Bearded Ladies And Overweight Donkeys: Benjamina White On Role Models

Day Five

Equal rights for women.

So who came up with that idea? And why, in western society almost a century after one woman threw herself under a horse to make the point, is it still even being discussed?

My partner is female. My daughter is female. My co-author is female. Equal rights? They run the bloody show!

But pause a moment and take a good look at that photo. A young woman throws herself in front of  the King’s horse at Epsom. Four days later Emily Davison is dead. She gave her life in the fight for equality. The year was 1913.

One hundred years on and what have we achieved? Okay, so women got the vote in 1918.

Well, actually they didn’t. Women in the UK got the vote in 1918 ONLY if they were over the age of 30, were householders or married to a householder, or if they held a university degree. It was another ten years before all women got the vote in the UK.

As for equality…  Margaret Cavendish, left,  was arguing the case for equality as far back as the 1640s. Yet it took until 1918 just to get a sniff of the vote.

A century on and we all know, however much we hate to admit it, that gender still matters. That being born male still, unjustly, gives us many advantages in society.

Yes, there are now “equal opportunities,” or so they have us believe, and things have changed for the better. No question.

But we all know that if you’re female you probably have to work twice as hard to get the “equality” you deserve. So how is that equal?

~

As writers, things are different. Gone are the days when the likes of Mary Anne Evans (left), to have any hope of getting her novel even looked at, had to pretend she was a man, George Eliott. And let’s be glad she did. The world of literature would be that much poorer if we did not have Silas Marner and The Mill On The Floss.

Today, JK Rowling is of course the most commercially successful writer on the planet, the richest woman and God know what else besides. My own favourite author, Enid Blyton, may not have made as much money, but her sales totals over the decades must compare well with the venerable JK’s, and with none of the hype and films and spin-offs to bump up those numbers. What a gal!

Does a writer’s gender determine their chances of getting published? Or of being read?

Hopefully not. But it does determine who might publish them, and more importantly who might read them.

Because our reading inclinations are very much determined in childhood.

Had I not had a younger sister, and access to all her books, comics, etc, I would almost certainly have been locked into a male-orientated reading world where action, adventure and mayhem were the only things I would look at. For those who missed the discussion on heroines of children’s literature, checkout the archives.

Bottom line is, my childhood reading had lots of great girl role models, and often I found them more appealing than the gun-toting war heroes, footballers and action-men that dominated the books I was “supposed to read.”  Characters like that of the superb child actor Chloe Moretz in the film Kick Ass were in short supply in my childhood. There were strong girl characters, but none kicked ass like Chloe!

Role models are just so important.

In the patriarchal society I live in, here in West Africa, that is especially true. Females outnumber males by four to one. But men rule the roost.

Things are changing, and I spend a lot of time visiting schools to try and help facilitate that change, but it’s slow and tortuous.

Some girls here receive an education. If they are lucky. Most girls never finish school, even if they start, because it’s simply unaffordable for the parents year after year. If you have to choose between your son or daughter going to school, the son is the one with most chance of getting a job later and supporting the family into old age. In a land where pension schemes do not exist your children are your pension scheme.

So are girls and women here in West Africa downtrodden and miserable? Not a bit of it. Of course there are cruel exceptions, just as back in “civilization,” but by and large happiness is a plentiful commodity. Especially among the children. In fact, I guarantee you will not find happier children anywhere.

But unless you’ve been here and lived their day to day reality you’ll never understand why they can be so happy with so little.

What would it take to change the lives of girls like those above? A new barbie doll? A pink mobile phone with fifty ring tones? A sleepover after a KFC feast? The latest computer game? Or how about this:

Thanks for briefly sharing my world. Now back to yours.

As girls grow up they have few role models to look up to. Now maybe that’s not such a bad thing. I certainly wouldn’t want my daughter doting on Paris Hilton, or thinking that success is getting yourself on a televised “talent” show, or…

Fact is, there are just so many bad role models for girls out there right now. And there is nothing more disturbing to me than impressionable pre-teen girls dressing like Jodie Foster in Taxi-Driver, trying to emulate role models that are nothing more than z-list celebs who got where they are by flashing silicone-implanted flesh and being unbelievably vacuous.

Isn’t that just the twenty-first century equivalent of sleeping with the boss?

So I’m always on the lookout for new role models for my daughter, her friends, and the other girls here. Chloe Moretz, right, in Kick Ass would be great if it wasn’t for the language used.

