Should Art Reflect Life?

I normally steer well clear of politics in this blog (and mostly in life too, to be honest) but here’s a question that’s been playing on my mind, so I’ll open the worm can and see what wriggles out.

I hesitate to call myself a feminist- it’s a word loaded with meanings I don’t necessarily subscribe to – but I am certainly an equalist, and I do strive for fair treatment for all, regardless of gender (or lot of other things, but I’m talking gender here). And I like it when books, tv and movies seem to be heading in that direction. I like a story where the girl isn’t the damsel, the love interest or even a token neither-of-the-above to fill some unspoken quota.

I recently started watching Suits, and I’m delighted with the female characters in that series about lawyers – the Managing Partner of the law firm, an intelligent but suppressed paralegal, the clever and brave girlfriend and various clients who have a lot more going for them than the contents of their shirts and skirts. OK, the two leads are men, but to my mind, the show’s a fair one in terms of gender depictions.

In fact my only real problem (gender-wise) came in a recent episode where two girls went to the toilet together during a double dinner date, but then had their conversation (about men) standing by the bar. If these characters were men, I guarantee we’d have been shown the inside of the Gents’.

But Suits would fail MISERABLY in the Bechdel Test for gender bias. The girls very rarely talk to each other, and when they do it’s almost always about something the main characters (men) did. Because, you know, that’s kind of how fiction works. It revolves around the main characters and what other people do and say in relation to the main characters (MCs). So if those MCs happen to be male, boom goes your Bechdel test. flawed to the point of pointlessness.

My real question is whether as writers we should be pushing forward the underdogs (whether that’s women or some other group in society). Should we feel compelled to write about female Managing Partners, woman builders and engineers, stay-at-home husbands etc? Should we be trying to right the wrongs of society in our fiction, or are we permitted in fiction to reflect the real world, where most senior executives are still men, who make deals on the golf course and at the urinals?




Filed under Writing

6 responses to “Should Art Reflect Life?

  1. That’s a good question, Jennifer, and I’m not sure I know the answer. I suppose the wisdom of Shakespeare is the best to follow when creating your own stories: “To thine own self be true.” If a plot rings true to you, it will likely ring true to your readers as well.

    As a woman, I write a lot of women as my primary characters. I’ve also noticed that as I am the survivor of abuse and serious medical malpractice, the “bad guys” in my stories tend to be of the same gender as my abusers, and I’m working to balance that out better.

    I think the biggest danger for writers is the tendency to insert our own prejudices into our work. That is something we all need to work to avoid. I need to write villains of both genders. Other writers need to take care that their bad guys are of diverse race or ethnic groups. While a story about a villain who happens to be Muslim wouldn’t be a bad thing, a writer whose villains are all Muslims probably needs to diversify (and go see a shrink about her issues with Muslims).


    • Thanks for your thoughts, MG, I agree that we need to look at our own prejudices and even just assumptions in our writing. It’s easy to assume all relationships work like your own, whether that’s romantic, work-based, familial or whatever, and all people are like the ones you know. I like to challenge myself to go beyond that, but at the same time, I don’t think there should be pressure on fiction writers to depict a perfect world or to give social commentary. Sometimes, I like to think fiction is just fiction.

      • I wish more of my readers understood that sometimes “fiction is just fiction.” I had a reader this week assume that because my character disliked St. Patrick’s Day that meant I also hated the day. Actually, I LOVE St. Patrick’s Day. Sometimes I just want to scream, “I’m not my characters, people!”


  2. Thought-provoking post, Jen. I don’t think there’s a universal answer to that question. Some people will feel they should write about what should be, others about what is, still others a combination of the two. No matter what you write, there will always be some sort of perceived inequality–not enough of some group, whatever it might be. A story where there’s one-of-everyone and they’re all equal doesn’t sound like a very real story to me. I realize you’re not advocating that, but I’ve seen TV programs that appear to be trying to make their quota for every group and it doesn’t work for me.

    I like strong female characters…and I like strong male characters, too. No reason villains can’t be from either gender or any group. I think if you can work in a variety of people in a variety of roles, good! But it has to feel natural. I agree with Marie that all writers can strive to present balance what we write but many authors find a type of writing that works for them and then stay there, which may limit somewhat what they can do. But only somewhat.

    After all my rambling, my final answer to “Should we be trying to right the wrongs of society in our fiction, or are we permitted in fiction to reflect the real world, where most senior executives are still men, who make deals on the golf course and at the urinals?” is a resounding, “Yes!”


    • Janet, I’m not sure what a resounding yes to an either or question means, but I like it! I personally think there’s a place for all kinds of writing – aspirational, social commentary, whatever, but as I said to Marie, I think fiction should also be allowed to be just fiction, without any underlying messages. And like you, I get really riled when things feel false – when characters are clearly inserted to hit some quota or avoid some perceived criticism of bias. That feels worse to me than just missing out that sector of society that time (and hopefully giving them a real role the next.).

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