Part I: Introduction: On what this is and who it is and isn’t for.
Part II: Pretty Things To Look At: Visual descriptions and their fallacies; subjects, objects and breasts; exclusivity and accidental pornography.
Part III: Pretty Things To Use: A casting call gone wrong; age of consent and why it matters; on how Daenerys Targayen said yes.
Part IV: Pretty Things To Use, continued: On sexy rigor mortis; entertainment vs. insult; on how beauty standards make it harder to write well.
Part V: Pretty Things We’ve Read Before: On building mixed ensembles; on why everybody hated Tauriel; what The X-Men teach about gender defaults.
Part VI: That’s… Not How That Works: On why you should fact-check your erotica; on how your bible studies teacher was wrong about orgasms.
Part VII: Do It Right: All the positive examples and bonus advice on how to do it right for all who made it this far.
Pretty Things To Use
So far we have been tackling visual descriptions of women and how they help enforcing the impression that these are objects, rather than subjects, existing only in relation to those who perceive and utilize them. As I’ve already talked about a little, there’s another important characteristic of objects beyond the fact that they are looked at: They don’t have any agency of their own. I wish I were writing this in German right now, because in German, the word I would be using is “Agens.” Agens is a linguistic term that specifically refers to the inert ability of subjects to be active, to act or trigger. Its opposite is passivity, existence without motion. Much like the moon orbiting Earth, the object only has meaning and purpose in relation to the subject.
Let’s talk about another medium for a minute – a casting call. The one below asked to attend the casting of the three most important characters of the TV show Shadowhunters. The first one, Clary Fray was the point of view character in the novel series it’s based on.
I want you to look at the amount of actions and reactions used to describe each of these three characters.
|Character In Active Role
|Character in Reactive Role
|• discovers world previously hidden
• unspecified central role waiting in future
|• Life so far turns out to have been machinated by other people
• Kidnapping of family member
• Has to learn to navigate new dangers
• forced (!) into action / into accepting her powers by third party
|• lethally gorgeous
• determined and expert fighter of magic dangers, skilled soldier
• Swears to spend his life seeking revenge
• falls in love
|• Mourns dead father
• object of every girl’s desire
|• seeker of humor in all situations
• performs in a band
• fights loyally alongside his friend
• goes on an epic journey
|• turned into vampire and struggles to maintain humanity
Look at how Clary, although supposedly the hero of the piece, is described almost exclusively in terms on what happens to her. The largest activities she is assigned is “discovering” and “navigating,” both of which are determined by the world surrounding her more than by her intent. Described as creative and intelligent, we are not told in what way she would turn this potential into action – an art degree certainly has nothing obvious to do with hidden magic worlds. We even learn explicitly that agency is not her forte, as it takes all these massive changes to “force” her into action. An active role is promised in her future, but we learn nothing whatsoever about what that role might be – especially if we consider that a female actress might never get to see the casting calls for the male parts, thus lacking that additional intel. All that even the best actress can do with that description in an audition is look around in wonder and hope that she appears more interesting while doing so than all the other applicants.1
Compare Jace, who is a competent and experienced soldier despite only being in his early twenties and so busy doing things that even his looks have agency, as they are “lethal.” His father dies and that’s a low blow for sure, but this thing that happens to him immediately triggers him to take action – a whole life plan of it even, swearing revenge. He used to be an object of women’s looks (oh the irony) but that is in the past, before the show, as on the show, he will be busy in the opposite active role – long for Clary. Plenty to work with for aspiring actors.
