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The Cardboard Box: Women as Protagonists – Guest Blog by R.W.W. Greene

R.W.W. GreeneGentle readers, I will be using wide strokes to paint the picture following. The end work could even be dubbed an abstraction. If you stand back from it and see some representation of truth and reality, great. If all you see are random colors, shapes, and gestures, none of which apply to you, I love you anyway.

Women are better protagonists than men.

Somewhere, somewhen, I was watching a stand-up routine on television, and the comic made a joke to the effect (and I am paraphrasing here) that men would live in cardboard boxes if they could find women who would have sex in them.

I laughed. It was funny to me, because I saw the truth in it. At the time, maybe, or in the vicinity of then, I had just met my future spouse, and I was spending my nights on a roll-out mattress on the floor of my three-room apartment. I was a thirty-something journalist. I owned two plates, two forks, two spoons, two coffee mugs, two wine glasses, a single frying pan, and one saucepan. My 12-inch DVD-player/TV combo was hooked up to cable and set up on a milk crate. My fridge always had beer inside but rarely held food beyond takeout leftovers.

Empty Fridge by Enrico Mantegazza (detail)

A month after I met my spouse-to-be, I got a real bed.

I’m not accusing men in general, or myself in particular, of laziness. I worked hard every day and returned weary to my spartan digs. What I am postulating, though, is that men are more easily satisfied. Our bar for “good enough” is set several notches lower. It takes more to get us, you know, motivated.

Women are most often the ones who say, “this could be better” and thus drive progress. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, one of three front runners for the Democratic Presidential Nomination, is campaigning on the idea that it’s not enough to go back to the DBT (Days Before Trump); America has to be better than it ever was. Meantime, seventeen-year-old Greta Thunberg by force of will alone, rather than happily existing as a nueroatypical teenager, has become a thorn in the side of stupid people everywhere, and while Stoneman-Douglas High School-shooting survivor David Hogg might be a worthy role model, it was his classmate Emma Gonzalez who called B.S. and served as the heart and soul of a movement.

Women take on improvement projects, sometimes as romantic partners, just because they’re there. I have lost track of the number of times I’ve come home from a trip to find my spouse has built a wall or moved all of the furniture around. When she’s traveling, I order takeout and clean. Usually.

Our fiction reflects this reality, too. Hermione Granger, fully dedicated to and working hard on the defeat of Lord Voldemort, also fought for the betterment of the lives of house elves and other magical creatures while Harry and Ron screwed around on the quidditch field and played wizard chess. Princess Leia Organa was struggling against the Empire years before Luke Skywalker’s inciting incident fell out of the sky in front of him, and Han Solo hired on to meet his redemptive arc.

“You make me want to be a better man and maybe get a real bed,” Han might as well have said to Leia.

“Nice,” she might have answered, “I’m already pretty damned cool.”

The Poppy War (cover)This quality of intrinsic motivation makes women the more interesting protagonists and renders even more infuriating lazy tropes such as “fridging” and “her dark back story is rape.” There’s no need for it. Rebecca Kuang’s Rin (The Poppy War) sets herself in motion because she sees her future—marriage and life in a small town—and chooses otherwise. Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti follows a similar arc: she’s not facing cosmic danger; she just wants a better life and fights and runs to get it. Yennefer of Vengerberg—in the Netflix adaptation of The Witcher, at leastis a far more compelling character than the lead simply because, unlike Geralt, she refuses to grimly plod the path laid out for her. Tade Thompson’s male protagonist Kaaro in Rosewater lurches into action only to save his own life; his girlfriend, a secret agent named Aminat though… I could go on and on.

Women, when not deliberately or lazily written as victims, move the world. Harry Potter resignedly sacrificed his life to stop Voldemort; Hermione, if she’d been the chosen one, would have found a workaround.

Women drive much of the action in The Light Years, my debut novel courtesy of Angry Robot Books (February 2020), and in my current WIP because I can’t get that cardboard box out of my head. At the end of the world, men would fight to survive but women would work to live.

The Light Years (cover)My perspective is a product of my environment, sure. I attended Wheaton College (Massachusetts not Illinois) right after it went co-ed following a century and a half of being a women-only institution. As a freshman and sophomore, especially, all the people I saw in student-leader positions were women and those were the people I looked up to and learned from. Wheaton was “differently coeducational” in those days, and we spent hours and hours talking about what that meant. (It meant women were in charge for the most part and at least proportionally represented when they were not.) This experience has certainly colored my viewpoint, but it never caused me to put women on a pedestal or join the “women are better than men” camp. Our bathrooms were co-ed, too, and illusions fade quickly when the feet you see beneath the toilet stall next to you have polished toenails. (This was the mid-1990s, before many of the letters had been added to the QUILTBAG.)

It’s surely a gender-expectations thing, a function of software rather than hardware—the mind not the meat, and it all may change as society evolves and diversifies. Traditionally, we’ve cast women as the nesters, the homemakers, and freed from those bindings, their creative, problem-solving energy automatically seeks new targets. Men, ironically, have not found similar liberation. We’re still stuck in a box of our own making, and until that changes, my futures will often be female.

Title image by Sep.



  1. Avatar L A Young says:

    You made a lot of excellent points in this article, some of which, I never considered myself. I have some thoughts, but I don’t want to turn the comments into a book recommendation list. I’ll follow you on Twitter.

  2. Avatar Johnny P says:

    I definitely feel your spartan apartment and how it changes after/during a serious relationship. As a husband, I can even get on board with women being more motivated to do things in general. Where you lose me is the word “better.”

    They aren’t a “better” protagonist, they are different. Women generally have a different view on life and relationships. It isn’t better, just different.

    I lived a spartan lifestyle for years while I was in the Army. All my buddies would marry and divorce and marry and divorce again, but I didn’t see the point. I was gone a lot for work, and it wasn’t exactly conducive to a healthy relationship, so why bother. My apartment reflected a guy who was rarely there (looking back I should have stayed in the barracks longer). However, I’m a great cook, because I had to learn. I can hand stitch, because field repairs happen.

    So, strong points for having a female protagonist, I just disagree that they are any better than a male protagonist overall. It is all in how the writer chooses to present the character.

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