Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere: writing The Other

This is going to be one of those posts that angers fans if I don’t explain a few things first: hi, Neil Gaiman fans! I like Neil Gaiman. I think he’s a good storyteller. I think he does an overall good job with female characters. But the imperfections of a writer like Gaiman, however small, are infinitely more revealing to discuss than are the  the glaring mistakes of writers who don’t even seem to like women.

There’s a reason I don’t go about bemoaning the lack of “strong female characters,” and Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere series is a perfect example of why.

Neverwhere is a ton of fun, and I enjoyed it. It’s written by Neil Gaiman and Lenny Henry, based on a Gaiman idea with Gaiman going on to write the novelization. The female characters avoid a lot of the standard crap women in fantasy get saddled with: they don’t get all headstrong and get themselves held hostage. They don’t get embroiled in goofy love triangles. They don’t get murdered off just so we can feel for the poor lead dude as he mourns or plans revenge. They aren’t all white. They aren’t all simply good or bad. Gaiman avoids all the usual mistakes – and a lot of the more subtle ones – and for this, I commend him. In fact, his females – good or bad, sympathetic or not – are tough and strong and a good deal more savvy than his hapless protagonist. This is all good.

What’s lacking is a feeling that we ever actually get to know these women, or even get close enough to truly sympathize with them. I felt for several of the men in the story, and theoretically wanted to feel for the women, but they remained inaccessible somehow – distant, removed, mysterious – instead of vivid and alive. Why didn’t I feel like I knew the women enough to feel for them?

Part of the problem is simply cultural. The Victorian writers knew how to create strong female characters and let us into their heads and hearts until we couldn’t help but sympathize with them. Early filmmakers knew it too, and we had years of female leads ruling the box office (not all of these characters were “strong”, but many were). But since the 1950′s – when the US government asked TV to help them remind Rosie the Riveter that her rightful place was the kitchen – film and TV have acted more often than not as tools of cultural oppression, teaching generations of kids such “norms” as: all girls want to be helpless princesses, everyone’s heterosexual, the American family is white, women are obsessed exclusively with winning male affections and tending babies and sick people, and all good stories are those about white men. (Yes, there have been exceptions at every step of the way, but that’s the point: they were framed as exceptions.)

As a consequence, we’re very used to reading emotions into tough male film characters, but we’re used to seeing women wear their hearts on their sleeves. Therefore, an author/filmmaker like Gaiman is hobbled at the start: can you portray your females and males with equal bravado and self-assuredness and still expect the audience to read emotions into the females? Not really. Even after years of exploring these issues, I had trouble accessing the characters. If someday we find ourselves accustomed to equal representation in celluloid, I wonder how Neverwhere would play in that time period.

There is an additional issue, however, and it’s evident in Gaiman’s novels and short stories. Unlike film, the written word gives Gaiman ample opportunity to go inside the heads of his female characters and let us know what they’re feeling. He doesn’t avail himself of it. In more than one book, his protagonists marvel humbly at the inexplicable attraction they seem to hold for worthy women. They can’t imagine what the women who love them are feeling. I think this is a clue that Gaiman himself finds women a bit unfathomable, even while he seems to respect, admire and take interest in us. Or else he lacks confidence in his ability to convey the female mind accurately, and thus focuses on the laudable external traits of the women characters. (In “How to Talk to Girls at Parties”, Gaiman actually portrays girls as aliens out to use men to change the world.)

The trick to writing your opposite gender is, of course, to realize it’s not another species. Yes, they may have vastly different social programming than you have, which forces them to view the world and situations within it differently – but take us outside of civilization’s reach, into deadly situations (for one example), and you’ll find we’re not that different. It’s even harder for white straight men to fathom the rest of us than for us to fathom them, since we can draw on their stories not only from fiction but in history and the news. This is why I give Gaiman credit for doing what he feels he can with women characters, instead of wussing out like George Lucas (who wanted to make Luke Skywalker female at one point, but was afraid he’d get the characterization wrong and piss off women, and so decided just not to bother). At least Gaiman shows women as people who have agency, who have a reason to be in the story, who are competent, who can do wrong without being bad, who can be bad without their badness being sexualized, who can be good without any reference to sexual purity.

Comments

  1. says

    Not bad.

    Neverwhere doesn’t let you into anyone’s head, apart from Richard’s, and barely into his. I think that’s mostly because it started life as a TV series, and I novelised the scripts.

    In more than one book, his protagonists marvel humbly at the inexplicable attraction they seem to hold for worthy women. They can’t imagine what the women who love them are feeling.

