*Let me start out with a disclaimer for those who are already angry that I’ve included a gender in the title of this post. If you think gender bias doesn’t exist in writing/publishing, it’s only because you haven’t encountered it personally. That’s the whole point of why I’m writing this. I don’t write for any group in particular, I only write the truth. Be a better person, and take a moment to learn something you don’t know, so you can have a more developed brain to interact with the world in the future.
I’ve been writing stories since the first time I got access to paper. I’ve never really considered why we didn’t have paper in the house, but I distinctly recall that having anything to draw or write on was a celebrated rarity. Usually, I only got access to paper at other people’s houses, and it was almost always that slick kind that came with finger paint sets. So when I found my dad’s bound, lined-paper journal, I immediately started using it to make story books. My dad eventually gave up on trying to reclaim it from my re-purposing, and I still have it to this day.
My brother was seen as the artist in the family, so relatives would often send him art supplies. (Which he didn’t use, because his medium of choice is cinematography…) Paper became more available, and my stories became more complex. I drew my first stories with only a few word bubbles or sound effects, because I see my thoughts as pictures. As my vocabulary grew, I began to include captions, then moved to a more “story book” format. That evolved into graphic novels, and that’s where I hit my first roadblock.
You see, women were not welcomed in the sequential art industry. (I’ve been told it’s getting better.) The general consensus was that women couldn’t write or draw what men would be interested in, and since the readership was mostly male, that’s all they cared about.
When I brought my first book to a publisher, I did all of the things literary agents will tell you not to do, but they absolutely worked for me. I drove from Maryland to San Antonio, Texas, wore my best cute/sexy outfit, and walked directly into the publisher’s home office with a completed book in hand. I walked out half an hour later with a signed contract. (That was probably my first real victory in Kaede mode.)
My first book, Oasis Destiny, features not one, but five strong female characters. And by strong females, I don’t mean “girls who beat people up”. They are five very different people, but their strengths come from fairness, compassion, patience, ingenuity, and intellect.
Shortly after returning home, the publisher asked me to take over their flagship title, one that had been written and drawn by men, and had a male fanbase. The reason they selected me? Because I could “draw what men wanted to see”. This is the image the decision was based on.
Now, keep in mind, I knew exactly what I was doing when I drew that. That pinup was self-marketing my ability to draw “what men want to see”. I did that because I wanted to show the publisher that a woman knows damn well what their male fanbase wants.
I accepted the job, and went straight to writing good characters, of all genders and body types. Flawed personalities, complex romances, weird and wacky, and sometimes larger than life. The “new” fans loved it, the “old” fans, and the publisher, hated it.
The new fans, (some of whom were actually old fans who were interested in more than boobs…) would tell me how much they loved the new characters, and the fact that there was an actual original story instead of being a collection of ham-fisted parody and gratuitous panty shots. People from all walks of life read my work because they could connect with it. It made them laugh, or cry, or want to punch a watermelon, and they wanted more.
The old fans would complain because I was a woman. Because I didn’t “get it”, and begged loudly for the original creator to come back. But the extra funny part was, he hadn’t been writing or drawing the book for a long time, but they kept his name on it anyway. When I took over, Robby Bevard had been the ghost writer, and David Hutchison had been the artist. (Robby wrote the script for the first issue of my run… which I later found out he’d plagiarized from a manga he’d read.)
The new fans were marginalized, or even insulted by my own publisher. (Not very LGBTQ+ friendly, I’m afraid.) They’d include advertising in my issues that would basically feature women bending over to expose their latex-coated labia. This was not an adult title. These were hyper-sexualized images being marketed to kids.
Meanwhile, the title I’d brought them, with the strong female characters, was mangled and mishandled for two years. When I confronted my liaison about the contract violations, I was called a “primadonna” and told that I should “learn to keep [my] mouth shut”. My liaison was a man celebrated for writing female main characters. Luckily, he was stupid enough to put these comments in an email, so I was able to dissolve my contract.
So, if I wrote good male characters, I “didn’t get it”, and if I wrote good female characters, my book would never see the light of day because the existing fanbase was mostly toxic males. (Never mind when I wrote non-binary characters, because they didn’t even know what do with those.) That was basically my cue to move to a new medium.
What women want, and what men want has nothing to do with being women or men. It has to do with the intangible identity inside each person. Unfortunately, that’s harder to market to. That’s why marketing is put in place from a very early age to tell us what our genders are “supposed to want”. Toys for girls are pastel and soft, toys for boys are dark and metallic. (That’s probably why I played with Legos instead.) This continues into adulthood, for the sole purpose of selling products in a more easily grouped manner.
This systemic gender marketing carries over into writing. As a woman, there’s this bizarre idea that I can and should only write for women. Pause, and think about how stupid that is for a moment. Did George Lucas only intend his work for heterosexual white males? Does Neil Gaiman stamp “No Girls Allowed” on his books? I’m not writing a how-to manual for proper vaginal care, I’m writing stories that apply equally to everyone.
But the extra, EXTRA stupid thing is, other women expect me to write only for them. As if writing a male protagonist somehow voids my woman card. (I’m pretty sure I don’t have one of those in the first place, but my dentist seems to think that’s an actual thing.) If a man writes a strong female character, we give him an award. If a woman writes a strong male character, we revolt. It’s not a matter of under-representation, it’s taken as burning betrayal. “You had a chance to create a good female character, and you wasted it on yet another male!”
J. K. Rowling’s books have male protagonists, but are crammed full of strong female characters. In many ways, the females are actually the strongest characters, even in supporting roles. But she had to author the books as “J.K.” because she knew she’d be a harder sell as a female, and if “Harry” had been “Hermione”, there would NOT be a theme park centered around her world today. J.K. Rowling wasn’t selling out, she was being smart. She saw the long game.
Think about Harry Potter for a moment. I mean, the character, not the series. He’s “insta-famous” as a child for doing absolutely nothing at all. (His mom is technically the one who thwarted Voldemort.) He bobs around like a cork in a river of intrigue and turmoil, but he really isn’t the most interesting person in the series. Not even close. The world of the story is more interesting than the titular character, and that’s what Rowling knew ahead of time. But we would have never been able to see the world if Harry had been a girl. (Go ahead, tell me about the comparable success of “Sabrina the Teenage Witch”. I’ll wait.)
My latest series has a male protagonist, but he is often eclipsed by the capability of women and non-binaries around him. He is male because his role as a male is significant to the story, but not because of his “maleness”. He represents a familiar idea dropped into an unfamiliar world, and the story follows what happens to that idea as it evolves. (It’s not a book for kids, though.)
So, for my fellow authors and hopefuls out there, of every stripe, remember that “for women” or “for men” is purely a marketing term, and has no bearing on the content or quality of your writing. If you can’t find a literary agent who knows how to bridge the gender gap, keep looking. Write the story you want to tell, and let the readers surprise you with just how flexible their imaginations can be. You might even end up with a theme park one day. ~K