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Writing violence against a woman

This is an Ask a Geek Feminist question for our readers:

I am male who wants to write a novel about a female superhero. Since this is a superhero novel there will be violence and at some point my hero will have to lose a fight (though of course she wins in the end).

I am wondering how I should write the scene where the supervillain beats the crap out out of my female hero. Should I just write as if she were a male? Or do I need to take precautions so I don’t end up glorifying violence against women?

A quick thought on this one: there’s no “just” in “write as if she were a male”. A big part of the problem is that this is pretty rare, hence the Women in Refrigerators trope and similar critiques. Your own knowledge that she’s a woman will influence you to write violence specific to her gender and to cultural tropes about male-on-female violence.

So, I think you’ve set up a bit of a false dilemma between “write what comes naturally and it will be just like as if she was a man getting beat up” or “go out of my way to de-glorify the violence against her”. Another thing you need to be careful of is “write what comes naturally and spew your cultural uglies about women and their bodies and violence against them all over the page completely unawares.”

Second thought: you don’t want to “write as if she were a male”, in any case, because she isn’t. You want to write as if she was a person. Your current thinking on this seems to be edging towards “men are the pattern for people, women are special unique cases of people” which is a little concerning for your characterisation of a woman!

Do you have a writing group who review each other’s drafts? Does this group contain women? Obviously the women in your writing group should be reviewing all the work that your male peers do, not just “hey, I have a woman-centric bit here, so now you’re the expert, but I’ll ask John about the rest of my writing.” But you could ask the group in general for feedback on this and since you can show them the actual draft, they may have more specific thoughts.

You could perhaps get some of the way with playing around with reading and writing drafts of your violence scenes gender-switched and with more ambiguous pronouns in order to try and keep the uglies out of it, but I think this is where we need some fiction writers to step in. What think you?

17 thoughts on “Writing violence against a woman

  1. Tsabhira

    I took the “writing as if she were male” thing not to mean that the writer believes men are default and women are the aberration but that the writer believes HITTING men is the default and HITTING women is the aberration. Hehe.

  2. Jay Gischer

    I suggest that you find a way to observe women fighting. There are women who do boxing and all kinds of martial arts. Surf You-Tube for it. Find a few women that seem like you want your heroine to be, and others for your villain (or is the villian male?) Watch “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”.

    Fighting expresses character. Never forget that.

    1. Linda

      “I suggest that you find a way to observe women fighting. There are women who do boxing and all kinds of martial arts. Surf You-Tube for it”

      Yeah! Also, *instructional* videos may be even more helpful than championship-coverage videos for seeing the moves in enough detail to write about them so your readers can picture them from your words.

      For example, if the character’s fighting back from a seated position, then some of this may be useful too (the teacher’s a man but the resolution’s so blurry that for all I know some of the students in the background are women): (“…Now don’t forget that these techniques are just as useful when you’re sitting in a pub, you’re sitting on a train, wherever you are sitting and your mobility’s limited, if someone has a go, these are techniques you need to be thinking about…”).

  3. freshwatermermaid

    I’d suggest taking some time with Joss Whedon. [work, bts, interviews] He’s definitely a dude who is definitely great at writing female superheroes and blocking fights where ladies lose and then go on to win. If that’s not your deal, expand out looking for stories written by men where the woman won and it really impressed you. Look at why it’s impressive, look at what they did, how their scenes worked and what made it different than other stories. It can be done, and done well, when we just decide to do it well.

  4. Becky

    Ground the scene in this particular woman’s perspective and experiences and maintain an awareness of sexist cliches, and you’ll do it right.

    This woman is telling your story, right? Try to understand where she comes from and who she is. Focus your scene on details she would notice – her tactical awareness, her excitement and fear, the sensations of fighting, physical pain, the importance of what she’s fighting for. She’s done this before, but maybe she’s afraid that this will be her last fight. Understand your character, and her heroic and human qualities will shine in this scene. She won’t just be a victim.

    Who is/are her opponent(s)? What are their objectives? Do they have any reason to enact gratuitous violence on her, or are they just interested in killing or disabling her? If they are the type to be gratuitously violent, tread carefully. Over-the-top villains have their place in fiction, but too many loving details of their violent and/or misogynistic behavior will put you back into sexist cliche territory. Establish carefully who they are and why they’re doing it, and don’t over-describe their actions – such description will slow down the pace of your fight scene, for one thing.

    1. Marce

      [Mod note about “ladyparts”: attributing a gender to a body part is cissexist; it erases the genders both of men who have what you’re calling “ladyparts”, and women who don’t have them.]

      Also, don’t make the awareness all about her breasts or other primary/secondary sex characteristics, which is practically a trope in itself. I don’t go through the day thinking about my ladyparts. I’m a human first, not a boob-obsessed cliché.

  5. Yatima

    I think it would be worth the OP’s reading Tamora Pierce’s Protector of the Small quartet. While the books are aimed at a YA audience, they’re well-researched and informed by Pierce’s interest in women in the military. Keladry is a skilled but not invulnerable fighter, and the violence she suffers isn’t sexualized or glamorized. I like the series so much I’ve been reading it with my 9yo and 6yo daughters.

    1. KJ

      YES! I love the Protector of the Small quartet and they are an awesome example of a writer writing an amazing female warrior who is never sexualized. Kell’s fight scenes are very realistic for the fictional universe she inhabits, which is a rare thing in fiction.

    2. Marce

      Seconding this despite it being much, much later. Kel is one of my favorite characters in literature.

