Sex, Sin City and Subverting Authorial Perspective
Let’s talk about sex.
Who we are and how we feel about things drives what we write. Narrative perspective isn’t just about character point of view and verb construction, it’s about the author sees the world.
This is particularly important when we write about gender and sex. Our sexuality can empower our stories, creating vibrancy, passion and authenticity. But it can also lead to bad writing, dreadful stereotypes and hackneyed characterisation.
To show you what I mean I’m going to share a series of my own drawings, based on images from Frank Miller’s marvellous Sin City graphic novels. I will use them to demonstrate a technique that will help you to shake up your own biases, and energise your stories and characters.
Why should we care if our own world-view dominates the way we write? After all, writing from experience, and writing things you feel strongly about, are the easiest way to produce work that feels real.
First, if you’re reading my blog that probably means that you share my desire to understand writing. And, well, everything else in the universe. I don’t mind that I have biases, but I do want to know what they are! I want to do what I do in my writing on purpose, not through an accident of strong feeling.
Second, being a slave to your own narrative perspective can go horrible wrong. I read a famous science-fiction novel last year where literally every female character was introduced with a description of her breasts. I like breasts just fine. But when a chapter told from the perspective of a straight eleven-year-old schoolgirl began with her observing the pertness of her cyborg bodyguard, my suspension of disbelief snapped in two.
To explore how we can fight our own preconceptions, we are going to look at one panel from Frank Miller’s novel To Hell and Back. The drawings in this article are mine. His drawings are better[i]. I’m not much of an artist, and that’s going to be the last I say about that. But, in this case, pictures will show you what I mean much more clearly than words.
Frank Miller is an exceptional artist and writer, responsible for the genre redefining The Dark Knight Returns, a beautiful reworking of Golding’s The Hot Gates, 300, and the seminal Sin City novels. His work is passionate, provocative, and problematic. Alan Moore[ii], amongst others, has called it misogynistic and homophobic.[iii] You can spot a Frank Miller comic instantly, and not just because of his distinctive drawing style. The strength of his personal convictions is a part of what makes his art so successful, and why his work is so useful for this exercise.
Hell and Back, my favourite Sin City novel, stars Wallace. Wallace is an artist war-hero who goes on a one-man crusade against the criminal forces who have kidnapped Esther, a mysterious woman with whom he has fallen in love. He is like a cross between a Jedi Knight and Captain America. He always does the right thing and he always wins. The story makes a point of telling us that he has a huge penis[iv]. More than once.
In this scene Wallace has just met Delila, a deadly assassin who likes to sleep with her targets before she kills them. He has been courteous but firm as she throws herself at him, her various stages of undress involving some bra-strap-tumbling that defies the laws of physics. But now they are under attack, and it is time for Wallace to take charge:
Wallace: No more debate. Do what I say. Grab some clothes. Put them on. Wear shoes you can run in. Stay low.
Delila: What… What are you doing?
This scene is an exciting read. It is funny, thrilling, sexy, and, in the original, the artwork is stunning. Wallace, determined, looks out of the image. Delila, one nipple exposed, looks at Wallace.[v] It has tension, movement, and drama.
But from whose perspective are we seeing the story? Frank Miller is explicitly anti-naturalism in comic book art. He seeks flamboyance. He embodies fantasy in his work. But whose fantasies?
To put it another way, if you asked a hundred people how many do you think would guess that the picture had been drawn by a man? And do you think that some people reading this comic might feel alienated by the way Wallace and Delila are portrayed?
To show you what I mean, let’s see what happens when we swap the characters:
Now Delila is the war hero and Wallace the honey-trap assassin. Has this fundamentally changed the scene? You might think not. But when I show these pictures to people, most are shocked, and a few feel very uncomfortable.
One thing that struck me is that, when you look closely at the first picture, Delila’s body is incredibly distorted. Her shoulders are bent too far for her belly to still point downwards, and, somehow, we can see her nipple even even though her sternum points to the floor. This made it very difficult to draw Wallace in the same pose, because when you draw a man like this you notice that he looks like a mutant! In the end, I substantially toned down the bend of his spine. He still looks rather bizarre.
