Welcome to Smugglivus 2013! Throughout this month, we will have daily guests – authors and bloggers alike – looking back at their favorite reads of 2013, and looking forward to events and upcoming books in 2014.

Who: Foz Meadows, YA urban fantasy writer, author of the novels Solace and Grief, The Key to Starveldt as well as a contribution to last year’s Sincere Forms of Flattery. She is also an amazing blogger, writing about feminism, pop culture, books, politics and more at her own place Shattersnipe: Malcontent & Rainbows, with the occasional contribution to The Huffington Post and Strange Horizons.

Please give it up for Foz!

All the Pretty Women

From girlhood onwards, women are taught the absolute importance of female beauty – not just through the omnipresent cultural narratives of airbrushed models, princess fashion and whiteness as default, but through the stories we tell ourselves. Among the many clear differences between boy-oriented action figures and girl-oriented dolls, for instance, there’s the question of physical representation. Male action figures – or rather, the characters they’re based on – are allowed to be old and ugly. Though some are grotesquely over-muscled, others are not; some are even overweight, or at least bulky, while others are slender. Some have scars or physical disfigurements; others have cybernetic limbs. True, they’re not all good guys, but their villainy is never sex-dependant, and you can buy the toys in pretty much equal numbers. Nobody cares whether little boys are invested in the handsomeness of the characters they’re trained to emulate, and as such, even though our obsession with putting pretty people on screens still means there’s a healthy percentage of rakish heroes for them to worship, it’s not the be-all, end-all of what’s on offer.

Little girls, however, are given princesses: women whose beauty is always explicitly stated to be part of what makes them special. Female villains still tend to be sexualised – indeed, they often show more skin than their heroine counterparts and try actively to seduce good men, because by accepting their own beauty and daring to use it consciously, they commit the sin of vanity; or worse, are turned into bitter evil queens and jealous stepmothers by the curse of ugliness and ageing. Though some good old women occasionally sneak into the narrative, they tend to be cast for comic effect, rather than taking on active mentoring roles to younger women (which is just one of the many ways in which the older Katara of Avatar: The Legend of Korra is a groundbreaking character). Mothers tend overwhelmingly to be absent, or restricted to purely domestic realms; but either way, they don’t generally make it to doll format. Action figures come in all shapes and sizes; dolls, however, are eternally young and beautiful.

There are exceptions to the rules, of course. The My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic reboot, despite its markedly thinner ponies, lingering investment in princess culture and the inexplicable inclusion of a pony fashion industry despite the fact that almost nobody wears clothes, is one of the few shows aimed at girls whose female characters exhibit a range of personalities, have adventures, and aren’t human. Or at least, they weren’t – thanks in large part (one suspects) to the influence of the brony fandom, the recent MLP film, Equestria Girls, shows the ponies turning into a clique of real – and extremely skinny – girls. This is how deeply obsessed with female beauty and sexuality our culture is: thanks to the unapologetic fetishisation of a number of adult, male fans, there’s a very real sense in which the target audience of a show aimed at pre-teen girls can’t safely google images from a show about cartoon horses without encountering highly sexualised, even pornographic, fanarts.

Because what’s the point of female characters who aren’t firmly and explicitly stated to be pretty? Not that they’re allowed to know they’re pretty – as a recent compilation of actual quotes from classic novels by the wonderful Mallory Ortberg pointed out, narratively speaking, we’re obsessed with the idea that openly admitting the beauty of particular women is a bad thing; because female vanity is (naturally) horrific, the absolute worst, such that even winking at female prettiness could potentially tar the subject with the awful brush of slutty, vainglorious primping. Instead, we have to come at it sideways, telling ourselves that women aren’t pretty until men come along and say they are; that women must both actively maintain their beauty while appearing to take no effort over their appearance, because that would make them high-maintenance and self-obsessed; that women are at their most beautiful when they don’t know they’re beautiful.

