Gender Bender: Part One

NOTE: This is Part One of a multi-part series about writing different genders, with a focus on men writing female characters. Part Two will go live later in the week.

I’ve been thinking a lot about gender and writing lately. Part of that has to do with the fact that I’ve been trying for the past two years to write female characters in my fiction more often. Part of that also has to do with the fact that this topic gets bandied about a lot in my circle of friends anyway. At the July residency for Stonecoast, Nancy Holder gave a presentation called “Writing The Other” devoted to discussing the issues that arise when writers write characters that are of different cultures/races/backgrounds than themselves, as well as methods by which authors can successfully create said characters.

(A fun debate I used to have with my friends at my first Master’s program at Missouri State University: Who does better, female authors with male characters or male authors with female characters? That question was guaranteed to start a good twenty-minute argument in my old TA office. As for my two cents on the issue, based on the reading I’ve done in my lifetime, and taking an overall average of the performance of various authors on a sliding scale between inept and excellent, I’m giving the edge to the ladies by a decent-sized margin.)

The truth is, I want to be known as a writer who can write almost anything. That extends to character. I don’t want to spend my career specializing in twentysomething white guys with a college education who come from working class backgrounds because that would get really boring, really fast. When I take a roll call of the characters I’ve written over the past few years and check them for gender alone… well, it’s embarrassing. It gets really embarrassing when I realize that 50% of my favorite authors are women (Ursula LeGuin, Kij Johnson, Angela Carter… I could go on).

Angela Carter: best writer ever? Possibly...

I fail the Bechdel Test right off the bat on many of my stories. I don’t often have more than one female character in my stories (I also don’t have more than three or four characters in many of my stories, if that much, but that’s no excuse at all). I’ve been getting better at having women in my stories period; when I was an undergraduate, I was horrible about not even having women in some of my stories. Still, I’ll fully admit I often fail the Test. The good thing is that when I write female characters, they usually aren’t one-dimensional or stereotypical, or at least don’t represent a lack of empathy on my part for women. My female characters very frequently talk about things other than men, so I’ve got that going.

Over the years, I think I’ve hit at the key to writing worthwhile characters when they’re from a race, gender, culture, whatever different than my own: make them worthwhile characters period. Multi-dimensionality is crucial. If they only have to be supporting characters with one or two key traits or functions, don’t just make them little one-off stereotypes that exaggerate something that supposedly “belongs” to whatever demographic they inhabit.

In one of my workshops from my first Master’s program, this guy – I’ll call him Ted – turned in a story that I can only describe as “frat noir,” where this fraternity member has to investigate the death of his friend and finds himself wrapped up in all sorts of messes. I don’t remember many details of the plot. What I do remember, however, is that the protagonist’s girlfriend was this supermodel-looking girl with round, perky boobs and short-shorts (I don’t believe she ever wore anything other than short-shorts). The description used for her was almost literally along the lines of “she was smoking hot.” Keep in mind the story was written in third-person. The girlfriend’s function in the story was to essentially be sexy. That’s it. She did not do anything else in the story at all.

Now, Ted got raked over the coals a bit. For my part of that, I asked the writer what he had in mind for the character. I said, “She’s hot, sure, but what else?” He had to admit he didn’t really have an answer for that question. He put her in the story because he felt like the main character had to have a girlfriend. Ted made her sexy because hey, he likes sexy women. So, he pulled a Michael Bay. He put Megan Fox in the story when we really didn’t need Megan Fox.

Yes, I'm being ironic.

To his credit, on the revision of the story, Ted came back and revamped the girlfriend character. She was no longer sheer eye candy, which was good. She was, however, a thinly disguised damsel-in-distress figure whose only purpose in the story was to be saved by her boyfriend (the protagonist) at regular intervals. Thankfully, we had a very useful discussion in the workshop where we helped him realize that his notion of what a female character comprised was limited by his understanding of women period. It sounds horrible, but he needed to understand that he should take it as a given that women are people, much the same way men are. It was no problem for him to write non-stereotypical male characters, so why was it so hard to write non-stereotypical female characters? Did this mean he had trouble seeing women as well-rounded individuals in real life?

My theory is that Ted had a checklist of qualities that he felt made a woman a woman. He ran down the checklist in his head and made sure those qualities were on the page. I think a lot of other writers – namely men – do this with female characters as well. The problem is that checklist thinking actually encourages stereotyping because it boils entire demographics of people down to supposedly universal traits of identification. Classic case of hasty generalization.

Here’s what my ideal checklist for a female character looks like:

  • Is she capable of strong love?
  • Is she capable of strong hatred?
  • Does she second-guess the decisions she makes in life?
  • Does she have any lasting relationships? Why or why not?
  • Does she have any realistic, achievable dreams?
  • Does she have equivalent potential for good or ill behavior?
  • Is she dependent on others in some ways and independent in other ways?
  • Does she worry about her body, and in what way?
  • Does she worry about the fact she worries about her body?
  • Does she worry about being taken seriously?

