“You’re a man. You cannot possibly understand what it is like to be a woman. You don’t have the same social pressures, you don’t have the same physiology, you don’t have the same hormones, you don’t have the same emotional wiring. It’s impossible for you to understand what it is like to be a woman!” — feminist debator, Dalhouse University, Halifax, Circa 1991.
I remember this quote fairly well, because it came out of an otherwise quiet coffee chat in the Student Union building. One of the chaps at the table, possibly myself, commented that we empathized/ understood the current state of affairs on women’s issues. The resulting slap down was both sharp and swift.
While I will not be so trite as to claim as to have been emotionally scarred by the ensuing discussion at the table, I will say that it has always left me somewhat less willing to claim understanding. Within our North American pop culture, we have built a mystic divide between the principle genders. Books like “Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus” talk about this divide at length, and our humor of the day reinforces it.
I cannot claim to have sage wisdom on wether the gender understanding divide is real or artificial. What I will claim is that as a writer, it causes me some grief.
If I want a truely “Steampunk” piece of literature, I’m compelled to have women as strong and believable characters. The Steampunk vision we have is gender equal and racial equal, and that has to be reflected in our literature. That makes it nearly a responsibility for me as a writer to “get it right”.
I also have a pet peeve about what I call the “Dry Ice Heroine” … “Strong and frosty, strong and frosty, whoops here comes the hero / hunk, she melts.” I refuse to write that character, unless she’s clearly a plot device. Even I find that insulting to women, even though officially I can’t understand why.
One of the things that the Victorian Era served as was a kind of watershed for the Sufferage Movement. To me, to be true to “Steampunk” as I see it, you pretty much need a female lead or supporting character to be ahead of the curve, socially. They should already be “out there”, doing the sort of things that women of the time rallying in the streets could only dream about and hope for their daughters.
One of the most iconic moments in the adventures of the Victorian Era is the H. M. Stanley’s popular quotation, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”. In the real world, that question could not have been delivered by a woman of the era. But what about a world where it could? What an interesting place that would be! That’s the sort of world I want to write about.
In writing “The Sauder Diaries – By Any Other Name“, I decided to “go big” on this front. The Captain of the Gunner-Marines and the Cheif Engineer are both women. I also conciously decided that a smidge under 10% of the people active in airship piracy in the Hans Sauder’s world were women.
That’s huge, given that in Victorian England, work and travel outside the home for the middle class or higher was the sole perview of the man. Futher, women in combat roles in the military was essentially unheard of.
So in writing about “The Ladies of the Rose”, I wanted to put that socio-economic contrast right in front of the reader. They are all women living in a mans’ world, and they’ve earned their equality, and they’ll be damned if they’ll be treated any different. They work as hard, they fight as hard, they risk as hard, and they reap the same rewards as their male counterparts.
Arrieta and Annika are the two female lead characters. I knew they had to be iconic characters that mirrored what a woman’s idea of a heroine was supposed to be. So, I did research; I’m a lucky fella that knows a lot of attractive professional women that are also good friends. They were willing to answer questions about how they thought and what they felt. So, in a certain way, Arrieta is one group of women I know, and Annika is another.
The result has been interesting. Both characters produce fairly strong responses in some of the ladies that are fans and readers of “The Sauder Diaries – By Any Other Name”. Chief Engineer Arrieta Itala, in particular, has been a very polarizing character. Female fans seem to either think she’s awesome and a possible role-model, or hate her out of envy/ jealousy for being someone they can’t be.
So, from the perspective of a male writer trying to do justice to rendering a female character, while I cannot claim to “understand” it all, I can claim that smart research means I can get close enough that my readers are not complaining. As a writer, creating a believable character of any race, gender, walk of life or even species requires research and composition.
For me it’s a matter of knowing my world, knowing my characters and knowing my readers. Then, using research to build a bridge that allows them all to meet in the middle of a common understanding.