Thursday, October 4, 2012

On the conversations of women in fiction

Big Bang Theory, while being fun all round is guilty on so many charges of stereotyping I don't know where to begin and whether pointing out the stereotyping against women only is too blinkered as there's so, so much applied to the men too, along with the careers, the nerdishness etc.

How often do you read or watch conversations between women in fiction and find that they're about men? Far too often, as far as I am concerned. And I'm left wondering as to the reason why. Do men need the emotional status of a woman with regards to their relationships explained in full, just not to them? Do men find it flattering that they're the centre of a conversation? Is it just unimaginable that women would talk about anything else? These questions all sound as though I'm assuming men are all 'bad' but that's not the case. It is more that for the purposes of fictional relationships there are certain internal emotions that need to be explained to the reader. And as often as not, these relationships and conversations are being written by women so seeing the questions above as anti-male isn't quite correct. What those questions come down to is: what to we think males can tolerate with regards to female conversations and emotional relationships as well as what do they expect? Also, for those works written by women for women, why do such trends stick? The how, where and why of conversations between women about men are complicated questions to answer.

First though, the what.

In fiction there is a tendency for conversations between women to revolve around men. And if this isn't the case then obviously it must be about the body, shoes or children. I say obviously as these are some of the main stereotypes about women and their conversations. Of course, stereotypes don't come out of no-where. It is indeed the case that women are quite concerned with children and family issues when they have or want them. It is also quite common to collect shoes as these are things women not only expect to wear but wear as they make a person feel better about themselves when they're of quality, just like a good suit makes a man feel snazzy and of worth. Women also do talk about their bodies when problems occur but so do men. Please reference the constant flood of man flu complaints if you don't believe me. Also, women gossip but so do men as this is an essential part of being a pack creature. One must communicate and understand everyone's current state as much as possible.

So, why the issue with fictional conversations between women largely being about such things? Well, real conversations between women run in different orders of importance and some of the above topics are actually rarely brought up. First of all, men. Men aren't brought up like "Hi, how are you and your relationships going?". They aren't at the top of the list even if they are of importance to a woman, which is definitely not always the case. There are other things to talk about like house plans, work issues, travel plans, the latest movie or book consumed, this awesome restaurant they just tried, what was done during time off, whether studying is going well or is a pain, who's being a pain and who's doing well, dreams and aspirations, how the business (big or small) is going and things of that nature. And if there's a hobby involved then there's usually a massive conversation revolving around that so there's plenty on gaming, movies, books, collecting, gardening, cooking, arts and crafts, pets and pet breeding etc etc. In other words, a general meeting of the minds and swapping of ideas. On top of that there's conversations of science, sociology, philosophy, psychology and all things related to life and life views. Shoes fit somewhere in the sub-types of collecting and as you have probably encountered, women will collect anything from dolls to video games.

There's also no definite correlation between a woman being unhappy so the relationship must be on the rocks as often found in fiction. There are many reasons a woman would be unhappy that take precedence over relationship issues and these issues are rarely brought up. Things like live conditions, health, education issues, work issues, harassment problems, difficulties doing tax before the tax office comes knocking, paying bills that are outrageous, dealing with companies that assume you aren't the person to deal with, issues with convincing others your worthy and intelligent despite being female and so on and so forth. Some of these might seem odd to those men reading this, mainly as you've probably not thought such things happen often enough or are that big of a deal but this is just about the varying reasons for a woman to be unhappy that aren't connected to relationships of any sort (other than by the assumption that if a woman has a partner the man is in charge of bills and company dealings). And if you don't believe such things as harassment, downgrading or disrespect occur often enough to women to be topics of conversation then think again. Seriously. And pay attention to what's going on around you.

Ah, two powerful women trying to talk about something other than Booth and sex... Failure is written all over Angela's face. Is it really because Bones is so inept in conversations? I wonder... Some of her conversation starters sound really interesting.

After and with all of the above comes conversations of the child, the first issue of the day if there's a child about as children always come first. These conversations usually sound something like this to begin with:
"Hi, how are you?"
Sigh, "It's been rough. The kids were mucking about and they set fire to the kitchen curtains. I put it out but the whole kitchen area needs fixing. So I rang the insurance company and the bastards only want to talk to ... as his name's on the account. Never mind that I'm the one always paying the bill. I've been trying to catch ...  while he's not working and can answer the phone but he's stuck in meetings so I haven't been able to arrange anything. So I went to the hardware to get a few things and ..."