    I remember the “Richard couldn’t figure out why women found him atractive” line in Neverwhere. It seemed to apply to him. I can’t remember it occurring anywhere else. You might be misremembering.

    So would you apply the same problems to Black Orchid, Death: The Time of Your Life, Coraline or A Game of You, all of which feature female protagonists and spend a lot of time inside their heads? If so, how? And if not, why not?

  2. says

    Wow. I had anticipated fans of yours who don’t know this site finding this review, but never expected to hear from you. Welcome, and thanks for taking the review in the spirit it was intended. :)

    Neverwhere doesn’t let you into anyone’s head, apart from Richard’s, and barely into his. I think that’s mostly because it started life as a TV series, and I novelised the scripts.

    That’s true – and that’s why I brought up the culture issue, which I felt was the larger problem here. I think readers tend to go right ahead and project emotions onto stoic male characters because we don’t expect men to express themselves; but when female characters are stoic instead of expressive (in real life as well as fiction), we tend to read them as unfeeling when in fact they’re just opting to keep their feelings to themselves.

    I remember the “Richard couldn’t figure out why women found him atractive” line in Neverwhere. It seemed to apply to him. I can’t remember it occurring anywhere else. You might be misremembering.

    I may be – I know the two novels I got that impression from were Neverwhere and American Gods. I just spent a few minutes thumbing through AG looking for the reference, but unfortunately it’s going to take some time to find it (possibly even a complete re-reading). In any case…

    So would you apply the same problems to Black Orchid, Death: The Time of Your Life, Coraline or A Game of You, all of which feature female protagonists and spend a lot of time inside their heads? If so, how? And if not, why not?

    I haven’t read those, but will add them to my reading list for additional reviews. If my overall perception changes, I’ll be happy to acknowledge that with reference to this conversation. :)

  3. says

    Oh. You should probably read DEATH: THE HIGH COST OF LIVING then, as well as DEATH: THE TIME OF YOUR LIFE. It has a rather self-absorbed sixteen year old male protagonist in it, along with the eponymous Death, but the second book probably makes less sense without it.

    I suspect that if you haven’t read books I’ve written with female protagonists in, it’s probably easier to generalise and say that I don’t write female protagonists, but I think it might be a difficult argument to sustain over the long haul. I’m certainly interested in whether, once you have read those books, you’d feel the same way.

    I was talking to a film producer who wants to make How to Talk to Girls At Parties into a movie the other day, about how I rather feel that anyone who thinks it’s about How Girls Are Aliens has rather completely missed the point. It’s mostly — at least in my mind — about how people don’t listen to each other. It would have been as easy and as much fun to have written How To Talk To Boys At Parties, although I suspect the girls would have not listened to the boys for a completely different set of reasons.

  4. says

    (BTW, readers, I did confirm this is the real Neil Gaiman commenting.)

    I will check out the other books soon. If my perception doesn’t change, I still think you do an overall very creditable job writing female characters. But, honestly, I’d be happy to discover I’m mistaken if it means more reading material to enjoy. :)

  5. purpleshinycrafter says

    It’s been a while since I read and watched Neverwhere, but I definitely could see the distance from female characters as a “Richard is kind of a loser” thing rather than an author thing. I don’t remember picking up on similar distance when I read Sandman…

  6. FM says

    Have you read the book? I think it does a good job of fleshing out the female characters, but unfortunately I haven’t seen the show.

  7. Froth says

    Kathleen: I think it would also be true to say that individuals change, but humans don’t.

    I must confess that I had a much easier time reading the emotions of Door and Hunter than I did Richard. Perhaps it’s because there is that bit of distance, so you can project your own reactions onto the characters and not be contradicted. Richard never seems to know what he feels, and that’s quite foreign to me.

  8. says

    I think the points you make in this post are a big part of why I read female authors almost exclusively. When I was younger I read a wide range of stories, eventually narrowing my reading to mostly SF/Fantasy, and then SF/Fantasy written by women*.

    It took me a few years to realize I had done this; at first I just gravitated towards stories/worlds/characters that resonated with me. Comparing novels I’ve read in the past, I found that male authors were more likely to write the Normative Male Perspective and as a result even the well-written women who appeared in the supporting cast
    ultimately were still confined by that frame.

    My entire family loves Gaiman’s works (my sister was obsessed with Sandman in her teenage years and my mother’s partner gave American Gods rave reviews), but I just can’t get into them. I actually own Death: The High Cost of Living, but I wasn’t able to like it (despite reading it twice). The story was kind of meh, probably because the protagonist, as Gaiman said, is the Normative Male (he’s young, white, heterosexual, etc). I love Death’s character design and, from what I could tell of her personality, she seems fairly interesting but when it came down to it her part in it almost completely revolves around said protagonist and his journey so it was hard for me to get a real sense of who she was.

