preconceptions

by Toni

Back when I was screen writing, my first script to go out wide was a military action/thriller. Very dark, told from the hero’s POV. I got a lot of meetings off that script, and people kept looking at me oddly when I’d first walk into the meeting. I assumed it was because I’m from the deep south and sound every bit of it. Finally, I was in Joel Silver Productions in their office on the Warner Bros lot, meeting with a VP (very sauve looking guy), and when I first stepped in the room, this guy looked at me and said, "Uh, no, honey, down the hall, second door to the left."

I frowned, and looked down at my day planner at the itinerary my agent had given me to make sure I was at the right production company, and while I was doing so, he said, "Really, honey. Down. The. Hall. Two doors. To the left."

I looked at his name plate and then at the day planner again and said, "But this is where they sent me. I have a meeting here."

He sighed. Put his pen down. And spoke soooo slowly, as if I was learning impaired and was the bane of his existence. "Honey. They are interviewing for the interns down the hall. Two doors, to the left. You need to go on, now, because I have a meeting with a screenwriter due any minute."

"You’re meeting with Toni McGee Causey right?"

He looked perplexed, as if I’d just spoken Farsi. "Yeah. How’d you know that?"

"I’m Toni McGee Causey."

He looked utterly blank. Looked down at my script on his desk. Up at me (boob level). Down to the script. Up to me (again, boobs). Down. Up. "But… you’re a woman!"

I looked down at my boobs and said, "Holy shit, how’d THAT happen?"

πŸ˜‰

We had a really long meeting that went well, but he must’ve asked me twenty times how I’d come up with all of those action scenes. He loved them, he said, but after a while, it was clear that he assumed that because I was a woman, I couldn’t possibly have figured out how to shoot guns or make that "action stuff" happen. When he asked yet again, I said, "You know, you’re probably right that I had help. Whenever I got to an action scene, I just grabbed onto my husband’s penis and channeled."

He quit asking.

(He did laugh, though. And offered to develop a project with me, so it turned out fine.)

Preconceptions.

At Left Coast Crime, Lori Armstrong, Karen Olson, Joanne Pence and I had a panel called "Walking the Mean Streets in High Heels." Now, I loved LCC. It was a fantastic convention and our moderator, Christine Goff rocked. And the panel title was catchy enough and we had a full room, so this is not a complaint. But we realized as soon as we saw the title of our panel that three of us had female protagonists who did not wear heels. Ever. Only Joanne’s character did, and we were amused and at the same time, a little frustrated with the preconceived notion that if a book had a female protagonist, shoes mattered. Shoes. I have never really understood the whole "shoe" thing for women, but then I have a construction business with my husband and our office is at home. I like dressing up and I have a few heels, but at Thrillerfest this past summer, I mentioned that I had somehow lacked the "shoe" gene for women and several people inhaled sharply; I offered to give back my Certified Female [TM] card.

I am almost 100% positive that if the LCC panel had been made up of men, the title of the panel would not have been "Walking the Mean Streets in Loafers." And the point I hoped we made, ultimately, was that we should be asking the tougher questions about our characters–whether we’ve made them riveting, whether we’ve made an initially unlikeable character compelling to read about, whether we’ve reached for layered nuances, whether we’ve presented our character with interesting obstacles, and whether or not the story works. We should be embracing the characters as characters, not a collection of traits, and there’s room enough in any genre for all kinds of women and men.

Does genre and / or gender bias affect success… or just the perception of success?  One of the ladies in the audience asked if we believed that men had an advantage selling to a publisher (I am sadly paraphrasing — she asked it in a much better way), and I said that I didn’t think so, and that I wouldn’t want to be assumed to be at a disadvantage because I was a woman. I’d like to believe that if you write well, people will find your book. But in this day of crowded bookstores and uncertainty, there’s no surefire guarantee that this is true for anyone, and there’s been a lot of interesting discussion over on David Montgomery’s blog about why that’s so.

At lunch later that day of the panel, the fantastic Tim Maleeny (who’ll be guest-blogging for me in a couple of weeks) pointed out a stat I wish I had remembered on the panel, which is that women make up a majority of the book buying public. I’ve heard everything from 60% to 80% of books are bought by women (and MJ Rose mostly likely has that figure around somewhere), but whatever that number is, it’s not small.

Does gender or genre bias exist? Do we lose potential readers when we diss what they’d been reading in the past?

