Cross-Gender Writing

As I mentioned last time, reading Thursday Next: First Among Sequels by Jasper Fforde got me thinking about what I’ll call, for lack of a better word, cross-gender writing: when an author writes a character who is of the opposite gender from their own.

Interestingly enough, both of Fforde’s series I’ve read so far, the Thursday Next novels and the Last Dragonslayer ones, feature a female protagonist. They’re great books – don’t get me wrong: I’ve thoroughly enjoyed them (in fact, I’m still thoroughly enjoying them, as I haven’t finished reading either series). But one thing that stuck out to me about the Thursday in First Among Sequels is that she is, pretty much, a tough chick. Oh, she’s a loving mother and wife, very much so. But there is a certain kind of – I just have to say it – manliness about her. She’s a kick-butt leather-wearing gun-toting girl (who, at age 52 and after two pregnancies, still has a “devastatingly good figure and boobs to die for” [p. 346 of FAS]). Thursday’s calling in life is to go adventuring in the BookWorld; regularly pulling a gun with an EraserHead is all in a day’s work. Thursday is a man’s woman.

Now, one of the things that got me started on this train of thought quite some time ago was a post by Christopher Bunn on this very matter from the opposite angle. He’d noticed that a lot of male protagonists written by female writers are, kind of, women’s men, particularly when they appear in romance stories. (He then set out to write his “Sleeping Beauty” adaptation, Rosamunde, in part as an exercise in doing a female voice. Go read it and decide for yourself whether you think he succeeded; it’s a great little book overall, well worth reading.)

So when Christopher said that about female writers creating men in their own image, I started mentally sifting through some of my favourite literary characters, and I have to admit he is right. Many of my favourite literary males were written by women, and perhaps the reason they’re my favourites is that they’re idealised women’s men. Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey is one – he is eminently swoon-worthy, and never more so than in his romantic pursuit of Harriet Vane. Lord Peter is by no stretch of the imagination girly – but he is sensitive, cultured, caring, yet strong and intelligent… everything a woman wants a man to be, with none of those inconvenient traits like not wanting a woman to depend on him or being more concerned with the task at hand than with the woman’s feelings at the moment.

On the flip side, quite a few of the manly women written by male writers are, pretty much, what a man wants a woman to be (or so I imagine): tough, independent, beautiful/sexy (see “devastatingly good figure and boobs…” above), with none of those inconvenient traits like wanting a man to listen to her feelings or having physical issues like getting cramps once a month or morning sickness resulting from some passionate bouts of lovemaking.

Steve and Horatio – a Bear’s Bear and a Tiger’s Tiger

This “writing characters in the image of one’s own gender” even extends down to children. Terry Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching is one of the best characters he created (and he created many) – and she is one tough little girl, with an utterly unsentimental attitude to life (the very first time we meet her, she takes out one of the baddies with a cast iron frying pan. Bam!). Come to think of it, she is a childhood incarnation of another brilliant Pratchett character, Granny Weatherwax. You couldn’t imagine either of them cooing over babies or kittens (Granny has a couple of feeble cooing episodes in the first book in which she appears, but that flaw was speedily expunged from her personality). In fact, Granny’s friend Nanny Ogg, who is yet another tough broad, does coo over her pet cat Greebo – but he’s the roughest, meanest, nastiest specimen of feline you could imagine, so it’s a big joke. All of these women are far more likely to slap a crying person upside the head and tell her to pull herself together than to give her emotional support and a warm hug. They’re loving and care deeply about people, but it’s tough love – more the kind that is (stereotypically) doled out by fathers than by mothers.

Cooing, cuddling, and anything resembling emotional softness or sentiment, on the other hand, are castigated by both Pratchett and Fforde as “wet” or “soppy” – the girls (and it is always girls) who are prone to such exhibits are mercilessly made fun of. Yes, they do exist in the books – in Pratchett’s “Witches” series it’s Magrat Garlick, in “Thursday Next” it’s Thursday5, and in both cases they’re described as New Age hippie types who like to weave floral wreaths, wear unbleached cotton, and are annoyingly fond of hugging and emotional encounter groups; part of their character growth consists in getting over their emotionality – to become, in short, more of a manly woman.