    I haven’t picked up any other works by Gaiman, although I did try to read â��How to Talk to Girls at Partiesâ��. Unfortunately, the protagonist/narrator of fit so well into the Normative Male stereotype that I couldn’t get more than a page in before having to put the story down. No matter how much I told myself that I should read it I just couldn’t (seriously, I tried to read it like 3 times but couldn’t get past the 5th or so page). I mean, for all I know there’s a subversive message in it about the construct of Western masculinity and I’m missing out because I can’t stomach a couple dozen pages from the perspective of a narrator I don’t like.

    But, ultimately, my time is limited and I’d rather spend the little time I have reading things that I enjoy — that speak to what’s important to me and don’t present me and my experiences as The Other — than slogging through Yet Another Story Told By Men, For Men in the hopes that my perspective might possibly be included somewhere.

    * Incidentally, when I have time for video games most of those tend to be fantasy-oriented as well. I’ve also found that I’ve almost completely lost interest in RPGs, most of which cater to the Normative Male Perspective, and have been playing casual games (which have no time commitments required) or girl games (basically interactive novels that are written for a female audience).

  9. SunlessNick says

    Why didn’t I feel like I knew the women enough to feel for them?

    I’ve only seen the TV version, but I had that feeling about all the characters bar Richard, which I presume was intentional, given that he was not merely the POV character but his “V” was into an alien world from the outside.

    I’ve read (much) more of Neil Gaiman’s graphic work than prose; I’ve felt for and hurt for a lot of the female characters, including ones who have only appeared fleetingly. Then again, I’m going to have a more forgiving bar.

    So I guess this is one of the few times I disagree with Jenn about something. (But I’m not angry about it :) ).

    I haven’t read those, but will add them to my reading list for additional reviews.

    I can certainly recommend the two Death series, and the Sandman they’re spun off from (two of the arcs – the Doll’s House and a Game of You – centre on female protagonists, and most others have strong female casts IMO. Plus, while it’s not a feminist point, Sandman also features my favourite portrayal of William Shakespeare in fiction ever). Ok, done gushing. :)

  10. Eileen says

    There are some amazing female characters in Sandman. I love how Morpheus, the goth-y dream king, falls in love with scads of them but generally orchestrates preemptive break-ups before they get the chance to discover… what? That he’s full of shit? Probably.

    The thing I love about it is that the text mocks him for this, and the women are every bit as wonderful, diverse, and complicated as I wish they could be in every other thing that I read.

    When I first read the series I had those wistful moments when I wished a character as wonderfully fucked up and complicated as Morpheus could be the central figure of a mythic comic series And Female.

    And then Joss Whedon gave me Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

    Still… do I only get one?

  11. says

    FM, I read the book years ago and saw the series recently. The book is where I originally formed the impression that the women were strong in lieu of being developed. Then I read American Gods and felt the feeling was confirmed. Then I saw the series of Nevermore and sensed the same thing again.

    However, I have to say I’ve been thinking over what purpleshinycrafter said – that the “distance” I felt is what Richard is feeling and I, the audience, was supposed to feel in sympathy with him. That IS a plausible alternate reading to what I was picking up on. And that’s why I need to read some of Gaiman’s works with female protagonists, and see what I think after that.

  12. says

    Jennifer,

    I think it’s certainly fair to present your reading of female characters in these particular narratives, but less so to extend that to a generalisation on Gaiman’s works entire when you haven’t read several of the key works of that ouvre.

    While I agree that Door is a cipher, and I’m not fond of the presentation of gender in “How To Talk To Girls At Parties”, in my experience, *these* are the exceptions, not the norm.

  13. says

    P.S. On re-reading that comment, it is in total scholar-speak formalese. That’s a result of thesis-struggling all day, not of a desire to smack you with a dictionary; sorry!

  14. FM says

    The only thing with a female protagonist I can think of (at the moment) is Coraline. I think she’s very well done, though you could argue that writing children is very different from writing women.

  15. says

    Karen, however you phrased it, you’re right. I actually said as much to Revena yesterday evening and was planning to say it here this morning. I asked myself at what point one is equipped to generalize about the author/filmmaker, and decided there’s no unassailable answer, so in future I must always be specific.

    Everyone: would it be acceptable for me to edit this post now, by striking through what I want to replace (so the comments on the original version can still be understood)? I’d like to edit it a bit, since it’s going to be on the site forever and not everyone in future will read comments.