And so, in turn, we impose these anxieties on our female characters, writing endless romance heroines – and, increasingly, YA heroines – who think they’re plain or ugly despite the legions of suitors telling them otherwise, because god forbid young women love themselves first. Our female villains, by contrast, are sexual, sensual, overtly fashion-obsessed (unlike the virtuous plain janes and tomboys who just so happen to look stunning when, conveniently, they’re repeatedly forced against their will to wear evening gowns) and, because they’re aware of their beauty, either out to use it for their own gain or else determined to rub it in the faces of uglier women. Over and over and over again, we teach girls that beauty matters most of everything in the world, but that they’re never allowed to be proud of it, or to think of themselves as beautiful until or unless they’re told by other people, usually men, that they are – and even then, they should just smile shyly and get on with killing themselves to fit into the same clothes at age twenty-eight that they wore at eighteen, because ageing is toxic to beauty. And if they happen to fall outside the narrow, established model of “beauty” – if they’re something other than thin, white, blonde and busty? Then they don’t get made into maquettes, dolls OR action figures, because who wants to buy a statuette of an ugly woman? I mean, a gelatinous tentacle-brain living in the hollowed-out chest cavity of a musclebound android gimp is one thing, but a plump brown woman? No dice, bucko.

And from the bottom of my heart, in my clearest, loudest, angriest voice, I say unto everyone: THIS FUCKING SUCKS, AND IT NEEDS TO STOP.

And lest you think this cloyingly small idea of attractiveness is limited to physical beauty, consider the many ways in which the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope has come to dominate – if not actively replace – depictions of female eccentricity, by simple virtue of the fact that it embodies only those types of quirky, strange behaviour that aren’t impediments to conventional beauty. MPDGs are cute and perky; they’re well-dressed, vivacious muses who teach sad men how to live again. Which doesn’t mean they’re an inherently unrealistic archetype; it just means that, overwhelmingly, they’re seen through a lens of male infatuation, rather than as people in their own right. Because the full range of female eccentricity includes traits which, while viewed as acceptable – or even desirable – in men, are anathema to this carefully constructed idea of default female prettiness. Eccentric women aren’t all fashion-savvy rockabilly queens in Zooey Deschanel dresses and Alice bands (though more power to the ones who are) – sometimes, they dress badly, or madly, or wear the same t-shirt three weeks in a row because they’re too caught up with an engineering problem to bother with laundry. Sometimes, they don’t give a shit about eyeliner – and sometimes, even if you’re still trying to call them pixies, they’re physically closer to Ursula the sea-witch than Tinkerbell the fairy – and that’s OK.

Eccentric women don’t only exhibit the sort of unselfconscious, carefree, madcap mannerisms that can be used to revitalise the imagination of unshaven musicians; they can also be as socially awkward as Abed Nadir, as abrasive as Sherlock Holmes when played by Benedict Cumberbatch, as inappropriate as Greg House, and as difficult to work with as any TV maverick you’d care to name. Neither does female eccentricity necessarily stem from heartbreak, as per Miss Haversham, or from being old and imperious, as per Lady Bracknell and Catherine de Burgh. Eccentric women don’t need patronising friends and well-meaning partners to help bring them closer to normalcy, like Amy Farrah Fowler and, increasingly, Temperance Brennan, because eccentricity isn’t the new helplessness. Eccentric women aren’t all domestic goddesses who express their quirkiness through shopping addictions and baking, or impeccably-dressed beauties who just so happen to live in a pigsty. Narratively, as culturally, we’re afraid of acknowledging the full range of female eccentricity, because it makes us uncomfortable to contemplate women behaving in ways which, while neither overtly villainous nor morally reprehensible, hinder their ability to present as either conventional beauties or viable sexual prospects. Female eccentricity, where it exists in modern pop culture, does so as a quality to be eliminated through makeovers and social guidance: the initial veneer of unpopularity, awkwardness and nerdhood magicked out of existence by the judicious application of hairspray, high heels and fancy dresses.

Here is my wish for 2014: to read and watch stories peopled with a wider range of eccentric, complicated, interesting women than I’ve seen thus far. Give me a broader definition of female beauty – one that acknowledges different body types, a full spectrum of skin tones, non-saccharine personalities and which isn’t wholly cisgendered or able-bodied. Give me women who love themselves regardless of whether anyone else does; give me women whose partners – be they male or female or genderqueer – are attracted to self-esteem, rather than seeking to supply it to a series of shrinking violets. Give me women who own their sexuality without being cast as villains, and women whose sexuality has nothing to do with the narrative whatsoever. Give me eccentric women whose quirkiness isn’t just a cutsey gimmick boiled down to the lowest white male hipster-attracting denominator; give me women who are difficult and prickly and non-neurotypical and awkward and passionate, women whose flaws aren’t presented as obstacles to be overcome or circumvented, but as valid, important parts of their personalities. Give me women who can withstand criticism while learning from it – or failing to learn, or refusing to learn – and women who can dish it out, too.