Or maybe you’d just rather contemplate the breaking of another preconceived notion… and watch The Easter Bunny Hates You…

(swiped from the ever fabulous Max Adams)

14 thoughts on “preconceptions

  1. Ken Bruen

    ToniTerrific postI’m surprised you didn’t hit that ejit on the upside of his dumb head, with a high heelNow I’m beginning to wonder if well heeled applies to just guysIf you think shoes are supposodly simply a female preoccupation, eavesdrop on a crew of guys waxing lyrical about converse and don’t even get them started on cowboy boots or Doc martensDare I add, if the shoe fitsA female mugger arrested here last week, had steel toe caps on her bootsI have to wonder if shoes feature on alex’s new passion, the L-word?The down at heel P.I. will never be quite the same againHappy Easterken

    Reply
  2. Will Bereswill

    Great post, Toni. I created a female protagonist for my novel. No mention of shoes, didn’t think it was appropriate for a thiller.

    However I’ve had several female readers ask how I nailed the female protag so well. My response, “I live in a house with a wife and three daughters. I keep my mouth shut and observe.”

    Reply
  3. Louise Ure

    As a woman who worked in advertising under the name of Louis for a year (the client was in another city, and we didn’t have meetings) because “women don’t know how to market beer,” I can tell you that it’s not just a bias in screenwriting or publishing.

    And I’m swiping that line about “channeling penis.”

    Reply
  4. J.D. Rhoades

    Some great lines in this one, Toni…and you should have told him you know guns ‘cuz you’re a Southern girl. That’d work because of a whole ‘nother crop of biases.

    I’d heard that most books are bought by women as well, but I don’t have an exact figure.

    And I’m not sure that Marie, my female cop character in the Keller books even OWNS a pair of high heels…but the major female character in BREAKING COVER surely does. Please don’t hate me…

    Reply
  5. Pari Noskin Taichert

    Toni,Great post.

    I’ve wrestled with this subject for years. Today, Julia Pomeroy wrote about my new book on DL and she started her comments with an observation about preconceptions because I’ve got this single-woman-with-a-cat thang going on and that sets up all kinds of assumptions.

    But, I wonder, are “shoes” just shorthand for “sexy?” Are high heels the equivalent of a banana in a guy’s trousers?

    BTW: I always had my suspicions about the Easter Bunny . . .

    Reply
  6. Lori G. Armstrong

    Fab post, Toni – and we had a good time on that panel, didn’t we?

    Yes, we’re not supposed to swear, swill beer, know how to shoot, because that’s so crass…but knowing haute couture shoe manufacturers…isn’t?

    Sadly, even though the majority of the book buyers are women, they seem to be the ones with the biggest bias about my characters lack of social graces πŸ™‚

    Reply
  7. JT Ellison

    Toni, I’m rolling, again, at this story. I love it.

    I think it’s so easy to cast stones, and segment, and develop pre-conceived notions that women can’t do tough in any way, shape or form that isn’t emasculating. It’s a catch-22 though. No matter what you do right, someone will have an issue with it, be it the character’s language, attitude, or whatever. You just have to write the character that you love, and forget the rest.

    There is a bias, no question, but I think that stands for any aspect of the genre. PI’s who are drunk, female cops who get harassed, male cops who bed everything in sight, we are expected to operate within the pre-determined story skeletons. It’s the opportunity to break down those walls, to write characters that appeal everywhere and flaunt those expected renditions, that drew me to writing in the first place.

    I think in society people are always anti things that don’t fall within their given constructs. But that’s a rant for another day.

    Reply
  8. Pammy D

    Hey Toni,

    Great post!

    Being that I am female, love thrillers, and still can’t walk in High Heels – Maybe another topic could be, ‘Walking the Mean Streets in Flip-Flops’. Or – ‘Walking the Mean Streets in great athletic shoes with added arch supports to eliminate Knee and Lower Back Pain.’

    Call me practical.

    But yes, the double standard does seem to exist. Everywhere. I’ve often been told that Chiropractors had to be “Big Men”. Uh-oh. Another life goof-up.

    Thanks!

    Oh – and LOVED the Bunny!

    Reply
  9. Dana King

    This is a trivial example of your initial dilemma, but I have the following phone conversation about once a year.

    Me: Good morning, [government agency reacted], Dana King speaking.