However, Simon is even more interesting than Jace. He is not a soldier. He’s not an anything. He’s a feel-good character, a soft plot character (at least until vampirefication in episode 8); he’s the joker sidekick without the powers. Yet look at how much active engagement is cramped in that short paragraph. In contrast to Jace and his deadly hair, Simon is “very handsome in a non-calculated kind of way” which implies that his handsomeness could indeed be calculating, but he is pointedly refraining from adopting that agency. He performs in a band. He showcases his loyalty by following his friend Clary into “fights” and on an “epic journey” – both of which had earned no mention in Clary’s own casting call. We learn the action he takes to handle situations thrust upon him – he seeks their humor, rather than just “navigating” them. Like in case of Jayce, fate throws death in his path too (his own, in his case) and here, too, we are informed what action it triggers – his struggle for humanity which will likely cause him to make any number of active decisions. So even the friggin’ Xander Harris of the show gets described with more agency than female Harry Potter. This also is a wonderful example as to how misogyny and incompetence are very often connected in the American film business, as ridiculous casting calls like these lead to inefficient castings, lead to women being cast with less precision and having less to work with, and facing bad reviews by dude bros who complain that female characters are just less interesting because they too are too incompetent to understand all this.2
They only cast white people in the end, btw. I’m sure you’re terribly surprised.
Sexy, Sexy Baby Girls (Not)
What’s another way of minimizing the agency of a woman in a story? Yup, it is now time to talk about the pedophilia. The magic number seems to be 13, as the absolutely lowest age that authors feel they are allowed to sexualize a woman, possibly because that’s when they can be reasonable sure that they’ll have some degree of breasts.
Going through the gates he heard the clatter of running footsteps behind him.
Two giggling girls, both in short skirts, both with bouncing breasts, both about fourteen years old, flounced past.
‘Anyway, the crumpet’s good.’ Harris smiled to himself.
(I used this example further up already. This time I want to point out that this is a teacher thinking about his students. The fact that the girls are running across the yard and giggling is reminiscent of child behavior, which makes the mention of breasts all the more off-putting.)
Slowly the mist parted revealing a small clearing. The shape of a figure dissolved before his very eyes. It seemed to flicker like a candle before resolving into clarity. To his surprise it was a beautiful young woman oblivious to the cold.
Her hair was unlike any he had ever seen, golden and radiant. Her eyes were large and unwavering, of the deepest blue. It was the fair skin of her naked body that caught Kirin’s attention. Her hair barely covered the swell of her rounded breasts. She was seated with her long legs folded together, casting the gentle curve of her sex in shadow.
Desire battled the anger in Kirin’s heart as his mind struggled to stitch reality together. He felt warmth radiating from her and was drawn closer to quench the terrible chill that rattled his bones. With each step he watched her blue eyes gaze upon him with the promise of passion, warmth, and an endless embrace.
The young woman shifted positions displaying her gender for the briefest flash of temptation. Kirin remained fixed to his position. […]
(I’ve used this example before, too. I’ve been informed that this young woman of unearthly beauty showing off her lady parts is thirteen years of age.)
Margaret had been a gangling thirteen then, all legs and arms, her nipples already pushing marks into her dress. She’d nursed him well, sitting reading through the long quiet evenings of a summer holiday while Jesse lay and frowned and brooded at the ceiling and thought God alone knew what.(Keith Roberts: Pavane. UK 1968)
We’ve also got a great and terrifying example in the first book of George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones series, wherein thirteen-year-old Daenerys is forced into a marriage with a much older man, followed by a wedding night that a worrisome amount of fans would consider a depiction of consensual sex, since it features the word “Yes.”3
Afterward she could not say how far or how long they had ridden, but it was full dark when they stopped at a grassy place beside a small stream. Drogo swung off his horse and lifted her down from hers. She felt as fragile as glass in his hands, her limbs as weak as water. She stood there helpless and trembling in her wedding silks while he secured the horses, and when he turned to look at her, she began to cry.(George R.R. Martin: A Song of Ice and Fire)
Khal Drogo stared at her tears, his face strangely empty of expression. “No,” he said. He lifted his hand and rubbed away the tears roughly with a callused thumb.
“You speak the Common Tongue,” Dany said in wonder.
“No,” he said again.
Perhaps he had only that word, she thought, but it was one word more than she had known he had, and somehow it made her feel a little better. Drogo touched her hair lightly, sliding the silver-blond strands between his fingers and murmuring softly in Dothraki. Dany did not understand the words, yet there was warmth in the tone, a tenderness she had never expected from this man.
