“Strong Female Characters”

Can a female character be a “brilliant, solitary, abrasive, Bohemian, whimsical, brave, sad, manipulative, neurotic, vain, untidy, fastidious, artistic, courteous, rude, polymath genius”? Well, I don’t see why not, and nor does Sophia McDougall at the New Statesman.

That a female character is allowed to get away with behaviour that, in a male character, would rightly be seen as abusive (or outright murderous) may seem – if you’re MRA minded, anyway – an unfair imbalance in her favour. But really these scenes reveals the underlying deficit of respect the character starts with, which she’s then required to overcome by whatever desperate, over-the-top, cartoonish means to hand.

Another essay on the subject comes from Carina Chocano in the New York Times.

“Strength”, in the parlance, is the 21st-century equivalent of “virtue”. And what we think of as “virtuous”, or culturally sanctioned, socially acceptable behavior now, in women as in men, is the ability to play down qualities that have been traditionally considered feminine and play up the qualities that have traditionally been considered masculine. “Strong female characters”, in other words, are often just female characters with the gendered behavior taken out.

So, what does a real “strong female character” look like? Well, here’s a snippet from Ana Mardoll talking about Disney’s Frozen.

The movie really brings home (especially through the song lyrics, which are just PERFECT) that this Good Girl / Bad Girl dichotomy is damaging to Elsa, and the only way she can really be free is to reject them both. She doesn’t need to be (and fundamentally can’t be) a perfect good girl, but she won’t find freedom by moving over to the bad girl stereotype offered to her by a restrictive society. She’s only free when she throws both of them in the trash.

Also amazing, and very rare: a cursed girl saves herself.

Strong female character? Perhaps.

“Let it Go” Lyrics.

Of course, I can never hear the phrase “Strong Female Characters” without thinking of the iconic strip from Hark a Vagrant (“sexism is over”). Looking for that, I also found a sequel.


Kit Whitfield on first sentences

Kit Whitfield has published a large number of analyses of the first sentences of novels. (These really are analyses, not book reviews. They’re involved, detailed and based on a thoughtful close reading of the subject matter. Spoilers, of course, abound.) Her writing is pitch-perfect, and it itself is full of quotable sentences. From Jane Eyre we have, “Some books begin with a flourish, others with a handshake.” The series has covered the two most famous opening sentences in fiction — Pride and Prejudice (“Austen is an angry writer, sometimes a furious one, sometimes even a hateful one — but my goodness, does she promise us the world”) and A Tale of Two Cities (“There is no authority noisier than Dickens, especially when he’s slapping down a rival authority”) — and classics from Nineteen Eighty-Four (“With Orwell, the language is vehemently simple, ideologically simple, a declaration of war against obfuscation and half-truth”) to Anne of Green Gables (“Anne may talk breathlessly and at great length, but the narrative can match her word for word”). Also included are two Terry Pratchett novels: Sourcery and Pyramids (“some books begin with a handshake, and Pratchett takes this a step further: in effect, his first sentences are secret handshakes”).

When she posted an analysis of The Catcher in the Rye I didn’t read it, because at that point I had not yet read the book. I have now, so I went back and read Kit’s post. I think I’m going to have to read the book again now. (“How does Salinger get away with a first sentence that refuses to to talk to us?”) Awesome stuff.

I can even find much of value in analyses of books I’ve not yet read, such as her take on Rudyard Kipling’s Stalky and Co. (I love Kipling’s Kim so I probably should read Stalky and Co.)

The most recent, and perhaps also the best, post in the series is Middlemarch. Wow. Just, wow.


“The world is wide and there is room for both of us to be wrong”

A letter from HG Wells to James Joyce on the draft version of what eventually became Finnegans Wake.

Your training has been Catholic, Irish, insurrectionary; mine, such as it was, was scientific, constructive and, I suppose, English. The frame of my mind is a world wherein a big unifying and concentrating process is possible (increase of power and range by economy and concentration of effort), a progress not inevitable but interesting and possible. That game attracted and holds me. For it, I want a language and statement as simple and clear as possible. You began Catholic, that is to say you began with a system of values in stark opposition to reality.


Writing Signs (in Unicode)

Here’s a little article I wrote a while ago about signed languages, and the various efforts that have been used to make them writable. Sutton SignWriting is probably the most interesting. I have learned it a little (a very little). There is an interesting project to get Sutton SignWriting encoded into the Unicode specification, but nothing’s happened yet. The Unicode roadmap has left room for SignWriting, but the specific project Binary SignWriting has not yet been accepted. Trying to represent a complex script like Sutton SignWriting in Unicode is actually quite difficult.

Here’s an example of two Haikus translated into British Sign Language, with annotation. And here’s David Frost explaining why Sutton SignWriting is important.


Passover: Meaning in narrative

On The Slacktiverse, Froborr writes insightfully about the meanings he finds in the Passover story and its tale of liberation from oppression.

It’s an empty, meaningless ritual dedicated to the worship of a being that doesn’t exist, commemorating events that never happened. Except, of course, that it’s an empty, meaningless ritual I’ve participated in every year of my life except this one.

Oh, and except that it’s not empty or meaningless at all.

Please do read the whole thing.



Neil Gaiman interviews Terry Pratchett

On the publication of Snuff, Terry Pratchett was interviewed by his one-time collaborator Neil Gaiman. Lovely reading.

On Sam Vimes,

Coppers are easy to write for; they tend to run on rails.

On favourite books and research,

I did a lot of interesting work for Monstrous Regiment in lesbian book shops.

On characters who should return but haven’t,

Somewhere in the back of my mind there is a plot where the hero is Evil Harry Dread.

And on Victorian reference books,

Did I not tell you that in Hay-on-Wye I picked up a collection of very large books with the series title ‘London Then And Now’ and realised that the ‘now’ was in fact 1880? There was even a lovely woodcut of Primrose Hill when it had primroses on it. It really is wonderful stuff. Small things that people might not notice but to me are like a fly to a rising trout.