A couple of weeks ago, I stumbled into a group of writers complaining about the internalized misogyny of reviewers. Many of the points were valid. A man can screw his way across a continent and still be lovable, but a woman who isn’t a virgin is a filthy whore. A man can be an asshole and still be lovable, but a woman who’s a little bit testy one time is an unlikable bitch. A man can be a multiple murderer and still be lovable, but a woman who steals a loaf of bread to feed her kid should burn in hell for her crimes. I’ve seen all of these. There is a double standard. No question.
But one of the things on the list of complaints was having a heroine labeled TSTL (Too Stupid To Live). I have a whole shelf on my personal Goodreads dedicated to TSTL. I don’t speak for anyone but myself, obviously, but I can tell you that when I use TSTL, it’s not a condemnation of a woman but a condemnation of the writing.
It’s The Rules™ that the protagonist has to make the best decision with the information available to her at that time. It’s The Rules™ rather than a suggestion because nobody wants to spend 300 pages with an idiot. The character can be wrong (and should be from time to time — if she does everything right and gets everything she wants, there’s no conflict and therefore no story) because she doesn’t have all the necessary information or because there are external forces working against her or because there’s time pressure that cuts short a thorough reasoning process or because well-established emotional complications are affecting her judgment, but she must believe, when she makes the decision, that it’s a smart one with a reasonable chance of a good outcome.
More importantly, the reader must believe it’s a smart one with a reasonable chance of a good outcome.
To earn a TSTL designation from me, one of two things has to happen:
- The reader has the same information as the character and easily sees a glaringly obvious better option. From the first example on my shelf: The heroine has been rescued from abductors and taken to the safety of the hero’s well-secured home. The bad guys know she’s there. The hero tells her not to call anyone or open the door. The second he leaves, she calls to order a pizza, opens the door, and gets snatched right out of the safe house. The better decision was right in the text: Don’t call anyone, don’t open the door. Sit down. Watch some cartoons. Take a nap. Poke around in his medicine cabinet. Search his browser history for porn. If you’re hungry, find the kitchen and heat up a can of soup. Literally anything would have been less braindead than making a call and opening the door. This character is not a real person, so this stupid behavior is an authorial decision. The author knows the smart thing — it’s in the text (don’t call anyone, don’t open the door) — so why would the author choose to have the character behave so stupidly? Because the problem was solved on page 50 (damsel in distress was safe), there were 250 more pages to fill, so the woman had to be gotten out of the unassailable fortress somehow. There couldn’t possibly be a breach in the hero’s security because that would make him look incompetent, so the woman had to be suicidally brainless and endanger herself in order to manufacture more conflict. It was an authorial decision to make the woman TSTL rather than make the hero look less than perfect or rewrite the story so safety wasn’t achieved prematurely. That is a writing issue, not the fault of an imaginary woman.
- Less commonly, TSTL occurs when there are no consequences for being wrong. As stated above, it’s not only permissible but desirable that an occasional best-decision-based-on-available-information turns out to be wrong. Being wrong swerves into TSTL territory when the writer decides being wrong is meaningless. A book I read recently could have made that swerve. I’ll tell you how it avoided swerving into TSTL, and then I’ll tell you why I was concerned it would crash into the wall because I’ve been burned before. (I’m using this as an example because I don’t have the patience to sift through 100+ bad books looking for an example of this variety of TSTL that came to fruition.) The character drives to her apartment, gets out of her car, makes it clear she’s not locking the car door because she’s going inside for just a minute to grab a couple of things and no one would want to steal her crappy car anyway. I’m a woman, the character is a woman, the author is at least using a woman’s name, so all three of us should be perfectly well aware that car theft is the least of a woman’s concerns, just on a mundane basis, but particularly in this story that has a murder cult running around the city. This was a decision that made me say, out loud, “Stupid.” Not yet TSTL, mind you, but definitely stupid with the potential to become fatal. When the character got back in her car, a murder cultist popped up out of the back seat and held a knife to her throat, and I was satisfied — not because I hate women and think they should be punished with death for making bad decisions but because the literary expectation set up by I won’t lock my car because I’ll only be gone for a minute was paid off with an appropriate consequence. The circuit was completed, unlocking the gate to the plot events that followed. This would have escalated to TSTL if the character left her door unlocked, retrieved her stuff from the apartment, got back in her car, and tootled away unaffected by nastiness. Without consequences, there’s no point to that scene. The relevant information could have been a one-sentence transition — She drove to her apartment to collect a few things and was back at the mansion before dinner was served — without a whole scene that does nothing but highlight her doing something stupid and getting away with it. If the text didn’t say She didn’t lock her car door, I wouldn’t wonder whether she locked her car door; I would default to an assumption of sensible behavior. Putting those words on the page calls my attention to the bad judgment. I assume there is a reason to direct my attention to that detail — specifically, forthcoming consequences. Why would the writer skip delivering those consequences? Either the writer’s intent is for readers to perceive the character as an idiot, or the writer doesn’t understand setup and payoff, or the writer doesn’t know it was a dumb thing to make the character do and therefore doesn’t consider that there would be any consequences, or the writer knows the character hasn’t been written to handle a difficult situation, or the writer thinks having the character do something stupid and get away with it builds “suspense.” The only time the latter works is in a tropey horror movie, and it works only because we know the character with the worst judgment is going to die first — thus paying off the setup — and the rest of the story will be that much smarter now that the survivors have been warned about the consequences of stupidity. It doesn’t work with a protagonist we’re stuck with for 300 pages who should die a thousand different ways but doesn’t because the author doesn’t write logical consequences.
The core problem in both of these examples is authorial decision. Yes, every word in a book is an authorial decision, but ideally, none of those words should throw the reader out of the story to ask, “What the hell was the writer thinking?” The author should be invisible. The characters’ decisions should seem to come organically from the characters. Event B should seem to grow organically from Event A. There should be a through-line of logic that smoothly transports the reader from the beginning of the story to the end. When the writer makes decisions that interrupt that journey, one of many possible unfavorable results is the TSTL label.
Does everybody feel better knowing I’m not unfairly judging imaginary women when I use TSTL, I’m just saying the writing is bad? Because, yanno, there are reasons for disliking a book that are in the book rather than a character flaw on the reader’s part?
Marinate on this revolutionary concept.
Before accusing readers of misogyny for labeling a female character stupid, authors should examine their own bias. For instance, how many stupid decisions do they force their male characters to make? How often do they force stupid decisions on their male characters to make their female characters look stronger, smarter, more competent, better prepared? How often do they “protect” male characters from the natural consequences of their actions because they’ve written them to be incapable of handling difficult situations? If the distribution of dumb is anything less than equitable across gender lines, that problem originates with the writer, and the reviewer is simply describing that problem as it manifests in print.