He put his finger under her chin and lifted her head, so she was looking up into his eyes. Drogo towered over her as he towered over everyone. Taking her lightly under the arms, he lifted her and seated her on a rounded rock beside the stream. Then he sat on the ground facing her, legs crossed beneath him, their faces finally at a height. “No,” he said.
“Is that the only word you know?” she asked him.
Drogo did not reply. […]
He began to undress her.
His fingers were deft and strangely tender. He removed her silks one by one, carefully, while Dany sat unmoving, silent, looking at his eyes. When he bared her small breasts, she could not help herself. She averted her eyes and covered herself with her hands. “No,” Drogo said. He pulled her hands away from her breasts, gently but firmly, then lifted her face again to make her look at him. “No,” he repeated.
“No,” she echoed back at him.
[…] She was afraid of what would come next, but for a while nothing happened. Khal Drogo sat with his legs crossed, looking at her, drinking in her body with his eyes.
After a while he began to touch her. Lightly at first, then harder. She could sense the fierce strength in his hands, but he never hurt her. He held her hand in his own and brushed her fingers, one by one. […]
It seemed as if hours passed before his hands finally went to her breasts. He stroked the soft skin underneath until it tingled. He circled her nipples with his thumbs, pinched them between thumb and forefinger, then began to pull at her, very lightly at first, then more insistently, until her nipples stiffened and began to ache.
He stopped then, and drew her down onto his lap. Dany was flushed and breathless, her heart fluttering in her chest. He cupped her face in his huge hands and looked into his eyes. “No?” he said, and she knew it was a question.
She took his hand and moved it down to the wetness between her thighs. “Yes,” she whispered as she put his finger inside her.
(I’d be willing to accept this scene as realistic, but only if the narrative made clear that Daenerys is trying to convince herself she’s into it by way of psychological self-defense – so that she doesn’t have to feel terrified. Sadly that is not what GRRM delivered, never mind we all know he should have the skill to do so.
I want you to look at the first paragraph, and how GRRM enforces Daenerys being a child by descriptions such as “fragile,” “weak,” “trembling” and even literally “helpless.” Never mind that she breaks into tears.4 It’s disconcerting that the writer saw fit to pair this with erotic close-ups on her breasts and nipples, inviting the readers to picture and enjoy the action along with the two characters. As well as his imagining that there’s a universe where a thirteen-year-old girl would ever get sexually aroused in this situation. The whole “yes/no” spiel is a flimsy excuse of consent, and it would be even if it were possible to have a conversation with someone you share a maximum of two, but possibly zero words with.)
At this point, I meant to provide you with some reference pictures of read thirteen-year-olds without professional make-up. I’d have used kids in the public eye, kids who haven’t been dolled up for the camera. However, I won’t, because putting real thirteen-year-olds up for inspection in this context makes my stomach churn. Not helped by the fact that the majority of such pictures available to the public seem to be from girls kidnapped by serial rapists.5
So. Listen. The concept of an age of consent is not a cultural quirk. There are some countries that put the age of consent at 13 in particular situations, but they are not endorsed by most Western cultures, and chances are that the country you are in is not one of them. The average is 16-ish. Unlike what some people believe, child marriages with sex were not a regular thing in medieval times, either, and sex with your child bride was nowhere near considered normal. Secondly. Just because a sex scene was constructed as consensual and pleasing in a story doesn’t mean that the same would have happened in reality. Depicting as a happy event something that should be a crime and should realistically involve a crying traumatized kid just makes you a sick fucker. And that’s all I have to say about that.6
No wait. I have one more thing to say about the Lolita trope7: You will also often see adult female characters be called “girl” or otherwise described in a way that is reminiscent of children – bursting into giggles, blushing, really anything related to sexual insecurity and immaturity, naivety, occasionally “virginity”.8 I hope at this point you have read enough to understand without additional explanation why that evokes particularly negative associations. That doesn’t mean you can’t ever write about a blushing woman, but it does mean you need to keep an eye on such scenes, and move carefully in order to avoid the trap of infantilization.
