“I can’t help but think of how rarely women in fiction get to be dangerous, vicious, broken with sharp edges that cut outwards not inwards—and be considered *more* compelling and attractive for it.” —Tasha Suri
I fell into a conversation on Twitter recently with Tasha Suri and A.K. Larkwood, inspired by Malinda Lo’s fantastic (and uncomfortable) essay on “The Invisible Lesbian in Young Adult Fiction.” It’s left me thinking about the aspects of human behaviour and the human experience that we seldom see represented in science fiction and fantasy, at least with respect to women: the aspects of human behaviour and human experience that aren’t comfortable, or easy, or even very palatable.
Rage disqualifies you from womanhood. So does ambition and ruthlessness. You can be cruel, but seldom understandably, humanly cruel, driven to lash out: cruelty makes you either petty or irredeemable, perhaps both. Pain—realistic pain, and grief, and loss—doesn’t make you interesting or relatable, because your pain is seldom believed, or believed to be important. (Don’t believe me? Look at how media narratives treat female politicians and female victims of rape; look at the length of criminal sentences women receive for violent acts; look at how long women with chronic health issues wait to be diagnosed, and look at how pain during menstruation is dismissed.)
Fiction is a medium through which we understand the world: it gives us forms against which we fit our experiences, and it helps in rendering them normal, comprehensible, part of a continuum of human experience. As fictional characters, women seldom get to be the most important person in their own story. And they so rarely get to have power—and be marked by it—in ways that don’t make them villains, but flawed humans. Ambition, cruelty, pain, qualified redemption, difficult moral compromises that leave marks: these things, when associated with women, seem to alienate large swathes of an audience to an extent that doesn’t happen with men. (Only look at the popularity of things like Sherlock and Breaking Bad.)
But let’s be real, here. The most interesting people can be really hard to like. This doesn’t make them less human, or less complex…unless they’re women, in which case it makes them two-dimensional villains most of the time.
And then we come to the question of queerness, and the issue of queer “difficult” women. Unlikeable queer women. Viciously angry, powerfully ambitious queer women. (Name a fictional one of those who isn’t a villain. Go on. I want to see what you come up with, because I’m drawing mostly blanks.)
It’s troubling, sometimes, how much the issue of “good representation”—and the arguments around it—slides towards a pervasive sense that creators must depict people who are good and right and do right. It’s not necessarily an explicit dictate, but there’s an unspoken undercurrent, a sense that to portray ugliness, unlikeability, fury—to portray people who have responded to suffering with cruelty and bitterness and rage—is to be complicit in one’s own vilification. And to be vulnerable. Justify your existence is the sea we swim in, always against the current.
To be unmarked by compromise, to be without sharp edges that sometimes cut even when you don’t want them to—because the world is what it is, and sometimes what it is teaches you that the best defence against being hurt by cruelty is a really quick offense—is to either be very young or hardly human. But when we come to fictional portrayals, well… As you know, Bob, Bob gets to be seen as a difficult genius, where Alice is seen as a bitch or a Mary Sue.
I’m not saying I don’t like straightforward heroes. I like a paladin as much as the next woman—more, maybe. But there’s a reason revenge narratives (tragic or not) have always been compelling: there’s something brutally, viciously satisfying in our darkest and angriest impulses, something cathartic in the triumphantly vengeful. We all need, I think, to see our own anger through the lens of fiction: our own furies magnified, made fantastical and given name. Our own conflicts and compromises writ larger, and reflected as natural, understandable, even inevitable.
When the world is structurally stacked against you in ways both subtle and blatant, there’s a lot of scope for sublimated rage. But that kind of rage is seldom visible, and even more seldom nameable. (If it were named, we’d have to acknowledge it existed. We’d have to acknowledge that it had cause to.)
It’s hard to talk about unnameable things. Fiction gives them a shape more structured than real life and allows for the possibility of catharsis, which as a category queer women are often denied. But fiction also offers a canvas for the expression of anger without shame and frustration. We are socialised to direct our anger at ourselves, to find it disturbing, to minimise it. The world enforces consequences for the visible anger of women—the more marginalised, the harsher the consequences—so we turn it inwards. To see it in fiction—anger, women’s anger, queer anger, queer women’s anger, the anger that turns us on and against ourselves…
It’s not common. And it’s not always comfortable. But catharsis is a purgative cleansing, offering a release and freedom that that’s not only beneficial, but necessary.
Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, was published in 2017 by Aqueduct Press. It was a finalist for the 2018 Locus Awards and was nominated for a 2018 Hugo Award in Best Related Work. Find her at her blog, or find her at her Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council, the Transgender Equality Network Ireland, and the Abortion Rights Campaign.