  6. PixelFish

    Ditto on the Keladry books. Just finished listening to them via Audible (Bernadette Dunne is the perfect reader for them) and enjoyed the books since my teen years. (I use the Audibles as my workout inspiration soundtrack while lifting weights and the like.)

  7. KittyWrangler

    That’s kind of an awesome question, and I certainly agree with the points brought up in the answer.

    My suggestion might be to do whatever you can to put the reader in her shoes, to see things from her point of view. I’m not sure how much that would clash with the rest of your storytelling style but it’s worth it to think way outside the box on this.

    Usually when violence against women is glorified the reader / audience is positioned as observing the woman as an object, either of eroticism or pity. The audience might be put in the position of “knight in shining armor,” feeling sorry for the woman or wanting to protect her. And even though this is a result of condemning the violence it has an odd feel-good effect of making the audience feel brave and powerful.

    Or the woman’s discomfort might be highlighted in the same way that pr0n tends to fixate on a woman’s discomfort, presenting it as kinda sexual. Objectifying portrayals of violence against women tend to mirror portrayals of sex: whimpery sounds, dominance, impassioned faces and words, body-on-body contact and oh-no-my-shirt-got-ripped-off accidents). The audience observing a man would likely be different because we’re socially primed to aim an erotic or patronizing gaze at a woman and this isn’t nearly as much the case for a man, so that might pose a problem if you write the scene as if she were a man.

    But from her point of view the experience is more along the lines of, “whoa this sucks,” “what do I have to do to survive,” and “this violent person is really effed up,” not about what she might look like to an observer. So I’d suggest you do whatever you can to make the audience feel that too, whether through first person narrative or flipping the “camera” on the person doing the beating up rather than your superhero.

  8. Jared

    I think that you should look at two things. One, look at the setting of your story. Two, look at the seriousness. If the setting is in a real place (e.g., San Francisco or Berlin) and the theme is serious, then violence against women is a very real thing in today’s society (as unfortunate as it is).
    However, if your tale takes place in a fictional society, or even a modified version of today’s society, think about how people in that society view women.

    It is ultimately up to you, however, to determine the narrator’s stance on the violence. Does the narrator consider the act abhorrent or acceptable? If you’re looking to have a feminist narrator, then he or she had better think the acts to be abhorrent.

  9. GemmaM

    Write it like she’s a person. How does this affect her as a character? For example, getting thrashed by the supervillain might be the humiliating defeat that motivates the hero to train up and do better next time. If that’s the way you write it, then, no, you aren’t glorifying violence against women.

    Honestly, I’d say the two things you should aim for are:
    (a) don’t write the experience like the audience should be enjoying it, and
    (b) make sure we understand what this experience means to the hero in terms of her heroic arc.

  10. allreb

    I think that with superheroes, it’s okay to deal with violence — you just need to be aware of the line between violence and sexualized violence. Sexualized violence is what tends to happen to female characters, and what tends to be really objectionable. It’s okay for a heroine to lose and to get hurt, but having her get hurt in a way where readers are supposed to see her as an object (rathe than person) or find her injuries titillating is not okay.

    (I’d suggest you avoid villains threatening to rape her –or actually raping her — both because it sexualizes the violence and because it’s a huge cliche. But if that is an element in the story for whatever reason, please double-, triple-, and quadruple-check that it is an act of violence and not a scene that’s meant to be hot.)

    Recommendation for reference: the movie Haywire. The fight scenes in it took me aback because the female protagonist takes her fair share of hits, and seeing a woman get punched in the face (etc) is still really upsetting and disconcerting. But the violence in the movie isn’t sexualized at all; she fights, she wins or loses depending on the scene, she’s driven by a non-gendered plot mcguffin, and when she proves herself to be the biggest badass around, there’s no sexy posing involved to remind you that she’s a female hero and thus still a sex object.

  11. Eraziel

    most comments that have been made so far should be useful for a writer. In fact, I’m a hobby writer myself and I have to do action scenes every now and then (I don’t think I’m particularly good at imagining longer fight scenes, but I give it a try). As my protagonists are usually female and I am female myself, I don’t think too much about how it might be “violence against women” and therefore icky towards some audience.

    Think about your characters and what’s appropriate for the situation.

    For example, I’ve had a story where my protagonist was a very young mage in the beginning, highly intelligent and talented, but socially awkward and physically weak and inexperienced in battle. So in one scene where she’s really upset and outraged she runs off into the nearby forest and happens to stumble over monsters who start attacking her. Those guys are territorial, so they just don’t like intruders. She kills off two of five despite her lack of combat prowess until a spell fires off too early and the monsters start to overwhelm her as one of the dying enemies lands on top of her and she’s unable to fend the rest off and escape from the entanglement at the same time. So this is all pretty internalized in her mind until the point where she simply tries to keep harm off her body since she doesn’t want to die to *that*
    In the end, she is found by a man who’s much older than her, an experienced fighter and a member of the guardians of this area. And still he’s impressed by the mess this barely adult mage has caused so after she’s healed he tries to find out more about her and becomes her first “best friend”, bringing her in touch with the outside world.

    So although this could have sounded like a “damsel in distress” scenario and the monsters really hurt her bad, it was never mentioned that the guy (could have been a woman either, but it happened to be an RP scenario and the character was in fact a man) who saved her thought any different about the protagonist because she was a woman and neither was she “too weak to kill them all” because she was a woman. The story happened that way because of the characteristics of the protagonists.

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