But what I love about Chloe’s character is that it shows boys and girls on an equal footing without compromising on the fact that they are girls.

I stress that last point. Equality does not mean females aspiring to be males. It does not mean giving up on “girlie” things and being “one of the lads.” Girls should be proud to be girls. Men and women are different for a reason. It’s like comparing apples and oranges. Vive la difference!

But true equality means acknowledging flaws just as much as it means acknowledging strengths.

Pretty profound, huh? Wish I’d written that, but actually I stole it from today’s green room guest, the delectable, gorgeously adorable Benjamina White.

Now you’ve probably never heard of Benjamina White. To be honest, nor had I until a month or so back when past MWI guest Marion G Harmon (left) drew my attention to one of Benjamina’s books. Marion is the author of the wonderful superhero novel Wearing The Cape, which I featured here back whenever it was. I absolutely adored it. Not one but two fantastic female MCs. Well only one, Astra, according to Marion, but there’s another gal in there, Artemis, who absolutely stole the show.

Both great role models, although I’d much prefer my daughter look up to Astra than Artemis. Astra is cool, clean-living and respects her parents. Artemis is more your cool dark-avenger by night, with attitude. Oh, and she’s dead. Highly recommended.

But Astra isn’t the only kick-ass female superhero in town. Because the aforementioned Benjamina White (that’s her below with the Ascot hat) happened to have created one too. Charlotte Powers is her name, and she’s fifteen. Which also happens to be the age as one of my guests in the MWi green room next week.

Back to Charlotte Powers. When Marion told me about Charlotte I of course was on the next flight to Kindleland and smuggling a copy back through customs. Benjamina lives in New Zealand and if you’ve ever thought there can’t be much to do in New Zealand except write books, it seems you may be right. Benjamina knocks them out every few days. Of course, being in New Zealand, that’s where they stayed. Until the Kindle changed our world forever.

And the great thing is, they’re all about girls kicking ass. Which of course is what we’d expect from a sassy female writer like Benjamina, right?

Okay, so here I have to make a confession. Two, in fact.

First, I edited Benjamina’s post. Something I never do. But only for the spelling of “ass” which had been originally rendered in the traditional British English as “arse”.  That’s part of a separate debate we’ll have soon about how a universal English standard will emerge as all books become digital. But for now, I changed arse to ass not because I’m pandering to our growing number of American readers (not a chance – learn proper English, damn you!), but because arse is such an ugly word. You can’t smile and say arse at the same time. You can with ass.

Come to that, you can’t smile and say donkey either. Ass is just so versatile!

Secondly, those of you paying attention will have realised by now Benjamina is in fact Ben. Yeah, the beard sort of gave it away, I know.  I did ask him to shave it off and put on his favourite frock, but he spent so long trying to choose which one I just gave up waiting. As for the shoes…

So Benjamina is in fact male. But hey, this is about equal opportunities, right? So give the guy a break and listen up as he explains why he writes books about girls. And not just any girls. Girls that kick arse ass.

Here’s Ben:

All right, so someone’s finally pulled me up on the ‘girls kicking ass’ thing.  Someone’s finally read that line in my bio and stopped and said, “I’m intrigued, tell me more”, and now I have to actually think about things.  So thanks a lot, you made me THINK.

To be honest it first came about because I was searching for a way to unify my books, to find a common thread between them.  Many authors write a single series and see it through to the end before beginning another; I admit that I sometimes envy those authors.  Although I love writing sequels and I feel that I’m at my best as a writer when I’m elbow-deep in the middle of a series, with all of the juicy history and characters and internal mythology that brings, I just can’t seem to ignore a new story idea once it takes hold.

I had planned to be working on the sequel to Charlotte Powers in February of this year, instead I found myself writing about an entirely new girl who came out of nowhere along with a horde of horrible zombies.  (That’s Imogen Shroud, for those of you keeping score.)

So what I’m left with is a bunch of different series to try to tie together, and although there are several themes that do keep popping up in my books–the necessity of family, wherever you might find it, the high cost of freedom, the (clearly ridiculous) notion that Those In Charge may not have your best interests at heart–the fact is that none of those themes are as exciting or interesting or, let’s get right down to it, fun as Girls Kicking Ass.

