Sunday, September 25

Entitlement is bad

There have been several articles out recently about topics like men complaining about women’s expectations, how to speak to a woman wearing headphones and so on. They all have one thing in common however: they deal with the entitlement many men feel they have a right to. Let’s put it down using three examples: men complaining they don’t find an attractive girlfriend, men telling women to smile, and men speaking to women who don’t want to be spoken to.

Let’s start with the headphone example, which I already covered in this blog post. How to speak to a woman wearing headphones in public? Not at all. Certainly not the way the guy who posted that advice tells you to. Honestly, what he suggests is extremely close to harassment and might get you a kick in the nuts, if you try it with the wrong woman. Wearing headphones is the universal code for ‘I have no interest in communication with anyone.’
And let’s take a look at men telling women to smile in public. There is no reason why you should do that, unless you’re a) a photographer and the woman is modelling for you or paying you for taking her pictures or you’re b) her boss and she’s working in a service job where you should always smile at the customers. A woman has as much of a right to glower, frown, or just not show any emotions in public as a man does. Even if she has down this ‘completely free of feelings’ face my chancellor Angela Merkel has perfected, she has the right to show it in public.
And now about the complaint that you can’t find an attractive girlfriend. What makes you think you, the average or below average man, has a right to an attractive girlfriend and every woman should want to go out with you? Hollywood, that’s what. In Hollywood movies, the average-guy hero gets the good-looking female lead in the end (at least horribly often).

All of these examples have one thing in common: they speak of entitlement. Men feel entitled to demand a woman’s attention when they want it, hence they’d harass a woman wearing headphones until she takes them off and enters the conversation. Men feel entitled to see a woman smile (because she looks better or because it signifies everything is well), so they tell her to smile and expect her to do so. Men feel entitled to the attractive girlfriend the movies promise them and get very nasty when they realize it’s not going to happen.

It’s not the women who don’t give you what you’re owed - it’s you thinking you are owed something which you are not.

Wednesday, August 31

About men's complaints

When I read about this blog post teaching guys how to speak to a woman wearing headphones, my first reaction was pretty much the same as that of most people commenting on it: Just don’t. Women normally wear headphones because they’re not in any mood to talk to other people, no matter the gender. Then I thought about some other complaints men often make about women and stuff like pickup-artistry. And that led to this post.

First of all, the headphones. Women usually wear headphones in public or read books in public transport to avoid speaking to other people. Yes, being able to finish that great novel you started last night or getting to hear your favourite songs is a nice bonus, but not the main reason. So if you happen to see a woman wearing headphones (or reading), just leave her be. Don’t try to get her attention or to get her to speak to you (unless, that is, she’s in danger). Women are not for your amusement or self-esteem. They are fellow human being and have the right to their privacy.

Which brings us to pickup-artistry as a such. A pickup-artist is nothing more or less than a con-artist is. You think he’s not? Let’s see. A con-artist uses psychological techniques to coerce people into doing something (usually giving him/her money). A pickup-artist uses psychological techniques to coerce female people into doing something (usually having sex with him). I imagine you can also use specific techniques to coerce male people into that, but most pickup-artists target women. Pickup-artistry isn’t about winning the heart of a woman. It’s about getting her into bed once or twice. Most pickup-artists actually brag about the fact that they don’t sleep with the same women twice or about how many women they’ve already slept with. If you tried to use the same techniques to win a woman’s heart, it wouldn’t work. The techniques in question are supposed to lower a woman’s self-esteem and put psychological pressure on her to make her do something. That works for a night in the sheets, but will sooner or later destroy a relationship.
Don’t get me wrong, this is not about never having a one-night stand. There’s women around who like those as much as men do, so if you meet one of those and you agree on a night together, everything is perfectly alright. If you make it clear to a woman you only want sex with her and nothing more and she freely agrees to it, there’s nothing wrong about having sex and moving on.

