NOTE: This is Part Two of a multi-part series about writing different genders, with a focus on men writing female character. Part One can be found here, for those who need to get caught up. Part Three is coming in the next few days.
Time for another story from the land of workshops and critiques, where so many of my cautionary tales come from (if I ever get around to writing a nonfiction book about creative writing programs and writing in general, I’m going to call it The Workshop Diaries; if I get enough advance orders on that, I’ll start writing it). Now, recall that in my last post I talked about what can happen when male writers write female characters. To be specific, I gave a cautionary example of a writer who retreated into easy/possibly offensive/mostly groan-inducing territory because he may very well have been afraid. Fear plays a huge role in how and when writers tackle characters that come from different demographics than their own. They don’t want to misrepresent them, out of genuine concern for doing harm through their writing (or, less altruistically, being busted for said misrepresentation; some people fear a crime simply for the punishment that would result).
The discussion that resulted from that post has been lovely, I think, because it’s helped to crystallize the most important factors to bear in mind when writing a different gender – and, to be honest, writing the other period, whatever that other might be in relation to the writer:
- Be respectful of the characters you’re writing, and be respectful of the groups they belong to.
- Avoid what I call “checklist thinking” that encourages authors to create hasty generalizations of group traits.
- Make your characters multi-dimensional. Think of them in terms of the common concerns and themes that connect us all.
(A quick note before moving on: I didn’t mention this in my original post, but I will openly say now that I am a heterosexual male whose assumed gender identity matches his birth gender, or a cisgendered male in other words. It didn’t occur to me to bring this up at first, but I do feel it’s important to say it now. All of the stories I’ll tell in this series of posts come from my personal experience, and that experience could be taken in many different ways were I, say, a transgendered male, or a homosexual. So much of writing the other is dependent on the frame of reference, so it will be useful to clue others into mine.)
Now, however, is the time for a story about Caleb, a cisgendered male who wrote a story with a cisgendered female narrator. Caleb arguably did all of the things a male writer would need to do in this situation, creating a multi-dimensional character in a respectful manner, avoiding easy stereotypes and irresponsible behavior. That said, when the time came for his story to be read and critiqued in workshop, it was still hammered by a few female readers for not representing a legitimate female voice and displaying misogynistic attitudes.
Here’s the gist of the story: it involves a group of college friends who, back in their college days, created an Internet game called “fishing,” where the participants would scour the Internet for the most horrifying, out there pornography humanly possible. The narrator is a woman who is now married with teenage kids, looking back on her college days in part because in the present time of the story, the fishing game has become an increasingly prevalent meme. The story, as a whole, is a means for this narrator to look back on her college days and how she made decisions that had consequences she only became aware of years after the fact. It is by turns horrifying and sad.
A few of the women in class objected to Caleb and his story on the grounds that I previously mentioned. I say a few women objected because half of the class was women, and not every woman in class objected to the story; I don’t want to create a false consensus in this. One reader in particular – who I’ll refer to as Stacy – kinda led the charge. Stacy described herself as a feminist very often, from the first day of class onward. She wanted everyone to know that this was an aspect of her personality she valued dearly, to the point that it played a large role in defining her. She was very invested in the creation of strong female characters. She was also very combative of chauvinist behavior and treatment of women in fiction. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with any of this. In fact, I would argue that these characteristics are intrinsically right: valuing strong female characters, fighting sexism/chauvinism, etc.
So, in the course of her commentary on the story, she specifically commented on how he tried to write about pornography, which she saw as an anti-feminist topic (again, rightfully so, based on the majority of pornography out there), from a feminine perspective/narrator. She thought it was utterly unbelievable that any female narrator would talk about pornography without continually commenting on it and condemning it. Because of this, she also saw it as unbelievable that a woman would participate in the fishing game, period. As for the narration itself, Stacy thought it was ridiculous that the narrator would be reflecting on all of this after having been removed from her college days for almost two decades. She also went as far as to say that she couldn’t buy into the narrator’s voice as being that of a woman because it was too cold and sarcastic.
