Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Reverse Sexism

My sons loved the Tank Girl movie and had no trouble identifying with a female protagonist.

On my
ROR blog we've been talking about the whole gender thing, male authors writing female characters, female writers writing from a male Point of View (POV). Can men write convincing female protagonists? Is it reverse sexism to say they can't? Can women write believable male protagonists? This raises some interesting questions. Does a mystery writer have to kill someone to write a great serial killer? The Unapologetically Female Blog quotes Karen Healey. She provides a list of things to watch out for when writing female characters, if you're a male. I particularly liked this one. Is she the only girl in the group?

‘Is her position within an ensemble cast "the girl"? As in, you have "geeky guy", "strong guy", "goofy guy" and "the girl"?

Having only one female within a group of characters sends the message that male is the norm, and that female is something else.’

At the Lipstick Chronicles they've invited a guest blogger, a male by the name of Jason Starr, who's written a female protagonist and apparently done it well. He says:

‘In THE FOLLOWER, I enjoyed getting into Katie's head, exploring the mind set of a young woman in her early twenties who's just moved to Manhattan. It was also fascinating for me to look at my male characters from the female point of view. The guys in the books have images of themselves thar are so wildly different from how Katie sees them, that this led to a lot of opportunity for humor and satire. And, I must admit, I enjoyed writing sex scenes from the female point of view. It was a blast putting myself in that position. Er, um, so to speak.’

The Modern Matriach quotes Heilbrum :

'... suggests that female authors often use male narrators or incorporate a more masculine voice in an effort to avoid the stigma of writing “chic lit”. Some even attempt to conceal their gender using initials and anomalous pen names:'

And if you are really worried that your POV character may not read as if they are the gender you meant them to be try using the Gender Genie at the Book Blog. Just paste in some text from your manuscript and see what the result is.

Bad characterisation is going to throw your reader out of the story, whether the protagonist is male, female or an alien from Alpha Centauri. Readers of SF and F must be elastically minded to accept the concepts that are tropes of our genre. It shouldn't worry them if the narrator is an AI without gender.

One of the things I find annoying about the English language is the lack of an intelligent non-gender specific pronoun. Everyone has to be either 'she' or 'he'. 'It' lacks intelligences and makes it hard to empathise with the character. I have come across stories where the writer invented a non-gender specific pronoun, but this seemed mannered and tended to throw me out of the story. I once came across a story where the writer managed to give all the characters non-gender specific names and structured the sentences so that they avoided pronouns. This made for slightly clumsy writing. But it was interesting how the visual pictures of the characters changed as I read, depending on what they were doing and saying.

In the book I'm currently writing one of the characters is a gender-less creature that is a human gone wrong, a Twisted. In the chapter that are told from this character's POV I use first person. In all the other chapters I use third person, he/she, depending on whether I have a male or female protagonist. The tricky part comes when the threads of the narrative join up and the Twisted meets the other two characters. Then I have to juggle the sentence structures so that I avoid using a pronoun for the Twisted character, while in the POV of the male or female protagonist. So you see writers of SF and Fantasy have a whole lot more to worry about than whether they can write a convincing male or female protagonist.

Which male writers create great female characters and conversely, which female authors write convincing male characters?


kesalemma said...

David Weber's Honor Harrington.

In many ways she is masculine compared to today's standards, or even androgynous in many ways early in the series, but I still identify with her as a woman.
It really does depend on how you, as the reader, identify femininity or masculinity, IMHO.

Mike said...

Totally inappropriate hijacking of this thread, but...

In recognition of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Day, I wanted to say "Thank YOU!" to the whole slightly off-center bunch of you! Y'a done good!

Every day Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers are hard at work somewhere just for us readers. I think we owe you a day of celebration! So here it is -- Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Day! CHEERS!

Kate said...

Somewhat off topic here, but the Gender Genie isn't all that reliable.

Names not given to protect the guilty, but the result of typing in a random section of one very masculine male writer's work was - if I recall correctly - "She only thinks she's male"

I tend to use the simpler method - have male and female first readers. They'll tell me if I'm writing men with breasts or women with penises.

More thoughtful commentary later, when I'm not at work.

Francis said...

Lois M Bujold writes great male characters.

But she doesn't just write manly med and gigly girls, you have the full spectrum for both. I especially like Ethan of Athos where the gender roles get very very confused.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Kate, I was delighted to fool the Gender Genie.

I entered some first person narrative that was meant to be male and it came up as a male writer.