Women don’t want a ‘nice guy’ as a boyfriend is another complaint you hear often. ‘I’m always nice to women and they talk to me, then they go to bed with an asshole who doesn’t treat them well.’ Question: Did you make it clear to the woman in question you were interested in being more than a friend? Because, you see, those assholes do. They make it painfully clear from the beginning that they want a sexual relationship. Sometimes, that’s even all they want.
Women make a clear distinction between a ‘friend’ and a ‘boyfriend’ for good reason. We cherish friends much more than sexual partners. A friend is a long-term companion, someone we confide in, someone we keep close. A boyfriend might turn into a life partner, but these days chances for it aren’t always good. And since making a friend a boyfriend and then a friend again usually doesn’t work, we rarely allow a friendship to turn into another kind of relationship. So if you want a relationship other than a friendship, don’t make the mistake to think ‘if I befriend her, she’ll sooner or later be my girlfriend.’ It’s not going to work. Ask a woman you like out on a date and make it clear it’s a ‘date’ date, not just a ‘friends’ date. You can still be nice to her, but make it clear you’re not interested in being a friend, but in being a boyfriend.

Women only want men who are tall, good-looking, and rich is another one. Yes, just like men, we have certain ideals for our perfect partner. Men might be looking for the size of the breast or the right build, women look for men with a great ass, a certain height and other, more personal things. But the idea that our partner should be tall, good-looking, and rich doesn’t mean we’ll never date or even marry someone else. My mum wanted a tall blond and ended up with a short brunet. They’ve been married for 52 years beginning of this month and they’re still in love.
Movies, novels, and other media influence the idea of the perfect partner. Women still often are ‘coached’ on looking for a man who can provide for a family, which doesn’t necessarily mean ‘rich,’ but at any rate ‘well-off’ or ‘with a well-paying job.’ And a lot of men wouldn’t accept a wife who will continue to work once the kids are there and have them stay at home to care for the children and the household. So you’re not tall, not good-looking in that ‘Hollywood’ kind of way, and not rich? There’s millions like you while the amount of ‘ideal’ men is limited. You can still find a woman, but make sure not to pretend to be something you’re not - that never works out long-term. Like women, you will have to kiss a lot of frogs to find the princess (well, women go looking for the prince, normally). Just keep in mind the princess might not be the way you want her to look, either.

A lot of the complaints seem to come from a very wrong idea about women which men have: that women are somehow there for their entertainment or self-esteem. If you are a man, keep in mind that a woman is a human being as well. She has the right to her own opinion, to her own ideas, to her privacy. She doesn’t have to like you, she doesn’t have to admire you, she doesn’t have to stop what she’s doing to pay attention to you. And treating a woman like a human being because you believe she is will enormously heighten your chances.

Thursday, August 25

Women beside the ordinary

Writing about an unusual woman myself (see this post about Jane), I am always looking for characters in books, movies, or TV series who are not adhering to the standard. It’s not always easy to find them, since there are a lot less ‘acceptable’ roles for a woman than there are for a man. Recently, I stumbled over three different articles which gave me quite some stuff to think about.

They are:

I’m not going to rehash everything which is in those articles, instead I will pick out points I found important for my own understanding of creating a female character.

