Gender Bender: Part Two

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:

  1. Be respectful of the characters you’re writing, and be respectful of the groups they belong to.
  2. Avoid what I call “checklist thinking” that encourages authors to create hasty generalizations of group traits.
  3. 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.

Wouldn't it be cool if workshops had these?

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.


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8 responses to “Gender Bender: Part Two

  1. What a great post! I believe that one good way to write believeable characters is to collaborate with other people. I’m hoping to start working on a writing project with a man who went out looking for feminist writers because he wants to write an unlikely love story about an mysigonistic MRA and a feminist who fall in love. What better way to develop those characters than to get people together who have a knowledge of said character?

  2. I am just going to say it: Stacy in my mind was acting in an anti-feminist manner. There have been a lot of permutations and feelings and types of feminism, but to me it seems as though gender essentialism and autonomy, a concept near and dear to many a feminist’s heart, are mutually exclusive things. As soon as she entered “no woman would do” territory she lost her footing and her credibility, imo.

    • It’s funny you say that. Remember that I mentioned not all of the women in the workshop agreed with Stacy? The ones who disagreed with her did so because they were unconvinced by her “no woman would do” angle as well. It’s a poorly disguised personal reaction to seeing a female character do something the reader herself wouldn’t do or wouldn’t want to do. I think it’s an instance of a reader projecting herself onto a character as a means of determining the worth of the character. Readers do this all the time, but that doesn’t mean it’s the right course of action.

      Also, Stacy didn’t say this in class, but I think she ultimately objected to a male writer writing a female narrator/protagonist, period. This ties back into the thorniness that Vivien mentioned in the comments of Part One, when she said that minority groups tend to take exception to majority members writing about them. Granted, women are not the minority, if we’re looking at this in terms of population, but in terms of influence and control they are still arguably deprived of or denied possession of powers and privileges that men often have. And, sadly, literature is full of male writers who have created embarrassingly insipid female characters. I don’t want to put words in Stacy’s mouth, but maybe she thought only women should be writing stories primarily about women and women’s concerns. But that itself would raise a whole other nest of wasps, wouldn’t it?

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

  4. What I think Stacy’s points really came down to was her narrow view of what she thought women should be like. Getting into what a certain person should/would or shouldn’t/wouldn’t just makes a 360 degree turn from a kind of -ism straight back into the same -ism. Stacy’s statements were meant to point out sexism and promote feminism, but by being essentialist she’s done the exact opposite. Just as teachers (should) correct students when they say “everyone would agree” or make some sweeping generalization, writers have to be cautious of doing the same.

    Remembering Caleb’s encounter with Stacy brought to mind an issue in urban fantasy that’s been begging for a blog post from me for a while. Every other novel is a particular brand of “strong woman.” By this I mean an “independent,” hard-assed, emotionally-constipated woman with l33t fighting skills, some badassed weapon, a tortured past, and some serious relationship issues with an alpha male (often more than one) who wants to “tame” her. Inevitably, he does, turning her into a still-emotionally-constipated but far less independent accessory who only does anything productive when she’s tragically parted from her man. It’s as though UF writers take every negative stereotype about men and apply them to a female character. They often attempt to show that the woman is still feminine by giving her an obsession with fashion or manicures or penguins or what the hell ever. So this is what a “strong woman” should be?

    The “complementary” issue with writing gender is something I’ve seen in gay fiction, especially gay romance. “I want my guys to act like guys,” readers will say. They don’t want “feminized” men–meaning men who are emotionally aware, who express feelings, who cry, who are sentimental. They want the UF heroine described above, only with different parts. The craziest part about this is that most gay romance authors AND readers are female. There’s some hissing and spitting about female authors writing male characters, though not as much as the other way around. They seem more interested in patting each other’s backs over writing “real” men and admonishing people who don’t.

    For two genres that are often labled as gender positive/gender progressive, UF and gay fiction can be the worst about being gender essentialist. Stories that are honest and unflinching about issues that affect all genders are often ripped into, like Caleb’s was. I think people misunderstand what it means to be gender progressive. They seem to think it means doing the opposite of what has been done before. Instead of writing a hyperfeminine character, write a hypermasculine female character. Oh, but still write hypermasculine male characters, because men are still men, after all. That’s not a double standard, or anything.

    PS, women do actively search out porn. There’s at least one line of porn films specifically marketed for women. But women watch all kinds of porn, really, and they enjoy it.

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