So why, at first, did the Delila in the first picture seem acceptable? It turns out that the “tits and arse” pose is a comic book classic – we accept it because we see it so much we start to think it is normal. It’s worth checking out the rather brilliant Escher Girls blog[vi] for an explanation. This is part of what I mean about how authorial bias blinds is. There are some qualities that we have become inured to as being ‘normal’ for men and women. But on closer analysis they are revealed as anything but.
So, one way to analyse your work to is to ask yourself: if I swap the genders will the characters look ridiculous? Why? Is that something my story can support?
Is picture number 2 sexy? That rather depends on the reader. I knew a barrister who defended a guy that stole women’s shoes to masturbate into them, so hey, someone out there likes this picture. I think Delila looks hot, but Wallace, well, he looks dumb. Mileage varied between people I showed the pictures, but the consensus was that this is not a good look for Wallace.
Is the reason Wallace looks dumb a status thing? High status figures are normally more attractive, and clearly the figure in the foreground of the image has more status than the figure on all fours. But Delila didn’t look dumb in the first picture, until I started noticing her back was broken. Is it just that we expect high status males to be attracted to slightly lower status females?
Alternatively, it’s worth considering that Wallace may look dumb here because some positions simply aren’t attractive for the male form, regardless of status. It’s not unreasonable to suppose that body shape and differing sexy bits make different poses attractive on different genders. As we’re all good scientists here, lets test the hypothesis and try to account for it by making a new version of the picture:
Wallace’s pose in this version is based on a picture from a ladies’ glamour magazine. It’s a bit of a leap in the dark for me to guess what straight women want from eye candy (alas), but there are a hell of a lot of sexy fireman calendars out there and somebody must be buying them.
Note that, unlike Delila in picture 1, this is a position that a human being can actually achieve. Although he needs to have pretty good core conditioning.
Is this version sexy? Wallace looks better. I prefer the Delila from picture 2, but that’s an accident of the art. Is my preference for Wallace 3 more about me than the artwork? Possibly. Wallace is the hero of Hell and Back, and a lot of people are more comfortable identifying with heroes of their own gender – this is part of what made Rey such a big deal in The Force Awakens¸or Katniss in the Hunger Games. We may be back in strange men and shoes territory.
But the process of swapping genders and positions lets me see some of the assumptions in the first picture, and explore new ideas and new ways of presenting the characters. I would read the hell out of a version of the story with Delila 2 and Wallace 3. I suspect Frank Miller would stick with image 1, even after trying out different versions, and more power to him. This isn’t about one fundamentally being better than another. It is about writing purposively and understanding what you write.
I would have a hard time drawing Delila in position 1, now that I’ve done the same with Wallace, because I can see that it is wrong. Like, inhumanely wrong. Any woman who bends like that needs to be taken to the hospital. That may not make me a better writer (I like to think it would), but seeing the world more clearly will make me a better person.
Sex is hard to write about. It easy to slip into sloppy stereotypes because you just aren’t thinking about them. I’m not going to try to tell you what to find sexy or how men and women are supposed to behave. But look at what you write and ask what would happen if you swapped the genders and/or sexualities of the characters. How would it change? Why? Does it make you uncomfortable? Run with that discomfort – you’ll write better stories. Are you dislocating the backs of your women and erasing the personality of your men? Are you introducing all the women by breast size and all the men by the type of their gun?
This shouldn’t stop with sex and gender. Is your hero always squared jawed, your love interests always bespectacled? How about having a heroic optometrist fall for a square jawed librarian? The first time I came across this idea was with two characters defined as “brick” and “feather” in a play, where the director swapped the definitions part way through rehearsals and it brought an energy that lifted our entire performance.[vii]
But do experiment with swapping the sexuality and/or gender of your characters[viii]. At the very least, it will help you avoid writing 11-year-olds as if they were boob-obsessed middle-aged men. Booooobs.
[i] Just a smidgen better, you understand.
[ii] Swamp Thing, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, V for Vendetta, Watchmen, one of history’s most important comic book writers.
[iv] One of the henchmen comments on it. There is a shower scene whose whole purpose is to show you that he has a big dick. Seriously. It’s huge.
[v] Man looks dramatically onwards, woman looks at man, half of all movie posters ever
[vii] Thankyou Caroline, and everyone else in LD.
[viii] I absolutely do not in any sense mean to imply that gender is binary. Gender “swapping”, per se, is just a starting point towards freeing gender from set character qualities.