Let’s start with the villainesses. I’ve always had a soft spot for villains and villainesses, because they’re usually more complicated and broken characters than the hero. Today, they need a reason for their deeds, which means they need a story which explains why they want to ruin the hero, rule the world, or destroy the kingdom.
Yet, I rarely thought about how much difference there was in the looks of the villainesses, compared to the heroines of the cartoons (and mostly Disney’s fairy-tale movies). All heroines are basically from the same mould: they are young, pretty, have a very delicate build (the big head and large eyes make them look young and cute, like a puppy or kitten). Their faces are dominated by big eyes which seem to ask ‘why me?’ the whole time. Apart from few examples (Mulan, Merida, Elsa + Anna), they rely on the prince to come to their aide. Yes, they have different overall looks in terms of hair colour (even though blond is very dominant, but that’s also true for the tales they’re based on) and sometimes skin colour/ethnicity (Mulan, Jasmin, Pocahontas, Tara), but overall they’re pretty much all the same, give and take a little here or there, depending on the time when they were created (from 1937 to 2014). There is at least one picture which does a dress swap on the princesses and it takes a while to realize that, even though the dresses are their signature clothing.
Compare them to the villainesses, from the evil stepmother in “Snow White” (before and after her change) to Gothel in “Tangled.” Those women are far more diverse in looks than their ‘good’ counterparts. Snow White’s evil stepmother is an attractive woman, but also an obviously adult one. Compared to the princess (who is merely 14), she is far more developed. She looks good, but in a cold, commanding way. She’s obviously a woman who knows what she wants and will stop at nothing to get it. She even sacrifices her beauty, which is her driving force before, to kill her stepdaughter. Or take Ursula from “The Little Mermaid.” She is definitely a lot of a woman, bold with her makeup, and comfortable in her body. Ursula was modelled on Devine, but that doesn’t mean she’s less of a woman herself. She’s allowed to be overweight and wear very obvious makeup, because she’s the villainess. Or Cruella DeVille from “101 Dalmatians,” who is the polar opposite of Ursula when it comes to body mass. Her bold, two-coloured haircut, her cigarette, her dangerous driving, all those say ‘I do what I want and take what I need for it.’ Or take a look at Maleficient’s extravagant headgear in “Sleeping Beauty.” She totally rocks those horns. Yzma from “The Emperor’s New Groove” has the most extravagant eyelashes.
The princesses usually don’t wear visible makeup and, apart from Elsa, they’re all adolescent. But that’s not the only difference. The main difference it their outlook at the world. They usually rely on others and they usually act for others. Belle goes to the Beast to save her father. Arielle is (at least in the original tale) ready to sacrifice her own life instead of killing her prince. Rapunzel would stay with Gothel, even after knowing how much the world has to offer, if she’s allowed to save Flynn (and, yes, he saves her in the end by cutting her hair, rendering her useless to Gothel). Both Aurora and her prince are essentially only pawns in the fight between the good and the evil godmothers. Even Mulan, who is a rather active princess, only becomes a man so her old father doesn’t have to serve in the war. And, yes, the will to care for others and sacrifice your own life, health, or happiness is a positive trait on the whole. But wouldn’t it also be nice to teach young girls that they’re allowed to have their own agenda? That they’re allowed to act for themselves instead of wishing on a star?
Even outside the fairy tales, the same pattern works for Disney. With Kim Possible there is actually a rather strong and fearless heroine. She’s no helpless princess, that is for sure, but she’s always on the run, saving others. Shego on the other hand often talks back to her nominal employer Drakken, takes time off when she feels like it, and proves she is a far more effective evil ruler than he could ever be. Even her background is fitting. Together with her four brothers, she gained her specific powers through a multi-coloured meteorite. While her brother still form ‘Team Go,’ a more or less efficient superhero team, Shego left them, because she was sick of their counterproductive actions and quarrelling. Instead, she sold her powers (apart from being an excellent fighter, she also can create rather destructive green fire) to the highest bidder and ended up in the employ of Kim’s arch-nemesis. One could argue that Shego actually is Kim’s real arch-nemesis.
Demona from the “Gargoyles” TV series at least kept the remainders of the clan together and relatively safe after their leader was turned to stone, even though she was the reason why that happened in the first place. Her original motif for hooking up with the Vikings was to drive the humans from the castle, because they didn’t respect the gargoyles enough for her taste.
One thing all villainesses in Disney’s movies or cartoons have in common is that they have their own agenda. They act because of something they want, be it the throne, a contract, a lot of puppies for a new coat, or just a bit of peace from their employer’s constant moaning about how a teenager ruins his plans (and their pay-check). They don’t sit around and wait for their wish to come through. They go ahead and do their best to make it come true.
And, yes, they are villainesses, so their goals usually aren’t very nice, neither are the means they use. But a heroine isn’t allowed her own agenda, even though a hero might be. Women (inside and outside of cartoons) are supposed to be caring and selfless - or they are villainesses who don’t survive until the end of the story. They are supposed to be neat, pretty, and unassuming, not bold or egoistical. A male character with ‘undesirable’ traits can come to his senses during the story and become a better person. There’s lots of examples for that. A woman with such traits will be branded ‘evil’ and sooner or later destroyed.
Everything beside the norm of being soft, caring, beautiful, meek (read: ‘feminine’) is branded as evil. Even a strong character like Kim or Mulan or Merida must do their deeds because they care for others. They are not allowed to have a really egoistical moment.

