We all watched Repo Man tonight.   So fun to hear all the old songs: TV Party, and Institution, Pablo Picasso, and all the rest.  Black Flag, Iggy Pop, Suicidal Tendencies, and––God!!––the Circle Jerks dressed in lounge suits playing one of their songs at 1/8 speed while Emelio Estevez says, “I used to like these guys.”  And who doesn’t love Harry Dean Stanton?

I had forgotten how many times the F word was used, and my kids raised their eyebrows a little at that and the sexual references, but they laughed at the same parts I always did (so glad the main character’s parents aren’t us!) and I was very pleased at how well the movie has held up.

I guess I’m showing my age here.  I was always just on the edges of the punk scene.  My friends were always going to concerts of what have since become extremely famous bands––Flipper, Agent Orange,  the Germs, X, Butthole Surfers, the Cramps, Dead Kennedys and all of the ones mentioned up above––who seemed always to be playing at some warehouse or other.  I saw PIL in LA in 1984, with Mike Muir popping up informally to join in, and for some reason the drummers from Bow Wow Wow onstage with what looked like taiko drums.  I even spent a few days in Redlands once with a friend who introduced me to his friends, all of whom were in a band known later as Camper Van Beethoven.  It just seemed in those days like you couldn’t go anywhere or do anything in California without tripping over one band or another, and everyone was always showing up at one anothers’ concerts.

I was, unfortunately, too shy to actually attend more than a few of the concerts.  They were very crowded and filled with a kind of angry energy that I didn’t fully identify with, at least in action, though I liked many of the songs, which had a goofy side to them, a sort of quirky humor that was hard not to like.  But I was a country girl, not used to close quarters with bodies bumping, and was still too green to identify with the movement yet.  I was under 18 in a town where you mostly had to be of age to do anything and, well, like I said, I was shy.  I might have been in college, but I was only 16, and I didn’t know how to lie about my age (and no one would have believed me if I had).

What’s funny now for me is to go into a shop and find someone wearing a Cramps t-shirt (or something), and realize there is no way that I, a weird redheaded old lady in a t-shirt and Steampunk jewelry, can explain all this.  I smile at the checker and say, “I haven’t seen that t-shirt for a long time,” and he looks at me like “what?”  I am still shy, so I walk out thinking, in the espirit d’escalier of these things, of what he might have said if I said, “I saw them in 1981.”  But of course I didn’t, because I didn’t always seize the moment back then.  I know better now.

Nowadays, if I hear these songs I smile.  They seem so melodic!  It’s hard to completely explain to people raised with all the various flavors of Metal how discordant the punk bands all sounded in 1980, when we were all coming fresh from the syrupy sounds of the 70s.  It’s a little like trying to explain what it was like having to wait for your TV show to come on––people nod their heads, but they don’t really get it, I mean really get that when there was nothing on there was really NOTHING on.  You had to just go read a book.  Or something.

The truth of this hit me tonight, when I put TV Party on my iTunes to play for my kids.  I still love that song, and was pleased to see my (non-loud-music-loving) teenage girls respond with laughter… especially when the band members all say sadly, “No TV  party toniiiiiiiight…”

I’ve been reading the first book in the Dark Angels series, based on a recommendation from a young male friend. And, well, the writing is really good––I never stumble on how he says things; it’s smooth and well-constructed and full of wonderful descriptions. The story’s a rip-roaring yarn with lots of nice innovation and a plot that’s not at all predictable.

But I have a small problem. I’ve gotten to page 115 without finding a single female character that actually participates in the action.

Yes, there’s a girl who gets hurt, but she’s helpless, bounced around from place to place by the more resourceful male characters. She has no agency (See Maiden/Victim archetypes, below). And there’s a woman in the powerful Nine, a consortium of people who run things, behind the scenes.  She does have agency. But she’s an ex-whore, and her place in the Nine is to be in charge of all the brothels. Sigh. And in the context of the story, she offers advice and succor when people are having problems, but stays out of the main action (see Wise Woman and Whore archetypes, below).

This got me to thinking.  Perhaps a small guide is in order for those smart young male friends in the world, not because they are too stupid to figure it out, but just because we don’t always see past our own experiences.  I know many of you will roll your eyes because it should be obvious. But it occurs to me that a straightforward laying-out of the issues might be of use to someone who hasn’t been in a position to examine them before.

See, we read because we want to be part of the adventure; and when the people who represent us are set on the sidelines, it becomes a little dreary — not because the book itself is dreary (far from it!) but because we want to go along on the adventure, too, even if it’s as a sidekick. So as a female person reading an adventure in which all the interesting bits are being performed/experienced by men, I start to feel a little depressed. Where are all the people like me?

It’s a little like a smart, intellectual young man reading a really great book all about football players and bodybuilders and creaky old men with bladder problems who used to be construction workers, with a couple of cardboard cut-out nerds thrown in to move the computer portion of the action along.  Oh, and they keep talking about how ugly/badly-dressed the nerds are. Would the young man want to keep reading after the first hundred pages? Well, my bet is he’d start to wish for some real-life intellectuals, and maybe some young people, and maybe he’d like to see the author question the idea of building a world full of jocks.

‘Cause, see, those missing intelligent folks are maybe who the smart young man identifies with.

But unlike jocks and old men with bladder problems, females make up 53% of the population, so there’s not really any good reason for them to be given so little of the action, unless it’s a historically-based novel.  In a world created from scratch, it’s hard not to believe the author doesn’t have an underlying belief that women shouldn’t or can’t participate fully. Which is a whole can of worms in itself.

