Friday, June 8, 2012

FU Weekly: More Thoughts on Feminist Characters: Sandbaggers and Female Exceptionalism

This week, we offer you a guest post from Voices on the Midnight Air, the LiveJournal home of author Amal El-Mohtar. Enjoy!


HeraldI keep thinking about this post by Rose Lemberg, about expanding our ideas of what Feminist Characters can be. Thanks largely to an episode of The Sandbaggers, a British '70s spy drama, I've had an epiphany about it. 

A note on The Sandbaggers: I've watched two episodes and am absolutely hooked. As Una McCormack put it on Twitter, "60s spies [are] all glamour, fast cars and impunity. 70s spies [are] all bedsits, mildew and guilt. I know which I prefer!" The show seriously deserves its own post, but here it is merely the vehicle for the moment in which I understood the trouble I have with the Strong Female Characters Rose discussed in her post. 

Having recently lost two Sandbaggers, Neil Burnside finds himself needing to recruit new members to his team. Unfortunately, the Spy School presently has no recruits with the right combination of whateverness required for a Sandbagger -- except one. Who is a woman. 

This woman is at the top of her class, speaks loads of languages, has heaps of technical knowledge and skill, and is basically the bestest spy ever to come out of school. She is EXCEPTIONAL -- and so we get about 15 minutes of showtime devoted to various back-and-forthing among the men about whether or not they can let a woman be a Sandbagger. 

They do -- not because she's good enough to be so, but because she's THE BEST THERE IS. 

Given an overwhelming history of women being excluded and ellided from narratives, this is, of course, an instance of progress. Hooray! A female character in an all-male cast! But we need to recognize that it's a beginning, not Proof of the End of Sexism -- and that this kind of trope still gets a lot of play. Think of all the scenes in films and television where a woman outshoots, outwrestles, outwits a man in order to Prove a Point About Women Being People. How many family sports films revolve around there being a girl who's better than all the boys but won't be allowed to play. It was a thing in Kill Bill, for goodness' sake, and even in my beloved Avatar: the Last Airbender. And, you know, fine -- if anything, these scenes ought to be proof that we're not beyond sexism. In spite of the fact that most of these scenes and plots are resolved with women being allowed to do whatever because they are just so clearly the most exceptional ever, their constant repetition suggests that there hasn't been all that much significant change since the '70s. A bunch of dudes just explicitly decided that women shouldn't be allowed to fight for equal pay for equal work, right? Right.

We've come from a tradition of men writing women and JUSTIFYING the inclusion of women as characters in their male narratives through female exceptionalism. To include a woman in a narrative is a social transgression in need of justification, and the justification is her absolute awesomeness. She will be the strongest, the fiercest, the smartest, because if she isn't, she's failing to be Proof That Women Are All That. She's failing to show that Women Deserve to Be in Stories. 

And this is why, 40 years after Sandbaggers, we need to move beyond this. Not because women can't be exceptional, but because they shouldn't have to be

Let us, please, accept as established and a given that Women Deserve to Be in Stories. Let us now, please, move forward and say, instead, WOMEN DESERVE STORIES. 

We deserve stories. We deserve spaces in which to tell them ourselves, to be at the centre of them, to be flawed and mediocre and struggling, to tell our failures as well as our successes. We deserve friendships with women. We deserve mothers and sisters and grandmothers and aunts and cousins. We deserve to be old and middle-aged and childless. We deserve lipstick and battle-axes and pens and glasses and alcohol and sex on our own terms. 

Women should not be made for stories. Stories should be made for women.

seaweed-authorpic-crop1.jpg (2607×2736)About  Amal: Amal El-Mohtar is an Ottawa-born Lebanese-Canadian, currently pursuing a PhD in the UK. She is a two-time winner of the Rhysling Award for Best Short Poem, and has been nominated for the Nebula award. She is the author of The Honey Month, a collection of poetry and prose written to the taste of twenty-eight different kinds of honey; her poems and stories have also appeared in multiple venues online and in print, including Stone Telling, Strange Horizons, Apex, and Mythic Delirium, and most recently in The Moment of Change,an anthology of feminist speculative poems. She also edits Goblin Fruit, an online quarterly dedicated to fantastical poetry, and keeps a blog somewhat tidy at Voices on the Midnight Air, where she scribbles about poetry, race, feminism, numerous fandoms, and her ongoing quest for phenomenal cosmic upper body strength. 


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