  16. Ben says

    There was something that always bugged me about Gaiman’s presentation of women, but I couldn’t articulate it until Jennifer wrote this:

    “The book is where I originally formed the impression that the women were strong in lieu of being developed.”

    I’ve read quite a bit of Gaiman’s work, and I have to say, that observation holds true for a lot of it. It’s not universal-several people have mentioned Coraline and Sandman, neither of which have this problem-but it was prominent enough in Anansi Boys that it ruined an otherwise great book for me.

    Gaiman seems to do a great job with female characters when his protagonist is female. Still, the vast majority of his protagonists are male, and that’s something worth noticing.

  17. says

    “Gaiman seems to do a great job with female characters when his protagonist is female. Still, the vast majority of his protagonists are male, and that’s something worth noticing.”

    An interesting point, Ben, but be careful. Once you head down this road, it’s easy to start losing sight of the text you’re critiquing’s actual content and simply critiquing what the text for what it isn’t rather than what it is.

  18. says

    Once you head down this road, it’s easy to start losing sight of the text you’re critiquing’s actual content and simply critiquing what the text for what it isn’t rather than what it is.

    But isn’t that a large part of what we do around here? True, it would be silly to argue that because a work of fiction doesn’t feature women the way we’d like to see them, it’s automatically problematic. But so many of the works we critique around here DO simply fail to feature women, or begin by featuring them only to push them into subordinate man-enhancing roles, etc. In some cases, we definitely have to critique what’s being left out.

    However, in this specific case, the link Ide Cyan got me thinking. Clearly, all the Gaiman I’ve read/watched has been stories he considers “male” in gender. The ones he suggested I read above are “female.” It’s possible that I’m simply not the target audience for those works, and they’re not designed to speak to me as directly as (perhaps) his other works would. Does that make any sense? What I’m struggling to describe here is: the majority of TV and movies is for young white men, not because they’re one niche that deserves stories, but because they’re the ONLY niche that deserves them. Because we are so excluded, we kind of have to critique stuff for what it’s not – i.e., designed to appeal to the sensibilities of women who aren’t content with “chick flicks.” However, in a perfect world, there would still be stories for young white men – it’s just there would also be stories for the rest of us. If the particular works I’ve read of Gaiman’s are speaking to experiences men commonly share, then of course I’m not going to relate directly (though I have at times found men unfathomable and might appreciate the women more if I re-watched NM with that in mind). But if his other works prove to be more relatable to me when I read them, then I’ve critiqued his overall body of work by the wrong standard. Am I making sense? I’m having trouble articulating this – it’s been a big learning experience. :)

  19. says

    Jennifer:

    But if his other works prove to be more relatable to me when I read them, then I’ve critiqued his overall body of work by the wrong standard. Am I making sense?

    I don’t agree with you that it’s the “wrong” standard. What you apply here is a fundamental standard: critiquing the books you’ve read based on only what you’ve read (“the author is dead”) and using that to form your opinion of Gaiman’s style. It is a fairly standard practice and, in my opinion at least, a perfectly acceptable one.

    Which is, of course, not to say that you shouldn’t to continue reading and revise (or not revise) your opinion based on a wider sample base and other evidence, such as the essay that was linked. But it’s important to realize that using the author’s classification of his own work to inform your reading is one standard, and certainly a valid and useful one, but the one that you used in this post is equally valid and certainly isn’t “wrong”, even if your future experiences follow Gaiman’s intended gendering of his works.

    It may seem like a stupid thing to harp on one word, but I feel like you’re sort of feeling ashamed for expressing your completely valid opinion/observations based on your information at the time instead of recognizing those opinions as just as valid as any you may hold later, even if the evidence used was incomplete.

  20. says

    Tekanji,

    Very true, but Jennifer didn’t frame this as “the female protagonists in these works I have read are strong but unrelatable” but as “Neil Gaiman’s female protagonists in general are strong but unrelatable” – I think the flaw in the argument lies there.

  21. says

    Tekanji, what you say is right, and so is Karen’s response. If I edited the post now, I’d change my phrasing, not my observations. They were what they were, and if I come to see it differently later, it won’t be the first time.

    What I meant by “wrong” standard is what I’m having trouble articulating. The vast body of movies and TV are made for the male gaze, and tend to exclude and/or “other” women – that’s why this site exists, right? I normally judge works according to how far they deviate from that default (based, as you know, on my experiences of film school teaching it as the default). If Neverwhere is meant to show Richard as “othered” not just in London Below but as an insecure young man who feels awed by the women he knows and meets, then the othering wasn’t of the women, but of Richard’s perception of himself in their eyes. In other words, I assumed this slighty “othering” was of the women and was occurring for the usual reasons – understandably, given how often it happens – when in fact it may be a valid artistic expression of the protagonist’s feelings of being othered.

