Sunday, 27 March 2016

The first move.

They sort of knew of each other already. They'd been moving in peripheral circles for months; friends of friends occasionally mentioned them in conversation and they saw each other on the train, in the gym and occasionally at bars thus making it utterly impossible for them to introduce themselves.

Kate already felt stalkerish for sneaking extra glances when he was straining through his weight training, neither could break the unwritten social law that dictates silence on a commute and although she hoped he'd introduce himself at a bar, Mark couldn't bring himself to approach a stranger.

And so they continued - each convinced the other had no interest and neither willing enough to put themselves out there and risk rejection.

Thankfully, as their friends were oblivious, the universe became irritated with their mutual stupidity and threw them together. At a bar one evening, Kate had retreated to the ladies for a little secretive social media surfing. In this particular establishment, the toilets were upstairs and as she descended, an impatient man pushed past her going downstairs. Taken by surprise and slightly precarious in her heels, she stumbled and as she regained her balance she reached out and grabbed the nearest solid object. It was Mark.

He hadn't seen anything to explain her sudden assault so, startled, he stopped and stared enquiringly at her. "Er, can I help you?"

She realised she was clutching at the fabric covering the rather firm expanse of his chest. Thanks to his penchant for wearing t-shirts at the gym that became see-through and clung to him when he drenched them with sweat, she already had a perfect visual of what was going on under there and her hand flexed involuntarily. Blushing vividly she snatched her hand back as though it burned and muttered incoherent apologies through a tight throat.

She tried to rush away and instead fell, compounding her mortification as she landed in an ungainly heap several steps below. He immediately retrieved the scattered belongings that fell from her bag and she anxiously checked her phone to ensure it had suffered no hurt whilst thanking him profusely and trying not to look him in the eye. As she was also trying to avoid ogling his chest, arms and, now she was seated, his thighs, she ended up staring at his ear lobe, wishing she had some witty observation, intelligent remark or in fact any three syllables to string together that might let him know she was in any sense admirable.

Kate stood hastily, apologising again and he offered his hand to help her. "Are you sure you're OK to stand? Did you hurt your ankle at all?"

"Sorry, thanks, no I'm fine. I'm fine, thanks. Sorry. I didn't mean to... I'm really sorry. Are you OK?" She was highly conscious of her hand in his, but didn't want to seem rude by snatching it away, so instead let it remain, deliberately relaxing it so he didn't feel obliged to maintain the contact.

"I'm great, and," as he spoke he looked down at his chest and smiled. "My shirt seems equally fine. We're very resilient."

The reminder of how he'd felt under her hand upgraded the temperature in her cheeks from minorly incendiary to full-on napalm and after a brief, horrified glance into his eyes she fixed her gaze avidly on that earlobe, noting that his thick stubble ended naturally just below his jawline, leaving the skin on his neck soft and smooth. The sounds of someone new ascending the stairs alerted them seconds before they appeared and prevented her from having to form a coherent response. The new arrival glanced incuriously at them and she was able to form a polite smile as he passed.

It didn't last long. Mark, in an effort to make space on the stairs, stepped closer to her and, like a startled rabbit, she gasped and stared at him. He was close enough now that his scent overwhelmed the stale air of the stairwell and her sudden inhalation meant it hit her in full force. It was woody, spicy, masculine and carried a hint of plain old soap. He went to step back and as he released her hand, it flew out and caught his waist, gently urging him to stay.

"Resilient or not, I owe you for rescuing my purse. Can I buy you a drink? As a thank you." Her hasty justification amused him and his lips twitched slightly.

"That sounds nice, but I'm the designated driver tonight."

"Oh." She hesitated, wondering if he was trying to hint her off before deciding to go all guns blazing. "Well, honestly, I prefer to get to know someone over a quiet dinner instead of at a noisy bar and I've been thinking for a while that I really want to get to know you. Do you eat?"

His surprise was obvious, but he quickly took up her offer, suggesting a curry house nearby. They exchanged numbers and agreed a date before saying goodbye. As he turned to leave, she hastily leaned forward and brushed a kiss against his neck. He looked down at her oddly and she smiled, wiping away the smudge of lipstick she'd marked him with.

"I'd have kissed your cheek, but I'm not sure I'd be able to wipe any excess lipstick out of your stubble."

He rubbed his jaw, grimacing slightly. "Yeah, I've been told it's a bit much."

"Oh, no!" her objection was instantaneous and heartfelt. "I really like it! Bring it with you on Wednesday and I'll prove it." As she spoke she stepped away from him and smiled before sashaying away. He carried on up the stairs and, when she was sure he couldn't see or hear her she punched the air triumphantly and did an excited little victory dance before hurrying back to her friends.

Monday, 7 March 2016

Help, my strong female character is an idiot!

Fair warning, this is a rant. It will use aggressive language and confrontational statements. There will also be biased opinions and it will be heavily coloured by my interpretation. In short, I'm very annoyed and being highly dramatic. HOWEVER: I firmly believe that when you dial back the emotion, there is a lot of truth in this piece and I will enter into debate with any party who wishes to oppose my point of view.

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What makes a strong female character? I'll be honest, I don't have a magic answer for you. But I can tell you one behaviour which is far too often gifted to the "strong female character" that undermines everything this character is supposed to stand for. I refer, of course, to the female character who does something spectacularly stupid under the guise of "strength" and "independence" that too frequently results in her becoming a "Damsel in distress".