Give me women who aren’t defined by beauty. Give me some men who are. Give me women who wear their scars proudly, women who’ve never been broken, women who are phoenixes and werewolves and ravening sirens. Give me women who are monstrous, and women who fight monsters. Give me women with sharpened teeth, and women who kill with kindness. Give me the women you fear to see, and the women you fear you’ll become. Give me women who save the prince, and women who disband the monarchy.

Something old. Something new. Something borrowed.

Something true.

Thanks, Foz!

And a Happy New Year to all – may all of our wishes for something true become reality.

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13 Responses to Smugglivus 2013 Guest Author/Blogger: Foz Meadows

  1. May says:

    Wow I’ve rarely heard it put that well..
    n I usually go to Tamora Pierce for books in which the heroines aren’t defined by beauty…especially Keladry’s quartet :)

  2. Jennifer says:

    Reading about figures and dolls let me think that in Japan pretty female figures are probably more bought by males…

    And anyway for stories for littles girls I am not surprised that sexualised females are villains, after all most parents of girls of 5, 8 would like better to have them being cute and cheerful girls than lolitas trying to act older… well I hope so.

    And would we really have a story if characters, boys or girls, just act as their wise parents say so ? Removing wise parents is a good way to let them make mistakes, being the ones noticing things, and daring to do new things that they weren’t told to.

  3. Paige says:

    Eccentric women don’t need patronising friends and well-meaning partners to help bring them closer to normalcy, like Amy Farrah Fowler and, increasingly, Temperance Brennan, because eccentricity isn’t the new helplessness.

    Is this re: the books, or the television series? Because I stopped watching the TV series, because despite it ostensibly making Bones’ eccentricity a positive trait, it felt like there were these endless conflicts where Bones was wrong, and Booth was right. And oh, I would love to hear that it’s changed, and that Bones’ own brilliance isn’t getting stifled.

    Anyways, all this is to say: this post? LOVE. Thank you.

  4. Foz Meadows says:

    Jennifer – I’m a bit puzzled by your response. Yes, there’s certainly a male market for the purchase of pretty dolls, but that’s a facet of the same problem I’m identifying: the emphasis on selling the hyperimportance of female beauty to *everyone*. As for defending the sexualisation of female villains in stories aimed at little girls – what? Why on Earth does that make sense? From the way you’ve phrased it – parents wanting their girls to be pure rather than lolitas – your remark comes perilously close to slutshaming, even victim-blaming; at the very least, it can be read as an endorsement of parents teaching girls to fear their bodies. Surely, there are better ways to portray villainy to young girls than by teaching them that the sexuality they don’t yet possess might one day make them evil? What’s wrong with a female villain who’s bad because she’s a bully, or a thief, or any one of the thousand other options that has nothing to do with sex? And I disagree with your final remark, too, because to my mind, there’s a very important difference between children who always obey their wise parents, and children who *have* wise parents, but disobey and have adventures anyway – perhaps because wise parents also know that letting kids make and learn from their own mistakes is pivotal to letting them grow. Which isn’t to say there’s no utility whatsoever in absent parent stories – just that it’s far from being the only way to achieve that particular outcome. So, yeah.

  5. Foz Meadows says:

    Paige – I’m referring to Temperance Brennan as portrayed in the TV series. I adored the first three seasons and hated the vast majority of the fourth, both because the plots started going off the rails and it introduced the still-ongoing retcon of Bones’s character from someone who was self-reliant, out of the loop on pop culture, insular and work-driven to someone both physically and socially helpless – not just as the consequence of her having something like Aspberger’s (which I think, charitably, is what they were shooting for) but because the idea of a standoffish, antisocial or socially awkward woman is apparently so terrible that Booth is constantly having to educate her about how to be more normal, even when her mannerisms, while offputting, aren’t actually hurting anyone. Which is why, as much as I thought the plots picked back up again in seasons five and six, I stopped watching, too; nowadays, I only keep up with the plots through what I glimpse on tumblr, and they’re generally enough to make me glad I stopped.

