How Women Are Portrayed in Storytelling

Upon viewing the #SEEHER Tip Sheet for Storytellers, it quickly reminded me of Essun’s decision to kill Corundum in The Fifth Season. Although this was seen as a sign of strength for those who understand the context in which this decision was made. I know that when I was explaining this to my mom, she was in utter confusion and disbelief.

“How can a mother ever kill her child; she’s a monster” my mother replied even when considering that she did it to save him from a life of captivity and servitude.

To be completely honest, I initially thought that too. Now, I see her decision as a sign of great strength and bravery because she choose what she truly believed was best for her child and that was to kill him instead of having him live enslaved for the rest of his life. On page 441, Jemisin writes “She will keep him safe. She will not let them take him, enslave him, turn his body into a tool and his mind into a weapon and his life into a travesty of freedom”. Her maternal instinct drove her to protect Corundum from being captured by the Guardians and turned into a node maintainer which would ultimately lead to a life of utter torture (bound to compliance).

This got me thinking. Why did I initially judge Essun’s decision to kill Corundum when it saved him from a destiny much worse than death? Upon reading the links for that week on Canvas, I was interested in understanding how the Tip Sheet for Storytellers connects to my initial thoughts on Essun. I found a lot of stats interesting and pretty much expected. According to the Center for the Study of Women in Television & Film, “Females characters are more likely than males to play personal life-oriented roles, such as wife and mother”, “Likelihood That the Role of Character Who is an Engineer or Computer Scientist Will Be Portrayed by Woman is 1 in 14” upon others. These statistics didn’t really surprise me but they helped conceptualize the reason why I misjudged Essun at first. The tip sheet continues by addressing some questions that promote the right way to write about women. Some of which are:

    1. “Do your female characters significantly contribute to the plot?
    2. “If you completely removed all your female characters from the story, would it be inconsequential to the plot?
    3. Could any of the following words describe words describe your female characters’ personality attributes: strong, intelligent, ambitious, charismatic, creative, reliable, successful, courageous, or confident?”                                                                                                                                                                            and…
    4. “Over the course of your story arc, does your female character evolve and show personal growth?” 

Unfortunately, these questions aren’t answered “yes” in most cases of storytelling. That is not the case with N.K. Jemisin The Fifth Season, The Obelisk Gate, and The Stone Sky.

In a blog written by N.K. Jemisin, she writes about the difficulty of creating a “Strong Female Protagonist” but she thinks that is not the problem. Instead, the problem is that “readers have been trained to like women less.” Because of the “weight of deeply-embedded societal bigotry which literally, actually causes readers to have trouble empathizing with anyone who’s not a straight… white guy”. This concept is not only seen in literature but in real life as people actually have a harder time perceiving women’s pain versus that of men. She writes that it was a big step for her to create a character like Essun that embodies all that she wants to prove to readers. Jemisin says she expected people to hate Essun. “She’s so many things that readers dislike sight-unseen and story unread: a middle-aged mother, a collaborator, a revolutionary, a mass murderer, a woman who refuses to be sexy or nice” she writes. Essun is traumatized for much of The Fifth Season but she doesn’t display this in a conventional manner (familiar to the general public) but in a way where she appears angry, violent, and unreasonable to many readers. It was expected for readers to emphasize more with the son that with the mother because a “mother” wouldn’t do that to her child but Essun did. Jemisin ends her blog with two questions that I want others to think about too:

“Essun does terrible things, but is she a terrible person? And if you find yourself judging her more harshly than her other selves, or even other characters in the story… why?”

I know my answer–no, in short since I didn’t have exposure to how maternal instinct varies by situation but now I’ve learned to be more open-minded to characters that have had to make difficult decisions  … do you know yours?

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