was one of only two who did not have coloured hair. The other was nearly eighty. That synthetically-hued head-count shocked me more than I can say.

When did hair colour become the new norm? (Probably about the same sick moment that pubic hair for women became impossible, but I think I’m glad I missed that, and besides, the infantilisation of women for men’s sexual purposes is a whole ‘nother blog post.)

I have to tell you that I don’t particularly rejoice in being grey – at least not the shade of it that I am at the moment. It will be better when it finally goes ice white, the way my mother and grandmother went. At the moment what I have looks a bit like an accident in a pepper factory. But it is what I am, and if the alternative is wrestling with harmful chemicals in my bathroom, then I’m more than okay with it. It feels right. Sometimes I feel old, and miss my brown locks, but it’s only a temporary feeling. Mostly, I don’t even think about it.   After all, I’m only forty-seven.

The bun thing is an extension of the grey thing.

I hate hairdressers. Going into a hairdressers is to me the equivalent of walking into a room filled with all the trendy girls at school who bullied me and made me feel small because I didn’t have the right clothes or make-up, or a boyfriend. If you asked me what hell looked like, I’d tell you its eternity in a chic hairdressing joint.

Which is one reason why I don’t get my hair cut particularly often. These days, I go to a place where I can just walk in and have a cheap cut, no questions asked, not have to make any small talk, or get to know anybody, or feel inadequate, and walk out again. I go regularly to get my fringe trimmed and to keep split ends at bay. My hair is in pretty good condition as a result. I look after it. I just don’t go overboard.

I had to have a lot cut off a few years back, when it got into bad shape. I went for a bob. I really felt I looked old then. Middle-aged. Like a fat woman who had given up. It was horrible. I hated it. I cried when I got home and looked into the mirror, and swore to regrow it immediately. I’m a long hair person anyway. Short hair just isn’t me.

However, I hate having my hair in the way, so I wear it up. When I was younger, it was thicker, and I could wear it in a French plait. Now it’s so thin, it looks like a rat’s tail hanging at the nape of my neck. No more plaiting for me.

I can put my hair up in a bun, though. A small bun, but a bun nevertheless. I twirl it round my fingers and stick two pins in, and away I go. No need to spend an hour blow-drying, which I couldn’t do anyway – the holding my arms up thing again. I just fix my fringe, pin the rest up, and go.

To me, its simple, elegant, and neat; kept out of the way with the minimum of fuss. And nobody else I know wears their hair like that, so I think its pretty original. An act of defiance. A Post-Modernist statement about self-definition for women in their middle years.

But apparently, it is not.

According to BFF and Husband, I just look like Mrs Pepperpot after a week-long whisky binge.

But you know what?

I don’t care.

Neither of them have come up with a viable, easy, chic alternative.

And actually, I don’t want them to. I like my hair as it is.

I’ve finally reached that much fabled time in my life where I’m happy with my body, and pretty happy in my skin. I actually like my hair like this, and I choose to wear it in a bun because I’m a bun kind of person. It feels as much a trademark as my BFF’s blonde locks or a slash of blood red lipstick.

I was reading an excerpt from India Knight’s new book about how to be a middle aged woman in the Sunday Times the other day, and my BFF’s words echoed what I felt when I read Knight’s bitchy remarks about ‘Hampstead Woman’. I.e.: Who the Hell are you to judge?

This is who I am. I am a woman of 47 who chooses to wear her (greying) hair in a bun.

I could get my hair dyed, but I choose not to. Just because I could, it doesn’t mean I should. I wouldn’t be staying true to my authentic self if I did.   And the whole point of my life right now is about being authentic. Authentically myself for the first time in my life.

And that is the core of the issue for me. I want people to love me for who I am. And this is who I am.

So actually my BFF did me a favour, because the most wonderful thing happened when she gave me her opinion.

I thought, bugger that! I like the way I am!

That, dear reader, was a first.

I have never, not once, in my entire existence, ever rejected somebody’s criticism of my appearance with such concrete assurance and self-confidence. (I’m not sure I’ve ever actually been able to reject someone’s criticism of my appearance at all!)

I can’t tell you how good that feels.

So I love my friend for telling me she doesn’t like my hair this way.

Because she has reminded me that I do.

And I know this post isn’t about writing, or creativity, but it is about being a woman. And as a middle-aged woman, I hate the way society makes me feel I must be a certain way in order to be acceptable. There are no role models for women like me that aren’t painted, surgically enhanced Barbie dollies in suited pseudo-armour.

The best role model I have at my current life stage is the celebrated artist and outspoken transsexual, Grayson Perry. And if that doesn’t say everything about the way our society treats women, I don’t know what does.

Happy coiffing,

EF