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International Women's Day

Last year at this time, I had the pleasure of attending a dinner party with a group of women, all approximately my age and we shared stories of lesser-known women from history who we found particularly interesting. This year, I wanted to focus more on the younger generations of women.

My starting point for this blog was to think about women in fiction who I admire. In spite of her flaws, I have always loved Elizabeth Bennett - she is a strong woman who knows her own worth. A more modern favourite of mine is Thursday Next from Jasper Fforde's Eyre Affair series. Again, she is a flawed character, but she has a strong sense of moral purpose and knows what she wants to do with her life. Similarly, the women in my favourite genre (1920s female detective cosy crime) are all feisty and determined not to allow society to dictate what they should be doing. For many years I didn't read romcom novels because I was convinced I didn't like them. However, having to read some of them for part of my MA course made me realise what the problem was. It wasn't the genre - there are some genuinely brilliant books of this type that I have thoroughly enjoyed - rather it was the women in many of them that I had a problem with.

Image from UK Paramedic Humour Facebook page

In life, there are people (and this is definitely not confined to one gender) who like to use social media to hint at how awful/difficult their life is. You know the kind of post I mean - the ones that always get 'OMG hope you're ok' in the comments and invariably this is followed by 'I'll DM you'. This drives me wild. If you don't want everyone on Facebook to know what the problem is, don't put it on Facebook, OR put it on, but limit the audience! On the odd occasion I accidentally put cryptic posts on there as soon as I realise that people don't know what I'm talking about, I put an explanation in the comments! I don't feel the need to tell everyone every time I have a row with my husband/children and when I do put that kind of stuff on, it's generally because I've seen the funny side and think it might entertain other people!

So, how does this relate to books? Essentially, it is this. In some romcom books (again, it's not limited to this genre, but it does seem to be more prevalent in this one) the women are so whiny and self-centred. There was one particular book (which shall remain nameless) where the main character spent 90% of the plot complaining about how awful her life was. She had incredibly supportive friends, a good job that she enjoyed and someone lovely who was interested in her romantically. The only blip in her life was a previous relationship and even that didn't seem as bad as she was making it out to be. Her friends bent over backwards to look after her and make sure she was okay, often inconveniencing themselves to help her. But did she recognise any of this? No of course not. They were unsupportive because sometimes they told her the truth and tried to make her see that life wasn't so bad. I think everyone has a friend like that - no one has done anything for me, I'm always there for everyone else. Except that you HAVE been there for them and when you needed them, they didn't want to know!

And this brings me onto the main point of this post - the younger generations of women. We are massively influenced by what we read, whether we realise it or not. This can often be a good thing - I've written several blog posts about things I've learnt from books - however, this is not always the case. For example, I love the Twilight books and film series, even though the books are not particularly well written (imo) and some of the acting isn't the best I've seen. However, I also recognise that it is incredibly problematic in terms of the behaviour of many of the characters, particularly the men. On no level is it ok to break into someone's house to watch someone sleep, no matter how much you think you love them. Nor is it ok to tell your partner they are not allowed to see their friends. Whilst there is a little kickback against the latter, the control Edward wants over Bella is completely unacceptable. Were my children to show an interest in either books or films, I would definitely be having a conversation with them about this element.

Unfortunately, there are whole genres of books, which are marketed at Young Adults, which use harmful stereotypes - dominant male/submissive female, strong female taught her place by alpha male, strong female rejected by society and only restored to her place with the help of a male – as a key plot line. A friend has been doing some research into these kinds of books for her job and she has identified these tropes, all of which are incredibly harmful in their messaging to young and impressionable girls. The scary thing is that these books are ridiculously popular and if these messages filter through the fiction and embed themselves into what the readers consider 'normal' behaviour, it leaves the (mostly) girls reading them vulnerable to accepting abusive relationships as being normal.

Consequently, my friend repeatedly asks me to write something in this genre to reverse these tropes and offer the fans of these books an alternative perspective on relationships. It's definitely something I'd be interested in doing, even though it's really not the kind of book I usually write, if only because I think it's important to do so. However, even in my own writing, talking to her has made me much more conscious about my caracters. I've always written strong female leads in my adult fiction, but hadn't given quite as much thought to the choices offered to the ones in my Middle Grade books. I'm currently editing the second in the series and I have actually made changes to my original plan for Tilly in light of this consideration. As a result, not only am I much happier with the character and the book, but it's definitely made for a better overall story as well.

So, what is my take away from this on International Women's Day? I suppose, it's the fact that it's all too easy to look at or read things as adult women and assume that every other woman will also recognise them as being problematic. However, I think sometimes we forget that much of that recognition comes about because of our own life experiences. Therefore, we need, perhaps, to ensure that our younger friends/relations/colleagues are protected from this messaging. That's not to say that we ban the books/films etc. Nor is it to say that we can't enjoy them as a piece of literature/film and so forth. It's merely to recognise that just because we enjoy something in fiction, doesn't make it acceptable or enjoyable in real life.

After all, we don't read crime novels and immediately go out and commit crimes, so maybe we need to consider what it is about relationships that makes (particularly) women more vulnerable to real life acceptance of the problematic behaviour they see portrayed in books and films.

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Wendy Bloom
Wendy Bloom
08 mrt.

Some really thought-provoking comments here, thank you.

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