On “Men Writing Women”

“Men Writing Women” is so much of a stereotype these days that there is its dedicated subreddit for it. It’s 2022 now, and this discussion has taken on a much broader scope around gender identity. This includes sexuality, gender, nationality or culture (leading to things like “cultural appropriation”, and so on).

I’ve seen a lot of writers stating they feel uncomfortable writing really anything these days in fear of offending someone, and the potential blowback on social media.

I don’t want this to be a rant about all of this, so I picked one of these parts and thought about it for a while, to come up with my interpretation, and ways to make sense of our environment in this interconnected world, in which you can’t even be sure anymore if the person on the other side is even a person, or just a bot, programmed to create division and stoke conflict (which could lead us down a whole new rabbit hole around geopolitics, or one around the influence of social media), but we won’t go there. Let’s keep it simple. Men writing women.

Let’s look at a few examples. I won’t name sources here, because I’m too lazy, and because I think we can live with out them, with this just being a blog post by a random internet nobody, and not a scientific paper.

This one comes up for me as the first search result using DuckDuckGo when I look for “her boobs boobed boobily” — a common satiric way of describing the “Men Writing Woman” thing, as if men were obsessed with breasts, but had no clue at all about female bodies.

Only that in this example, the shoe doesn’t fit. What the author describes is an old African woman with saggy breasts after several births, who has never worn a bra in her life and isn’t even wearing a top now. It’s easy to imagine how the scene can unfold like this. Old, weak connective tissue that has little structural integrity anymore after excessive wear and tear over decades.

The next example is not of physical nature, but about stereotypes.

Stereotypes are stereotypes because they’re widespread, simplified common beliefs, or generalised categories. Dogs are submissive, cats are mischievous, men don’t show emotions, girls are attracted to boys that resemble their dads. The sentence even starts “I know they say that…” to clarify this. Using a stereotype in fiction, and treating it like one, therefore hanging a lantern on it, is not a bad thing in my book. While I can see how stereotypes offend someone, I think that this kind of picture clarifies that the character, whose perspective we’re experiencing here, is aware of that fact. And let’s be real here, some females are attracted to males that resemble their father, and vice versa for boys with their mothers. That doesn’t mean it’s a universal truth, and the author doesn’t present it that way.

Next in line is about femininity itself

Let me first say that I don’t think that femininity and masculinity are non-existent. The female brain has more potential for social interaction, and this potential manifests during our complex lives in communities larger than ancestral tribes. That being said, this haiku here comes from somewhere around 1800/1900, when it was way more “en vogue” to show the differences between the genders. Not for superiority reasons either (in this case), but in an admiring fashion. My wife is way more gentle than I am, and of course she would be. Her testosterone level is probably much lower, and her upbringing differed from mine. And then, we have the cultural factor, as well. This haiku comes from a Japanese person, and even now, in 2022, Japanese people are being raised to be considerate towards their environment, because Japan is a small island, dominated by mountains, and people living crammed on very little space.

The next one is interesting for different reasons.

I don’t even know what there is to criticise from a “Men Writing Women” point of view. It’s clear that this is supposed to be a sexy scene, and both perspective and intent are of utmost importance. As a writer, I cringe at the heavy use of adverbs here, and the way he describes the body reminds me more of a gynecologist or a cannibal analysing their next meal. I see nothing sexist here, which would usually be what people mean when they dig out the “Men Writing Women” accusation.

“Soseki and the obsession of Japanese women with breasts”

It seems people pay no attention to, or don’t know about, things going on in other cultural environments. Living in Japan, I can indeed confirm that women not only look at other women’s chests here, the very topic is rather common, and people talk about them in daily life, like they would have a chat about the weather. This might not be a thing in many other cultures, but it definitely is here, and instead of criticising Soseki for pointing out something that almost falls under “boob shaming” in other areas of the world, they could take note and accept it as what it is: Reality, and no ill intentions whatever attached. I’m a teacher, and when I watch, say, a historical video, I sometimes think about how I can put the facts I just learned in my next lesson, or how I can build one around it. We are formed to a certain degree by our environment, and our role, our place in the world, becomes part of who we are as a person.