And so I claim, half-joking, half-serious, that my books fall into the sub-sub-genre of ‘girls kicking ass’.  Genre has always been a tricky thing for me–like most writers I just try to tell the best story I can, then after it’s done I start thinking about which holes it might fit into.  Sometimes it’s easy (Imogen Shroud is Survival Horror) and sometimes it’s hard (I still don’t know what Resonance is, Dark Ensemble Superpowered Fantasy maybe?).

In general I label my books as YA, and I’m proud to do it, but these days it’s just such a wide genre that the term no longer holds all that much meaning.  So it’s a challenge to try to define myself and my books, but Girls Kicking Ass is comfortable for me, and so I’m happy to occupy this niche.

If you read any of my books you are guaranteed to find a girl, and you are guaranteed that she is going to kick a certain amount of ass.  Even The Boy & Little Witch, a children’s book I wrote without much in the way of ass-kicking opportunities, has the character of Little Witch, who kicks a modest amount of ass with words alone.

So why do I write about girls kicking ass?  For a start, because girls DO kick ass, and I think this is something that, quite frankly, isn’t being shouted loudly enough.

Oh, it’s talked about, but compared to boys girls are sorely lacking in the ass-kicking role models department.  We’re TOLD that ‘girls can do anything’ but my feeling is that this isn’t SHOWN nearly enough.

Hollywood especially is so, so guilty of this, giving us (and I’m paraphrasing here but I can’t find where I read it; apologies to the original writer) supermodel scientists who also happen to be expert marksmen and kung-fu masters.  We’re TOLD that they’re ‘strong female characters’, but really this is the worst kind of lowest common denominator pandering and does no good at all to anyone.

Of course, it’s not all bad.  Lately we’re getting a few more strong female characters in mainstream media, and that’s good, but it’s not enough.  I’m greedy!  I want more.  And the young female ass-kicker in particular is a rare bird indeed–although let me take this opportunity to share a little Game of Thrones Arya Stark love.  And if we’re talking female ass-kickers in mainstream media I’d be remiss not to mention Avatar (not the James Cameron thing, the proper one), in which we have such significantly ass-kicking young female characters as Katara, Azula, and of course Toph.

If you don’t know the show (and why not, it’s great), Toph is a tiny little blind twelve year-old girl who happens to be the greatest earthbender in the world.  Naturally, she’s my favourite character (well, if I’m honest Iroh is my favourite character, but Toph is a very close second–and this isn’t about Old People Kicking Ass (although who doesn’t enjoy that?), it’s about Girls Kicking Ass).

Just one more example of a strong female character in mainstream media: Commander Shepard from the Mass Effect series of games.  This is particularly interesting because you have the choice to make Shepard a man or a woman–and yet to me, it’s no choice at all; Shepard is a woman, and this is a hugely important part of her character.  It’s hard to define exactly why it’s so important to me that Shepard be a woman (I doubt I’d have half the interest in the story if the choice to play as female didn’t exist), but I think it might have something to do with the fact that seeing a strong, complex, intelligent, charismatic female character in a military sci-fi setting delivering rousing speeches and kicking ass in a myriad of ways is so unfortunately rare.

How many times have you seen a big macho alpha male space marine type giving his troops the “Let’s go get ’em!” speech before a big operation?  And how many times have you seen that kind of speech performed by a woman?  How much more brilliantly insanely awesome is headbutting a Krogan when it’s a girl doing it?

Female characters just don’t get enough of these moments, and when they do I find it both refreshing and wonderful.  (Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the female Shepard is voiced by the amazing Jennifer Hale.)

Another reason that I’m interested in this particular subject/theme/concept is that I’m afflicted with that peculiar ailment known as ‘daughters’.  I have two of the blessed things, just can’t seem to shake ’em. To be serious, they’re the joy of my life and amuse and bewilder and delight me on a daily basis, and I wouldn’t be without them for all the tea and biscuits in the world (and that’s a lot of tea, and that’s a lot of biscuits).

I wrote the first ‘Miya Black, Pirate Princess’ novel before my first daughter was born, and the character of Miya Black was in some ways based on the girl I felt that my as-yet unborn daughter might someday grow up to be. I know it’s odd, but there you have it.

So aside from simply enjoying the concept of girls kicking ass, I’d like to think that perhaps, someday, if I’m lucky, my daughters will grow up to BE girls who can kick at least a moderate amount of ass.  And to help with that they need–yep, you knew it was coming–strong female role models, not just in their life but in all forms of media.

