May 31, 2013

Earning Emotions

Leonor Fini
The fabulous Leonor Fini

by C. Margery Kempe

The notion of a universality of human experience is a confidence trick and the notion of a universality of female experience is a clever confidence trick.

~ Angela Carter

I don’t like shoes.

I thought I should get that right up front at the start. I grew up running around barefoot the better part of the year and no one in my family wore shoes indoors. They’re just not comfortable. You’ll understand why My Side of the Mountain hit a chord immediately with me: I’m a real wild child.

But judging by popular culture that makes me a freak: oh, didn’t you know? Women are just CRAZEE about shoes. That meme makes the rounds over and over, the one about how The Wizard of Oz is the ultimate chick flick, two witches fighting over shoes, ha ha! I recall my keen disappointment when one of my fave comedy writers based an entire episode around the idea that the only female character would cripple herself for cute shoes. It’s a tiresome meme.

We’re still fighting an uphill battle with gender; this kind of clich√© limits everybody. We should give the same respect to a stay-at-home dad as we do to a stay-at-home mom. Men largely get funneled into high pressure jobs that kill them with stress, while women get shunted off into the pink collar ghetto because their willingness to help seems to outweigh their ability to get paid to do so: empathy gets ingrained in women through our culture.

In narratives this leads to lazy characterisation. I still remember my first viewing of Aliens. I had loved the original haunted-house-in-space film but had my doubts about Cameron helming the second. I did enjoy the action most of the way through, but then came that scene: “Get away from her, you bitch.” That moment was a lazy, gendered shortcut — an assumption rather than a character. The lazy assumption that all women have ‘maternal instincts’ that undercut every other consideration in the world, that all women are ‘natural’ enemies over scarce resources whether they’re shoes or children — that any woman who doesn’t have a child is eaten up inside by that lack and so unfulfilled.


This musing was sparked by an ebook that I meant to review, but now I don’t much feel like doing so. Let me just say, if you’re going to label something as “romance” then you need to do a little work understanding the genre. I jump between a lot of genres under my various names, so I’m always conscious of the bounds for the one I’m working in at a given time. If it’s romance, then I know I can’t be lazy and just suggest that a woman will suddenly forget her life, her law enforcement job and her ambitions because a guy looks like her favourite movie star and his baby is in danger and oh, by the way she can’t have kids and it’s the only thing that matters. Those might well spark interesting underlying emotions, but don’t expect the reader to do all the character development for you: you have to earn it.

Have you read a story where the author tried to cut corners like this? Did it stop you from reading?


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  • madelineiva

    I loved the movie Aliens, but that line was my least favorite moment of the entire movie.

    Meanwhile, I too, shockingly enough, loathe shoe shopping.

    Reply to madelineiva
    • Post authorcmkempe

      Yay! I am barefoot right now. It’s so gutting when an otherwise enjoyable film, book etc throws in such a demeaning line. Argh.

      Reply to cmkempe
  • ellaquinnauthor

    I find this kind of emotional paucity happens more in contemporary books than in historicals. Or, at least, that’s been my experience. I like fashionable, comfortable shoes, but I lived in Europe where one walks alot. Now I live in the Caribbean and either go barefoot or wear flipflops, but only comfortable ones. Tweeted.

    Reply to ellaquinnauthor
    • Post authorcmkempe

      In Scotland I do need to wear shoes outside but comfortable and practical are my main concerns. I think with historicals you have o o so much work anyway the emotions are bound to be clear. Do often you need to make them clear physically because the characters can’t speak the truth.

      Reply to cmkempe
      • Post authorcmkempe

        “So often” damn you, autocorrect!

        Reply to cmkempe
  • elfahearn

    I enjoy shoes, but shopping for them makes me crazy. My feet are like paddles — super fat at the bunion and skinny at the heal. I pad around in Crocs and I even wear them in public… yes, that’s how hard it is for me to find shoes that fit. Worse, my Crocs aren’t even Crocs — they’re CVS fakes.
    Now there’s a confession worthy of blackmail.

    Reply to elfahearn
    • Post authorcmkempe

      LOL, comfort is the main thing. Most people’s feet don’t fit commercial shoes; just like all fashion. Much rarer to have things fit than to not. I read an article that said what really makes celebrities look good is that they have clothes tailored to their figures. The clothes in the shop may be the same but they won’t be fitted.

      Reply to cmkempe

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