So much for the villainesses. Now on to some more specific characters.
With the release of “Suicide Squad,” Harley Quinn has taken the spotlight again. For all of you who are not into comics, a quick description of her basic story-arc (which has been done over and over again): Harley once was a psychologist who was supposed to cure the Joker from his madness (a losing fight from the beginning, but well…). She fell for her patient and turned into a villainess, naming herself Harley Quinn (which is not only a shortening of her original name, but, of course, also a pun on ‘Harlequin’). Harley was in an abusive relationship with the Joker for a long time before she broke away from him and found support in two other villainesses of the DC universe: Poison Ivy and Catwoman. Yes, Harley is dangerous and can be murderous. She probably has a similar body count to her former “Puddin’” (the Joker) and should be treated with caution. She is not exactly a role-model for girls … or is she? She has been abused and she realized it and fought to get away from that. She has worked on it and broken off with the abuser. Her relationship with the Joker surely is no great example, but her way out of it is. So from a certain point of view, she actually is a role model, despite her murderous side.

Black Widow from the Marvel Universe is not a villainess as a such, but she has roots in that area, since she was originally trained as a spy and assassin by the KGB. She is highly dangerous and should not be underestimated (as Tony Stark and his driver do in “Iron Man 2” and Loki does in “The Avengers”). Yet her training and her decision to work with SHIELD instead of the KGB also make her a more nuanced character. She’s not a plain hero, she has a lot of red in her ledger from her past, a lot of blood on her hands. She is capable of underhanded tactics and ready to use them. She is a survivor. She uses the stereotypes against those believing in them.
She has some aspects in common with Jane, my main character. Both have chosen to be sterile, in order to do their job (but Jane had a true choice and can have the process reversed, if so she desires), both are trained to kill, both are trained to use all of their abilities. For both, the end justifies the means.

What have I taken away from those three articles? That we need to change the way women are portrayed. That we need to bring in women with their own agenda who are not characterized as evil. That we need to have women who defy expectations or turn them against their enemies. That we need women who find strength when they need it, who break free from their past. That a little bit of a villainess may be a good thing to be. Not necessary in that throne-snatching, voice-stealing, and puppy-killing way, but in the acting, deciding, and challenging way.
A male hero can follow the principle that you can’t make an omelette without cracking a few eggs. Why shouldn’t a woman crack a few, too? A male hero can start of as egoistical and not very heroic. Why can’t a woman be like that?

I like to see Jane as a female version of characters like James Bond or those Noir detectives who go beyond the law to serve justice. She’s not a ‘white hat’ character and she shouldn’t be. She’s a trained killer and a ruthless agent. She’s capable of presenting the innocent, helpless girl, but she only does it when it’s necessary. The Niece (meek and soft-spoken) only works with The Uncle, she doesn’t make sense on her own, not for anyone who has ever met Jane before. She is too strong and too much aware of her own strengths and weaknesses to back down.

Thursday, August 18

Why I like Jane Browne

Last year in September, I started writing my first novel, without knowing so. I thought it would be another novella, something around 20,000 to 30,000 words. Instead, I reached 60,000, making it a true novel. And the start of a series, too.