Examples? Stephanie Laurens is rife with these. Her books are historical romances littered with female characters who rebel against the expected status of women of the period and partner off with men who respect their strengths. However, these women have a tendency to completely disrespect their men, assuming they don't know what they are talking about when they say things like "that place is littered with criminals who will do unspeakable things to you" and merrily prance to said location at the earliest opportunity, requiring the man to step in and rescue them. *sigh*

While I'm willing to accept that on the grounds that - well, let's face facts - those books are light fluff and don't need to be consistent or in any way plausible, there are other instances of this that have disappointed me greatly.

Consider the ending to Andy Weir's The Martian. He wrote a good ending and Hollywood... they butchered it because they wanted the commander to get more screen time. In the book, the commander is a very strong leader, excellent communicator and delegator. She takes charge of all situations without needing to be the center of attention and her team respect her greatly. In the film, as they are rescuing Mark, she suddenly (at the very last possible second) changes the game plan, without communicating it. Despite knowing both the length of the tether available and the distance they need to travel she launches herself out of the spaceship in an effort she knows to be futile. She behaves completely irrationally and unjustifiably and it totally undermines everything that she represents - strength, capability, professionalism - in the book.

In her debut sci-fi novel, Fluency, Jen Foehner Wells is very invested in her strong female lead - according to several tweets describing her as such. However, within the first few pages, said "strong" character has complained about a nickname one man bestowed on her at the very start of her time with NASA (as I recall, the phrase was "he called her doc although it didn't make sense, they were all masters or PhDs"). She didn't say this to the guy who gave her the nickname. Oh no. She just sits there being a victim for years.

Being charitable, I can find circumstances under which this behaviour would be justifiable, or that sort of fit with the strong female character archetype. Possibly she wasn't really complaining or bothered by it, maybe she was just confused. Perhaps, despite both reflecting on the nickname and not being able to understand why he's singled her out for years, perhaps she had still never found a need to clarify it with him. There are instances of this inconsistency throughout the book, but it's a debut novel, so I pull my punches.

However, the point the character falls apart is the moment you discover one tiny fact about her that actually serves *no* purpose in terms of plot, except to trigger a conversation that no strong woman would ever feel the need to have.

Before I tell you, here's some context:

  • she's in a capsule travelling to Mars for 18 months
  • the capsule has a single private toilet area covered by a curtain
  • bathing is not a thing
  • she's trained with NASA for over a year before going on the expedition
  • her preparation would have included cat scans and X-Rays to check bone density and internal organ health 
  • her doctor is female 


The woman has an IUD the doctor on her expedition didn't know about.

 An IUD.

She didn't take hormone pills that would stop her period entirely, thus eliminating a messy bodily excretion for the period of the expedition, despite having a female doctor on board who would have *no* reason to forget to take the tablets, even if they weren't in the habit of taking them with their breakfast vitamins.

She didn't have an operation at NASA to implant it (or her Dr would know), she didn't have it when she was scanned by NASA (or her Dr would know) and she obviously didn't ask anyone for advice on how an IUD would operate in a gravity free environment because if lack of gravity means it slips, what then? There's clearly no way it can be reinserted in the capsule given the lack of space.

She deliberately went out of her way to get a form of birth control she couldn't self administer and keep it secret from a trained health professional while operating in a completely foreign (and gravity free) environment. Not only is that not strong, it's the behaviour of someone who is deeply ashamed of a simple bodily function. They are too ashamed to speak even to a female doctor and, crucially, so ashamed that they take a huge risk with a dodgy choice rather than speak sensibly to someone about their options.

 And the conversation it triggered? "Oh, I don't want you to think I'm ready to have sex with you because I'm using contraception." It could even be interpreted as "I don't want you to think I have loose morals because I'm using contraception."

What. the. Hell.

I'm sorry, but really. How, as a strong woman, can you take a mental stance other than "I have the right to choose whether or not I want to have sex with you, and my wants have nothing to do with my contraceptive choices" therefore making that entire conversation utterly redundant? If it came up in conversation at all it should only be because he raised it (Hey. pretty lady, I see you're safe from unwanted babies, therefore let's get it on!) and her response is easy. Two words: Fuck off.

I'm conscious I've become slightly passionate, so I'll dial it back a little. Let's say that conversation was crucial and the only possible trigger for it was evidence that she was sexually aware. Let's claim all of the above is completely rational. This wasn't the only example of a time where an irresponsible, immature choice was made by this character.

A big deal is made of the fact that the main character doesn't like guns. OK, fine. I'm not fond of them myself. But think about any particularly dangerous or stressful situation when a small group works together. That group depends on each other for survival. Trust between them is critical, especially when entering completely unknown, possibly hostile territory. Any threat could come forward. Every member of that team is dependent on everyone else. One person fucks up, they all could die.

In Fluency, during their pre-flight training and in preparation for dangerous situations, it is more important to this strong female character that everyone knows her stance on guns than it is to ensure her teammates know they can trust her to take care of herself and them in a dangerous situation. She isn't willing to do that. She deliberately, as an intelligent, mature, capable individual who has been in survival situations before, chooses to undermine the strength of the team by making herself a weak point.

The guy who leads the expedition when her skillset isn't needed is portrayed as a bad guy for the way he reacts to her behaviour, but I'm totally on his side. Completely. I can understand exactly where he is coming from and I pity him. She had several options; the one she chose was the dramatic, reckless one, with no long term rationale behind it.

And that's the problem. In some fluff you can accept that the "Strong Female Character" is just a nod to modern sensibilities, or an excuse to bring sexual freedom into a repressed world. But when dramatic, reckless behaviour becomes the norm, and you can see it spreading across into genres which take women more seriously?

That pisses me off.

What is worse is that while the women are busy flouncing and declaring their strength an independence, the men are working away in the background getting the damn job done; except when they have to stop to rescue the idiot female.