It’s my belief that popular culture has a strong influence on people, especially young people, but it’s not violence or sex or bad language that’s damaging, it’s seeing people behaving wrongly and having that wrong behaviour be reinforced as ‘normal’.

So-called ‘reality’ shows are particularly poisonous, showing dishonesty, disloyalty, greed, vanity, success-at-any-cost and so forth as normal, even positive.  And so now we have a significant portion of people who think this kind of behaviour is okay.  How do we fight this?  I’m glad you asked, because the answer is (goodness, how did you guess?) positive role models, both male and female.

One small point I’d like to make clear is that, to me, a ‘positive role model’ doesn’t have to be a perfect Lawful Good type who never makes mistakes and who has no flaws.  To me, that’s a pretty weak role model.  Role models have to be relatable, we have to form a connection with them, we have to see a part of ourselves in them, and not only that, but see them in ourselves.

I’m not going to lie, this is hard, and I don’t know how often I succeed.  But I think good characters shine through, and we can learn even from ‘wrong’ characters–the important thing is not to show wrong behaviour as ‘normal’ without comment, and not to present it in a positive light.

One example that springs immediately to mind is Edward’s behaviour in the Twilight books, which is creepy and stalkerish and domineering and pretty disgusting, actually.  His relationship with Bella (who is by no means blameless) bears not even the slightest resemblance to a healthy, mature, adult relationship, and yet it’s presented as the most perfect romance in the world.  And so, poison.

If you’re a mature, reasonable person you’re somewhat immune, you read it and think “rubbish” and move on to a better book, but to someone lacking in life experience, such as the millions of teenagers the books are marketed to, they might read it and think “normal?” or even “desirable” or at the worst “justification for my own terrible, terrible behaviour”.  I wouldn’t stop my daughters from reading the Twilight books, but there would be some pretty long discussions afterwards.

Yes, I realise I just lost about a billion potential readers for describing the Twilight books as ‘poison’.  But in my idealistic heart of hearts I also like to think I might have gained a couple, who read that and thought “YES”.  You, theoretical and possibly imaginary reader, are MY target audience.

Now, most everything I’ve been saying here is from a Western perspective, focused on Western media.  But a lot of my influence comes from Japanese media; books, animation, comics, even games.  Although in general I think Japan lags behind most Western cultures as far as equality of the sexes is concerned, they’ve just about got it right with their media–well, mostly. 

 This is, after all, the country that invented ‘fan service’, and some Japanese media is exploitative-bordering-on-offensive (or just flat-out old-fashioned sexist), but if you look at the really good Japanese anime and manga and games and so forth you’ll find plenty of strong characters of both sexes, and female characters who are not only allowed to be intelligent, independent, brave, good at kicking ass and so on, but also clumsy, cruel, crazy, given to human frailty and (goodness me) who also get THEIR asses kicked from time to time, and not just by other girls (ie the ‘designated girl fight’ we all know and roll our eyes at, where the token ‘good’ female character is only allowed to fight the token ‘bad’ female character). 

I think this is really important, and something I work hard to show in my own books–that girls don’t JUST kick ass.  That a woman can be just as small, weak and flawed as a man–that a woman can be just as human as a man.  That girls can get dirty, that they can get beaten up, that they can suffer through indignity and pain and hardship, that they can make terrible choices and live with the consequences of their actions, that some people WILL, in fact, hit a girl … but that some of those girls will hit back just as hard–or harder.  That girls CAN do anything, including being flawed, imperfect human beings. 

 True equality means acknowledging flaws just as much as it means acknowledging strengths.

And yet this isn’t just about equality, although that’s an important–vital–ideal and something we should all be striving towards.  Even if the world were perfect and diversity was not just tolerated but actually celebrated (I can dream, can’t I?) I’d still be writing about girls kicking ass because that’s what I enjoy.  There’s something so appealing about it, I don’t know whether it’s rarity value, or the power and beauty of that mother bear ferocity, or the fact that I’ve been fortunate enough to have strong female role models around me all my life–and I think guys need strong female role models almost as much as girls do, just like girls need strong male role models.

We need others to show us how to act, to show us what we can become, and men have a feminine side just as women have a masculine side, and bringing those sides into balance is an important step towards emotional maturity.

Maybe it’s the whole David vs Goliath concept, that girls tend to be smaller and at least appear to be physically weaker than men, and we all love seeing the little guy win.  Maybe it’s that having a hells-damned determined girl tear through the world imposing her will upon it is greatly appealing to me.  Maybe it’s just that I find female characters more comfortable, easier to relate to, more fun to write.  Whatever the reason, the fact is this: I love seeing girls kick ass, and I love writing about them doing so.