    If so, I’m not at all “ashamed” of my perceptions, whether I still agree with them ten years from now or not. What I do wish is that I hadn’t phrased it as an assumption of defect in the writer. It would be valid to raise the possibility as a question, or to state how what I’ve read/seen could lead one to think that. But the way I phrased it was simply too pointed. I stand by my thoughts, just not the way I expressed them.

  22. says

    “If Neverwhere is meant to show Richard as “othered” not just in London Below but as an insecure young man who feels awed by the women he knows and meets, then the othering wasn’t of the women, but of Richard’s perception of himself in their eyes. In other words, I assumed this slighty “othering” was of the women and was occurring for the usual reasons – understandably, given how often it happens – when in fact it may be a valid artistic expression of the protagonist’s feelings of being othered.”

    One thing that puzzles me is whether you perceive that the women in the story are being treated any differently to, say, the Marquis de Carabas, or Old Bailey, or Islington, at least from Richard’s perspective. I mean, when I wrote it (and it’s long enough ago that it’s difficult to take it personally) I’d intended him to feel just as “othered” by them as he was by Door and Hunter and Lamia. Are you saying there’s a qualitative difference here between the male and the female characters?

    • says

      Haha… now that it’s two years after the conversation, I’ll weigh in. I read Gaiman only because he’d worked with Pratchett. Both Neverwhere and Stardust were hugely disappointing because the female characters tried and failed to do what male characters could… There was no depth or development to them. Yes, there was a qualitative difference in them and it gave me the impression the author was the guy from Californication.

  23. says

    I believe the general problem you describe, the impenetrable brain of the female character, is very common. I first remember formulating it as a problem in a class that surveyed British writers from Everyman on up to Dickens (90% male, of course), and I think the unimaginable female mind first really started to grate around the 18th century. But I have read many dead trees worth of Gaiman’s work, and I’ve never detected it as a theme there.

  24. says

    One thing that puzzles me is whether you perceive that the women in the story are being treated any differently to, say, the Marquis de Carabas, or Old Bailey, or Islington, at least from Richard’s perspective.

    I mean, when I wrote it (and it’s long enough ago that it’s difficult to take it personally) I’d intended him to feel just as “othered” by them as he was by Door and Hunter and Lamia. Are you saying there’s a qualitative difference here between the male and the female characters?

    When I watched it, I did perceive a qualitative difference in how you wrote the women and men, because I found myself sympathizing more with, say, the Marquis than with Hunter, even though I found her fascinating. In 99% of TV or film, when I find myself sympathizing with the men more than the women, that’s due to the script: either the writer is more interested in the male characters, or they’re writing for an audience they assume will be more interested in the males.

    Then when I sat down to write the article and thought further, I realized what I described in the paragraph beginning “Part of the problem is simply cultural.” TV – particularly US TV – has a strong tendency to show female feelings and tell male feelings. For example, a mourning widow will be shown moping around the house, seeking therapy, crying to friends. A widower will be shown sitting stone-faced at a bar, looking a little pensive and perhaps drinking too much, and we’ll be told that he’s really hurting on the inside. (This is, I believe, one reason why male actors and characters generally command so much more interest from viewers than females do – because the stories are structured to make us work at sympathizing with the males, and when you can get humans to work at something, we tend to unconsciously justify the effort by forming an attachment to whatever we worked on.) Because I’m as programmed in this style of engaging with fiction as anyone, I realized later it was entirely possible I’d unconsciously read sympathetic elements into the Marquis (the way TV has trained me to do), but held back and waited for something explicit from Hunter that never came. (Consider, too, that most of our positive reviews at this site are about stories that spoonfeed us interesting motives and feelings for the women characters: this doesn’t change the difference in male/female treatment I’m talking about, it just gives the women a better chance of intriguing viewers who don’t care about romance and shoe-shopping and whatever it is so many writers seem to think women are all about.)

    I’m putting Neverwhere back on my Netflix queue again. :) I want to see it again with this perspective in mind, and look for similarities and differences in the way you present the male and female characters (Richard excepted).

  25. Eileen says

    The Marquis de Carabas is a good example of the kind of character I’ve spent my life translating into female so I can play him in the movie I make in my head. Hunter is great. Door is fine. But the Marquis is so much meatier. Talking, conniving, being complicated without being remote. If he had been female many writers would have felt it necessary to make him aloof or mysterious/unknowable or overly sexualized. The Marquis gets to have FUN in a way that is rarely allowed to female characters. I yearn for someone like the Marquis to be female someday… taking over the world and making the world love her for it.

