The Honorary Male

A few months back, I talked about how some writers feel that in order for their female characters to be strong, they have to weaken and/or feminize the men. In some ways, what I’m going to talk about this month is the corollary to that trope: the notion for a woman to be strong, she must be de-feminized. In other words, she has to be like a man.

This is something of an old-school pattern. Many statues of the Egyptian pharaoh Hatshepsut show her in the regalia of a male pharaoh, complete with false beard and masculine clothing. Queen Elizabeth I of England characterized herself in masculine terms, on occasions it suited her political purpose. When power traditionally belongs to men, there is no model for how to possess it as a woman; and one of the ways women have gotten around this obstacle is to symbolically present themselves as male. For a more recent example, look at Albanian sworn virgins, who live a permanently transgendered life in order to gain access to masculine privileges.

In fiction, it takes a slightly different form. I keep thinking about the line from one of C.S. Lewis’ less-well-known Narnia books, The Horse and His Boy, where Lucy is described as being “as good as a man, or at any rate as good as a boy.” That is the standard by which female characters are frequently measured, in Narnia or elsewhere — in which case it makes sense that the “girlier” or more feminine a character is, the weaker and less worthy she is assumed to be. (Just look at what happens with Susan in that series.) The best a female can aspire to is honorary status as a male, in the eyes of those around her.

This is most common in the case of warfare, which is a traditionally masculine activity. Vasquez (from the movie Aliens) may have been adopted by lesbians as a dyke icon, reading queerness into the text, but her presentation in the film is pretty thoroughly as “one of the guys,” i.e. an honorary male. She has short hair, she does pull-ups to show off her upper body muscle, she carries one of the two biggest guns in the entire film (which doesn’t even pretend not to be a phallic symbol). She’s tough as nails and as far from girly as you can get. Or take Demi Moore’s character in G.I. Jane, who shaves her head and tells a male character to “suck my dick.” Some of it is simple logic: if I were a soldier, I’d hack my hair off, too. The last thing you want is for that to get in your eyes at a crucial moment. And empathy — a traditionally feminine attribute — isn’t often desirable in a soldier. Tough as nails is pretty much a job requirement.

But contrast this with Zoe in the TV show Firefly. Gina Torres is a thoroughly feminine-looking woman, with breasts and hips and long hair; the costuming doesn’t try to masculinize her. She’s happily married, rather than being an untouchable virgin. And she’s eager for what many consider the most fundamentally female thing a woman can do: she wants to have a baby. Love, family, children: Zoe doesn’t have to abandon those things in order to kick ass. She’s strong as a woman, rather than as an imitation man.

What it boils down to is this: as long as you equate traditionally masculine characteristics with strength, and traditionally feminine characteristics with weakness, the only way to make a woman strong is to make her like a man. While that may be a bare step above the alternative (no strong women at all, just Manly Men saving Damsels in Distress from their inherent frailty), it’s not much progress at all. Far better to question the base assumptions: are empathy and family and all those “feminine” things really weakness, or can they be seen as strength? And who says we have to class them as feminine, anyway, and things like logic or ruthlessness as masculine? Break down the binary, and look for alternatives.

These days, I don’t see nearly as many honorary males in the stories I read or watch. I think we’ve replaced it with a different trope, problematic in its own way — but that’s a post for next month. In the meanwhile, I’ll repeat a line I’ve used before, from The History Boys: “These aren’t women, they’re men with tits. And the tits look like they’ve been put on with an ice-cream scoop.” The closer that line comes to being true, the more likely it is you’re looking at an honorary male. Society doesn’t always provide women with another option, but fiction can, and should.

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  1. 1. glenda larke

    Oh, I so agree with you. And I’ve deliberately set out to make my strong women not so different from many women in their aspirations.

    Next month, Stormlord Rising comes out and I am really wondering what kind of reaction it is going to get. One of the main protags is stuck in an enemy encampment at what must be a woman’s most vulnerable time — postpartum — with her newborn. Not something you find too much in fantasy novels. She is one strong woman, who will … ok, not saying anything more. Don’t want to spoil it.

