Girly Power in Book Week Scotland 2013 Quiz

This quiz has been doing the rounds on my social media circles the last few days – a book personality test released for Book Week Scotland, 2013 (take it here). The root may or may not be true – I’ve learnt not to trust much of what circulates via a quick “like” or “share” – but hell, it’s a booklovers’ quiz, so I thought I’d take it anyway. And hey! Look! A bot with simple checkbox algorithm thinks I am Aragorn! Whoopee-dee!

With your decisive and fast-paced approach, you are an asset to any team or rabble of hobbits. Your personality is quite unique with your rare blend of self-drive, assertiveness, confidence and competitiveness.

Like Aragorn, your ability to see the big picture and strategise while directing and motivating others make you a natural leader even if you don’t feel ready for it. At your worst you may judge others harshly and not consider the emotional impact of your decisions, but your slighted followers will soon feel inspired again by your actions.

Queue up to the left, buddy. I’m recruiting an army! And then we’ll go on an adventure!

Here’s the interesting thing though. I only got Aragon because I am a canny little liar, and chose “male” as my gender at the beginning of the quiz. Because I knew, just knew, that a personality matching quiz which asks for your gender (and limits it to two choices) is going to sort your results by it. Which is to say, you’re not going to get the fictional character you’re superficially closest to, but the one you’re superficially closest to that matches your gender. And that which exists in their Anglo-centric archive, of course. And I was right, for when I took the test as a female person, my result was Batgirl. No just a lot less sword-swinging cool than Aragorn, but also less definitive, as is the fate of many side-kicks (and some heroes, like the Green Lantern) in the comicverse.

I mean, look at her arc. First, she’s Betty Kane, aspiring to be all wannabe crime-fighter, the better to snare herself Robin while Aunty Kathy ensnares Batman with the “similar interests” hook. In her next avatar, Batgirl is Miss Gordon, Commissioner Gordon’s daughter Barbara. This is a more “empowered” version of the character – she stands up to an authoritarian Batman when he tells her to quit ’cause she’s a girl – but is still essentially his female version. In real life, she has a PhD in library science – the lords pinch me awake – and after a successful stint at an enormous and prestigious library, moves onto the House of Reps. Quite the achievement, but declined decidedly male, especially in the US. And then in Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke, she’s shot in the spine and becomes wheelchair-bound. Good work that, Alan, Mr. Anti-establishmentMoore. The token powerful chick gets it first. How very revolutionary and anti status quo.

Also, look at the language that the Scotland Book Week people, who doubtless love Batgirl and mean well, use to describe her. In contrast to Aragorn, who may have leadership thrust upon him even if he feels unready, because he is such a charismatic visionary, Batgirl is a natural leader because of her “competitive nature and fast-paced, decisive approach” which “programmed [her] to excel and succeed”. Somehow, that’s a lot less endearing – and humane – than a charismatic team-player who becomes leader by popular choice. He is solid stuff, while her words have the feel of a pushy, ruthless automaton. And they’re both fine things to be, except it’s sort or irksome to be made to feel so different about the exact same qualities with a tiny switch of gender. And that’s not even counting the cincher, which goes: “Friends and colleagues may find you over-bearing and aggressive. You’re programmed to excel and succeed and may ignore the emotional impact of your decisions. However, you’re Batgirl – enough said”. No fluff about slighted followers being re-inspired by her actions. It’s all take it or leave it, her way or the highway, cry in your own time you little wimp, bang bang!.

Of course, I’m not suggesting that this narrative of a successful female person – be she a politician or a librarian with a doctorate – is really a patriarchal appropriation of female empowerment simply because it feels like a man has simply been taken out of the story and a woman inserted in it… a slightly dehumanised and unlikable woman, because the people putting her in the story were not quite sure how to depict power and success in a female. Well, I suppose I’m suggesting that. But what I’m suggesting more than that is that canon being as patriarchal as it is, and our current paradigms of behaviour being a little less gendered than that, perhaps a forward-thinking school of bibliophiles shouldn’t predicate their fun little personality tests on gender, and if they absolutely must, include a little footnote that says “Sorry the female characters are generally a lot less bitchin’ than the male. History made it that way… but we’re working on changing it!”

