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.