  2. 2. Marie Brennan

    Glenda — Like everything I’ve been posting about in this series, it’s a question of pattern. I don’t mind the occasional female character turning into “one of the guys,” because that’s something certain women would do. I do mind it being the dominant pattern. Which I don’t think it is, at least not any more . . . but I needed to talk about this in order to set up what I’m going to talk about next month, and those two topics didn’t fit into a single post. So, there you have it. :-)

    (Childbirth, btw, is DEFINITELY not something that comes up much in SF/F — unless it’s to kill off the lord’s wife and clear the way for a stepmother or tomboyish girl’s upbringing.)

  3. 3. JS Bangs

    This reminds me of this discussion of “strong female characters”, which I found very interesting.

    I really have to object to including Lucy from Narnia in this discussion, though, since I don’t think she’s presented as masculine in the least. In fact, I’d argue that she’s a counterexample: she’s very much a little girl, but her girlishness is presented as a strength, not a weakness (esp. in her interactions with Aslan).

  4. 4. Jaws

    I’m always amused by the “adoption” of Vasquez; other aspects of her character (her smackdown of Hudson doing pullups; her particular repartee with Drake before the terminal firefight; and her particular reaction to Drake’s demise) speak far more of a heterosexual/possibly bisexual woman who is comfortable with herself in a male-dominated world… because, in the end, she’s not just as good as they are at their jobs — she’s better, and the men know it and accept it. You just don’t put an incompetent on point, or as the carrier of your heavy weapons; and, unlike Drake, she doesn’t panic and get herself killed (or at least not in the same way).

  5. 5. Marie Brennan

    JS — sorry, that wasn’t the impression I intended to give. (You’re right that Lucy isn’t an honorary male, though there is a pattern in Narnia of the more “tomboyish” girls getting better treatment, and women exhibiting adult femininity not coming off too well.) It’s just that any time I think about women having to be masculinized to count as worthwhile, I think of that line, which suggests the best a female character can aspire to is to be as good as a boy.

  6. 6. Becca Stareyes

    I remember a passage from Barrayar by Lois Bujold.

    For context, in the middle of a civil war, Cordelia and a small party sneak into the capital city, held by the enemy, to rescue Cordelia’s son. They come across Cordelia’s cousin-in-law’s heavily-pregnant wife, Alys, who had tried to get her husband out of the city and leave herself, as her husband and unborn child were both close relatives of the Royal Family. She does a damn good job of it, too, despite no real training and literally giving birth after she runs into Cordelia’s group and her husband is captured and killed.

    Cordelia later notes that because she was raised off-world and had a choice in what she could become, her bravery in rescuing her family — sneaking in with a small, armed group, and cutting off the usurper to the throne’s head when he got in her way — it a lot more understood by the male soldiers around her husband than the bravery of Alys or of the Crown Prince’s widow, because it was a lot more ‘masculine’, mixed in with the ‘feminine’ desire to protect her child. That all of them — Cordelia, Alys, and Princess Kareen — were trying to fight for their loved ones, who were in danger because of bloodlines, but that Cordelia was the only one with ‘guy skills’, so she was the hero and Alys was barely commented on, and Kareen was denigrated for trying to protect herself when she was powerless, thought her son was dead, and was in the hands of the usurper.

  7. 7. Marie Brennan

    Jaws — I totally see why Vasquez is a lesbian icon for some, even if she doesn’t have any interactions with women that would suggest actual homosexuality. (The closest she comes is the exchange where she asks the pilot who Ripley is.) And I have no problem with her being adopted in that fashion. But to my eye, she’s hyper-masculine, and her sexuality is deliberately irrelevant.

  8. 8. Marie Brennan

    Becca — Interesting. I really need to find the time one of these days to read Bujold; she’s been on my list for ages, but I just haven’t been able to sneak her in, with all the research I’ve been doing for my novels.

  9. 9. R. Hare

    Men LIKE strong female characters, but they want them to be women, not ‘men with tits’.

    The interesting thing to me is that many women seem to feel that they must be men in order to be shown as strong. The opposite is true; the manliest of men will stop and pick flowers for a woman who asks him to do it.

    Modern movies can get confusing with their characters, but go back to the older movies. Men don’t love Jane Eyre, they love Annie Oakley. Scarlet O’Hara is both strong and feminine; Melanie has a period of weakness, but ultimately is the strongest character in the story.