    John Constantine is translated into female (well, I guess lady Johanna is an ancestor?) for one issue of Sandman. That’s what I want more of.

  26. Eileen says

    Please forgive me in advance. I would be more thoughtful, but I’m typing fast because there is a toddler rampaging in my house. I’m interested in the input of thoughtful male commenters here…

    Throughout my life as a reader and movie-goer I’ve become fascinated by dozens and dozens of male characters. They are the characters with whom I’ve primarily identified and longed to play (if I were an actor). They are the characters I think of when I see myself in something. The character with whom I most identify, or who I most admire, or who is simply the most interesting is almost uniformly male. And I, as a female, have to translate the work in question for myself.

    How many men have had that experience? How many men have seen themselves in a female character? I’m not talking about sexually. I’m not talking about perceiving the female character as someone you are interested in romantically. How many times have you, as men, been called upon to step out of your gender and identify as women? Ever? Has it ever happened?

    Maybe sometimes, but rarely, right? And is that maybe because female characters are almost never as good? Almost never as much fun? Almost never as active? Always waiting, always being pretty in dresses, and almost never being the hero?

    How come Harry Potter is never a girl? Or the boy in Books of Magic? How come the magical forces of the universe pretty much never converge upon a chosen female?

  27. Eileen says

    “How come the magical forces of the universe pretty much never converge upon a chosen female?”

    Or, if they do, the girl is as much object as person (Door, Yvaine) and requires a boy to act as viewpoint character.

  28. Patrick says

    I have identified with female characters fairly often. Not as often as with male characters, but I expect that is just a consequence of (as you said) male characters being the focus so much more often.

    Notable female characters that I have strongly identified with have included: Ivanova from Babylon 5, Spoiler from DC comics, Rogue from Marvel comics, Francine from Strangers in Paradise, Celes from Final Fantasy VI, Haruka from Rah Xephon, and Usagi from Sailor Moon.

    I’m also one of those people who plays female characters about 60/40 in roleplaying games.

  29. Onlooker says

    Of course, for a considerable period of the book, The Sandman isn’t the protagonist of The Sandman. And often when he is, he’s only revealed to be so in the background after an age…

  30. says

    Eileen invites the contribution of thoughtful males. I hope I qualify.

    My impression of most popular fiction is that while even heroic male characters are expected to have flaws and weaknesses, female characters are expected to be paragons, role models, and “strong women”. Male writers feel that to write a woman with weaknesses is misogynist, so they write uninteresting women.

    I found my way here via a comics blog, so I’ll pick an example from comics. Garth Ennis is praised for writing “strong female characters”, but his female characters – Tulip in “Preacher”, Kit in “Hellblazer”, Tiegel in “Hitman” – basically function as the male protagonists’ consciences. Hero acts, heroine tells him whether or not he did the right thing. She also shouts a lot and occasionally kicks a misogynist villain (or the hero when he really screws up) in the balls. A lot of “strong women” in the movies fulfil the same function.

    I would agree that Gaiman is one of the few writers in comics who writes women as people. He’s also very good at writing from the point of view of not-very-bright men who are afraid of and don’t understand women – Richard in Neverwhere, Shadow in American Gods.

    And some stories aren’t really about women at all, just as some stories aren’t really about men at all. And they don’t have to be.

    Jennifer Kesler says: “The vast body of movies and TV are made for the male gaze”

    I’m not sure I agree with that. There’s a substantial body of movies that are made pretty much exclusively for men, but also a substantial number that are made pretty much exclusively for women. The majority of TV, on the other hand, seems to me to be directed at women, and tends to show female characters apparently in the shadow of male characters but obviously cleverer and more compassionate than them.

  31. says

    I’m not sure I agree with that. There’s a substantial body of movies that are made pretty much exclusively for men, but also a substantial number that are made pretty much exclusively for women.

    Consider if from this perspective, then: films made for women are called “chick flicks” and revolve around romance, shoe shopping and historic drama. Conversely, films made for men are called “mainstream” – there is no genre, because male is the default audience. And they revolve around pretty much everything but romance and shoe shopping – they can even involve historic drama if there’s enough butch stuff going on. The male viewer has a lot more choice of genres.

