Let’s face it, women do not get a good deal in most genres outside of chick lit and romance. Even then, the lives of female characters so often revolve around the men. Movie posters may offer you a token girl in amongst the guys, and she’s probably a love interest, or there to be rescued, or to die tragically and provide a motivation for some kind of killing spree. Is this it, then? Is this all we get? The odd ‘heartwarming’ mother and daughter story, the romance and the rescue? I don’t watch that many films, for very much this reason.
It’s nothing new of course. We can look back at the Victorians and dump some buckets of blame right there. They were the ones who decided that women should be angels in the house, kept well away from any kind of public life, money, property, power, influence etc. Or they could be professional whores. Women who did not fit the plan were carefully ignored. Working class women always worked, but somehow that wasn’t in the mix when early feminism got going, demanding the right of women to work. Women have often been hugely influential in politics, usually as wives and hostesses, sometimes as Queens. Those stories have not been told, until recently. (Thank you Elizabeth Chadwich and Phillipa Gregory!) Whole lives have been lived in a conspiracy of silence. Women who ventured, who dared, who risked. There were many of them. Pirate Mary Reed is one of my heroines, but she had a lot many unnamed sisters around the world.
It’s easy to forget this is not an issue of what men do to women. We are entirely complicit in the kinds of stories we tell. We bring our daughters up on fairy stories that tell them the goal is to get a Prince Charming. Or, if you’re a green girl, you need an appropriate ogre to validate you. We teach our girls to be pretty, not strong. We write each other romance stories in which, all too often, we’re there to be carried off by improbably handsome men with unlikely fortunes to their names. This is the big dream, girls. This is your happily ever after.
Girls… how about stories of kickass women? How about we stop locking ourselves into gender stereotypes and live a bit? This is one of the reasons I love Steampunk as a genre. I think it’s great for women. Steampunk fiction calls for adventure and innovation. It requires smart characters who take an active role. It also requires a bit of creative anachronism, and what could be better on that score than writing women back into history in all the places there should have been women? Female inventors, innovators, explorers.
Too often we associate Steampunk with the image of a sexy, skinny girl in a corset, but it doesn’t have to be just that. There’s room for all types. I had a lot of fun with this recently, writing Intelligent Designing for Amateurs which is very much led by the women. While two of my female protagonists (an inventor and a socialite archaeologist) are more like your usual youthful female leads, I also have a child character, and a Granny, the latter being by far the most kickass of the set. There may have been some influence from Terry Pratchett’s witches there. I think it’s important to have stories in which women engage with each other, where that isn’t mostly about the men. I don’t have anything against men, I like engaging male characters too, but I think we’re still sorely lacking for balance, and that a few more books dominated by women of action, wit and skill would not go amiss.
I find it hard, reading Victorian period literature and seeing no women I really connect with. I like George Eliot’s work, but even so, lead women in her writing either end up married or dead, too. Where are my heroines, my archetypes and the women who should be there to guide and inspire me? Where are the women in fiction I might want to emulate? The emotionally tough ones, the mothers and grandmothers, the lesbians, the brave, the active, the political, the effective? The only answer is that we start writing them. I’ve no aversion to romance, in story or in real life, but Prince Charming needs to up his game considerably, and happily ever after needs a whole new face putting on it.
Author of Hopeless Main graphic novel series, Steampunk novel Intelligent Designing for Amateurs, and somewhat responsible for the Secret Order of Steampunk Druids. Also writes about Druidry and creates other gothic fiction.