I once wrote a story that unintentionally ended up being a kind of a feminist litmus test. Now you might be thinking, wait, I thought you wrote dystopic science fiction?
Let me explain.
The story featured a bold, determined female protagonist with an assertive, unconventional sexuality (and in case you’re wondering what that noise is, it’s the sound of a can of worms opening). She was a tribute of sorts to women I’ve known personally and admired for their strong character and proud, defiant individualism. I had no idea her story would be a literary poke in the eye to many readers, but that’s exactly what it turned out to be.
In hindsight, I probably shouldn’t have been surprised that, for the most part, a certain demographic (white, male, over 50) HATED her. And now that I think about it, maybe I was more surprised by the strength of the reaction than the reaction itself. When I ran early drafts across beta readers, the visceral, red-faced animosity from that certain demographic was not a pleasant thing to be on the receiving end of (I wouldn’t last two hours in Gloria Steinem’s shoes). The words “whore” and “slut” were never used, but the value judgements were unmistakably there, the subtext of their angry feedback, like a shark lurking just below the surface of the water.
Women beta readers, for the most part, liked the character. Imagine that. I eventually sold the story (to a woman editor, respect), and to this day it remains one of my favorites.
The whole situation reminded me of a discussion in an undergraduate literature course, when my professor brought up the topic of the “unintended narrative.” The thinking is that the writer, in addition to the intentional story and its related themes, also imbues his or her work with unintentional meanings and messages. In other words, the artist communicates more than he’s aware of.
Did I write the character intentionally provocative? Yes. Did I think some folks would have a problem with her? Undoubtedly.
But did I deliberately want to take a jab at chauvinists whose laughably archaic views on gender roles have no place in modern, civilized society?
Not really. But you know, that kind of sounds like something I’d do. 😉