    I do think TV offers women more targeted programming than film, but remember that advertisers pay considerably less for female eyeballs, which puts networks in the position of obsessing on male viewers to the point of canceling shows when “too many women” are watching. So when they make a show for men, they actually want women to stay away, but when they make a show for women, they try to make it man-friendly enough not to put off the guys. When we are pandered to, it’s not without consideration for the men. When men are pandered to, women are not considered at all – until we start watching, at which point they panic instead of thinking “Oh, here’s a new opportunity.”

    And if you’re a woman who doesn’t like soaps or relationship dramas or relationship comedies, you’re shit out of luck – you can either try to relate to the guys in some genre you like (something many of us grew up doing, or we’d never have watched movies or TV at all), or you can give up celluloid entertainment. Because even if you find something mainstream that features a woman being competent and strong and interesting, after a couple of seasons when the network gets worried not enough men are watching, there’s about an 80% chance she’ll get retooled into a cardboard cutout designed to illuminate the wonders of the male lead at her expense.

  32. says

    Jennifer, I disagree with you that “chick flicks” aren’t mainstream, and your view of TV seems to be based largely on sci-fi/fantasy stuff, which is is non-mainstream and which TV has never really known how to handle. Geeks are probably a pretty difficult sector to advertise to, because we spend so much money on our niche obsessions and we’re not that worried about standard consumer crap. Your post about the cancellation of Firefly lacks context, but my guess is they couldn’t sell enough female-directed advertising space on a sci-fi show, and couldn’t sell enough male-directed advertising space on a show few men watched, and so couldn’t afford to keep running it, rather than they didn’t want women watching it.

    It may be different in the USA, but UK TV seems to have given up on male viewers entirely. Nothing but “reality TV”, talent shows, “celebrity” reality TV and talent shows, soaps, costume dramas, interior design, celebrity chefs, murder mysteries (I have no idea why murder mysteries, usually starring unpleasant male detectives and often revolving around violence against women, appeal largely to women, but they do) and sitcoms featuring idiot men married to smug clever women who can always outmanoevre them. And the commercials are even worse.

    Late night comedy, which always grabbed plenty of male viewers, is pretty much dead. A couple of months a year we get Doctor Who, which is primarily a kids’ show, and keen to appeal to female viewers, knowing it can take the male ones more or less for granted. That leaves us with Match of the Day and Top Gear, and if you’re male and aren’t interested in football or cars, there really isn’t much to watch.

  33. says

    Jennifer, I disagree with you that “chick flicks” aren’t mainstream,

    Perhaps I was unclear. “Chick flicks” is an industry term (later, obviously, picked up by the audience) for films that target a female audience. There IS NO TERM for movies that target men, because all movies that don’t target women target men, because men are the default viewer. Men don’t require a genre, because the whole mainstream movie-making industry is all about the male viewer.

    and your view of TV seems to be based largely on sci-fi/fantasy stuff, which is is non-mainstream and which TV has never really known how to handle.

    No, I’m also thinking of cop dramas and medical dramas and all that. For example, Cagney & Lacey targeted female viewers without focusing mainly on relationships – I enjoyed the hell out of it. But what’s there been since to rival it?

    Your post about the cancellation of Firefly lacks context, but my guess is they couldn’t sell enough female-directed advertising space on a sci-fi show, and couldn’t sell enough male-directed advertising space on a show few men watched, and so couldn’t afford to keep running it, rather than they didn’t want women watching it.

    …which is why they didn’t want women watching it. Did you assume that in saying they don’t want women viewers, I’m saying they’re misogynistic bastards who hate their mothers? I wasn’t judging them for not wanting women, just saying it’s the fact of the situation. I DO think some prejudice has come into play in constructing a whole system in which the eyeballs of viewers involved in 80% of all purchases are worth less than the eyeballs of those less involved in shopping – and if you followed the links, you know that both BusinessWeek and WSJ were at a loss to explain it, too – but I can’t begin to guess what individuals were responsible for that prejudice. The point is, industry pros NOW need to question what they’ve been taught. That’s how innovations happen and people get ahead.

    It may be different in the USA, but UK TV seems to have given up on male viewers entirely.

    UK TV has never been as obsessed with male viewers as US TV – that’s why I primarily watch British TV. The shift toward reality TV and all that is happening here as well, but it’s not that they’ve “given up on” male viewers: the truth is, the traditional male formula genres of action and sci-fi are freakin’ expensive, and fewer people can afford to make them now. They’re switching to uber-cheap reality TV and men are watching that and discussing it over the water cooler, so why make something more expensive if they’ll watch something cheap?

  34. Ide Cyan says

    UK TV is in a different situation with regard to advertiser revenue, because of the license fee people pay in order to even have TVs, which goes toward the BBC’s budget.