  6. Thanks for writing this piece. I appreciate it, especially as it reminds me of what to pay attention to when writing and also helps me look at how I raise my daughter. I try my best to expose her to as wide a range of ideas (and toys) as I think she can take in, and your discussion of Princess Syndrome in particular is very useful in helping her think about appearance versus character. Thank you!

  7. Parker from the TV series Leverage is a wonderful example of a female character who is eccentric and bold and strong and is never, ever “normalized,” and the other characters accept her for HER. It’s amazing.

  8. hapax says:

    Love love love Foz Meadows’s essays. They always make me think and nearly always make me furious, though I’m never sure if I’m angrier at our culture or at her for making me see it more clearly.

    This post reminded me so much of the time when spouse and I brought our daughter to visit his grandmother. We were talking, as parents do, about daughter’s brilliance and charm and beauty, when Grandmother said “Shhh!” and clapped her hands over daughter’s ears. “You don’t want her to hear you say things like that,” Grandmother scolded. “It will make her VAIN!”

    It must be noted that at the time, said daughter was two years old.

    On the plus side, I was pleased when selfsame daughter went to see FROZEN (which, despite many problematic elements, did provide many positive elements — for Disney, at least) with me, and among the things she liked the best was the fact that the “bad” princess kept her slinky dress even *after* she turned “good.”

    Because why should glamour be reserved for villainesses?

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  10. Amanda says:

    I really, really love this piece!

    Whenever I read YA fiction where girls are bashed for being pretty, wearing makeup, dressing provocatively, being popular, or being slender by the main female character early on in the story (And she is always the “I don’t know I’m pretty and I hate girly things but my male friend(s) who I don’t know I’m in love with yet think I’m hawt and gosh what’s wrong with them” character), I usually ditch the book because it’s so infuriating and I can’t bring myself to like the character.

    My favorites so far have been women who know themselves, who have some initial level of self-confidence and/or self-awareness, and who go through personal struggles and triumph over fears, doubts, challenges, etc. to achieve greater confidence and strength.

    This is not to say insecure, uncertain, or unhappy female characters aren’t potentially amazing (some of them have been, in really powerful books, too), but I think they are successful characters because their authors take so much care avoiding the stereotypes you’ve discussed in your article (e.g. Wintergirls, Deerskin, Chains, The Girl of Fire and Thorns, Daughter of the Forest). The authors in these books tend to reveal their characters’ strengths through their thoughts and self-doubt, and this makes me root for them while they struggle to embrace the things that make them strong, gain confidence and become secure in their beliefs/actions/decisions along the way.

  11. Jennifer says:

    It wasn’t my intention than my post could be interpreted as slutshaming or victim-blaming. It’s just I think children, girls included, should enjoy their time being children. And anyway, later come all the magazines and all the stuff showing that fashionnable can be fun for the teenagers.

    And victim-blaming can be quite ridiculous. I felt empty because one little girl was unlucky to meet the wrong guy. Were we supposed to blame this smiling girl because she was too kind and trustful ?

    Anyway, I don’t really remember seeing that many sexualised female villains (if I except the nearly every time annoying high school queen but it’s for YA stories).

    I didn’t say that removing wise parents is the only good way, but one of them, and a really often used, from Cinderella to Harry Potter. Don’t blame me for that.

    Like, the 2 YA books I have finished this year has either unreliable parents (one may be wise but needs help from people) or no parents. And the two ones I am reading see the father die at the beginning and the already dead mother. And I don’t pick my books by looking for a lack of parenthood.

  12. Foz Meadows says:

    Jennifer – I completely agree that dead, absent or bad parents are a very overused trope in YA. I reacted as I did because one of the reasons for that ubiquity is that people consider it the obvious answer to the problem of parental meddling – how to get those pesky adults out of the way, so kids can have adventures? – to the point where few people stop and consider the alternative. One author whose adventuring hero does have supportive parents, if you’re looking for a change of pace, is Michael Pryor – I highly recommend his Laws of Magic series.

  13. Olwomen says:

    Little girls, however, are given princesses: women whose beauty is always explicitly stated to be part of what makes them special.

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