“adventure is just
one mistake away.”
e horne and j comeau

author: Nicole J. LeBoeuf

actually writing blog

women be unreliable narrators yo
Tue 2014-04-15 23:42:11 (in context)
  • 3,400 words (if poetry, lines) long

So here's a thing that's been frustrating me about the story I'm revising. Well, it's not precisely a thing about the story, but more of a thing in society which got thrown into extra-special hyper-embossed relief when I sent this story through several rounds of critique among several groups of writers over several years.

Content notes: Feminism, sexism, consent issues, rape culture.

I will try to keep this brief and not get too ranty. It's a rant-worthy topic, but I just don't want to spend too much time or energy on it tonight.

Also, I want to stress that I'm not pointing the finger of accusation at any particular person who has critiqued this story. You are all wonderful--yes, you, even you, especially you--and none of you are to blame for the culture we are steeping in.

So. Here's the thing.

The main character in "The Impact of Snowflakes" is Ashley (who, as I admitted recently, only got a name during the current revision). The other two characters are her best friend since grade school, Josh, and her other best friend since high school, Katie. Through the course of the story, Katie is alone with Josh and is attempting to seduce him; she's reporting her progress conspiratorially via phone calls to Ashley. Ashley is uncomfortable both with Katie's single-minded, almost predatory pursuit and with Katie's having pigeon-holed Ashley into the role of confidante to said pursuit.

Very, very early in the story, Ashley states that she's relieved that Josh isn't responding to Katie's overtures. She also states that this is not because she wants Josh for herself, not that way.

On every version of this story, during every critique session (it's been critiqued to death, y'all), almost every critic scribbled in the margin, "Suuuuuuure she doesn't." Or words to that effect.

Because I guess there's no possible reason a woman might not want to see a male best friend partnered up with a female mutual friend other than sexual jealousy? She can't possibly just be worried that the other woman isn't going to be healthy for him, or feel protective when she sees the other woman's advances making the man seriously uncomfortable? No? And if a woman states "I'm not sexually interested," it can't possibly be because she's not sexually interested?

Now, I'm not a perfect writer. My rough drafts make all sorts of missteps. So do my final drafts. It is possible that I've misweighted the emotional impact and pacing of the story such that Ashley's irritation with Katie's constant reports on her aggressive seduction campaign comes across as jealousy.

But it's not the comments on the cumulative effect of these interactions that worries me. Those I can respond to. Those I can adjust for. What worries me is that the very first time that Ashley says "I'm not interested in him that way," the reader doesn't believe her. It doesn't matter how I reword it or how I tweak the tone. The very fact that she says it at all, even once, is taken as evidence that she very much is interested in him that way but doesn't want to admit it.

Basically, this is what society trains us to think. If a woman says she's not interested, well, why ever would she bother saying it unless she's denying what she feels? If, in the face of our scoffing, smug disbelief, the woman insists that no, she truly is not interested, then we think the lady doth protest too much. Chillingly, we are taught to see a woman's "no" as evidence of her meaning "yes." The stronger and more emotional the "no," the more confident we are in the unspoken "yes."

If "no" means "yes," and if "hell no" means "oh yes, please, baby, do me now", what words are left for women to say "no" with and be believed?

Why, hello there, rape culture! Please to be getting the fuck out of my story!

I think the assumption on the part of the reader is that Ashley is an unreliable narrator. And in many ways she is. There are things she doesn't know, and there are details threaded throughout her life and clustered over the timeline of the story which she fails to compile into an accurate big picture. The unreliable first person point-of-view narrator is a pretty standard tool in the writerly toolbox. You can do a lot with the gap between what the narrator knows and what the reader concludes.

But the problem is, I don't want that assumption extending right up through the narrator's declaration of her inner state. Not in this story, anyway. On page two, she says "I'm not sexually interested in him." Having barely got to know her, still the reader assumes she's lying. Or repressing. Or in denial. And I honestly think it's not just the words on the page that prompt the assumption.

Because that's how any number of toxic romantic comedies in mainstream media work: She says she isn't interested, but obviously they're going to end up together, because she's the leading lady and he's the leading man and this is a romantic comedy.

Because that's how any number of romance novels work: She hates him, he pisses her off, he gallops roughshod over her boundaries, he silences her with a nonconsensual kiss, she seriously hates him, but she can't stop thinking about him, and then they fall into bed together and they have fantastic sex.

Because that's what we're taught as children: If a boy and a girl can't stand each other and fight whenever they're forced to be together on the playground or in a school project, common wisdom says they're madly in love.

Because when a college student living in a boarding house is made miserable daily by her next-room-over neighbor, a third party thinks it reasonable to tell her, "You should just have sex with him and get it out of your system."

"Mommy, Donald pulls my hair and pinches me! It hurts and I hate it!" "Oh, Sally, that just means he likes you. And it sounds like you like him, too. You should invite him over."

It's not just that my character is assumed to be an unreliable narrator. It's that real women are assumed to be unreliable narrators.

I don't know how to push back against this. As a writer with a certain amount of humility, I know that if my story fails to communicate what I want it to communicate, it's generally my fault. It's my problem to fix. But I don't know how to fix this. I don't know how to have Ashley say "I'm not interested in him" and have the reader believe her.

But I'm trying. I'm using flashbacks to try to clarify Ashley's perception of Josh. I'm fine-tuning the cumulative tone so that hopefully Ashley comes across more like "Katie, stop being a jerk" and less like "Katie, get your hands off my man." Like I said, I may have contributed some to that perception. I wrote the thing, after all. And I'm steeping in this culture too.

And I'm trying to combat those cultural assumptions by letting Katie preempt the reader with them. So Ashley will say, not in narration to the reader, but out loud to Katie over the phone: "Look, you'll get no competition from me. I'm not into him that way." And then Katie can say, "Suuuuure you're not." And hopefully Katie will come across sufficiently as an asshole that the reader's sympathies and belief will align with Ashley.

Honestly, that's the best I can come up with: Put that toxic tenet of rape culture in the mouth of an unsympathetic character in order to dissuade the reader of that tenet.

And then the only problem will be convincing the reader that Ashley really does consider Katie a good friend despite how obnoxious Katie is.

*throws hands up in air, tosses manuscript pages, cries*

No, no, it's OK. I can do this. I hope.

...Did I say I wasn't going to get ranty? Well. It was a rant-worthy topic.

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