There’s nothing on this checklist that a man couldn’t relate to in writing a female character, in my opinion. I’m capable of strong love and hatred. I second-guess myself all the time. Although I try, and mostly succeed, in doing good things, or at least in avoiding doing bad things, I am still capable of behavior that makes me slap my head and grimace. I do, in fact, worry about my body. I frequently dwell on my stomach and my lack of a six-pack. I compare myself to other guys all the time and walk away shaking my head. I can’t watch Thor or Troy without thinking about how I really need to work out more often… you get the point.

To be fair, there are some unique female variants of these issues. In my observation, overweight women get it worse than overweight men (and this is coming from someone who did receive unfair treatment when he was still overweight). Women have much more of a struggle in being taken seriously (by men, mostly) in many arenas, ranging from corporate business to sports (just think about how most people – again, mostly guys – take the WNBA). And most men can be unaware of these things without a little research and understanding first.

But guess what you can do? Ask. Do your research. Talk to a woman about these things. There’s nothing wrong with a pow-wow with a female friend to doublecheck things. Just treat it like a variant of the sniff test; if something stinks, throw it away.


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10 responses to “Gender Bender: Part One

  1. I know we talked about it only briefly, but I’m glad to see you wrestling with this issue. Me, I prefer to suss out my ideas on sensitive topics away from the Internet. You’re braver than I for sharing. Kudos, sir.

    You may find this graphic of relevance as well, if I didn’t already link you to it:

    • Love that flowchart! I’ve never encountered it before. Very enlightening. I actually just mapped out six of my female characters (from six different stories; like I said in the post, I fail the Bechdel Test quite miserably). I’ve got: a Wise Crone, a Femme Fatale/The Trophy hybrid (she edges close to Strong Female Character territory, but I don’t think she’s multi-dimensional enough), a Damsel In Distress, a One That Got Away, and two Strong Female Characters.

      If I’m going to examine instances where I might agree or disagree with things others have done or written, I should be willing to air out my own dirty laundry. That’s why I figured, why not discuss this openly? I don’t want to wind up with an argument where I criticize others and then say “But I don’t do those things” because, well, I do make mistakes. I don’t want to get on a high horse, partly because I don’t have one.

  2. I have Big Thoughts about writing the other and about how gender is presented in fiction. I’m really glad you said all this–to be frank, cisgendered (I apologize if I’m assuming) men need to hear this kind of thing from other cisgendered men. More often than not, people end up doing something poorly or not doing it at all because they’re so afraid of doin it rong that they become paralyzed and end up falling back on what’s easy–which is to say, in Ted’s case, the stereotypical damsel.

    You bring up a really good point about consulting female friends, but it’s important to remember that women aren’t a collective any more than any other group is a collective. The most important thing when writing a character is, as you mentioned above, to write him/her as his/her own person. As Judith Butler says, we’re all in drag. Gender presentation is always a performance, but that’s just it: it’s a unique person’s performance. Weave a person’s gender and his/her opinion on gender into his/her personality AND background AND experience.

    For me, all this ties into a writer’s unique position of being held responsible for his/her writing. Let me back up and tell a story. In The Writer’s Chronicle earlier this year (February?) I read an article about a white male author who initially started a book about a Cambodian female prostitute. The author had lived in Cambodia for years, interacted with the locals and the culture, etc. But when he started writing the story, he pulled his punch. He decided not to write the Cambodian girl as his main character because he didn’t think, as a white man, he could do her experience justice. He thought Cambodian readers would find his presentation disrespectful. In short, he chickened out. His novel ended up being about a white American family in Cambodia.

    …Yeah, you see the problem there. I find this MORE racist and MORE sexist than if he’d actually tried to write a Cambodian prostitute and gotten it wrong. Instead of trying to give an authentic voice to an under-represented population, he wrote from the voice of people who certainly don’t need any more influence or privilege. He went back to what was safe.

    Granted, sometimes I think readers bring destructive insecurities to the table, which in turn make writers insecure and so more likely to fall back on what’s safe and familiar, which makes readers then unhappy…you see where I’m going. Minority groups tend to take exception to the majority writing about them. As an able person, god knows I’m terrified of writing my disabled character because I don’t want to offend anybody and I don’t want to appropriate anyone’s voice. But I do want to lend this character and thereby disabled people my voice, and I’m completely invested in making my presentation as fair and thorough as possible. Do I have the right to do that? Is it appropriation? I don’t know. I’m not upset when male authors write female characters or straight writers write queer characters or whatever, as long as they treat those characters and those minorities with respect. Again, I’d rather someone honestly get it wrong than go out of his/her way to skirt the issue entirely.

    But that’s just me. I have to answer to all of the minority groups I write about. I’m responsible for what I put out to the world. Some are going to hold it against me that I have X privilege but am writing about X unprivileged minority group. It’s important to me to consider that and the responsibility I have for writing these groups and cultures well, but I can’t let it stop me. It shouldn’t stop other writers, either. Male writers should write female characters and straight writers should write queer characters and white people should write black/brown characters because honest inquiry of this kind helps us understand and connect to one another.

