I was recently having a discussion about what is sexist and what isn’t both in writing and in life. Part of the conversation centered on chivalry and it’s role in our society. I want to start out by saying chivalry isn’t inherently sexist.
Chivalry in its purest form is a code of conduct that can be used as a guide to life. It’s not unlike the golden rule in that regard, but I would argue it takes it a step farther. Not only is it “be nice to everyone” but it’s also “protect those that can’t protect themselves”. In this sense I love chivalry. It can be used by men and women alike to do the right thing and protect the weak.
Now, what gets sticky is when misogyny is involved. There are a lot of well meaning people out there who thing women are default weak/helpless. And that is wrong. What also wrong is equating Chivalry with the condescension that happens to women. Chivalry isn’t about being condescending. It’s about doing the right thing.
Being polite to someone isn’t condescending. Being polite to women only because they are women is. Helping someone lift something heavy isn’t condescending. Telling them not to lift something is.
Chivalry isn’t wrong. Treating women like they’re made of glass just because of gender is.
But what about this Damsel in Distress? I hear you ask. Well, let me be the first to tell you, it’s not necessarily that she’s in distress that makes it sexist. Being in danger happens in adventures. Its when she has nothing to contribute /other/ than being in distress that sexism happens. When she isn’t her own person and is only there for eye candy and to make the hero look good, there’s something wrong.
The core of sexism is belittling the other gender (yes, it can be done to men as well as women). Showing through your work (whether you mean to or not) that there is nothing to which ever gender you happen to portray as that “damsel” is wrong.
I have an exercise for you. Take your main character. Are they a hero in a traditional sense? Do they save the day? Do they save another character? Take another look at the character that gets saved. Described them to yourself in a short paragraph. Now, take away the main character. Is your secondary character still there or have they crumbled into dust? If all you’ve got left on your page is dust, you’ve got some work to do.
The point of writing is to create people, places and things. Sometimes we get so caught up in the story that we fail to notice that we’ve only fleshed out our main characters and left everyone else in the dust. Try creating a side plot with your secondary characters; have them work for or against the main plot. Or have them do something else entirely. Make them more than a cardboard cutout for the hero to come in, smooch and carry out under their arm. Remember, they are people too. If you have to, base them off someone you know. What would John/Jane do? The goal here is to have complex characters. I can forgive a weak female character with motivation. I cannot forgive a cardboard cutout.
So, the takeaway point here is while your female character might occasionally be in distress, that should not be their sole role.
Remember, you can always discuss this with me in the comments.