The cheerleader’s gonna die: horror, writing and misogyny - Die Booth

          So, at the risk of touching upon an emotive and controversial
Die's forthcoming book
subject for my first Authors Electric post, I really need to talk about the treatment of women in horror (not to mention writing in general). This is a huge topic. I’m not even scratching the surface here.

          Horror is no place for women.
          Of course I’m saying that as an ‘outrageous opening statement’, similar to the recent and excellent New Statesman article ‘I hate strong female characters’. But I do mean it a little. Why any woman would want to bother writing in the horror genre considering the pernicious, outmoded sexism that’s rife in it is beyond me.
          Every genre writer I’m sure is aware that (and I don’t want to blanket here, there are good examples out there; this is just based on what I’ve observed to be overriding attitudes) horror and sci-fi remain pretty much male-dominated. Unless there are a lot of female writers out there who use male-sounding pen names, in which case, they write pretty convincingly as 'men' too, and by that I mean that the majority of horror can’t be considered exactly feminist. Or even neutral.
          You see it everywhere. I’ve been really enjoying the recent TV series of Hannibal, but even in a well-shot, well-written, beautiful horror series which does actually feature a good few female characters, the clichés are still rife. There’s (SPOILER ALERT):

The serial-mom who kidnaps boys and has them kill their families. There’s the would-be victim implicated in her father’s crimes, and the sympathetic mad girl who just can’t help it. Every female character is a victim in some way, even if she’s the killer. Even the psychiatrist-to-the-psychopath has been the victim of an attack which defines her character on the show.

          (END SPOILERS) None of them are allowed to operate outside of the pre-set roles of mother/whore/innocent. Call me a non-traditionalist, but I’m getting tired of every female character in horror being there seemingly as vehicles for sexual threat, commodities to be rescued, stolen or ogled, with the predictable inevitability of any horror-story pet’s gory demise. Even relatively hard-nut female protagonists often suffer sexual threat along the way, whereas men never do, at least not outside of prison drama (go on; think of a single example to prove me wrong).
          Obviously, it’s horrifying: of course everyone is unsettled by sexual threat, just as anybody would hate to have their eyeballs gouged out. Why just stop at the girls, though, who have The Fear institutionalised in them in Real Life from early childhood? Let’s get some good ol’ terrifying rape threat going for the boys too (or, you know, can we just cease to have it all? Please?)
          Otherwise, female characters are executing revenge for a traumatic event (often a rape) or are operating in response to a male character or pre-determined roles. Have you ever seen a female villain operating solely from the motivation that she’s just a bit of a bad egg? Ever?
          Think about it: a male lead in the genre cliché is rescuing his women, protecting his women, or avenging his father. A female lead, if granted an action role, even more rarely a leading action role, is rescuing or protecting her children (Silent Hill, anyone? Mama?), or trying to not get raped/killed by the masked maniac. Even those who aren't, like Alice in Resident Evil are often created by men. Male is the default. If there is a rare, well-rounded, female character, her female-ness will be referred to, whereas a man’s maleness is assumed, because it’s default, right?
        When your leads are described in a horror story, you get hair colour maybe, general build. If the guy is solidly built, it might be mentioned, at a push. If the woman’s boobs aren’t mentioned at some point, I’d be surprised. It sounds far-fetched, but go on - watch out for it next time you read. I read a horror anthology recently where out of 14 stories (all by male writers) 7 contained sexual objectification of women and 4 described actual sexual assault. I can only assume these were written by a male audience, for a male audience, which is not only terrifying but also really dumb - why lose half of a potential market because you can’t resist going gaga over titties?
          The truly scary thing is that this overriding attitude is not confined to female characters (or indeed to the horror genre, although I’ve noticed it’s worse). Authors themselves also come in for endless stick. I’ve read a lot of horror stories (pardon the pun) about female authors being harassed and intimidated at cons and how not enough is done to prevent or address this. It shouldn’t be happening at all. To anyone. What is wrong with those guys? They are literally treating a fellow human being differently solely because of their appearance. That’s all it comes down to. It is a mind-blowingly stupid situation (and word to the wise: there’s no better way to impress a girl than, oh, treating her like a fellow intelligent human being.)
          An author is an author. Their gender is irrelevant. What matters is how well (or not) they write and whether or not you enjoy the stories they are telling you. It makes me wish we could all just have an author number under which to publish; we might actually get judged on our talent then, rather than ourselves - or, more importantly, what people perceive us as.
          Here’s a thing.
          I have a fairly unusual name. I write under my real name (yeah, how about that) because it’s pretty distinctive and (I thought) fairly gender-neutral. Maybe there’s a bit of predetermination evident, but I thought it’d be a good pen name, especially for a writer of the macabre (let’s set aside for a moment the interminable jokes I have to endure about it). However, when submitting stories, it seems I fall into one of two camps: those of people who assume I’m a Di and those who assume I’m a Dai (even though I’m clearly neither; it’s written down right there, monsterlickers).
          The difference in attitude I experience between people who assume, from merely my email correspondence and writing, that I’m male and those who assume I’m female, is staggering. And it happens all the time. It makes me wish I had more time in which to experiment with different pen names: I’d be very curious to see if the same story submitted to similar markets under an obviously 'male' or 'female' pen name would be greeted with a very different response.
          Take the example of J.K. Rowling. I’m sure we all know now about her being advised to use just initials so she wouldn’t be outed as a lady-shape. I’m sure we’ve all heard about her incognito crime debut under the pen name Robert Galbraith. The thing that strikes me most about this article about it in the Telegraph is the following quote: "Reviewers have described it as an “exhilarating debut” and marvelled at how a male author could ever describe women’s clothes so well."
          That's what they pick up on in this interview? A sort of 'oh, well, actually, we could tell it was a chick because she, erm, like, wrote about chick stuff,' as if someone writing with knowledge about women's clothes has to be a woman, it couldn't be, say, a man with an interest in fashion, or a man who knows how to operate a search engine to do some research, or a man with eyesight who can look at stuff and describe it with words.
          The pathetic, contrived ways in which people routinely attempt to widen the gender gap: words fail me. And the worst thing is, reading the comments on the linked article, it’s a whole heap of similarly bizarre views “This is a remarkable woman. When I read the first Harry Potter I couldn’t believe that a woman could have such a “boyish” imagination. As a child, we boys were always more imaginative in the games we played than the girls, and to see these fantasies brought to life by a woman was a revelation,” writes ‘armchairman’, who was probably viewed as too irritating as a child to be invited to play with the girls.
          “Isn't Robert Galbraith pretty,” opines ‘spamshredder’ 'humorously', because as Amanda Palmer well knows, you can’t be in possession of a vagina in any line of work and not have your appearance commented upon ahead of your talent.
          Readers. Gender is a construct. It doesn't matter. What if I start sending this out as my author photo, to prospective publishers? (Set aside for a moment that it's a terrible low-res cameraphone selfie!)

