(This post first appeared on Steven Saus’s excellent Ideatrash blog.)
There’s been much discussion over the the years about men writing female characters, and women writing males. Some writers do it well, it seems, some don’t. A recent post on a publisher’s blog suggesting that some female characters these days were essentially male characters in drag – especially in high-adrenaline, action-packed thrillers where the female cop, or the female spy, or the female space cadet kicks ass, smart-mouths her superiors, and knocks back cheap scotch with the best of them.
Since this is the kind of fiction I write (only of a highly refined, intellectually stimulating, and deeply meaningful variety) it made me wonder about my own female characters. More than this, it made me wonder if you could ever say that a character of either gender was not representative of their sex.
I recall vividly a short story by Roger Zelazny which I read about forty years ago (Yes, I’m really, really old. Get over it.) in which the reader does not discover that the rough, tough spacer protagonist is actually a woman until the very last paragraph. It has had a profound effect on my writing, I believe, and I rarely, these days, mention the sex, ethnicity, or stature of a character unless it becomes useful to the story. I honestly believe that such “external” attributes of a person are irrelevant to who they are – but they may be relevant to how the other characters react to them.
So, let me list a few things I know about women to illustrate this notion.
And here I’m talking about bell curves – normal distributions of human traits like height, weight, hair colour, intelligence, empathy, strength, psychopathy, courage, creativity, and so on. On all of these traits you will find that there is an average and that the great majority of people are clustered around it. As you move away from the average to higher or lower “amounts” of the trait, the chances of finding it in a random sample of people falls away sharply. If you plot the amount of the trait against the frequency of finding each amount in the population at large, you get a graph that starts off very low, rises quickly to peak at the average amount, and then falls away just as quickly as it rose. It makes a nice, neat bell-shaped curve.
The interesting thing about men and women is that their averages on some of these traits are slightly different – like strength, height, shoe-size, and so on – and the averages on others are just the same – like intelligence, hair colour, etc.. But, and this is the really important point, if you draw the bell curve for men and the bell curve for women, even for traits where they have quite different averages, and lay one on top of the other, you will find that the curves overlap massively. There are plenty of women who are taller than the average man, plenty of men weaker than the average woman, plenty of men with more empathy than the average woman, and plenty of women heavier than the average male.
The point is that there are vastly more similarities between men and women than there are difference. Technically speaking, the variance in the two populations all but swamps the difference in averages. All things being equal, there should be plenty of hard-hitting, beer-swilling, foul-mouthed, tough-talking, borderline psychopath women. Not quite so many as there are men, perhaps, but enough that if you were to say Sam is that kind of person, it is mostly prejudice that makes you think the character is a Samuel rather than a Samantha.
2. The Eye of the Beholder
You have to remember that most of what you see of any person you meet is an act they’re putting on for your benefit – or somebody’s, anyway, even if it’s their own. Take that gorgeous creature who just walked into the cocktail bar in the tight red dress, she might well be thinking that her underwiring is chafing and those heels are murder on her feet. Maybe she’s on the prowl, you think, intimidating, a woman who uses her body as a bribe to get what she wants.But maybe, inside, she’s bitter and angry with herself, humiliated that she dressed up like that just because she heard that her ex-husband and his new girlfriend would be there that night and her idiot best-friend encouraged an impulse to make him regret leaving her. Maybe she flies light aircraft for a tourist company. Maybe she’s doing a PhD in reptile physiology. Maybe she has two kids at home with a sitter. Maybe her brother just died of cancer. Before you write that arrogant sneer onto her full lips, it’s worth pausing for a moment to consider that the life of every woman you meet is far more complicated than you imagined. It’s a tangle of family and friends, work and hobbies, childhood and adolescence. She’s got political opinions, religious views, she’s got emotional problems and blind spots, gaps in her knowledge, passions and obsessions, sexual hangups, irrational fears, and a limited supply of courage. Sitting at the bar in your best suit, you have to realise that that red dress tells you nothing at all.
And, as you stride across the room in your high heels, hoping to God you don’t fall off them and break your ankle, you need to realise that the guy in the suit watching you from the bar stool isn’t the simple middle-management drone on a business trip, off the leash and looking for action, that he seems to be.
It’s a well-documented scientific finding that men are generally more emotionally unstable than women. They start of that way as little boys. They cry more, they’re more easily angered, their highs are higher, their lows are lower. But don’t forget those bell curves. This is just a small difference in averages. The most striking thing about the emotionality of men and women is how much overlap there is.
Even so, the relative emotional instability of men manifests itself in some strange ways. In a recent study, it was found that men are more likely to be the first in a couple to say, “I love you.” Men might like to think they’re stable, solid, dependable and reasonable, but the evidence is that, in the face of danger, they’re more likely to take stupid risks, or collapse under the strain, or both.
Of course, there are differences in the hormonal systems of men and women. Oestrogen can make a person more nurturing and compassionate. Testosterone can make a person more aggressive and take more risks. But the differences are not as dramatic as you might think and, again, the overlaps are considerable. There are plenty of men who make great nurses and plenty of women who can run major corporations.
It’s great that there are so may stories about women running police departments, women heading up law firms, women astronauts, women scientists, women spies, but you have to remember that the real world isn’t much like that. In the real world, women are as rare as hens’ teeth in top jobs and, in some professions, even rarer than that. It was shocking to hear that when the Australian Academy of Science voted in its new fellows this year, there were thirty-seven nominees and all of them were men. Not one single female scientist was thought good enough to be elected to the country’s top professional body.
