Saturday, December 16, 2017

What Women Want

Once upon an age ago, when I still had a proofreader to get feedback from, I asked her about a story I was working on. My friend - let's call her Susan - had read my stories and enjoyed them for years and offered me a lot of helpful feedback. So I asked her about an idea I'd had for a story set in a high school. The basic idea was an insensitive guy leaves a girl for a prettier, more popular young woman. She comes into possession of a device that lets her transform anyone in any way she wants. Pretty good setup for a TG story, right? I thought so too. I asked her to think about the situation and tell honestly what she thought she as a young woman that had graduated from high school not so many years before would do in that given situation.

Her answer surprised me. Actually, to be honest, she gave me several answers / scenarios. All of them left me confused and disappointed.

In one, she used the device to make herself better looking and joined the cheerleading squad to drive her ex mad with jealousy, so she could turn him down when he wanted her back. In another, she turned herself into a duplicate of the other girl so that the ex would have to choose between them based on personality instead of appearance. In another, she made all of the nice girls pretty and all of the mean girls ugly. Then there was the one where she turned herself into a copy of the girl so she could act out and get the girl her ex had chosen in trouble.

I think you get the idea. None of her ideas was in any way involved turning her ex into a girl.

When I asked her why, and this is the point, she said something that has stuck with me. I don't remember the actual words she used, but the idea she communicated to me was pretty potent. It boiled down to the idea that for the ex to pay, he still had to be her ex. If the girl in the story turned him into a girl, he would be too focused on his own predicament and not focused enough on her and how he had hurt her. She didn't want to change his body; she wanted to change his mind and mend his ways. Or put another way, the only revenge she wanted was emotional, and in her view a physical transformation could only get in the way of that.

Susan's feedback made me feel ashamed that I hadn't done a good enough job imagining the inner life of the women I was writing in my stories. What did they want? Why did they want it? Were the motives I gave to them realistic, or simply opportunistic attempts to move the story in the direction I wanted it to go?

While Susan's feedback hasn't stopped me from writing stories where the antagonist is a woman seeking revenge for ill treatment (The Birthday Girl is a great example of this), it has made me hyper-aware that the reasons a woman might transform someone are more complicated than a simple desire to make a guy "pay" for his bad behavior. In The Birthday Girl, for example, a transformation that first appears to be revenge for ill-treatment is revealed to be more about a desire to do whatever it takes to break a cycle of abuse. Punishment has very little to do with it. Preventing other women from being subjected to a cruel man's emotional abuse is the point. Katrina makes a huge personal sacrifice, giving up her very identity in exchange for one that is less than ideal, all so she can protect other women from a man she views as a menace. The man's transformation and potential redemption are secondary to Katrina. She doesn't transform him to punish him, or to save him; she transforms him to save herself and other women from him. If the way she goes about doing that seems like revenge, it's only because her goal is to force him to open his eyes and accept the reality that he is a woman and the world will see him and treat him that way. That's a story that I never would have told if it hadn't been for my proofreader's feedback.

All of which is prelude to my point. The story I'm currently working on - CJ, a Halloween story - is about a group of college students, most of which are female. While my own college experiences inform the story, Susan's feedback about her perceptions of motive have led to a story where the women relate to each other on an personal and emotional level, while the men in the story are focused so hard on the physical that they almost can't see the emotional impact of what they say and do. The main character, who is of course transformed, becomes torn between these two perspectives. That leads to an epiphany about how they see the world, and a choice about how that revelation informs their sense of self-identity. I owe that element of the story to Susan's perspective.

Damn, I miss having a proofreader.