I wanted to watch Robin Hood: Men in Tights while on a field trip in middle school. We were on a bus from Toronto to Montreal and had plenty of hours to fill. Those of us clever enough to have hauled out our VHS stash would get a chance to see their favourite movies played for a whole bus load of Vesuvian hormones. I was first in line, Mel Brooks clutched safely to my chest.
The teacher responsible for adjudicating over the choice was the school’s noted feminist (more rare in its overt form back in the mid-90s) Mrs. V. She was the homeroom teacher for about half my friends but not I, and had recently shaved her head for cancer research. She glared down at the clunky rectangle I offered her and asked, “What are the women’s roles?”
I was forced to eventually answer: a princess, a matron, and a witch.
Not long after I was watching Dave Chappelle and co. get silly to the many hearty guffaws of my peers, but I did not forget her snort of disgust – nor the brief internal struggle writ across her face. As a teacher she had no real recourse but to let us watch the movie – it was PG and light-hearted and contained nothing objectionable from a censors point of view – but as someone fighting to educate us on gender roles, she knew the three labels above were rudimentary stereotypes.
Now, writing women, I try not to think of any of it. I don’t want outside influences affecting my choices with what they do, what role they play, or their place within my world. I want the only difference to be a care that I am not. See, as a man it can be dicey – to write a woman exactly as I would write a man is to drift over that which makes her female, but to write a woman as a man sees women can undo accuracy the same way I don’t believe I am at all like how a woman views a typical man. As such, it is a craft to write the opposite sex. One that succeeds or fails on its realism (forced ‘strong women’ are every bit as two-dimensional as a ’60s Disney damsel, for example).
This ‘realism’ stems from the root beliefs of the author. To build a unique and vibrant character of either gender requires the recognition that such people exist in either gender. Those unable to tap into such a base will no doubt create artificial copies. I have faith that I can ‘not think of any of it’ because I trust my inner self to naturally create women who might be strong or might be weak – but are always invested. It is my belief Avery Shim ta Salm, Asma Madrejingo, Minette Cullas-Kloss, Corporal Eunice and Emerlyse drive home this message.
Back in the day Mrs. V. was quite the character and she made me think. I aim for my daughter to read characters who do the very same.