[She] had a full set of breasts for milking and hips wide enough for childbirth and so was, for all intents and purposes, an adult, but who still acted like a child, always asking for permission to do things.(Garth Stein: The Art of Racing in the Rain)
(The narrator of this story isn’t even a human. It’s a dog, which is pretty hilarious considering “a full set of breasts” – a garish descriptor to begin with – would constitute not two, but eight to ten of them. Never mind I don’t see how a dog would have a concept of “milking,” seriously, eww.)
Also. If you still call her a girl, maybe you shouldn’t sleep with her? Just a crazy thought.
She came to him toward morning.(Andrzej Sapkowski: The Last Wish. Poland 1993; it should be noted that the girl / woman thing apparently happened in translation)
She entered very carefully, moving silently, floating through the chamber like a phantom; the only sound was that of her mantle brushing her naked skin. Yet this faint sound was enough to wake the witcher – or maybe it only tore him from the half-slumber in which he rocked monotonously, as though traveling through fathomless depths, suspended between the seabed and its calm surface amid gently undulating strands of seaweed.
He did not move, did not stir. The girl flitted closer, threw off her mantle and slowly, hesistantly, rested her knee on the edge of the large bed. He observed her through lowered lashes, still not betraying his wakefulness. The girl carefully climbed onto the bedclothes, and onto him, wrapping her thighs around him. Leaning forward on straining arms, she brushed his face with hair which smelled of chamomile. Determined, and as if impatient, she leaned over and touched his eyelids, cheeks, lips with the tips of her breasts. He smiled, very slowly, delicately, grasping her by the shoulders, and she straightened, escaping his fingers. She was radiant, luminous in the misty brilliance of dawn.
(The use of “woman” vs. “girl” may make the difference between a confident woman on a sexual adventure and the super creepy depiction of a little kid with pigtails as portrayed through the eyes of a man with a serious mental health problem. Remember that moms and dads of all ages read your books, if it helps.)
If you think we’re done with the icky now, think again.
Let’s do dead people next.
Read the footnotes via mouseover. Or read them here:
- This will almost automatically lead to casting for looks because what else can they give the casting directors to go with?
- The author of the Shadowhunter novels is a woman, if not one known for her revolutionary feminism. However, as for the casting calls, there’s no telling who wrote those.
- If you’re one of them and gearing up to get mad, please remember how we’ve already established that the amount of people who’ll feel offended by the same scene is not always 100%. As for my personal opinion, I’ll say at the very least this scene falls into an incredibly icky and worrisome cultural trend. At best it romanticizes sexual coercion, and that’s the mildest way I could get myself to phrase that.
- For the record, just the fact that Drogo continues after his “bride” broke into tears makes it sexual assault and him a dickwad, independently from her age. Her age just adds more years in prison.
- You think I’m kidding but I’m not.
- Are there thirteen-year-olds who’ve had fun sex? Well. Some of my friends got started real young and never had any regrets. But for that to work in a story, I’d expect completely free choice by the participants, no age gap, and a higher amount of sensitivity and skill than any of the writers discussed in this post have thus demonstrated. And then, a part of your audience will still be extremely put off. So why not just make her friggin’ sixteen and be done with it, I ask you? I promise it won’t make you look daring and artistic, it’ll just make you forgotten extremely fast once society is done with sexism.
-  An example of the awfulness of misogyny in this society, the novel Lolita was meant to depict the creepy obsession of a pedophile abuser. Instead, it became known as a book about some sort of sexy baby vixen who makes an innocent man fall into lust by wiggling her mysteriously mature butt. So I feel justified in calling this a Lolita trope because that’s exactly what it is.
- The heteronormative concept of “virginity” categorizes women by whether or not there has been a penis in their vagina. The sooner literature gets rid of that concept, the better, because that’s shitty characterization too. Sex doesn’t magically give you anything, certainly not maturity. Though maybe syphilis.