Now, you might say, “This just happens to be a world where women are simply not equal members of society.” To which I would answer, “Okay, then since the author has deliberately chosen to make a world like that, then it needs to be a specific part of the story.”  They shouldn’t just make it like that and then ignore the results.

A GUIDE
Typically, people who don’t write women into the action tend to go for archetypes, and don’t really step out of the archetype (or combination of two archetypes) for that character. Here are a few of them:
–Maiden (virgin/young girl/innocent/pure)
– Mother
– Crone (old lady or asexual Wise Woman)
– Whore
– Victim (raped, beaten, etc)
– Egghead (knowledgeable but otherwise helpless)

Here are the females you don’t see a lot of in a book that relies on archetypes:
– Proactive Female Geek
– Warrior (except in tiny brass bikinis or when the author means “kickass” to equal “sexy”)
– Person in power who doesn’t use sex/beauty as a primary power tool
– Older women as main characters
– Master of some amazing skill other than magic/wisdom/healing
– People who break archetypes (maid who goes off into the woods to become a permanent hermit, whore who has a PhD)

…You get the gist.

Other things to watch out for are:
– A woman’s life being ruined because she’s not pretty anymore (Might as well be dead if she can’t have her face back)
– Female characters who are fully-rounded until the action happens, and then they become feeble
– Female characters who have fate thrust upon them, and never take control of their own fate (no agency)
– Female characters being described by the narrator in terms of their looks (hair, figure, clothes, etc) when the men have not been; the problem with this is, it put us on the exterior of the women and on the interior of the men. Which means she becomes someone to admire (or not) from afar — the reader is evaluating how hot she is (or isn’t) — and that makes it much harder to identify with her, get inside of her.

Okay, good examples of some reasonable (I say reasonable, not perfect) women characters in popular fiction:
– Trillian, in Hitchiker’s Guide
– The female characters in the Enders books are (mostly) pretty good.
– The last four years of Doctor Who (Clara!)
– The girl in the first How to Train Your Dragon  (though where are the kickass grownup women in that film?  I was pleased to see them correct it in the second one)
– Pretty much all the women in the 2009 movie Avatar
– Rose the Elder, and all the implications of her life, in Titanic
– Merida, from Brave
– Kaylee, from Firefly/Serenity (who is sexual but not a whore, a total master of what she does, and an innocent on top of all that)
– River, from Firefly/Serenity (who the hell knows WHAT she is…?)

…Well, okay, we can include many Joss Whedon-created female characters.

To be honest, ultimately, stories are better stories with characters like these, because when ALL the characters are good, both female and male, it just makes the story better in general, whether you’re a female reader/watcher or not.

In any case, you get the picture: I get tired of impatiently leafing ahead to find out where the female characters come into their own.  Because it’s just a little too much like waiting on the sidelines myself, for a chance to come into my own.

I cut my younger daughter’s hair today.  I mean, cut it––short.  Like buzzed around the back and sides.  We were going a little for the look of Lucy in Friends With Boys, though it didn’t come out that way exactly.  Celeste’s hair is too curly, for one thing, and although she had originally told me she wanted a mohawk, she had retreated from going quite that far.

The funny thing was, though, that when the waist-length hair was off, and the supershort do was done, I asked her  if she felt freer, and she said, “freer in my soul.”

She had been complaining about her long hair for a good while, but still this seems very strongly worded.  As if this was the real her, and she had finally found it.  Funny thing, that, after years of her not really caring how she looked.  I found myself pondering the ways of adolescence as I went downstairs after saying goodnight to her.  It’s so interesting to see how people that age find themselves, changing almost as quickly as they did in babyhood, so that you feel you are watching an image appearing in photo paper when you drop it in developer: more and more real, and second by second you feel yourself saying, “there they are!”  And yet, second by second, they continue to become more real yet.  It’s impossible and amazing.

Always amazing.

In my new book, which at the moment I’m calling Endless (but will probably be called something different later), there are some little bits at the beginning where you get to see some of the guerrilla activities of the people in the community called Endless.  A sort of genetic intervention, if you will, one small thing among a string of them, trying to save the world, little bit by little bit.  This one is titled “Inoculation.”

The wind in the corn is loud as the young woman kneels over the shallow hole scratched in the dirt, her whispering a soft susurration under the clatter of leaves against stalk.  The tiny thing in her hand kicks and then dies, its blood leaking out into the soil.

“Fly away home,” she says again, “Fly away home,” and lays the body out carefully in the hole where the flies will find it, help broadcast the genes.  It lies there, small whiskers quiet, eyes shut.  Her plastic gloves squeak as she opens a jar, laying a circle of lumpy milk solids around the edges of the hole, blowing dark hair out of her eyes as she does so.

“Blood for purity,” she says, “Milk for life.”

There is a shudder and then hypha begin threading quickly outward from the ring.  A bloom of white coats the ground, spreading fast.  Shakily, she screws the lid back on the yogurt jar and steps away, stopping only to wipe the blood off her little knife on some leaves.  The mycelia is heading underground now, carrying genetic agents from the blood to the corn plants.
It’s time to go.

She puts the knife and the gloves into an oiled-silk bag in her purse and begins to run back toward the highway and her backpack, where an old van will be by soon to pick her up.  Behind her, the wave of mycelia builds, rolling outward through the dirt of the field, delivering its payload; and the corn receives it, waiting to do its job, inoculating another thousand or so people against the latest wave of sickness sweeping the nation.

(Endless) Tara Excerpt

Here’s a first-draft excerpt from the beginning of my new book, which at the moment I am calling Endless.  This time it’s a piece from the point of view of Tara, a fifteen-year-old girl on the high-functioning end of the …