I have no problem with writing a male main character, just as I have no problem with reading a novel centred around a male lead or with a computer game giving me control over a male character. I’ve written a lot of novellas about Loki before September last year and all of them are centred around a male lead, of course. But then I met Jane.

The initial idea to the story which would become “Secret Keeper” was born of a little frustration. I had watched “Kingsman - The Secret Service” (which is a good movie, no doubt) on DVD and again seen a story centred on a male spy. Even though a woman was there, the real hero work needed to be done by a man - again. Okay, the villain had a female right hand who did all the actual killing and stuff, but still… So I decided I could write a little parody on the genre, creating a female spy who would be just as badass as Mr. Bond and his colleagues. For about half an hour, she even was Jane Bond, but then I decided on another name and she ended up being Jane Browne. I liked giving her an everyday first name and kept that up with her handler and mentor Steven Quinn as well. From that, the whole idea of how Jane’s division would handle finding new agents developed.

Jane developed, too, and very quickly. The moment she and Steven teamed up, things started to happen. Knowing the characters as well as I do today, I’m no longer surprised. Those two are a force of nature together.
First of all, she needed an official life. Since she had to leave on missions from one moment to the next, she couldn’t work in a regular job. Nobody would find it suspicious if a young woman with a wealthy background travelled whenever she felt like it, though, so she became a rich heiress (not really, but officially) and a member of high society. That, of course, had influence on whom she usually dealt with. She has three close friends: hyper Cynthia, flirty Stacy, and relaxed Myra (the only one with a steady boyfriend at the beginning of the story). Cynthia would turn into her closest friend. I also gave Jane a boyfriend to drop at the beginning of the story: Richard. Jane was going to treat men as many agents treat their women: someone for bed and, perhaps, a party every now and then. She judged her possible boyfriends on their talents in bed. She had tired of Richard and hooked him up with Cynthia - problem solved.
Jane also needed to have some talents, some abilities she would use for the Agency. I gave her two which were centred around being cold-blooded and patient: breaking and entering and assassination. It would allow me to write heists, which I like doing, and give her a certain standing within her department (her ‘branch’ to stay with the Agency’s lingo).
That led to Steven, in a way. In the first scene I wrote, they were talking over the phone right after Jane had gotten up. They were discussing her day, from breakfast over training and a manicure to an heist in the evening. Steven was going to be her mentor and handler, a person she could rely on. But she needed him to be more than that. In my mind, she had been an orphan from the beginning and my common sense told me that was a good idea. Branch Two, infiltration, needed agents who could completely disappear at any given moment, who could take up a new official persona at a moment’s notice, if necessary. An orphan has no ties which can’t be severed. Friends are not family. That meant Jane had no family to rely on. She needed a parental figure at least. Cue Steven. He would be the one to bring her into the Agency (the scene is in the first novel as a flashback), he would become her mentor, help her tame the little superpower I’d given her. He would be the closest thing she had to a father. And this would have an impact on the story.
Jane was dangerous, but she also needed guidance. A woman with specialities like hers can’t have that much of a conscience. How could she kill otherwise? She needed to be grounded in her job, she needed to absorb the principles of the Knight Agency and be absolutely true to them. That meant the Knight Agency had to shape up, too. The foggy ‘Agency’ I had put in the novel at the beginning needed to be a place where a person like Jane could do good. Where she would be needed to serve mankind, not just fill a bank account, not just fulfil a contract. So I fleshed out the past of the Knight Agency, made it an old organisation with a long history.
What about a villain? At first, the Morrigan (adapted from a villain I had created for a story I never finished) seemed to be a negative caricature of a feminist. She wanted to rule the world and oppress men for a change. She gathered other women around her as her closest allies. But there was more to her as well. There was a story behind her attack on Jane - not on the Agency, but on Jane in person. There were two women who were not prepared to be ‘normal’ women, but they were as different as they could be. Two highly dangerous women who had a different approach to life and to society.
For me, the Morrigan was an extremist. An intelligent woman, highly capable, but guided by extreme ideas of the way society should  be. A woman who felt hate against Jane, not because of a personal confrontation, but because of her own past. I’m not going to spoil the reasons, Jane has to wait a long time to learn about them, too.
Jane is highly versatile, which is what her superior (the head of the Agency) likes about her. It’s what I like about her, too. I don’t have to rehash my first story again and again, because there’s so many different things Jane can be facing. She has friends (among them Edith, a very tall and strong soldier agent) and allies and her ability to think on her feet. She has the very varied training of an agent of her branch (which is usually started around ten) and an expanding circle of acquaintances.