Then I entered some more first person narrative that was meant to come from a repressed, slightly neurotic male and it said the writer was female.

This is very revealing as to how the designers of the gender genie view the world.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Kesalemma, I've read Honor Harrington and enjoyed the books.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Mike, hijack any time.

It's so nice to know there are other people out there who love the same weird stuff that I love.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Francis, Lois M Bujold is one of my heroes. I admire her work so much.

And I actually got to have dinner with her when she was out here in Australia.

Anonymous said...

I think it's writing the whole spectrum of either gender that's difficult.

Guys whose whole focus in life is beer, football, and women, priority determined by how well their team is doing that season, are easy to write. And just as stereotyped as a female character of mine with pink kitchen countertops.

Sensitive or whiney or sweet guys--now that's hard. But I also have trouble writing genuinely stupid women. And being essentially style blind, I have trouble with that as well. My current project is trying to write one such. But the man in the story ::sigh:: football.

Amanda Green said...

Re: Gender Genie. I plugged in excerpts from several things I'm working on. Once chapter that was split into two sections, one from a female POV and one from a male POV came back as almost 50/50 male-female. The excerpt I posted in response to Dave's post yesterday came back as having been written by a man. So maybe I'm doing something right.

As for whether men can write women, etc, it amazes me the number of women who refuse to read romances if they think a man wrote it. Then there's the news that Britain's Erotic Review is moving to "almost exclusively male writers" because they know more about sex. (Smart Bitches -- http://www.smartbitchestrashybooks.com/index.php/weblog/comments/men-sex-women-sex/ ) According to the new owner, Kate Copstick (no, I'm not making that up), women are too much into writing about emotions and can't do the raunchy stories she, and her readers, want. She is, in short, saving the magazine from drowning in estrogen.

I don't know. I read a book or a short story not because of who wrote it, although I most definitely do have my favorite authors. I read because the story intrigues me or interests me or entertains me. Oh well, one more indication I'm strange ;-p

Anonymous said...

James Tiptree wrote excellent female characters... There are an awful lot of authors whose gender I simply don't know.

- p mac

Dave Freer said...

(Wry smile) I have no idea if I write offensive female POV. I have a lot of female fans so at least my personal taste heroines and what goes on their heads might be wrong but it appeals to some people. I've certainly seen male writers struggle with it, and female writers do totally unconvincing males. It happens and loses you half of your potential catchment. I suspect that's a reflection of individual ability rather than any form of inbuilt gender inability. I've never had the least trouble with Heyer's males. Or Sarah's males (her females now... ;-)heh. They'r fiesty). I've read some female protags, usually (but not always) by female writers, that make me dislike the book, because I don't like wet lettuces, and don't want them in my head. I don't think that's sexism. I wouldn't like a male of that either. They exist in the real world. I avoid them.

I have a standard test for -isms. Swap them. Is it offensive? Does it make you think the user is an idiot? For instance if I had a Unapologetically Male blog, written from a masculinist viewpoint - would you roll your eyes? Actually I suspect the industry is an intereseting and awkward position with sexism, but that's not really the point of this blog.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

It is NOT reverse sexism to say men can't write women. It's just sexism period.

Just as it's sexism to say if you have an action hero, it must be a she. (Oh, I know, tough to sell otherwise, particularly if you're a woman.)

To say you have to be black to write black characters or gay to write gay characters, otoh, is not sexism. It's just fracking stupid.

When you combine sexism and stupid you can successfully kill any good writing. Why? Think Shakespeare. Think Shakespeare if ALL his males were wimps, all his women were strong and armed. (Which btw, flies in face of reality, and kids know that very early on.) Better yet, think Shakespeare if the only characters he COULD write were white males from Stratford. Um... scared yet?

Right. This stupidity can only be pushed by people who aren't creative and therefore cannot imagine the creative mind bridging the gap between superficial differences to get at the essential humanity of characters.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

p mac -- James Tiptree aka Racoona Sheldon WAS female. Look up Tiptree Awards.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

You're right, Matapam, writing things you have no experience of is hard.

I can't write about football, because I hate it. And I'd have a really hard time getting into the character of someone who was a football fan. Having said that, I flatted with a taxi driver, who would go into mild depression if his team lost. So I think I could write a satire about it. grin.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Amanda, for me it is the story that captures me. If I know the writer, I anticipate the story will be good, but I'm always willing to give new writers a go.

I can't stand stupid characters. I want to shake them. Sigh.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

P Mac -- James Tiptree was one of those people who was writing back when it was hard for women to be taken seriously as SF writers (as anything).

