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How to Write Women... Without Virtue Signaling

The Reality of Simplicity

It's hard to find good media which depicts women as complex human beings, all while not removing their lived experiences as women living in a patriarchal society. And although I wish this would be an easy article to write with precise bullet points laid all out pretty and easily digestible for you, dear writer, the topic at hand has a bit more nuance than a simple "do this" and "do not do this".

Life has nuance, after-all.

Building Your World

Fiction comes in many different flavors. That said, one of the most important questions you should be asking yourself is what type of society your world takes place in.

This may not seem all-too enticing by those not looking to make a political statement with their work. But the truth is that even if it's not the main point of your story, many things labeled "political" do effect character development and digestion.

For example, Harry Potter was written as a famous but abused child for a reason. It shaped who he was, how he was perceived, and fueled his desires and morals.

Whether your world is entirely fantasy made with different dynamics when we look at people of different races, genders, or class systems; or your world is more closely based on reality, one thing is certain: this will effect your character's personalities and interactions no matter who they are.


Intersectionality: (noun) the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage.

— Oxford Dictionary

Understanding Intersectionality & Doing Your Research

More often than not, women are not just women. In the same breath, men are often not just men. Most of us have privileges in some areas, but can also be oppressed in others.

These experiences allow us all to understand the world differently in addition to our own unique ways.

For example: A black woman in modern society will have different experiences and interactions than a white woman, or an asian woman. They are not just women with the same universal experience being such, as their privileges or oppression regarding race in addition to being women will change their interactions with the world.

This is something to think about heavily if you have created a world in which maybe classism exists, but racism may either not exist or be much more progressive than what we see today in some areas. What would true race equality look like in a world like that?

Likewise, if you are creating a piece of historical fiction, this is something you want to research further. What was your character's "place" in society? How was their sexuality perceived? Their race? Their gender? All important things to research if you're looking for authenticity.

In short, you cannot just throw a gay trans black man into 1962 America and act as though he is perceived and has the same thoughts/actions as a straight white man of that time period. It's always a good idea to research your oppressed character's experiences, and thanks to the internet, asking questions to get a good understanding is a fantastic way to start.

The Bechdel Test & Why It's a Bad Base-Line.

You may have heard of the Bechdel Test when it comes to representing women in media. The test requires three simple criteria, and they are listed as follows:

  1. The piece of media has to have at least two women in it, who..
  2. Talk to to each-other, and...
  3. Talk about something besides a man.

Many would be surprised about how many pieces of fiction are still highly misogynistic but still meet this requirement, or beloved movies that do not meet this requirement. It is used as a very basic unit of measurement, and not something to base your story off of in terms of accurate and authentic representation of women.

Breaking, Bending & Avoiding Tropes

When we talk about strong women in media, we're not talking about building essentially a strong male character with long hair and breasts and calling it a day. In reality, "strong female characters" are just three dimensional human beings. They're people who mess up, win, lose, cheat, love, lust, create and destroy.

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That said, tropes are not inherently bad. They're tropes for a reason. Tropes can be done poorly and feel lackluster, and they can certainly set a bad image if not handled correctly-- that said, I'm not here to tell you to avoid them entirely.

This is your story, not mine.

However, there's certainly a way to put a spin on popular tropes, and that's simply done with just a bit more authenticity and nuance.

We tend to see this nuance implemented with male villains quite often in media, because "evil for the sake of evil" tends to not have a shelf-life. In reality, most people do not think they are evil or a bad person, but simply implementing actions that justify their means or living with untreated trauma. Personally, I think most humans are grey, although they may sit closer towards one end of the spectrum than another.

As a writer, it's our job to understand the perception of the reader and how a character or message is coming across. This is a delicate line a lot of authors struggle with, so here I am, breaking my former promise and giving you some advice on what to avoid.

Do not write women's backstories to heavily involve men simply because they are women.

While a lot of women's experiences and plights have been at the hands of men, it is not empowerment to have their wants, needs, trauma, and triumphs to all be at the expense of men. This is a trope that virtue signalers have a tight-grip on, and don't seem to want to let go.

Women should not be succeeding just to spite a man or men. Women should be gaining respect the same way your male characters might.

Mary-- Who?

It seems as though most forms of media cannot write women authentically when it comes to being human. The most popular approach being to either over-demonize women and remove their agency, cheering on their downfall-- or avoid flaws entirely.

This can be very frustrating for anyone to digest. A lot of the time the messaging coming across is that women going "against the norm" are either inherently manipulative, vain, or evil; or, on the other hand, that women are better or more capable leaders.

Neither is truly a reflection on reality. Women can be manipulative, but what are her motivations for such? She may have gotten punched in the face and fallen down, but did she get right back up and keep fighting, or did she wait around for a man or magical source to come to her aid?

Strength comes from within, and just as "evil for the sake of evil" does not have a shelf life, neither does "strength for the sake of strength." This is important to keep in mind.

Understanding Your Message

Even if it is not intended to be a main message to your audience, how you write characters and interactions sends a message. It is your job to analyze how the mass majority will receive that message.

Check Out This Analyzation of How the Netflix Show "Arcane" Writes Women!

© 2022 Danielle McDade

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