Nation of Beancounters

Are women better at writing male characters than vice-versa?

Posted in Gender, Uncategorized by Navin Kumar on October 24, 2013

Juniot Diaz thinks so:

If you’re a boy writer, it’s a simple rule: you’ve gotta get used to the fact that you suck at writing women and that the worst women writer can write a better man than the best male writer can write a good woman. And it’s just the minimum. Because the thing about the sort of heteronormative masculine privilege, whether it’s in Santo Domingo, or the United States, is you grow up your entire life being told that women aren’t human beings, and that women have no independent subjectivity.

It’s certainly an interesting theory, although Diaz chooses to phrase it in a deliberately provocative manner. “Subjectivity” here refers to the characters being subjects (which can take actions) as opposed to objects (which can’t.) For example, Princess Peach in the Mario games, who patiently waits for Mario to save her, is an object, not a subject. More here.

Diaz believes that because of the sexist stereotypes that they’re exposed to (in life and literature), men are unable to grasp that women are capable of a wide range of beliefs, attitudes, actions, choices etc. In contrast, women are brought up aware of how deep male characters can be and, because they’re women, are capable of writing equally deep and interesting female characters. The claim here strikes me as theoretically sound. Of course, it’s very difficult to empirically test – you’d have to collect a large sample of characters, think of a way of measuring “deepness” or “subjectivity” and figure out whether the female characters written by men are better (or atleast more stereotypical) than male characters written by women. This strikes me as an almost impossible task, given how subjective coding characters is. This is the kind of thesis for which, perhaps, the only evidence is the experience of readers.

So I’d have been happy to defer to Juniot Diaz’s experience (he’s a hotshot writer, has won many heavy literary awards, and teaches writing to boot, so he has a decent sample) if it weren’t for the fact that he trips over himself with the very next sentence:

And because you grow up with this, it’s this huge surprise when you go to college and realize that, “Oh, women aren’t people who does my shit and fucks me.”

In other words, men (or, atleast, boys) are pigs who are interested in women only for sex and what they can do for them. They’re emotionless brutes, incapable for forming meaningful, understanding relationships with the women in their lives. They’re only interested in sex. In the span of one minute, Diaz goes from berating sexism to personifying it.

So we have two competing theories: (1) women don’t create stereotypical male characters, and Diaz has astutely observed this tendency (2) women do create sexist male characters, and Diaz lacks the knowledge required to spot this. Given his inability to spot anti-male sexism in his own speech it seems highly unlikely that he’d catch it in the stories written by his (female) students. At this point, I’m leaning heavily towards (2).

For a better understanding of sexism in (Western, english) fiction, read the entries on the TVTropes Double Standards page. It categorizes tropes into sexist against men, sexist against women, against either, and “sexist in execution, but not nature”. Each trope will be accompanied by dozens of examples, including cases where the trope has been averted or subverted.

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  1. Ginkgo said, on November 13, 2013 at 1:18 am

    I have yet to see one of these articles that is not hobbled by cultural provincialism. Probably the most popular novel in history, Dream of the Red Chanmber, set in a wealthy Qing dynasty family, written by a man, is known for its very accurate portrayals of female characters, who by the way make up most of the action. In fact I know of no novel by a woman that comes close to portraying men as accurately.


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