But it’s OK, I suppose, that, in the spirit of affirmative action, or just shifting the perceptions of young people reading books and watching telly, we should portray a world that doesn’t resemble the real one all that much. It doesn’t even matter, I suppose, that the female lawyer, the female cop, the female mining executive or gang boss, are all stunningly beautiful and dress like a teenage boy’s wet dream, because, these days, the same standard of physical beauty is increasingly applied to the male cop, the male lawyer, and the male mining executive or gang boss – as long as they’re the good guys. If they’re bad guys, the female still has to be smoking hot but the male can be as fat and ugly as you like.
In our real world, women do, very, very rarely, get to be heads of state. But, unlike men, they also have their clothing and their bodies endlessly discussed in the media. Their male colleagues snigger at sexist jokes about them behind their backs. The public – both men and women – frequently expresses a lack of confidence in them purely on the basis that they are female. She has to put up with all that crap on top of the normal pressures of running a country.
It’s the same for the cop, the lawyer, the mining exec. And the gang boss. Overt and covert pandemic sexism is probably the single biggest difference between men and women. Women suffer it, men don’t.
In the fictional bedroom, protagonists tend to be good at sex. They’re adventurous, skilful, considerate, enthusiastic, and yet tender. They’re also blatantly heterosexual. If it’s a man he’s ripped. If it’s a woman, she’s got breasts like melons. It probably all arises from a male fantasy that the heroic male is more than adequate in every way. Great male leaders are traditionally giants and well hung. That it has now rubbed off onto the female protagonist is probably just by analogy, rather than a strong cultural belief that heroic women are also sexual athletes. Indeed, until very recently (and it still happens a LOT) it was the female antagonist who revealed her moral degeneracy by exhibiting a healthy sexual appetite.
But the male stereotype has as little to do with reality as the new female equivalent. Think of all the real male heroes and leaders you know. Can you imagine they were or are exceptional lovers? What about Winston Churchill, or Rupert Murdoch? And, among the women, Margaret Thatcher? Julia Gillard? I’m not saying they aren’t terrific sex partners, just that it may not be a safe assumption based solely on their leadership skills.
And what about all that rampant heterosexuality? It’s estimated that as many as five per cent of men are practising homosexuals and that a tenth of one per cent are regular cross dressers (and that these are quite different groups). There is also a substantial number of men who are asexual – preferring not to have sex at all. The figures for women are less certain. It wasn’t all that long ago that female homosexuality wasn’t even acknowledged by many legal systems. My suspicion is that the numbers might tend to be quite similar over time if our society moves in the direction of more openness.
I don’t know what kind of books you read but I’m guessing fewer than one in a thousand have featured a cross-dressing male hero, and fewer than one in twenty a gay hero. Have you ever read a book in which the heroine is a female-to-male cross dresser? (Stories like Tootsie and Yentl don’t count. I’m talking about heroes whose strong gender preference is to present as the opposite of their biological sex.) When do you think we might elect such a woman as head of state?
Differences that we do see between men and women are typically to do with differences in opportunity rather than innate differences. They are differences in achievement (which is regulated by society) rather than differences in ability (which is not – yet – but we live on the cusp of being able to choose such traits for our children). There is some evidence that there are more men with extreme IQs (both high and low) than women. This is thought to be because men are inherently a little more variable on most traits than are women (the set of bell curves for male characteristics are slightly wider and lower than the women’s, even when they have the same average value). However, it’s hard to be sure in the case of IQ since the tests are notoriously dodgy and they are validated against actual achievement or estimates of likely achievement, which are both culturally biassed in favour of men.
The usual argument (“Name me ten great women composers/artists/physicists/engineers/etc.”) is clearly a load of codswallop in a society that has always been biassed against female achievement (and still is, remember the Australian Academy of Sciences example above).
Evidence of differences in maths ability, spatial reasoning, language skills, “social IQ”, and so on are also based on more-or-less shaky evidence. While we live in a society that pushes so hard for boys to go one way and girls to go another, it is almost impossible to tell what is a truly innate difference and one which has been socially determined. My feeling is that we should err on the side of requiring very strong evidence before we attribute any individual difference in ability to sex rather than society.
7. Geeks and Jocks
And, finally, returning to the problem that set off on this exploration, we are seeing a great many new female stereotypes arising in popular fiction. The Geek Girl, the hard-as-nails, one-of-the-boys cop/spy/cowgirl/roustabout/you-name-it, the fiercely competitive lady lawyer/senior cop/senior spy/executive/newspaperwoman/etc., to name but a few. It would be fair to say that many of these characters are so like their male equivalents that the accusation that they’re men in drag would be hard to defend. Possibly to offset this, a fair number of them are single moms with a small child in the background somewhere (and many of these youngsters are preternaturally understanding and forgiving of their absentee parent – probably to assuage cultural bias against neglectful mothers).
More alarmingly, the female stereotypes that have emerged seem to fall into two main camps, mirroring the geeks and jocks categories into which so many male characters can be divided these days. Like male geeks and jocks, the attractive, competent, physically larger, self-assured women get to be jocks, while the unattractive (although often “cute”), socially inept, incompetent, smaller ones get to be geeks. What this phenomenon indicates is not that female geeks and jocks actually mirror their male counterparts – since, in the real world of actual males, it would be hard to make that distinction anyway – but that the writers who use these stereotypes are exhibiting an appalling failure of imagination and a shocking inability to observe and describe real women.
It seems to me that a lot of the complaints about male writers writing female characters and female writers writing men are at least as much a reflection of the gender prejudices of the reader as of the writer’s lack of skill. I don’t deny that some writers struggle in this area and some simply write stereotypes. However, before criticising the writer, we might first make an inventory of our own attitudes to gender and ask ourselves how realistic are our own notions of what is masculine and what is feminine.