In the second novel, “Key Pieces,” things are a lot more personal, as her best friend from her official life faces dangers and Jane has to uncover the intrigue against Cynthia before the enemy can succeed and her best friend ends up dead somewhere. I introduced another strong woman with Edith Grand in this novel and deepened Jane’s relationships (safe for that with Steven, which is deep from the beginning). And since Cynthia learned about Jane’s true identity, she became an accomplice later on. I also turned the slightly featherheaded girl into a businesswoman in training, having her grow.

“Crime Pays Sometimes” allowed me to have a closer look at Jane’s dark side. While playing the right hand of a criminal mastermind, she could get a taste of what she might have become without the guidance of the Knight Agency. At the same time, Myra was getting married and Jane got pulled into a little one-sided war which Myra’s future mother-in-law, dubbed ‘monster-in-law’ by Cynthia, waged on Myra. Playing high society against the underworld was fun and gave me a new facet of Jane to look at.

In “A Plague of Rogues,” Jane was really going undercover for a bit, playing the meek niece of a very conservative man (played by Steven). It allowed me to play with Jane’s acting abilities, pretending to be shy and a little afraid in the company of others (with Steven’s intimidating air, it wasn’t a far stretch to think she would be afraid of him) and completely his equal away from them. There were some really funny scenes coming from that. I also had her meet a man to be with long-term (and not just because I grew tired of inventing new boyfriends for every novel). I decided she and Cedric would have the opposite of your regular hero-lover relationship. Jane would be the one going out and being heroic (or deadly at any rate), Cedric would be the one taking care of her afterwards, making her feel better and helping her relax.

Afterwards, I took a short break from the Knight Agency and followed some things which Jane and Steven had said in “Crime Pays Sometimes” about a criminal mastermind meeting a runaway foster child in an alley and almost killing her, then taking her home. The Black Knight Agency was born, a series set in an alternate reality. “Criminal Ventures” saw Jane’s development into a much darker version of herself, not unlike the persona of Jane Doe she had taken on in “Crime Pays Sometimes.” After many adventurous and criminal things, the Black Knight Agency emerged and the future looked interesting for her and her friends - and for her boss Steven, of course.

I returned to the regular program and the Jane I’d originally created with “From Past to Future.” I wanted to shine a light on the past and on traditions. I wanted to clear them up and give the female colleagues Jane has (one of them had already been seen in the two prior novels of the series) more different work in the future. I had already pointed out Jane was the first woman in Branch Two doing full work, not just investigations. But every Branch Two agent has two specialities, so why didn’t the other female agents use their second one? In “A Plague of Rogues,” Tanya had wanted more different missions and in “From Past to Future” she got them - and herself in trouble. But that didn’t lead to her giving up - it led to her telling all her female colleagues how much more they could do for the Agency, using Jane as her Exhibit A. I also shed a light on the past of Steven and Jane’s direct superior Sir Frederic and created an enemy for novels to come.

I have had a lot of fun with Jane so far and I already plan things for the future. A sixth Knight Agency novel will come and the Black Knight Agency will take up work again as well. Jane is a ruthless and cold-blooded agent who can, I’m pretty sure, kick James Bond’s ass, if she wants to. Not to mention she has more personality than he has. She is a woman who does her own saving and has saved male colleagues on occasion. I certainly don’t want her any other way, that much is for sure.