Ramble, ramble, ramble and on to problem solving the insurance company and figuring out how to get the kids in line. It is usually like an information dump. All the crap that women have been dealing with by themselves and have had to smother to some extent in order to get along with said partner and children. There's nothing so neat and tidy as: "The hubby/boyfriend shouted at me today. I don't know if he loves me anymore. What do you think?" To be perfectly honest, women rarely talk about such things as they're very private issues and women are in fact aware of the gossipers amongst them. I should point out that there is a big difference between a conversation between women and gossiping. One does not equal the other. Don't think men don't gossip either. Men are terrible gossipers when they get going. It is unrelenting, and if they draw an opinion of you... Whoa Nelly, you aren't getting rid of it quickly.

So that's what a conversation sounds like if kids and partners exist in a woman's life. There's often a lot of frustration involved and relief at being able to talk about it all. What do they sound like without kids and partners? Well, the conversations aren't generally about shoes or periods. Forget that. And none are done in the nude unless the conversation is between two lesbians (I mention this as I just read an eye-roll worthy scene about two women talking about a man while nude that ended up with one woman kneeling over another - tits in face - and then one tickling the other. Neither were lesbians and I can't even imagine this scenario unless the two were lovers and ultra gooey lovers who had pet names for each other and wore matching clothes... I've never met anyone vaguely like that by the way). The topics of conversations for women without men or kids usually revolve around work, travel, partying, social occasions, friends, health issues, dreams and aspirations, latest entertainment, collections and so on. Basically all of those conversations attached women with a few variations according to freedom from kiddy related obligations that suck up time like a black hole.

...   See what I mean? This is from a 500 up edition strong manga called Bleach that's been converted to anime and is hugely popular. I should mention that the females in this manga, while occasionally good at fighting do not tend to match up or be portrayed realistically (fantasy fiction realism that is).

The conclusion of all this is that the portrayal of women's conversations in fiction is fairly blinkered and the topics rearranged in importance and emphasis, with a great many dropping away into non-existence. Not to mention that these conversations are often portrayed as light, fluffy, of little importance and an annoyance or something to be laughed at.

Why this has come about is likely due to the following (in no particular order):

  • Cultural expectations - deeply tied into the creation of stereotypes, cultural expectations are what we expect women to be. Our expectations deeply affect how we women and what is demanded of them but these expectations can often be damaging and restrictive.
  • Gender stereotypes - seen as the norm or standard when they are hyperboles or blinkered view points. Gender stereotypes come from cultural expectations and acceptance that's built up over generations. They also change somewhat though the eras but often are some of the last things to change with any social or cultural development, mainly as stereotypes can be used as weapons to deride or downgrade (weapons are always useful as we're a fighty bunch).
  • Writing trends - the publishers and producers guide writers and creators to create stories that meet audience expectations and the audience's ability to accept. The writers and creators follow the current popular or fashionable styles in order to gain acceptance from publishers and producers and/or market share with a primed audience.
  • Audience acceptance - the audience has grown to accept this type of conversation the most so writers and creators appease the audience by giving it what it can accept. 
  • This will increase the popularity of a story as it doesn't challenge the audience too much.
  • Audience expectations - the audience has grown to expect this type of conversation the most so writers and creators appease the audience by giving it what it expects. This will increase the popularity of a story.
  • Creator bias - the creator writes what is believed to be real but it is in fact rather skewed. The creator writes unrealistic scenes as that's what the creator wants women portrayed as for various purposes from money through to personal belief.
  • Plot necessities - the conversation has to go somewhere to explain the characters' internal feelings. The character needs to be featured but there's little personality attributed other than stereotypical ones.
So, with such a complicated mess causing the fictional conversations between women to be so skewed, can they be fixed? A short answer: yes. If writers and creators develop stories with women portrayed in better light then trends with change and audience acceptance and expectations with change and from there culture slowly changes. There are a few difficult hurdles along the way like our own internal bias and selling a product that isn't currently of fashion but may set one instead but what's life without a few hurdles?

And while we're at it, why not even the casts out, let women fight and plan on equal footing, throw aside the far too overt sexiness of the current powerful women set and go for the sexy as she is no bullshit all out power broker or fighter? Sexiness is in the confidence more than the black leather, at least for those who aren't teen boys f*p*ing away. Why not try to writing relationships that aren't stuck in the early high school "does s/he love me?" stage? Why not try writing relationships where the woman holds the power and makes most of the decisions? Action heroines aren't the only ones capable of running a show. Try to imagine a relationship not revolving around nagging, money and family planning. You'll find a pleasant surprise waiting. There are a few ground breakers out there but more is required. But if all this can't be done, please drop the teary conversations on men, the raving conversations on shoes and the cringe-worthy ones on periods. Please. Give me a break, especially on the shoes front.

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