Or what about this?

          How do you think the attitudes toward me would be affected? But here’s the thing: those photos are of the same person; same person, same day, same hour - the only difference is a bit of makeup and a lot of padding and fake hair. It is a construct and does not affect the writing, so why should we carry on accepting that authors and characters both be treated so disparately according to their gender?
          Horror is no place for women. But it should be, and this needs to change. Haul yourselves into the 21st century, genre literature: you might learn something from the entire half-a-population whom you seem keen to marginalise.

          Thanks for reading, you can read more from me on my blog.

          You can find some of Die's stories in the ReVamp! collection - but look out for the forthcoming Spirit House.


Lee said…
I agree that gender is a construct, but like all such constructs, it affects the way we think and feel - and write. Does that mean genres -if we choose to think in that way - should be dominated by men? Of course not. Does that mean we should write cheesy genre clichés? Of course not. But does that mean that psychological/sociological constructs don't play an essential role in our lives? Not that simple.
Kathleen Jones said…
Excellent post about something that really needs to be addressed. I used to foam at the mouth at all the screaming hysterical women in disaster movies. Feminism has a long way to go in altering the way people think, maybe three generations? They say that's how long it takes to alter cultural imprints. (in the case of the Irish - my family - it might take longer).
Die Booth said…
Lee - it certainly isn't simple. And I'm sure gender does affect the way we think and feel and write - in different ways for different people, so it's unhelpful to assume gender stereotypes are accurate for any characters or authors because an individual is an individual, despite their gender - you can't generalise, like society currently does. That's why I believe the gender of a writer is an irrelevant point.

Kathleen - Three generations: that's a bit depressing! At least we can work a little towards helping attitudes progress.
Chris Longmuir said…
Interesting post. As for gender issues and women victims, I agree, but this can also be turned on it's head. In one of my books (Dead Wood) a review stated "problem with this book is that all the male characters are sketched-in as the potential murderer or as misogynists and rapists (even the police officers)." In my defence, this is the only book in my crime series where the suspects have been all male, and I don't think my characters were mysogynists, plus there is no rape in it, although I do have streetwalkers, and the crimes are not sexual. Oh, and in my latest book I have a male rape! Maybe that's me being feminist again though!
Lee said…
Die - Even if you can't generalise about gender (or any other issue of this scope), this doesn't necessarily make it irrelevant. Consider the fiction written by women living in African countries, for example. Is their gender really irrelevant?
A. said…
Consider the fiction written by women living in African countries, for example. Is their gender really irrelevant?