    In short: do it. Be respectful, but don’t be afraid.

    • I’m actually glad you assumed I’m cisgendered, not because you’re right in making that assumption but because I’d never heard that term before. I like the differentiation between cisgender and transgender; anything that helps us avoid a false distinction between “normal” and “abnormal” is a-okay by me.

      I think you’ve summed up the issue pretty well: it is a matter of fear and difficulty. Male writers are afraid of doing it wrong. I’m still afraid of writing female characters in a way that insults them as women and characters. The good thing of that, though, is that I’m afraid because I care about doing it right.

      It’s heartbreaking to read about the white male author who turned away from writing the story from the Cambodian female prostitute’s perspective. He clearly found himself capable of relating to Cambodians and their lives early on in the construction of the story. I’ll bet he came up with the story in the first place because of his empathy for the people and their culture. He may very well have been the person capable of giving a voice to Cambodians, due to his unique position. Steering away from this course of action, then, registers as tragic for me more than anything else. His decision came from a mindset born from good intentions – he didn’t want to be disrespectful to Cambodians. I can understand the desire to not do harm. At the same time, the man had done his due diligence and research. He lived among the Cambodians for years. Why wouldn’t he have been capable of going beyond mere stereotype and creating worthwhile characters and stories to tell? To think what would have happened if he hadn’t psyched himself out. Or, perhaps, if others hadn’t psyched him out (I wonder if the input of others in the pre-drafting stage may have steered him off course).

      I think you’ve hit on another keyword in all of this: respect. Writers need to have respect for the demographics they’re adopting for their characters. Writers appropriate when they don’t really respect the demographic they’re writing about or from; they remove things piecemeal for easy shorthand. Writers who do respect whatever other they’re focusing on understand that if they remove or isolate one quality of many, the representation of someone from that different paradigm crumbles or warps into something insulting or unbelievable.

      As for readers bringing destructive insecurities to the reading of texts, make sure to tune in for Part Two. It’s another workshop story, this time showing what can go wrong in the reading of a piece even when the writer actually does his or her due diligence in writing the other. Part of it has to do with establishing a distinction between writer error and personal preference, but also with identifying when readers mistake one for the other.

      • “He may very well have been the person capable of giving a voice to Cambodians, due to his unique position.”

        You hit the nail on the head. People in under-/unprivileged groups often don’t know how to give themselves a voice, or find it difficult to do so. There aren’t any Cambodian authors being published in English that I know of, so why shouldn’t this white guy use his privilege and influence for The Good and write a respectful, mindful story that gives voice to the voiceless? It is more than possible to romanticize the “exotic” (see also: Noble Savage/Noble Squaw trope) and unfortunately white guys are the worst offenders. But not always.

        Unfortunately, I think it was feedback from others that turned him away from telling the story of the Cambodian prostitute. It’s sad, really. This “write what you know” business is for the birds. I think it ought to be “write what you empathize with” instead. If you’re a middle-aged, middle-class white guy and can empathize with a Cambodian prostitute from the slums, go for it.

        I think another important part of writing an other is understand intersectionality. Everett Maroon wrote a great post about that a few months ago here at Every person has race, gender, class, sexual orientation, lifestyle, religion and culture playing off of one another and nobody is influenced by just one of those things.

        I’m looking forward to reading your next post. This is something that’s been on my mind for a while and I’m glad to get to articulate my thoughts about it and to read yours.

  3. I belong to a couple of groups that are generally misunderstood and discriminated against. Let’s take trans people, in order to illustrate my point. A lot of my trans friends are bitter and suspicious, with good reason. We’re often rejected by family and friends, erased and ignored, made fun of when we are acknowledged, told we’re sick and mentally ill and so on and so forth. Even the lucky ones (me! my family is wonderful and would never dream of turning me out) deal daily with being sneered at, in a hundred little ways that are often invisible to non-trans people. What does this have to do with your post? I absolutely believe that in this media driven culture, one of the greatest privileges a person can have is to consume fiction and see one’s self reflected. I would rather, therefore, that a non-trans person wrote about er…my people, if you will, then let us remain invisible. I don’t believe that to write about a thing, one must also be that thing. I think for all the criticism about people coming from a position of relative power and writing about people who generally hold less power (a man writing about women), this is the way we build empathy. Fiction writing asks the author to delve in to the character, map their inner landscape, understand and contemplate their intersectionality. To me the value of that exercise almost can’t be overestimated.

    Write on, cisman! 😛

  4. Pingback: Gender Bender: Part Two | Caught In The Dreaming

  5. Liz Nova

    A) Thank you for a genius post. B) I cannot suggest the source of the Bechdel test enough: I’d be happy to send you The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For because it rocks. C) Please spread this message around.

    • Thanks Liz! I’ll have to check out The Essential Dykes when I get the chance. I knew about the Bechdel test through conversations with a friend where we lamented how miserable we were at creating female characters at times. I didn’t know it came from Bechdel’s comic strip, though. The more you know…

  6. Pingback: Gender Bender: Part Three | Caught In The Dreaming

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