This is one of the things the Modern Matriarch was discussing on her blog.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Oh, Dave, there are so many Unapologetically Male males out there. They just don't sign post it. And they aren't aware of it.

But I can't be bothered getting upset and I don't want to gender bash.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Sarah, I just loved the title Reverse Sexism.

I think you're right. Why can't we just treat people as people?

Kate said...

Now that I'm home and have had a little time to think...

We are all people. Some of us have innies and some have outies, and we all see the world in different ways, often so different that you could pick two random people and wonder if they came from the same planet sometimes.

Getting inside someone else's skin isn't easy, and the less like you they are, the harder it gets. This is why the best writers can write either gender without any problems, but lesser lights will tend to write men with boobs (if they're male) or women with dicks (if they're female). Or elves who are humans with pointy ears.

Pratchett (yeah, I know. I'm sorry, I can't sacrifice goats to him at home, the blood gets all over the carpet and makes such a mess) is an absolute master at writing people who are real people, whether male, female, human, dwarf, troll, golem, Vetinari, Vimes, Foul Ole Ron (all three of whom can arguably be considered outside the normal realms of humanity)... He even writes children well.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Kate, that's a really good point about writing children.

(Bows to Terry Pratchett and spins widdershins in the hope that some of his brilliance will rub off!)

It's all very well to write children characters in a children's book, but how often do child characters appear in an adult book?

Don't adult characters in their normal life interact with children? Children are people too, just at a different (more vulnerable, more intense) point in their lives.

I think there's material for a whole post here. Next Tuesday!

kesalemma said...

Possibly slightly off topic, I was in a bookstore today, and came across Ursula Le Guin's Left Hand of Darkness. I actually read it for the first time quite recently - seeing it again reminded me of this post.
For those who have not read it, at a very basic level, it is about a human (male) envoy to a planet of humanoids who are basically androgynous and change (mostly) only for mating purposes.
Many people I have spoken to about this book talk about how it was about feminism, but I actually don't really see that myself - I was more interested in the characterisation.
For the very reason that if I did not know who the author was, I have thought it was written by a man, from a man's viewpoint.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


Left Hand of Darkness has some of the best characters. Trust me, it's about feminism -- if you were my decrepit age, you'd know that ;) -- the markers are there. This accounts for the flaws in the book, including the heavy-handed and ridiculous "communitarinism" in the sense the community raises the children and this is supposed to be better for everyone. HUGE marker of old style feminism and quite wrong, as it turns out, by current studies.

I'm also irritated to the point of tears by narration by inference, with all the legends and what not. I'm not saying it's an invalid method, but cutting back on those a little might help?

OTOH she created a magnificent character in Therem Hart Rem Ir Estraven. With one flaw. The character is male. Very male. he's supposed to be hermaphrodite, but somehow that's not how he comes across. Still, he is a good character.

Actually, I hadn't thought about that until you mentioned it, and at the risk of getting pounded, she keeps talking how this character or that is being feminine but they're ALL men. Occasionally men with vaginas, but all male. I think the closest she comes to hermaphrodite is "swishy gay male" I truly can't explain that effect, since she DID write believable women in Earth Sea.

No clue. Except perhaps to say "we all go through phases." I find it very odd though that one of the paen's of feminism seems to default to the notion that non-sexual man is male. Um... they don't know the men I do.

Dave Freer said...

"Oh, Dave, there are so many Unapologetically Male males out there. They just don't sign post it. And they aren't aware of it."

I agree with you Rowena. My point is not that they don't exist, but that if they did signpost it they'd get pilloried - by that blogger as much as any other. But she seems unaware of the concept of equality: that if the inverse is offensive, then her statement is too. Either neither statement is offensive or both are. That's why I advocate switching terms as a 'test' - because I believe all people deserve to be treated equally, even if it is equally badly.

Jim McCoy said...

Two women who can write outstanding male characters are Catherine Asaro and Margaret Weis. Granted, Margaret usually writes with a male partner, but it has been stated that she almost exclusively controls the Raistlin character. He just happens to be one of my favorite characters of all time. Catherine writes more me who are so stunningly believable that you almost want to call her doctor and make sure that she (the author) actually is female! The Saga of the Skolian Empire is replete with believable male characters who do not act in a stereotypical manner. A man that can write believable female characters would be Harry Turtledove. Some of his books feature so many POV shifts that you almost need a roadmap to remember where you are at any given time, but his women are always believable and have varied personalities rather than clinging to some feminine stereotype.