In that situation of course it's relevant, but the post is about the mainstream horror genre which is almost exclusively written and set in the US and Europe. Apples and oranges...
Die Booth said…
Chris - it can definitely be turned on it's head (most opinions can!) I'd say there's absolutely an issue with stereotyping of male characters too. Although they do invariably come off less as 'victims' than female characters (especially in horror) and I think the problem is less prevalent than with male characters. Your books sound very interesting though. I think there's always the issue with keeping things 'realistic' in fiction, that you end up naturally reflecting an imperfect society where unfortunately women DO tend to be the common victims. It's a tricky balance.

Lee - It depends on what the fiction the women living in African countries are writing is about, and what their aim in writing it is. If it's about the struggle that women living in African countries face, then of course their gender is relevant. If it's about a magical alternate universe populated with wizards, then their gender is irrelevant.
Debbie Bennett said…
How come I've never come across you before, Die? I've been on the fringes of the UK horror/dark fantasy crowd for over 20 years and dozens of conventions (many on the organising committee). I've been following this con-harrassment/sexism thing on various blogs recently and yet I've never come across it myself. I've edited a lot of small press anthologies and never even noticed the gender of the authors - which is as it should be, of course.
Anonymous said…
By definition though, the cliché's work in both directions. The male gender portrayal is also as metaphorically rigid. Much of this comes from the writer's satisfying sexual desires through their work. Horror is a strange genre, you need a pretty effed-up imagination to write it in the first place. Publishers look for 'commercial' stories and are often loathe to experiment outside of trusted boundaries. There's no room for political correctness and most the readers are not expected to either.
Lydia Bennet said…
woohoo Die, you're preaching to the choir as far as I'm concerned, way to go as they say! I've been involved in several facebook discussions on sexual violence and women (and children) as victims in crime fiction - many of us are fed up with some of the icky treatments of those situations out there. It's one of the reasons I've chosen alpha males as the victims in my new crime novel! Just to help right the balance. We've just had twitterstorms of horrible sexual threat and persecution of 2 women who supported putting Jane Austen on the £10 note - most of the trolls were outed and proved to be a sad and sorry (literally sorry, once everyone knew their names) bunch. Mary Beard, an expert on classical times, has been similarly targeted with extreme vilification because she's apparently not pretty enough to be on TV. Interesting to hear the same is going on in the horror genre. Films too are often ramping up the rape quotient, or women in their underwear for no good reason. I think you could write a really great piece for the press, or even AE, with some examples of how you've been responded to as Di/Dai. Anyway, well said! Top first post for AE.
Lydia Bennet said…
Just to add, I'd not heard about women being harassed at Cons - appalling. I've never heard of this happening in the crime world but then they tend to be literary festivals. Chris, other crime authors, have you heard of this before?
Lee said…
Die - All speculative fiction (I include SF) is in essence about the societies we live in now, under the guise, of course, of what could/might be. Horror too is realistic in the broadest sense of the word - a way of projecting and illuminating deep fears, for example. If context matters (A's 'apples & oranges'), and I believe it does, then then surely gender context matters very much indeed. Are you arguing that someone who even today is growing up as a girl, however constructed that identity, has experiences identical to those of a boy? That's not what I see in my surroundings, even if I wish it were so.

This leads to a broader question: whether writers are really able to write about lives they have never lived and would have great difficulty imagining. Yes, I'm fully aware of the counterarguments, but I think it's a tricky problem. Could I write about the inner life of a deeeply religious Muslim, for example? I might try, but my theory of mind is likely to be tested to its limits.
Die Booth said…
Debbie - I've been publishing shorts for years, but only just about to release my first novel and my first con will be Otherworlds in Warrington next year (Sam Stone is going to be there - I see you know her!) So I've never witnessed con harassment in person either, but I've certainly seen it at fancy dress/cosplay events.

"I've edited a lot of small press anthologies and never even noticed the gender of the authors - which is as it should be, of course."
If only all editors were like you!
Die Booth said…
Anonymous - The clichés certainly work in both directions - although I'd argue against male characters having quite the same narrow portrayal as the female.

I'd also argue against the suggestion that horror serves to satisfy sexual desires. Some of it, maybe, but certainly not all of it.

I agree that publishers look for commercial (often repetitive) formula - that's where us indie authors come in to provide an alternative option!

