Friday, November 9, 2012

Katharine on Catherine

At the beginning of this week, a friend of mine posted this picture on Facebook with a comment on his disappointment in game-makers for doing shit like this:

He then linked to this ad for the video game in question:

In case I have to say it, ugh. Ugh ugh ugh.

Someone linked to a Malibu Stacy video, someone else reproduced Picard doing this in ASCII, some other people said some awesome defending-women-as-humans-with-brains stuff. Yay for enlightened men. But then someone linked to the Wikipedia page for the Japanese game Catherine. And I kind of did what Picard did:
Nooooooo Catherine is full of ridiculous sexism. Madonna/whore crap and female devouring. no no no no no.
My friend replied with
I haven't played through it yet, but to be fair, that stuff is in the dreams of the dude. It makes sense that his subconscious would have sexist ideas.
I did the computer equivalent of opening my mouth to reply with a long diatribe, and then snapping it shut again. I was going to argue that it hardly mattered whether the game put (very, very old and very, very harmful) ideas in dreams or subconsciousness or whatever, that putting them in games at all was harmful because it continued to perpetuate and spread the ugliness. Fucked-up is fucked-up and it matters very little whether the main character was dreaming or fantasizing or rehearsing a play. The ideas still burn out of the screen right into my brain as sexist.

But I took my fingers off the keys when it occurred to me exactly how hypocritical this would be. In my short story "Fucked", which was published in two print venues, my main character gets her lower abdomen sliced open (shallowly; she winds up okay) by a man who's angry because she's pregnant. A recent story I wrote from the POV of an abusive gymnastics coach begins with this paragraph of sunshine & rainbows:
She’s doing it wrong again. The little bitch. She’s not trying hard enough. She thinks because she has other talents I’m going to let her slip by without doing it right, exactly right, every time. Sneaky little bitch.
And, in fact, the depraved story I wrote last week invokes the devouring woman in a pretty literal way.

So I sat with this for a little while and wondered how I could continue to believe in the ugly fiction I write while maintaining that Catherine was misogynist and harmful. I think it is, but I couldn't figure out how to defend that position while still defending my own work.

I know very well why I write stories where such terrible things happen to women: because terrible things constantly happen to women in real life, and I believe that by bringing attention to them in literature, people will actually give some thought to these things in real life. I want to explore wounded women and unlucky women, and even villainous and clueless women. I am drawn to the dark rather than the light because that's the way I am, but I'm drawn to darkness in women because I find it more interesting, more provocative, and less explored than in men in literature. I approach darkness with the intent to empower and enrage, maybe in equal parts.

But in thinking about how I'd rebut this Facebook comment, I couldn't say for sure that in writing stories where awful things happen to women, I wasn't doing the same thing Catherine did, showcasing and encouraging bad attitudes against women by exploring them in such loving detail.* Scripting harm against fictional women probably does harm actual women in any form, and the fact that I'm a female writer trying to make a point about the unfairness and commonness of violence against women could have been beside the point. Since I couldn't defend myself while leveling criticism at Catherine, I just said nothing.

And then I asked twinkly and kamper about it when I saw them in San Diego. What am I missing? I asked. I described Catherine in a few sentences, explaining that girlfriend-Katherine wants to get married now please, I don't care if you're husband material or not, buy the cow, shackle yourself to me, NOW but otherwise is sort of personality-free, and that dalliance-Catherine is a perfect mistress, sexy and playful and devoid of distinct personality or motivation that is not first, ideally pleasure the man, and then, bring that sucka down and emasculate the stuffing out of him. I noted that the main character is sort of a well-meaning schlubby type whose life isn't going anywhere.**

twinkly and kamper explained in equal and intelligent parts that what I was missing was the approach. It sounded to them as if Catherine came from a base of unconscious misogyny, rather than a base of trying to overturn and explore misogyny (my own). And they're right. The underlying assumptions of the game are degrading and harmful to women. Such as Katherine and Catherine automatically being Madonna and whore and not having any sort of nuance to these portrayals. And the necessary underpinning that all men have nightmares about being devoured by giant, terrifying succubi with many breasts. That nightmare comes from a place of fear about women being too powerful or dominating, as an entire gender. That is not good.

I do think twice about what I write before I write it. Something I put in a recent story seemed a little bit like an instruction manual in a way that creeped me out. But it came right out of warnings my mother gave me about keeping safe when driving by myself (in brief: always check your backseat before you get in the car), so my hope is that it'll keep safe someone who's good more easily than it'll give inspiration to someone who's bad. My enduring hope is that people reading my work will say "hey...why is the other half of the population treated this way?", even if none of them burn a bra or join NOW.

None of what I write blots out the insidious workings of games like Catherine or, most unfortunately, Top Girl. What's interesting to me that sexism like you find in Catherine is more and more often being replaced with the new sexism of Top Girl or the Bic for Her pens or the awful, very-quickly-cornfielded "Science...It's a Girl Thing!" ad campaign.*** That stuff is harder to pin down, as it's not part of an old and harmful archetype, and it's not very blatant.

But it's still there. It's always there.

*Total sidebar: I don't think a male director could have gotten away with American Psycho. It, too, explores violence against women in extreme detail, and I think in failing to explain much about why Bateman chose mostly women as his victims, Harron was saying that of course he chooses women, because what other group would an American psycho choose to victimize? At least, I think that's her point. If a male director had made the movie, it might have made me a lot madder even than it did.

**Not unlike a Judd Apatow character, in fact. Golly, what a coinkydink. 

***Do watch both of those videos, when you have the chance. Five minutes altogether. 


Chad said...

I have dreams about huge multiboobed succubi devouring me.

But I wouldn't call them *nightmares*.

I'll be in my bunk.


Basically, I agree with you. If women can't write misogynistic characters, can any writer ever feature a character that does something they wouldn't personally do themselves without being excoriated for it? Can you write a spy thriller without a weird megalomaniac? A detective novel without a sadistic serial killer? A fantasy novel without a swashbuckling scoundrel?

If you, or other writers in general but female writers in particular, can't use fiction explore misogyny from a different point of view and/or expose it to a different light, then what point is there in writing fiction at all?

That opens the whole what-is-the-purpose-of-art debate, so never mind, skip that part. But you get my point.

Katharine Coldiron said...

Well, again, it's the attitude with which you approach it. I think a man could write stories in which terrible things happen to women while making a feminist point about misogyny, but he'd have to be really damn careful about it. I'm probably a bit careless, because I'm female so it's easier for me to defend myself as a feminist.