    In the ‘real world’, women are often perceived by men as being weaker because they tend to seek concensus. Strong women characters do not seek concensus, but make decisions and move forward. Your character does not not need to shave her head or carry a mega-blaster in order to to be strong, nor do men have to be weak in order to give the woman strength. Consider Maureen O’Hara and John Wayne (who were not only in several movies but were great friends off-screen); two more powerful characters would be hard to name and no weakness was needed on either character’s part in order to provide that strength.

  10. 10. Rabia

    Far better to question the base assumptions: are empathy and family and all those “feminine” things really weakness, or can they be seen as strength? And who says we have to class them as feminine, anyway, and things like logic or ruthlessness as masculine? Break down the binary, and look for alternatives.

    I think that many people find it a lot easier to portray the kind of strength it takes for a woman to hack off her hair and go train as a knight than the strength of a woman who is the heart and center of her family and home. It certainly is more dramatic to have the farmer’s daughter storming off to join the army, than to have her apprentice herself to an artisan, save up money for own farm, choose her own husband, etc.

    Glenda, I love that you have a mother with a newborn as a main protagonist. One of my pet peeves is how women in fantasy become peripheral once they have children. As if they are so wrapped up in a maternal haze that they have nothing to contribute to the storyline anymore. Blech. I’d love to see more mothers and older women as protagonists in fantasy fiction, period.

  11. 11. Jaws

    I consider Vasquez a hyper-soldier, who (morphologically, anyway) has ovaries instead of testicles. That we apply “masculine” to “hyper-soldier” is beside the point… since the soldier most willing to engage non-traditionally-masculine values and behavior (Hicks) isn’t exactly a hormonal archetype himself. Think about it: Protect the child, and call over a non-uniformed mother (more likely to be able to communicate, if nothing else) to bring her in initially; don’t allow immediate vengeance against either Gorman or Burke when their failings are exposed; and so on. This isn’t “masculine” behavior as much as it is “pack-leader” behavior, and that’s no more gender-selective than we allow ourselves to see socially. (Exh. A: the Medicis and Borgias)

    That said, I think perhaps my original point got a bit lost in that opening sentence; sometimes, it’s as much about audience preconceptions, and post hoc rationalizations, as it is about presentation, and that’s what I was trying to get at.

  12. 12. Sam

    Rabia @10:

    It certainly is more dramatic to have the farmer’s daughter storming off to join the army, than to have her apprentice herself to an artisan, save up money for own farm, choose her own husband, etc.

    It’s also more dramatic to have the farmer’s son storming off to join the army, than to have him apprentice himself to an artisan, save up money for own farm, choose his own wife, etc.

    Neither scenario needs to be inherently male or female, I find it troubling that being strong or weak in either situation has anything to do with gender.

    Marie @7:
    But to my eye, she’s hyper-masculine, and her sexuality is deliberately irrelevant.

    Maybe I’ve completely missed your point on this one, but I’m going to have to call you on this, defining the traits that make her a good soldier (or at least a stereotypical grunt) as being masculine is the sort of insidious sexism you appear to be protesting against.

    I don’t think she’s any less female for her upper-body strength, I don’t think she’s any less female for her talking-back, I don’t think either of those things make her more male, if anything it’s a demonstration that those things can be gender-neutral.

    I don’t think that showing a woman with traditionally male strengths is making her an honourary man, I think it’s demonstrating that the traditionally male label is mistaken.

    I think that is far more of a step up than trying to portray “feminine attributes” as strengths is, because it’s breaking down the stereotypes of what women can/can’t do – regardless of strength or weakness.

  13. 13. Damien RS

    Yes, Bujold’s a very good author!

    A friend last night noted that fairy tale heroines usually have dead mothers, and their stories end with their getting married to the prince. Presumably they die young themselves, to provide the next generation of motherless girls… Only evil mothers survive, to become stepmothers.

    Would you count Buffy and Willow as well as Zoe?

    I’ve been more steeped in anime and related media than English fiction recently. Lots of strong non-masculine women there.

  14. 14. Marie Brennan

    R Hare — some men like what you describe. I’m leery of making any sweeping generalizations about what one entire gender wants, though. (See also: why so much comedy leaves me cold.)