It's not a matter of 'political correctness', that's an entirely different issue. Gender equality isn't political correctness, it's a necessity, and things won't change unless people speak up about the existing problems - just because something's an established convention, it doesn't make it right, or healthy. What of those readers who want to read well-rounded characters, especially female ones? The genre should cater to them too.
Debbie Bennett said…
Sam Stone is one of my best friends. And I've known her partner for over 20 years. Small world!
Die Booth said…
Lydia - I'm very happy to hear that! I've not read much crime fiction, but having watched TV shows I can imagine some of the discussions you mention - revisiting the same scenarios in fiction just reinforces/normalises them and I think that's quite damaging (not to mention a bit repetitive!)

The issue of online bullying of women is disgusting - the way that, with women especially, appearance is commented upon ahead of expertise is exactly the problem I'm talking about and the fact that threats so often have a sexual tone is unacceptable.
I think that Literary Festivals have a different atmosphere maybe? Most of the harassment stories I've read (if you do a quick search, you'll find reference) have taken place at cons. I'm not sure if it's more prevalent in the fantasy/horror genres but those are the areas I tend to read more around, so I've noticed more.

I will definitely bear your suggestion in mind for a future post here! Cheers!
Die Booth said…
Debbie - that's ace! I'm looking forward to seeing her speak at the con!
Die Booth said…
Lee - I wouldn't say that all speculative fiction is essentially about the societies we live in now - the very nature of a lot of fantasy, sci-fi etc means much of it can and does take place in completely alien/alternate societies. But, that aside - someone growing up as a girl today may have none or many experiences identical to those of a boy and vice versa, depending on the individual. Granted, society does tend to force certain social conditioning and roles onto different genders. This isn't the point I'm making in my blog though. The point I'm making is the fact that female characters are often two dimensional and often take the secondary or victim role as a matter of course.

When writing a character, then of course the gender of the character is likely to have a bearing on how you write them. This doesn't mean that gender stereotypes should be automatically perpetuated, however.

Again, whether writers can write about lives they have never lived isn't the point I was making, but I would argue that of course they can. That's opening up the argument that a 'male' writer can never write a female protagonist and vice versa. Of course they can. Otherwise, by extension, historical fiction is somewhat doomed! Any writer can write any subject or character they want to, provided that they do the relevant research to back it up, and treat their work with respect.
Debbie Bennett said…
That's an unbelievably cute avatar, Die. What are you - about 15? :-)
Die Booth said…
Debbie - heh, I'm 36!
Debbie Bennett said…
In that picture? That b&w one here on google? Never!
Die Booth said…
Debbie - That one was last year so 34 or 35 maybe. Double-edged-sword of the babyface!
Chris Longmuir said…
Debbie, I've never come across any harassment of female authors at crime cons, conferences or festivals. Maybe they're afraid to meddle with us given the dark imaginary world we inhabit!
Lee said…
Die - There is no way any of us can imagine what is truly alien.

You won't get an argument from me about stereotypes of any sort, though they can have their uses. I've been twitchy enough here (and elsewhere) about the preponderance of clichés, hackneyed situations and characters, etc. The thing is, if stereotyping (also gender stereotyping) is so appealing to readers (and viewers), writers need to grapple with the reasons for this. THat's one reason why I feel it's too simple to say, to the barricades! let's fight gender stereotyping!
Debbie Bennett said…
Then I apologise, Die. Wasn't meant to be rude... ;-)
Lee said…
BTW, Die, Rupert Thomson's novel The Book of Revelation is a fascinating reversal of the female victim/male gang rapists stereotypes. He's not a horror writer as such, but he does lots of interesting stuff with genre. I don't think he's ever written a boring book.

And I've been watching The Walking Dead as though possessed, interested in how some of the stereotyped characters develop over time - and how some don't. This is horror with an emphasis on what it means to survive as individuals and as a group. (I ask myself if we actually do need a character like The Governor, an embodiment of evil. And how would we respond if he were a woman? )
Nick Green said…
Late comment: a female villain who's bad for no reason other that just being a bad egg? Easy. Annie Wilkes in Misery.
Die Booth said…
Nick - agreed up to a point (and there probably are quite a few good female villains out there, but they're not many) Annie Wilkes as a character is still motivated solely by a man, though.

Popular posts

A Few Discreet Words About Caesar's Penis--Reb MacRath

A Week of Three Libraries -- Julia Jones

Close Reading | Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose | Karen Kao

In a White Room with Black Curtains Near the Station -- Dianne Pearce

Rules is Rules, discovers Griselda Heppel, Even When They're Not.