On the weekend I read this excellent post on Vulture about how famous female characters were described in their screenplays. It really opened my eyes to the fact that so often women are described based on where they fall on the beauty scale. And this is not limited to screenplays in any way.
My sons are 11 and 8 years old respectively and I still read them stories at night. My oldest loves Rick Riordan and if I’m honest, I like his stories too. They have some humour, some adventure, and plenty of Greek mythology. But after reading the above-mentioned article, I started noticing how Rick Riordan describes some of his female characters and I didn’t like it one bit. Phrases like “Her face would have been pretty if it weren’t for her sunken cheeks” or “She was tall and thin, but not too tall or too thin” (which begs the question what “too tall or too thin” actually is). In one of the books one of the female characters is beautified by her mother Aphrodite and much is made of the fact that the male characters prefer her as a tomboy as that is how her beauty really shines through.
We – women – should not be valued based on where we fall on the beauty scale. Is beauty truly the best one can attain? Why can’t we read about female characters who are strong, smart, witty, entrepeneurial etc.? Why do writers always feel the need to comment on how beautiful a female character is? I was going to say “male writers”, but while it is overwhelmingly male writers who make this mistake, I have also seen it happen in books written by female writers.
I want to change society. I want to change the way women are treated by society. But it seems that the more my eyes are opened, the more problematic areas I find. Whenever I talk to people about how insidious the patriarchy is, I often hear the argument that men and women are treated equally now and there isn’t really that much of a problem anymore. But then I read these descriptions in the books my children read. It has become so normal to us that female characters are described based on how beautiful they are – and by extension how desirable – that we don’t really think about all its implications. “It’s just a kids’ book”, I can hear the critics cry. Yes, it is, but these types of descriptions send subliminal messages to our boys. And those boys grow up to be men whose treatment of women has been shaped by what they read (and watched) when they grew up.
We need to stop judging female characters based on their desirability. Women are individuals. We have lives, emotions, hopes and dreams. We are interesting and complex and we should not be reduced to a lust object for men. Writers – and especially writers of teen books – should do better. I am not singling out Rick Riordan, because he does write some pretty interesting female characters – the examples I chose just stood out for me. But in general we need to stop sending messages to our sons that tell them a girl, a woman, should be judged by how beautiful she is. Instead, we should describe female characters the same way as we would our male characters. I am not saying that the beauty of a woman can never be commented on, but, as with everything in writing, it should be pertinent to the plot. In all other cases, you should challenge yourself as a writer and use different descriptors.
It is not surprising that many men think that women dress a certain way, or use make-up, purely to impress them (the men). As long as the media keeps putting out the message that the main worth of women lies in their beauty, it’s no wonder that this is what men grow up to believe. And I have only focused on books in this article. The message is much more pronounced in movies, TV shows and music videos. But that can be for another time. Right now I want to challenge every writer out there, whether you write for teens, young adults, or adults, to only comment on a female character’s beauty if it is really instrumental to the plot.
Books can shape society. You don’t have to portray the stereotypical male in your book who only sees a woman’s beauty, or lack thereof. If all books only featured men who viewed women as their equals, and didn’t judge them by how beautful they are, we can change how men treat women in real life. Let’s create art that protrays women in a realistic way, warts and all. We do not need to celebate women in the sense that we put women on a pedestal. Let’s just portray female characters as individuals in the same way we do with male characters and then let life imitate art towards a better society.