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In the third year of my fiction degree, a writing professor flattened one hand on my desk, broke out a sheepish, sidewinding grin, and observed this: “Your female characters would be strong if they weren’t male characters.”
When you’re in a mood to chew over humanity, watch contemporary litcrit discuss gender. You will hear hip, catchy, piecemeal phrases hammered around age-old ideas. Strong female characters. Beta male. Metrosexual masculine. Modern woman.
Years later, I am still asking myself: what the fuck does this all mean?
A darling question of literary interviewers, hurled at male and female authors alike, is “how did you write such believable woman characters?” Or, worse, why – as though multidimensional women are unusual, foreign, inflammatory fare. A precursory Google search will land you discussion panels, writing “tricks,” classes, and handbooks numbering in the hundred-thousands about how to think like a member of the opposite sex. In these forums, we view different people like different planets, each requiring us to strip off our own identities and devise a wild plan-of-entry, inverting everything we know to be normal, simply to see like the opposite sex.
But the issue of writing cross-gender is more nuanced than flinging Bukowski quotations, debating Franzen fiascos, and starting fistfights over Hemingway’s fetishized Indian Venus. It is bigger than just those writers; it outstretches the unabashedly misogynistic or misandristic authors whose characters are not so much free-standing people as they are vehicles for patriarchal stereotypes. Writers of all sexes and genders can, and do, undermine their protagonists in this way without intending to. These subtle briers of sexism are often more harmful than overt attacks, as they sneakily riddle the prose, the diction, and the concept itself with a primary inequality – they spread the sham notion that our approaches to writing women and writing men must be fundamentally different, based on the belief that these two groups share little common ground.