Whilst applauding the women who’ve had the courage and tenacity to smash their way into, what was traditionally a man’s world, I think it’s easy to forget that in a lot of ways women’s lives are every bit as restricted as they’ve ever been. When Patricia Arquette recently made an Oscar acceptance speech, drawing attention to the need for more to be done where women’s rights are concerned, she was rounded upon by some minority groups, who claimed that as a rich, white woman she didn’t know what she was talking about. I’m sure Patricia has enjoyed a privileged life but, given she was accepting the award for a role where she played a single mother trying to raise two children, I think it’s fair to say she probably wasn’t issuing the rallying cry on her own behalf.
So, let’s examine the facts. It’s a fact that women still earn less than men. According to official statistics the gender pay gap in the UK currently stands at 19.9%. I have worked in a variety of schools and the one thing they’ve all had in common is that, although teaching is a profession dominated by women, almost all of the senior positions are held by men. I’m sure education is not the only world where this is viewed as the norm. The abhorrent practice of zero-hour contracts, which afford workers none of the basic employment rights such as sick pay, holiday pay or a guaranteed income, preys on those in the lowest socio-economic grouping, which tends to be women. Those of us who grew up in the 60s and 70s will probably remember the days when our dads went out to work and our mothers, if they worked at all, did so for ‘pin money’ to supplement the primary income of the male wage earner. We all thought we’d moved on from that but what we have now is arguably worse. Lots of women are still earning ‘pin money’ but trying to bring up children single-handedly thus the ‘pin money’ is now the main income. Talk to these women about all the achievements women have enjoyed in the last 40 years or so and they’ll probably laugh in your face.
Madonna is another high profile female recently ridiculed for her views on women and sexuality. Now, I feel at this point I should point out that Madonna is one of my least favourite people on the planet but, fair play to her, she was right when she said that society still views women in terms of ‘good girls’ or ‘whores’. The recent Ched Evans' rape case starkly reminded us how a lot of people define rape. If you’re a ‘nice girl’, who doesn’t get drunk and run wild then the consensus is – lock that rapist up and throw away the key. If you’re the other type of girl though - well, I’m afraid you had it coming.
The portrayal of women and what people will accept is interesting to me for a whole host of reasons and I think it really impacts upon how I write. The predominant books being marketed by and for women seem to pretty much fall into 3 categories. There are the ones that deal with the angst of relationships. They tend to be middle class women who are trying to ‘find’ themselves as they navigate being a wife and a mother. I’m not a wife or a mother and so these stories say nothing to me. Next we have chick-lit, where a ‘feisty’ young thing has a series of mad-cap adventures basically just killing time until some bloke marries her. Lastly we have, in my view, the most pernicious of the 3, which is erotica. We are sold the idea that it is empowering for women and that finally we are being represented as sexual beings. Well, I’m sorry but I don’t think cavorting around in a basque whilst being whipped or raped is how I want to celebrate my sexuality.
The kinds of novels that, for me have the most interesting things to say, are the ones where writers send their protagonists on existential adventures in order to explore what it is to be human. Novels that aren’t afraid to be edgy like Hunter S Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas or Nick Cave’s The Death of Bunny Monroe. What would happen then if Raoul Duke from Fear and Loathing was female? My guess is she’d be viewed as mentally unstable and institutionalised like Blanche Dubois for her own welfare. Okay, so maybe I exaggerate but I’m sure that when male writers develop their male protagonists, they don’t have to limit their ideas in the same way women do.
When I first created the Georgie Connelly character, I wanted her to be a free spirit but I soon realised that she could only be free within certain parameters. If I wanted anyone to read about her then I had to avoid certain things – she could drink but not too much, she couldn’t sleep around and a few readers have complained that she swears too much. The main criteria that women readers want in their fiction, however, is a male character hovering in the background somewhere waiting to rush in and save the day. And when I say readers, I’m just as guilty as anyone else. I’ve created the kinds of male characters that I like to read about and they are the very characters who prevent even our imaginary females from taking charge of their own lives. It seems to me that our reading tastes reflect how little we have actually progressed as women, because we still want to read about worlds in which women conform to the ideal of being someone’s girlfriend, wife or mother.
Although I agree with Madonna’s words, I also think that she is part of the problem. Her entire career is based upon one definition of femininity – thin, youthful and driven. I believe that when someone offers us the alternative of a woman who is flabby, promiscuous, not in the flush of youth, with no idea of where she’s heading and no prospect of a male sidekick and we accept her in the same way we do Raoul Duke or Bunny Monroe, then we might be on our way to equality.