The other day I was captivated by the words of a sixteen year old girl, Malala Yousafzai the young Pakistani student who was shot by the Taliban, survived, and has resumed with added fervor her passion--equal education for women and girls. Her speech set my thoughts on the volumes of female stereotypes writers conscious or unconsciously perpetuate. Women nurses, wives, artists, lovers, activists in stories are often portrayed with a particular set of personality traits that fit neatly into a typecast. As a woman writer, I feel it is my duty to deconstruct these negating traits and make my female characters interesting—even when they are boring, funny even when they are sad, sexual even when they are smart. In other words create a plot line that revolves around the threads of uncharacteristic women.
Successful women are not all bitchy or domineering—many are demure insightful, empathic. Not all women are obsessed with shopping and shoes—I for one could give a hoot about either. My husband, on the other hand comes from a heritage of shopping shoe-aholics but you won’t find that in a book. Why do writers preserve these tired unimaginative stereotypes of women? Money I suppose but I don’t dare launch into that discussion for the sake of time and the lack of it. I am suggesting that we raise our consciousness and write characters that lead to new perspectives and give insight to the complexity of character rather than relying on a cookie cutter.
Recently I was directing an original play where a nurse had a pivotal role. The actress who played this part chose an overbearing uptight approach to the character. When I questioned her choices she said; “Well you know nurses, they are all bossy know it alls.” Strange, I had worked as an RN and know plenty of non-bossy very cool women. My grandmother was a nurse; she was a free thinking hippy before her time. I insisted she revamp her choices. My point here is to reiterate how easily it is to be conditioned by our past experiences, society, and are own limiting vistas.
In my two latest novels, Artista by the Sea and With Crow; The Tale of Two Sisters I fought against writing scenarios that fell in stride with caricatures of women (although I realize they can contribute to the humor). Rather, I tried to focus on how the story could be told collectively by each woman. The characters in Artista are an amalgamation of females some traditional some not. For example the grandmother, Alessandra, is a rebel during an era of suppression, a free thinking artist who had to escape Italy during the rise of Fascism. Her daughter, Isabella, took a more conservative approach to life and her family coddling a traditional role despite her frustrations. But she too is multidimentional and is a lovable hilariously gregarious character. It is Juliana, the protagonist and granddaughter of Alessandra, who is an independent spirit fighting to detach from the dualities of raising a daughter as a single mother and following her dreams. Many women, including myself, have been in this struggle and know how difficult it can be to buck societal pigeonholes.
With Crow is laden with gender bias busters while reflecting on young girls who live outside of norms or trendy rules examining their fears and desires to belong. Most women remember the pains of youth; discovering sexuality, self, and feeling the tidal pull of what others expect of us. I took the opportunity to see what this looks like through the lives of two sisters seeking to know more about their parents who perished in a car accident when they were young. The girls are brave and self sustaining--modern day adventurers traveling to find answers.
I equate the female character issue with the cataloging of racial diversity among characters as well. In With Crow; The Tale of Two Sisters, the sisters encounter their Native American heritage as they learn about the secrets of their past. As a writer, creating complex interracial characters is critical and another way to set the stage for either exposing prejudices and/or sharing various cultural differences. Michelle Alexander, the author of The New Jim Crowa a nonfiction book that deals with the effects of lingering racism, discusses the injustice of stereotyping. For instance she points out that white suburban kids are given preferential treatment when found with marijuana over urban black or brown teens. As a writer, I can create characters that have somehow lived through this dichotomy and portray how it alters their world and ultimately impacts all of us. Women and girls of color have an even greater barrier to break through.
We women writers owe it to ourselves to expand from the confines of what it means to be female and to rewrite the definition in our own words. As Malala spoke about the strength required to rise from the fists of suppression to abandon the shackles of discrimination and walk hand in hand in creating a world where all women are educated; I felt my anger and pride swell. It is time as sisters as authors to write as often as we can for those who have no voice—not yet. But they will—and their stories will be told. Their stories of courage and resolve will penetrate the world’s ignorance and I want to know that in some way I have done my part to fight for the freedom of education to unlock the chains of domination and shame.
Mind you there are times when stereotypes are interesting or funny or even necessary to drive the characters to their destiny. I realize this seems juxtaposition to all that I’ve been spouting about thus far but hear me out. Cultural and personal differences make the world tasty and interesting and at times familiar. In that familiarity often lays a chunk of humor—that smile of recognition. For example, my mother who is Italian is very passionate about her beliefs—whether she was influenced by generational, familial, or religious ties is a continual debate. But I have written subtlies that allude to the way she navigates life (which she took note of I might add) and use these traits to highlight conflict in the personality of other female characters. So, sometimes stereotypes are a necessary tool.
I write children’s books in addition to novels and feel equally committed in this genre to writing female characters that represent a difference. These stories hopefully will plant a seed in the mind of both boys and girls and will help to banish those good ole fairytales where the princess lives only for her prince—please! (And to think I used to love to be Cinderella but it just never worked out for me--and no I'm not bitter merely wiser.)
So women let us pick up our pens (or computer keys really) and be part of the movement to portray girls and women in nontraditional roles in order to make the world a more balanced place to dream.
Causes Karen Devaney Supports
Eve Ensler and any organization that deals with issues supporting women and children and the advancement of their education.