My fiction: Where the boys aren’t.

UPDATE (9:32 PM, EST): Rebuttal time! Read Phil Lemos’s take on our meeting, our disagreement and on writing women characters here.

Yesterday, I met with one of my writers’ groups and was accused of misandry.

My piece – a short story about a woman who becomes obsessed with a man who has disappeared – was up for discussion.

One of my fellow writers – the estimable blogger Phil Lemos – was deeply unhappy with an element of the story: the unnamed husband of the protagonist.

“I hate your husbands,” he said, smacking his palm on the table. “They’re all meat-heads.”

He went on to suggest that I only included the husband because I need dialogue in certain places in the story, and told me that the main character’s unnamed meat-head husband might be tolerable if the third major character in the piece, who is a woman, was made into a guy. Then it would be okay, because there could at least be one redeeming man in the story.

Phil was pretty fired up. He looked mad. Righteously indignant. Angry, because the sole representative of his gender in my piece was, to his way of thinking, a stereotype.

All in all, his reaction was pretty awesome. Validating, even. Why? Because I’m angry like that all the time.

I’m almost always furious in that exact same way when I see women portrayed in literature, film and music. I’m mad like that so often, it’s ceased to be table-smacking rage and morphed into a permanent state of indignation. I’ve been angry since the age of 12.

Recently I re-read my favorite books, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and I was mad. I was mad that one of the main female characters is thousands of years old but is protected by her father as if she’s 16, and  doesn’t get a line of dialogue until the end of the final book. I was mad when the bravery of  Éowyn, who does one of the most heroic deeds in the series, is downplayed. She was only interested in going to war, Tolkien tells us, because a bad guy was filling her with lies and making her discontent in her role as a woman. I was mad that there were no female dwarves. 

And then there is the Bechdel test, about which I recently learned. The Bechdel Test, named for cartoonist Alison Bechdel who popularized it in a 1985 cartoon, is used to judge women’s presence in film.

To pass the test, the movie must 1) have at last two named women in it who 2) talk to each other about 3) something other than a man.

Here’s how the films honored at last night’s Academy Awards stand up to the test:

Yeah.

So back to writers’ group. It was nice to see a guy as indignant as I am every day, but Phil had a point: I do often write men as jerks, or as ciphers. Recently, two of the husbands in my short stories have started off their lives as nameless characters. All of my protagonists, but one, are female. This does reflect a issue on my part: At this point in my life, I am not willing to write men as major characters in my short stories.

As a feminist, I don’t see it as a problem: My short stories are about women and often about women’s issues. I don’t think that, as Phil said, my story needs at least one sympathetic man, because the story is not about men at all. This particular story is not even about gender. It’s about a character who happens to be female, and all the other characters are incidental to her and her problems. And why should I pander to male readers by throwing them a nice guy that they can relate to? How many bimbos and good wives and princesses-in-need-of-rescue and hookers-with-hearts-of-gold and passive-aggressive old women have I had to suffer as I’ve read my way through classic and modern literature? Can’t guys just shut up and endure my series of meat-heads and dullards and blustering old men?

No. No, they can’t, for lots of good reasons, but mostly because I’m an artist first. Being angry and making good art is not always the same thing. In the case of this story it’s definitely not.

Not an hour before Phil’s critique of my story, I came down on him – hard – for his treatment of the female characters in his novel.

“If I were reading this and the two major female characters were stereotypes, I might not finish reading this book,” I told him, “and it’s a book that deserves to be read.”

Another guy in the group spoke up: “Yeah, but how many women are really going to read this book?” Phil’s book is about football.

I then argued that lots of ladies would want to read it, and thought to myself that even if 70 percent of women don’t want to read a novel about sports, every novel deserves a cast of well-rounded, non-stereotypical characters – not just for the ladies who might read it, but for the education of the gents as well.  No need to continue writing stereotypes.

*Cough, cough.* Well. I guess that applies to my work as well. Will loads of straight manly men want to read about the internal struggle of a passive aggressive dental hygienist who wants to escape her marriage and her life, and resorts to stalking a stranger? Probably not. (It’s possible that women won’t want to read that either.) But whoever does read it deserves a cast of three-dimensional characters.

Don’t get me wrong; I hope someday I can write something artistic, which makes many men aware of how I feel when I see female stereotypes blithely inserted into fiction. But until that day comes, I don’t want to cheapen my writing with two-dimensional stereotypes.

With that in mind, Phil and I are going to be challenging each other to writing exercises. I will challenge him regarding writing women, and he will send me exercises aimed at improving my men.

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4 thoughts on “My fiction: Where the boys aren’t.

  1. I think you guys spend too much time thinking about gender issues… There’s a saying (which I hate, but is accurate) people in IT circles like to use: When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. You have gender issue sunglasses on, and you and Phil are seeing things through this filter.

    That said, men are frequently portrayed in the media as ineffectual or effeminate. Homer Simpson, Two and a Half Men, even the LotR movies had a lot of that.

    As far as Eowyn goes, I think she was duly mad-propped for her deeds and didn’t strike me as a weak character at all. You seem to imply that if she was a blood thirsty warmonger, that would be a real strike for Girl power. Would she be full of sass and I-Don’t-Need-No-Man-ness?

    • I certainly do think about gender issues a lot. I would argue that it’s less because I have my “gender sunglasses on” and more because I deal with gender politics on a daily basis.
      Regardless of that, it is important to spend time thinking about gender issues, both in life and in art. If we can’t draw characters of the opposite sex well, we fail as artists. More generally speaking, being a writer requires us to step out of our experience and our prejudices to create believable characters.
      In this case, that means focusing on gender.

  2. Also, every male Star Trek captain besides Kirk was a 100% pussy when it came to women, sometimes to a hilarious degree.

  3. Thank you for this post. It was extremely valuable to me and really got me thinking.

    I think the issue is not so much to have a *sympathetic* character of the opposite gender as it is to have well-rounded and believable characters of any gender. I don’t think any book NEEDS to have all genders represented if it isn’t important to the plot. I have no problem reading a book with an all-female or all-male cast of characters. But if you do include a character, they should be made to pull their weight.

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