  35. says

    UK TV is in a different situation with regard to advertiser revenue, because of the license fee people pay in order to even have TVs, which goes toward the BBC’s budget.

    Thank you; that explains a lot. I really need to become more familiar with the business model the BBC/UK TV uses to make money.

  36. says

    The BBC is funded by the licence fee, which is basically a tax you pay if you own a TV, although for expensive progammes they often co-produce with American broadcasters like HBO and Discovery, and they also make money by selling DVDs, and selling old shows to cable/satellite channels. There are subscription and pay-per-view movie and sport channels. All the rest of the broadcasters sell advertising.

  37. says

    Okay, it sounds like the BBC’s model is much more like the pay channel model over here – like Showtime, which makes money by subscription and doesn’t care if its subscribers are women, men or monkeys. Pay channels here also take chances on shows regular broadcast won’t touch.

    A big part of the problem with US TV and film is a business model which is based not on tested and re-tested principles, but on assumptions which may have been true at some point, but desperately need to be re-examined. The assumptions are: men spend more money than women (again, BW and WSJ have found the opposite and cannot account for the origin’s of this assertion), men control the (single) TV at home and women only watch what their menfolk want, women don’t like sci-fi or action, and young men won’t watch sci-fi or action when competent females lead or are even present for fear of girl cooties.

    Again, there are many, many exceptions (and cultural changes, such as many homes housing multiple TVs) that suggest these assumptions might not be as valid as they once (possibly) were, and I was never the only young film/TV student and later worker arguing that we were leaving money on the table by ignoring women viewers with money, ignoring male viewers who like to see women with agency, etc.

  38. SunlessNick says

    Okay, it sounds like the BBC’s model is much more like the pay channel model over here – like Showtime, which makes money by subscription and doesn’t care if its subscribers are women, men or monkeys.

    With the exception that you must “subscribe” if you have a television, even if you never watch the BBC – the comparison to tax is an apt one. That gives it a big budget that it doesn’t have to do anything to earn.

  39. says

    Right – Showtime has to attract subscribers, but the BBC gets the licensing fee money automatically, which means a certain amount of their funding is not money they have to compete for. But they also sell air time for commercials like our broadcast channels, right? And that makes them subject to market forces for that portion of their income…? Could they survive on just licensing fees, though?

    What I’m wondering is how much the difference I perceive in UK and US TV is cultural, and how much is market driven.

  40. says

    Okay, I’ve just done some reading and… is the BBC actually not supposed to make money? Its main body of programming is 100% funded by licensing fees?

    This will sound stupid – or sad – but that’s almost incomprehensible to me. Over here, truly fully government-funded programs are quickly becoming extinct. The post office is semi-private. Even schools are now practically co-owned by fast food chains who market their crap in the schools and exert influence over the curriculum as part of their price for helping to cover funding gaps. It’s been such a disillusioning process to watch that I think I just blocked out any memory of the concept of the government fully funding something (yes, with the fees charged to people, I know, but all government funding really comes from the people).

    Wow.

    Okay, so who does the BBC answer to? The govt which allegedly answers to the people, or what? Who and what forces shape their programming?

  41. Charles RB says

    The BBC charter says it is meant to be free of political influence (i.e. the government), so the only thing it’s meant to be answerable to the BBC Trust (replacing the Board of Governers in 2007). The Trust is an external body from BBC management and is a 12-member body, with members appointed IIRC by the Queen on advice from the government.

    So effectively the government appoints them, which does give it some influence on the BBC but the Trustees will change depending on which party’s in power.

    The government also sets the license fee, which it can use against the Beeb if it’s unhappy – and the government & BBC have gotten into spats quite a few times (which the BBC, amusingly, reports on!). I don’t think they’ve ever reduced the fee but they can shorten the increase (to match inflation et al) which they did recently, leading to layoffs and cutbacks.

    Generally the BBC gets to be surprisingly autonomous though. This is an agency that got criticised by Thatcher as being “unacceptably even-handed” during the Falklands War, for example.

  42. says

    Question: Have you also seen the novelization and graphic novel treatment of Neverwhere? I found that the graphic novel had more of Door’s and the Marquis’ perspectives than the series.

    Also, in the novel when Richard or Door asks Hunter how old she is, exactly, Hunter replies, “as old as my tongue and slightly older than my teeth”. I found that positively endearing. Hunter also comes off as more aloof than most of the other characters, but I think that’s more as a function of her character than a gendered thing.

    Door is also portrayed as more sympathetic to Richard’s lost-at-sea-ness in the graphic novel as well.

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