A while ago I promised you a post on Charles Dickens, which I have yet to make good on. However, for now, here’s one of the points I wanted to make about Dickens: he can’t write female characters – they’re either perfect angels of light or corrupt, demonic slatterns. Dickens is in good company among his fellow Victorians in that; in fact, I have yet to read a male Victorian writer who could write a good woman. Sickly sweet, or evilly corrupt, those seemed to be the only two registers male Victorians had at their disposal for writing females; all the believable literary women were created by woman writers. (That’s not to say there aren’t well-written women that sprang from the pen of a male writer in the 19th century – just that I haven’t run across them. I’ve yet to read Tess of the d’Urbervilles – perhaps she meets the requirements? But then, she dies. I’m not sure that qualifies her for well-written – if you can’t be believable and live, well…)

I can’t really speak much to the issue of the believability of males written by females – I’ll have to take Christopher’s word for it that many of them don’t quite read true. But I think I know what he means, because I can see it in the mirror image of the female written by the male.

However, none of this means that I have a problem with those literary heroines. I love identifying with Tiffany Aching’s frying pan prowess or Thursday Next’s accuracy with an eraser gun (which reduces bad guys down to their phonemes). BAM! POW!

But it’s something to keep in mind, particularly as a writer – do I create my characters in my image, even just the image of my gender or of what I wish the opposite gender was like? Perhaps, to a certain extent, it can’t be avoided. And maybe that’s not such a bad thing – maybe in reading about and identifying with what an author of the opposite gender imagines or wishes a character of ours to be like, we can come to a deeper understanding of their perspective. Perhaps in having characters of one gender created in the image of the opposite one the gap between the genders can, in one spot or another, be bridged.

Life, the Universe, Manly Women and Womanly Men. Pass the frying pan.

10 thoughts on “Cross-Gender Writing”

  1. Well put, the entire piece. Now you’ve got me sorting through my brain’s catalogue of Books Read to see if I can find any characters written by opposite-gender writers that aren’t somewhat along the wish-fulfilment lines…and I can’t find any yet. Perhaps Morgan in Patricia McKillip’s Riddlemaster series? At any rate, I’d write off the entire urban fantasy genre in this regard.

    1. Alexander McCall Smith is a notable exception. His Mma Ramotswe from The #1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series and his Isobel Dalhousie are both very well-written women. In fact, he seems to write women better than men.
      Also, I think perhaps literary fiction, which has a much greater emphasis on character rather than plot or setting, would be a more likely place to find those than genre fiction.

  2. I agree very much with your assessment of men writing women and vice versa. To my mind, men and women writers seem to write what they think they might be if they were the opposite sex. Like the man writing the 52 year old tough chick in leather, with good boobs. (It’s about the boobs. Lol.)

    That said, I think that F Scott Fitzgerald did a pretty good job of writing “Daisy” in “The Great Gatsby.” Spoiled and shallow and entitled…I think he was pretty spot on–without resorting to misogyny. I suppose men and women “can” write the opposite sex, if they have a basic understanding of human nature and eschew the clichés. It’s just that it doesn’t seem to happen a lot in literature these days. 🙂

    1. It’s been a while since I read “The Great Gatsby” – will have to revisit it. As I said in the comment above, I do think that well-written opposite-gender characters are more likely to appear in “high literature” (for lack of a better word) than in genre fiction – perhaps that’s one of the hallmarks of the “high” stuff.

      It’s also quite interesting to look at how writers in the past (i.e. the Victorians) dealt with their gender stereotyping; it’s so much more noticeable when the attitudes are a century removed.

  3. I’ve been thinking about this post ever since you wrote it, and wanting to comment, but lacked the time to give it the thoughtful response it deserved. I never thought too much about creating opposite characters to fit our own ideals before, but now that I read it from you here, it seems perfectly obvious! I know I unabashedly did that when writing Len; perhaps a little too inspired by Dorothy Sayers. On the other hand, I also wrote Maia as idealized, so at least I was balanced. Although, skimming through my male leads in general … yeah, I am completely and totally guilty of this.

    And as you say, it’s not necessarily a bad thing, or even something that’s possible to avoid entirely, but it IS something one should be aware of. In writing, and in reading.

    1. Yes, it’s hard to avoid – and also, do we *need* to avoid it? If Sayers hadn’t written Lord Peter in her dream image, he wouldn’t exist – and what a loss that would be for the rest of us! It’s the prerogative of a fiction writer to create the worlds we want to live in. And if others live in that world for a little bit, too, maybe that’ll bring it a tiny step closer to becoming reality…

  4. Ah, yes, cross-gender writing. The likelihood of going from frying pan (whether wielded by a person of one sex or another or just proverbial) directly to fire is so high. I *think* that I simply write characters who interest me, regardless of their supposed sex roles, but do I try too hard/visibly, or not hard enough, to make them that without falling into various stereotypes anyway? I’m not *that* good a writer, to be sure. Got to keep working on it, though. I sense there’s someone—real or fictional, who can tell?— hovering just behind me with the skillet just in case I keep getting it all wrong.

    Great post!

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