Sexist Stories and the Writer Within

I recently republished one of my first serials on the Writingwolf: a superhero origins story called “Super.” It had started as a simple prompt–if you had superpowers, what would they be?–but ended up inspiring an entire world of characters.

Let’s be honest, many of them existed long before the prompt: I watched X-Men cartoon growing up, and the idea of having superpowers always fascinated me. So, naturally, when I started writing about superheroes, the floodgates opened and an army of characters began fighting for a place in this fictional world I was creating.

Some of them were granted entry. Others were given tickets and a place in line. And then, for over three years, they waited patiently. That waiting ended in 2013. But at what cost?

It’s not clearly stated in Super, but the main character takes the codename Burst. He has the ability to deflect physical forces, in a way inverting Newton’s Third Law: when something strikes him, he reflects the entire force of the impact (“equal and opposite reaction” included) back at the attacker. I’ve long imagined one scene in which he stands in front of an oncoming truck, but a minute later is the only one left standing.

Another character from Super is Whirligig, then only identified as Pace. He spins–that is, he has power over angular momentum. Later in the series, he’ll learn to spin so fast he can twist himself into higher dimensions and effectively teleport from one place to another.

They’re the only supers in Super, but others joined the show in my mind: Weaver can shape strings into objects, conjuring things our of thin air. World Breaker–a villain–can tear them apart. Maggie (short for Magellan) has electrically-charged skin which allows him to walk on water. Claire can bend light to see at long distances and even around corners. The Magician–a rogue character who wants to be a villain but has good intentions–can splice the fabric of the universe itself, sewing them together in strange and magnificent ways. They all want their stories told–but I tell stories from the beginning to the end, and so many of these characters come to play in the endgame. I’m just not there yet.

So last NaNoWriMo, November 2013, I wrote two stories: I finished the story I’d started in 2012 (an opening act for my Kaidh mythology), and then I wrote a sequel to Super.

It wasn’t a day into this series–called Sirium–when I posted this on Facebook: I feel like my new MC is the kind of guy who walks around with “Blurred Lines” on his iPod and has a tattoo of [Robin Thick’s] quote, “People say, ‘Hey, do you think this is degrading to women?’ I’m like, ‘Of course it is. What a pleasure it is to degrade a woman. I’ve never gotten to do that before. I’ve always respected women.'” #NaNoWriMo #Sirium #Thicke

(In case you missed my thoughts on “Blurred Lines,” read them here.)

Honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever written a more sexist character than Elliot. Keith was something a bully, a hothead, the Tony Stark meets the Wolverine of high school. But Elliot? At times even I was offended.

I wrote Sirium with the sole intention of publishing it on my blog, but since November I’ve been worried it might be too sexist in the beginning (thankfully, character development happens). I’m not at all like Elliot–nor do I belong to a stereotypical frat house, as he does, which helped seed the sexism captured in the early chapters. A close reading of the beginning also looks homophobic, and that’s certainly not me.

But I am a writer. My job–my passion–is to explore diverse stories. That means diving into the good and the bad. Writing about a character that’s in many ways deplorable made me more sensitive to the subtle sexism and homophobia I see everyday, but might not realize what’s happening in the moment. It also captured some of the forces that have shaped our machismo culture, our rape culture, our culture of inequality.

It might be uncomfortable to read, maybe even offensive to some, but doesn’t the social awareness it raises at least merit some mention?

Sirium’s set in college with college-aged characters. They’ve already been indoctrinated into the culture of our times–a kind of culture that’s equality as hate-worthy as it is to be celebrated. Racism, sexism, and even heterosexism are not as explicitly visible and condoned as they once were, and this new calm of acceptance makes deviations even more egregious and offensive than ever. But if our fiction ignores this fact, how can it affect the world we live in–even change it for the better?

I don’t write moral stories. When I write, I just want to write stories.

Nonetheless, many of my stories develop a deeper meaning that speaks from a place beyond mere entertainment. Super starts out an origins tale, but it ends with a poignant revelation about accepting ourselves as we are and taking the reigns of our future. Sirium starts out sexist, but I feel it rises beyond that narrow definition in the end.

And it’s a well-written, fun story.

Honestly, let me tell you this: Elliot’s power is telekinesis, fairly basic, but in the scheme of Super and its sequels, Elliot’s only a side character–and Sirium is only a side story. So while I’m editing it for publication, I’m reading a novel in which the main character has the same set of powers. Now I might be biased to favor my own writing, but even an objective reading–comparing stylistic elements, levels of description, even intensity of the action–ranked Sirium higher than a published novel by a paid author.

And I gotta admit, that felt pretty good.

But I’m still nervous to share Sirium. I always hesitate to share stories that stand against my personal values, my personal beliefs–and Sirium certainly does. But I’m a writer. I write stories. I write fictional stories, and sometimes the best fiction makes us uncomfortable. Sometimes the best fiction is just real enough to make us realize how terrible the world can be. And sometimes that fiction changes the world.

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5 thoughts on “Sexist Stories and the Writer Within

  1. Sirium also seems sexist in a not so obvious way, that there are no female super heroes, there was Claire in “Super”, but she wasn’t as powerful as the other characters.

    • You raise a good point! (Actually, Claire didn’t appear in Super–sadly there were no female characters in that story at all.) I try my best to keep my stories fairly diverse in this regard, but since my experiences influence what I write, and I’ve experienced the world as a male, I tend to write more male than female characters. But I do my best, and I’m happy for that.

      There are nine significant characters in Sirium, three of whom are female (but if I had to rank them in terms of importance, two of the three female characters would follow immediately after Elliot). Ylissa–who’s considerably more powerful than Claire–appears in 1.5, and I think you’ll like her.

      If you’re looking for a strong female lead, I’d like to recommend The Rheve. Other stories of mine with female characters include Sunday Sails Away, Highway Unicorn, and The Man Behind the Camera.

      • Good to know :)

        You didn’t mention other female characters so I was kind of perplexed. Writing the opposite gender characters would definitely be difficult.

      • I think it depends on the story. Sometimes I’ve got an idea for a female character and I’m able to write her story naturally; other times there’s more resistance. If you have any tips to improve my female-character-writing skills, I’d love to hear them!

        (And I meant to say this earlier, but I think Sirium passes the Bechdel Test, if nothing else.)

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