As Arthur Dent discovered all those years back, or forward, it does a body good to be said sorry to, even when said body has been dipped in a sodding mess, and left marinating there.

Plus, and this one’s for readers and writers both – folks who each hold up half the bookworld sky – it would be nice if awesomeness in fiction came packaged female too, and queer and trans and in some way disabled, instead of almost uniformly heterosexual majority-male. It might help people decide who they are like, or more importantly, who they’d like to be, based on the actual personalities, and not a little gender matchy-matchy. Of course, a girl might wish to emulate her fictional make hero’s distance-pissing skills and fail miserably for lack of appropriate appendage, but the point is that she at least try, and not be discouraged from such attempts by the idea of a lack. It shouldn’t be hard. After all, people like me abound – female and minority and abuse-survivor and mentally a little dented. I’ve met tonnes of them, and plenty other sorts besides. But alas, we seem to have passed most published authors completely by, for books about us are still the sub-genres, never the canonised mainstream.

Which is not to say boy-books are bad. Boy-books are great! I grew up on boy tales, although mostly because there were very few girl tales, or all-of-us-in-it-together tales, and it was wonderful to read about the exploits of interesting and quirky male central characters, weak and strong. Partly because I people like that in real life. I could totally relate. But all around me I also saw interesting women and girls, and occasionally the “different” boys and “different” girls, and yet they were nowhere to be seen in the books and comics and shows I had my head perpetually in.

And this was a problem, because it sort of warped my sense of reality for a bit. Never seeing these people acknowledged in books and television, or hearing their “oddities” talked about, I began to believe that they must be a little bit made up. Especially those bits that didn’t fit. This was ignorant and sad, but also sort of inevitable. After all, I encountered television and my books every day. I didn’t encounter difference all that often. Indeed, while I thought of my temporary lack of curiosity unfortunate, I realise now that there was a much more dangerous undercurrent to most of social encounters with difference. For those clearly at a disadvantage, such as the physically challenged, there was merely some malicious teasing, and some casual pity. For others, though, especially the gender queer and “uppity women”, there was a sentiment that the desire to be deliberately different shows disruptive intent, and disruptive intent must be quelled. For the greater good.

Let us take a minute to reflect upon where such sentiments might lead.

So, in conclusion, and returning to the matter of an otherwise inconsequential little quiz at hand, let us quickly summarise why the most ordinary and harmless things get my goat every now and then. One, because they’re indexes for a society so resistant to change that in its production of culture, it remains stubbornly, hysterically stereotypical, and blind to a diverse reality. That sort of thing gives people ideas, you know, because versions of reality in productions of culture are so much more attractive than the messy, non-conformist, discomfiting really-real world. And those sorts of ideas running about unchecked can produce the kind of ideas-blitz that leave ALL of us knee-deep in things a lot less abstract. It’s not pleasant. And two: as sensible (and rare) as a desire to have universally clean knees is, inclusionary cultural production shouldn’t stem from just that. It should stem from a genuine desire to be nice to people. I’m quite the snarling hell-hound sometimes you know, when I’m provoked and such, but generally, I absolutely thrive in being lovely and helpful, because it makes people relax and be sweet and helpful back, and where’d we be without self-affirmation and sunny good cheer in these days of poverty, drudgery and being tossed to the wolves? Dosed-up and gritty-teeth and road-ragey, that’s where. So the next time you see a person you want to instinctively smile politely and move on from, perhaps try a social contact? A little warmth and friendship? And then when you’ve known hir well enough, write a book about their special view of the world. It’s very likely you’ll make dozens of people clasp it to their chest and say, “Damn, that person’s just like me… finally!”

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