    Rabia — I agree, though it’s also worth bearing in mind that historically speaking, having kids does eat up a lot of a mother’s time and attention. I’m reading a selection of Ada Lovelace’s letters now, and watching her argue with family friends about how she’s a BETTER mother if she hires somebody to look after her children, because then she doesn’t get so irritated with them — but that family friend was basically accusing her of being a bad mother because she hired a nanny and went off to do math instead. How many other female geniuses labored under the same limitations?

    Jaws and Sam — from a more flexible gender perspective, you’re right that she’s a hyper-soldier, and I shouldn’t necessarily class it as masculine. My choice of words echoed what I think was the assumption at the time, though, and still for many people is the assumption now, that the epitome of masculinity is to be a tough gun-slinging killer, and that Vasquez, as an example of that type, is therefore extremely masculine. I’d love to move on to a point where we don’t auto-link that type with a specific gender, and I should police my own words better to achieve that, but I don’t think we’re there yet.

    Damien — I name-checked Zoe specifically because she’s a soldier, as Buffy and Willow are not. (In Buffy’s case, she’s a warrior, yes, but not military.) They’re definitely strong characters, though.

  15. 15. Andrea K Host

    I like it when the men are empathic and the women are logical. In fact, I like it when both genders have both these traits.

    I have no problem with female characters exhibiting what’s considered masculine traits (whether out of deliberate choice, a need to survive, or because that’s just the way they are). Any more than I would have a problem with a male character who liked cooking and didn’t like his home being messy.

    I do dislike characters that don’t ring true, but I’m flexible on what ‘true’ is.

  16. 16. DebC

    Wow, do I hate this kind of discussion!

    Because while you’re building up one kind of female strength you’re knocking down the fact that many women *are* physically strong, that many women *are* tough and that many women do physical work well, wear pants, have short hair and do the sorts of things where their hands are rough and their nails are short and they curse a lot. I see these women every single day–why shouldn’t they be in fiction as well?

    I can’t see any sort of progress in dismissing these women as ‘well, not really women’ it seems like a huge step backward to me.

  17. 17. Marie Brennan

    Deb — That isn’t what I meant at all. I’m talking about stories (or writers) that seem to believe the *only* path to strength is the stereotypically masculine one, and furthermore that in order to walk that path — in order to lay claim to physical strength or anything else in that vein — a woman must abandon any stereotypically feminine traits. My own personal belief is that there are a lot of kinds of strength, and their aspects don’t have to be mutually exclusive of one another; the kind you describe is one, but it shouldn’t be the only one.

    I do realize that this post, in isolation, might not make that view clear; it’s part of a series I’ve been doing for a while now, so my points are spread across a bunch of different posts. If you want to check those out, they’re all on the sixteenth of the month, and I do address some of your concerns elsewhere.

  18. 18. CC

    I agree that some characters, in order to be seen as strong have become masculine. I have a question about something I’m working on. This is NOT science fiction/fantasy, so I understand if you’d rather not answer, but I’d appreciate a little help.
    My main female character is very military (its a military high school) while my male charcter is somewhat rebellious and just dislikes the military aspects of the life he’s now living. She’s very strong willed (he is too), but I’m starting to think the reader might see her as a man in disguise. Any tips to make her more femine without taking away the military aspects of her?

  19. 19. Marie Brennan

    CC — sorry for not answering this sooner. The answer is that it depends on context, and every reader will process it differently anyway; some will see a man in disguise, while others will just see a woman of a particular kind. For me, I’d say the key thing is to not go out of your way to make her disavow everything girly, unless you want her to be the kind of tomboy who’s determined to run away from her gender; she can be military but not afraid of showing love for her family, or military but not averse to soaking away tense muscles in a bubble bath, or military but not deeply invested in confrontational behavior — basically, something that that breaks the stereotype that to be a soldier (or a soldier-type-kid), you have to be tough as nails in every respect. Some toughness is necessary, but when it means eradicating all human softness, I don’t think it’s good for men *or* women.

  20. 20. CC

    Thanks, I’ll work on that; I really appreciate your help.

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Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is the author of more than forty short stories and seven novels, the most recent of which is the urban fantasy Lies and Prophecy. Visit site.

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