I strive for fairness in my commentary whenever I can (I hope that goes without saying). I’ve done my best to represent Stacy’s commentary on Caleb’s story without incorrectly coloring it. I don’t want this to read like a case of a bro defending another bro, because that’s not what this is at all. That said, Stacy’s commentary on Caleb’s story raised a lot of you-know-whats for me.
I’m rereading Caleb’s story as I write this (I sometimes keep copies of stories I read from workshops, for various reasons), and as such I’m re-evaluating the narrator. She has a detached quality to her narration that shows she is reflecting on these past incidents with clarity and honesty, not sugar-coating the things she did but not overtly condemning them to. That, in part, is because she believes anyone reading about the events would have good reason to condemn them on their own, so she doesn’t feel the need to offer additional moral commentary. She is a bit cold, but she’s cold in a way that shows her feelings about what she once did. She’s reduced herself to coldness because she’s horrified at what she once was. Her sarcasm is a defense mechanism that, again, indicates to the reader how disgusted she really is at what transpired.
As for the rest of Stacy’s commentary on the story, I only have questions: is there no woman that has ever willingly watched or searched for pornography? Is it ridiculous for an adult woman to reflect on the mistakes she made when she was much younger? Is an authentic female narrative voice supposed to avoid coldness and sarcasm?
In making her argument, Stacy arguably created a false consensus to justify her viewpoint. If I were to take the time to say, with utter gravity and seriousness, that no woman has ever been cold or sarcastic, you’d laugh in my face. If I told you no adult woman ever reflected on adolescent errors, you’d shake your head. As for pornography, yes, I agree that the vast majority of the time it is sexist and demoralizing to women (it’s also flat-out silly much of the time; most pornos play out like bad sitcoms to me). However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t women who use it or acquire it.
I bring this up because I think there’s an important distinction to make in all of this: we have to be careful, as readers, not to enforce our own opinions of what we feel characters should be, and instead evaluate them as the characters they are. Remember what I said last time about realizing that no person is ever a truly ideal version of who they are or should be. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses. It’s okay to have an ideal of what a woman should be. I admire Stacy’s ideal of what a woman should be; there’s nothing wrong with thinking women should be opposed to pornography and be warm and sincere with everyone while showing a strong moral understanding (I would argue that that’s a wonderful ideal for anyone, regardless of gender). At the same time, we can’t judge characters for not perfectly reflecting our ideals. If they did, they wouldn’t be very interesting characters because they would be flawless, and flawless characters are boring.
Note that I am not excusing writers who retreat to stereotyped or lazy writing. Compare this to the story from the previous post. Ted’s story was raked through the coals because of the unwtittingly disrespectful tone he took in describing his female characters when compared to his male characters. In comparison, Caleb wrote about a woman who did ugly things back in the day and reflected on said ugly things years after the fact in an open, fatalistic way. She is not the only person in her story who did those things either: she was part of a group of people with shared responsibility in horrible deeds. Some of those group members men, and others were women.
Bottom line, we have to learn to tell the difference between matters of personal preference and craft. A lot of male writers of female characters are scared off by situations like what happened with Caleb’s story and the response to it, as given by Stacy and the women in class who agreed with her. The thing is, if you work hard on your craft and create your characters with care, that’s all you can do. You can’t control the preference of readers. Only readers can control their own preferences and stop and think about whether their response to a story might be skewed by what they want to read into it. Just remember what I said earlier: true, absolute consensus within a group is practically impossible. If a reader’s response to your character is “This isn’t how a woman would act” (which, more often than not, means “This isn’t how I think a woman would act,” which in turn usually means “This isn’t how I would act”), understand that you’re witnessing a matter of personal preference affecting their reading of the character. If, however, the response is “Why does all of the description of this woman focus on her boobs and how much she shops?,” well, you’re in trouble.