In my Internet trawling yesterday, I came across this Hathor Legacy post (background: The Hathor Legacy is a blog about female characters in media, including comics and the like) on the Neverwhere TV series.
The blogger, Jennifer Kesler, critiqued the female characters (Door and Hunter), noting that Gaiman as scriptwriter avoided all of the predictable pitfalls for writers of women, and many of the less predictable one. Her main complaint was that the female characters were othered–were portrayed as distant and unreadable. She made excellent points about the difference between the way male and female emotions are shown in literature, and noted that after all, men and women aren’t so different, and the best way to write the opposite gender is simply to write them as humans.
The comment thread, for once, is as good as the post. Neil Gaiman himself showed up to comment, and the author and several commenters discussed the pitfalls of extrapolating a critique of one of the author’s works to his entire oeuvre, especially when one hasn’t read every one of those works.
Go ahead and read it. All of it. I’ll wait.
OK. I’ve got to defend Gaiman a bit here, since one of his female characters, Death (of course) is quite simply the reason I read comics. Having interviewed the man himself and specifically discussed female characters, I can say that Gaiman is far better at writing women and at getting into their heads than most other male writers, comic or otherwise. Kesler didn’t seem as familiar with his comics work, or the stories that actually do have female protagonists, and noted herself that she might be overreaching in comments.
Other than Death, whom I love, other infinitely real, screwed-up, believable Gaiman women include Rose Walker (one of my absolute favorites), Foxglove and Hazel, Delirium (the Brief Lives story being my favorite Sandman arc), Lyta Hall, and Coraline.
Gaiman has a wonderful essay up at his site titled “All Books Have Genders,” and in it he himself points out that the female characters in Neverwhere are stock characters.
So my question really is, what are you obligated to do when telling a story? Female comics readers like myself often complain of the lack of solid female lead characters. And as Kesler at the Hathor Legacy pointed out, we don’t mean “strong” female characters. We mean real female characters. And we mean that those characters should be the lead in their own book at least some of the time.
That doesn’t, contrary to popular belief, mean that we’re going to complain every time a book doesn’t star a woman. Particularly when those books are coming from authors that do a damn good job writing women and spend a large chunk of their time doing so. Gaiman gets a pass from me on Neverwhere both because the nature of the female characters serves the story–Richard Mayhew does see women as sort of alien creatures–and because he’s the man who created the characters I listed above.
Similarly, I don’t pick on the lack of female leads in Northlanders because Brian Wood is also the man who wrote Local, a story about a woman so real that the most common complaint about the book is that Megan “screws up.” Of course she screws up. If she were perfect, there’d be no story. Yet comic readers all too often seem uncomfortable with the idea of a woman that doesn’t fit into a box.
So while I don’t think every author owes us a top woman character all the time, there are plenty of them who could do better. And I think the best point to be taken from Kesler’s piece is that “strong” women aren’t enough. We need them to be real, to have feelings, to make mistakes, get in trouble, and get themselves out of trouble.