I’ll close by stealing the words of another writer, just to prove that I am a proper author.  Joss Whedon, creator of Buffy The Vampire Slayer and other works featuring Girls Kicking Ass (I haven’t actually watched Buffy myself but I’m told it’s pretty good and that the girls in it do indeed kick a substantial amount of ass), apparently gets asked this question quite a bit:

“Why do you write these strong female characters?”

And the answer he sometimes gives, the answer that resonates the most with myself personally (and I am paraphrasing here):

“Why are you even asking me that?  Why aren’t you asking those hundred other guys out there why they’re NOT writing strong female characters?  Why do I write strong female characters?  Because you’re still asking that question.

And that, boys and girls, says it all.

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  1. “Why do I write strong female characters? Because you’re still asking that question.“

    Amen. Plus, Damsels in Distress are boring–unless they rescue themselves.

  2. Artemis of course needs no rescuing. Just her own series. 🙂

  3. Buffy (and her girl posse) kicked a SUBSTANTIAL amount of ass. I wish I’d had her as a role model growing up. I did get Wonder Woman, though. She kicked quite a bit of ass. Maybe that explains why I didn’t turn out the demure shrinking violet? Or maybe it just explains why I love writing about girls who kick ass just as much as I enjoy reading about girls who kick ass.

    Thanks for the brilliant post Mark and Benjamina!

  4. Shea, you should go and check out Marion’s post at http://marionharmon.wordpress.com/2011/06/04/wonder-women-both-functional-and-decorative/ where wonder-women abound!

    Sure think Buffy made a better role model than Wonder Woman, though the only blood-suckers I want my daughter slaying are the malaria carrying mosquitoes that are Africa’s biggest killer.

  5. I love that you invented your own genre! And where did you find that creepy picture of Arnold?OMG it’s the Creepinator!

    • My years spent collecting embarrassing photos of the famous is finally paying off!

      I’m not sure if Arnie is more creepy then or now. At least back then he didn’t know any better…

  6. Fabity fab post! I lurrrve a bit of kick ass (or arse!) 🙂

    • Thanks Sibel.

      Text guest is the wonderful Cheryl Shireman and a whole different angle on the feminine. Bring a box of tissues. You’lll need them!

      And guys, that’s NOT what I meant.

  7. First of all – that chick who jumped in front of the horse at Epsom. You said she died. How about the horse???? Seems like a perfectly good waste of a life, and maybe a horse too. And the horse had no say in the matter.
    Maybe it was because I was an only child, but I never felt as if there was anything I couldn’t do. I played with Barbies and I played with trucks. I pampered stuffed animals and I climbed trees. I rode horses. I drove motorcycles. As an adult, I took ballet classes and I owned by own chainsaw. I cut wood to heat my house and then went inside to do my nails. I never saw any of those activities as “masculine” or “feminine”. They were just activities.
    I love that Ben writes about strong women. But I think all women are strong, we just show it in different ways. Mother Theresa kicked ass. No doubt about it. A woman who works two jobs to support her kids because her ex-husband won’t pay child support also kicks ass. These women are role models. But you aren’t likely to see them on any magazine covers.
    When I was a young girl, women were burning their bras and calling for equality. Now every young girl owns at least one push up bra and is more concerned about whether “this makes me look fat” than equality. In many ways, we have taken one step forward and three steps back. But I still have hope that we will all live in a word where everyone is treated equally. Including the children Mark writes about. Which really puts things into perspective.
    And I am still wondering about that horse….

    • Cheryl, I must confess I have no idea as to the fate of the horse. Sorry!

      I love the idea of seeing “activities” as gender neutral. Chainsaws and wood cutting I can relate to. I love ballet (though never as a participant I must admit), and as per earlier post have recently discovered conditioner. But as yet the “doing my nails” bit is still off-limits.

      One step forward and three back? I hope it’s not that bad. Or maybe it’s getting worse for both boys and girls.

      Male sports stars have always been role models for boys, but I need only look at the likes of Britain’s Rooney or America’s Tiger Woods to see vacuous male models every bit as unsavoury as Paris Hilton or whoever. Do I want my son aspiring to be a muscle-bound ape like Stallone or Schwarzenegger? Absolutely not.

      As ever, easy questions. No easy solutions.

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