    Caller: Oh, er, uh, I was expecting a female Dana.

    Me: So was my mother. What can I do for you?

    Reply
  10. Kathy Reschini Sweeney

    Good points — I’m always fascinated when I meet authors who are nothing like the characters they write – and impressed when the voices are really authentic.

    Loving the Easter Bunny video- my kids are going to crack up too.

    Reply
  11. ZoΓ« Sharp

    Hi Toni – great post. And, oh boy, do I go through stuff like this on a depressingly regular basis. So much so, that there are too many examples to quote …

    As for the high heels, it was the suggestion that one should simply run away if ever faced with the threat of a knife attack that led me and Meg Chittenden to come up with our convention self-defence demonstration, entitled ‘You Can’t Run in High Heels’.

    But, purely on a physics level, the lethal qualities of a stileto heel should not be discounted. The correct formula, so I’m told, is pressure equals weight divided by area.

    Thus, a 140 pound woman, (10 stone to us Brits) standing on a heel measuring a quarter inch by a quarter inch, exerts a force of 2,240 pounds.

    That’s one ton.

    Obviously, she’d have to be standing on one leg to do this, otherwise the force exerted through each foot is halved.

    Brings a whole new meaning to ‘killer heels’, though, doesn’ it?

    Reply
  12. toni mcgee causey

    Thanks, everyone — I’ve been out and about for Easter, as I hope most everyone has. (It’s a gorgeous day here — hope it’s beautiful today where you live.)

    Just a couple of follow-ups… Dana, you cracked me up. I have to confess to thinking the same thing when I saw your name, and I dated a guy named Dana when I was in high school. Me with the masculine sounding name (though spelled with an ‘i’)… no one we met ever got the right name for the right person. I should have not assumed when I saw your name, so thanks for the funny reminder.

    Louise… geez. I knew it was like that in the construction industry, too, but wow, I had hoped it was better elsewhere.

    Ken, thanks, and you have a good point about those Doc Martins. And yikes, steel toed caps. She meant business, didn’t she?

    I wonder how many biases we have sometimes… I’d say it’d be funny to make a list, but I suspect it would take forever.

    Dusty, I think you’re brilliant, so I’m sure the shoes fit perfectly. πŸ˜‰ (And for the record, I have nothing *against* high heels or the mention thereof… just the defining of an entire genre by something like the clothing or shoes.)

    Pari, you may be right that shoes is a substitute for ‘sexy’ but I’d rather hear about the sexiness without having to assume. Meaning, if the point that the author has in mentioning the shoes (or whatever) is to show the long line of the leg, the graceful turn of an ankle, or show the character as being on top of the latest fashions because that matters for some reason to the rest of the story, that’s great.

    Lori, we did have a great time. I’m pretty sure I have eliminated any suspicion that I’m supposed to have social graces, though. πŸ˜‰

    JT, you’re right, the biases appear all over the place. I started to mention another bias, how so many people in the thriller world want to have the word “romance” linked to their book, as if the word is synonymous with “cooties” while, at the same time, there are more and more romance / sex scenes in thrillers these days than there used to be. And then there’s the anti-cozy bias, the anti-thriller bias (because thrillers are nothing but plot, no characters), and the anti-genre bias (literary rulz), the anti literary bias (literary sux and genre wins the paycheck battle) and on and on. So I didn’t. Write about that, I mean. πŸ˜‰ I just let the Bunny stand in for me.

    Will, that’s the best answer, and exactly what I’ve done in reverse – I’m married with two sons and grew up around guys. Guys (to me) are easier to get and write because of that lifetime experience.

    Pammy, glad you and Kathy liked the bunny.

    And Kathy, great point — I love that, too, when I find a voice that intrigues me and then find out the author is so clearly different from the voice. That always fascinates me.

    Reply
  13. toni mcgee causey

    Wow, ZoΓ«, that’s a lot of force! I actually used a pair of high heels in Bobbie Faye in book 2 as a weapon, but I hadn’t realized quite how much force that would have been. (She is wearing them under protest, but needs to in the circumstance.)

    And the not running away bit is another reason why I’m never really comfortable when the heroines wear high heels but are trying to get away from someone. I tend to not believe it, even if they shuck the shoes, because running barefoot over rough ground can be painful and slow a person down as well. Of course, if that’s the point an author’s trying to make, then high heels work there.

    Reply

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