A few days ago, Linda Nagata talked about gender and writing.
I thought I’d carry on the discussion, though I know sometimes such discussions can hang up as soon as someone says, “Women don’t think like that!” or “Men never do that.” That can be followed by “Yes they do! Because I am a woman and I field strip my M-16 every morning before I drive my tank to Mickey D’s for breakfast, on the way to the artillery range!” “Yes they do, because I’m a male, and the first thing I ever notice about anyone is their hair style and how long their eyelashes are—I’m a professional make-up artist, I can’t help noticing such things!”
Generalizations will sound true to many, but so will the exceptions. Example: I am a woman, but I couldn’t tell you what shoe styles are in much less who makes them, and as for knock-offs, I couldn’t point to one if my life depended on it. I wear one pair of sandals year round. So much for “All women love shoes.”
Not long ago a male reviewer sneered at a female-written novel about a man who loved being domestic as a stay at home dad. “Only a woman could make that up!” I counted up all the stay-home dads I knew, whose wives were the ones to climb into power suits and commute to the office each day, and shook my head.
There are two observations I want to try on people here, to see if they make sense or not.
The first is, sometimes the language might trip the reader. A woman remarked at a slash panel that erotica written by men from a supposedly female POV tended to betray the male gaze: the female protagonist would go on about her breasts, and compare them to other women’s, and would also talk about men’s privates in inches.
The audience cracked up. Women pointed out that young women especially can get anxious about chest size, and compare themselves to others, but unless they are lesbian, the tone tends toward body dissatisfaction, and not lingering over details in an erotic manner. And as for guys and their parts, not a single woman in the room was interested in “inches” however het they were.
Some female friends have said that they had trouble with male-written female characters their entire lives. I don’t recall having that trouble until I branched out in my reading in my teens, and sexual awareness hove up on the horizon, then indeed I began noticing distortions.
But as a kid? Lloyd Alexander—Geoffrey Trease—Eleanor Cameron—E. Nesbit—their characters, male or female, were fine to me.
I remember that first stumble. I was around sixteen, and first read S. Hinton’s The Outsiders. This was in many respects a tough, often violent book, and yet the way the narrator lingered on the boys’ pretty eyes, eyelashes, and hair, and the way their emotional breakdowns were described, signaled female to me.
I was not surprised to discover in college that Hinton was a female, but I remember other readers not believing it. I wondered if the difference was in how we visualized details: the visual ‘gaze’ of the narration, the emotional tone, signaled female to me. Others insisted the violence as well as the characters all being male had to be written by a guy.
Same deal when I read L.M. Montgomery’s The Golden Road, with its first person male narrator who went on and on about the freshness and daintiness of the girls’ clothes and hair, their eyelashes, yet this was not supposed to be a Humbert Humbert character.It went the other way, too, when I read one of Robert Heinlein’s novels, supposedly from a female POV, and there it was, pages and pages about her breasts.
Over the years I’d encounter male readers pointing out objections to female-written male POVs, but not many. It could be that that is accident—that there are a lot more than I’ve seen—but I formed the theory that females could more easily write male POVs because so many of us females grew up reading fiction mostly written by males, about males, aimed at the general (i.e. male) audience, so it was easier to assimilate those male verbal patterns and especially the male gaze.
Guys used to get whapped if they exhibited curiosity about books with “FEMALE!” cover clues. The learning curve was steeper about how females talked when males were not present, whether in life or in fiction, and so we got endless scenes of females who primarily talked about the guys in their lives.
Except that women would also write female characters who primarily talked about the men in their lives.
Here’s the second observation: that writers want to explore aspects of male or female. Like female writers who write about very pretty men with big eyes and soft voices who prowl around their stories like tame cats. This is not new! Eleanor Aquitaine warned men nearly a thousand years ago that big, hunky, hairy, stinky knights, talking only of blood and death, were not always going to be the most successful at winning the lady fair, no matter how many heads they’d hewn off…though of course even then there were exceptions. Female-written troubadour songs featured soft-spoken, beautiful men whose grooming and manners were impeccable–though there were also those who liked their cave men rough and tough.
This goes the other way as well. There are men who write about women who display traditional alpha male behaviors—alpha women who play and fight hard, with few tender emotions. In books written long ago, I noticed that these women were pretty much always depicted as predatory, and they seldom got happy endings unless they did a Taming of the Shrew and learned to be submissive, whereas the rough male heroes all got the trophy gorgeous girl and the good life, if they survived to the last page.
Nowadays more of the alpha women are getting their fair share of rewards; the implied message, that women should get back into their aprons and curlers if they want a chance at happiness, is blurring. But it is not entirely gone.
The thing that I find interesting, at this period of my life, is ways in which we transcend gender, such as emotional experience and insight.
Not to imply that “both genders are the same.” No. We live in these bodies with their discrete physical limitations and attributes. We’ve grown up receiving complex cultural and social signals, not all of which we are aware of all the time. We’re the same and not the same, we share some emotions and attitudes and diverge on others.
Which makes us all endlessly fascinating.