Stephen King. Ahh, Stephen King.

Stephen King is always being laughed at for using vagina-and-sand and sand-vagina metaphors, and while I can’t confirm the truth in this statement (I honestly haven’t seen it all too often, or not paid attention to it), the marked passage here is typical Stephen-King-hands-on style. And it works, doesn’t it? “Spreading the sand like a woman’s vagina” tells us something about the character narrating this (the father) who’s watching his son. Besides that, the next sentence made me laugh. Can you imagine why?

When men write women competently, we write “people”. There are specific female traits we can attach to create specific types of people (femme fatale would be one such “trope” — oh how I hate that term) that help make the story flow better, or make character motivations or actions more believable. A tiny, weak Mulan fighting her way up through the ranks of an army, utilising her agility and wits (the Disney cartoon) makes more sense to me than a tiny, weak Mulan who just waltzes through the rows of enemies and mows them like grass (the motion picture). Cowboy Bebop’s Faye Valentine is a true femme fatale (in the original — the series turned her into an insufferable person, sassy for the sake of being sassy). She is aware of her effect on men and uses it to distract enemies or trick them. We use the weapons we have available, anything else would be unbelievable. Arnold Schwarzenegger can stomp over the battlefield and smash his opposition. Sherlock Holmes would have to use his brain to achieve the same. Females usually are more similar in physique to Sherlock Holmes than Arnold Schwarzenegger, and when there’s a highly trained combat expert who can dispose of enemies in a fight using sheer strength, then that’s perfectly fine and can open up a lot of opportunities (and define her traits), but the whole package has to fit.

Lastly, there is a lot more to this. A great example would be “The Force Awakens”, which is full of general writing problems. The protagonist is a young woman. She is neither large, nor very athletic, she’s perfect in every way from the start, never loses against the antagonist, has an answer to every problem, doesn’t need to rely on the help of others, and many, many more things of that sort. While the story is already a train wreck (sorry, Force Awakens fans), I believe we’re being shown a great example on how to NOT write women, no matter your sex/gender/identity, and this ties into the script of the movie. The character has no flaws. She’s perfect in every aspect, and from such a foundation, there is no lesson to be learnt, no growth to be expected. Sure, there are other “iconic characters”, where growth is not the primary concern, but these characters are typically older, more experienced and have their growth already under the belt. Besides, this movie was made to resemble Luke Skywalker’s “hero’s journey” from the original trilogy, and there’s no hero’s journey in this story at all. We’re already at the last stage, and the character gets thrown around by the plot like a pinball. These other characters are STILL flawed and incompetent in some ways, else it would be impossible to create meaningful conflict and obstacles to overcome. Which would be a great topic for another time.

Thanks for reading.

2 comments

  1. A lot of men write women quite well and realistically. This was an interesting piece you wrote – I think some people can overthink things or blow things out of proportion – sometimes a writer’s style just isn’t to our taste & it doesn’t mean the book is written poorly. I also think sometimes certain expressions can feel negative I.e. when a woman who isn’t actually flat chested calls herself that just because she isn’t large – that is problematic and it isn’t necessarily reality. If it was reality, then yeah, nothing wrong with her acknowledging it. As you said, in Japan or other cultures, it’s normal for women to check one another out and compare one another like they talk about the weather.

    Like

    • Hey there, thanks for your comment 🙂

      There’s a lot more to say about this topic, but I didn’t want to put it all in one posting. In this first one, I wanted to display what “men writing women” is not; which part of it does not deserve criticism, because of false premises, and I didn’t even do as good a job as I had intended to be. For example the Stephen King scene, where his son is “spreading the wet sand like a vagina” also means that he’s doing it carefully, with a light touch (since you aren’t going to be forceful and violent or rash there), so the metaphor works pretty well, and SK’s typical style shimmers through. I’m pretty sure he wanted this to be provocative.

      Then there’s the “sexy scene”, in which one could argue that the woman described is being objectified, but really, who the writer is writing here is the male from whose POV the scene is written, so this is more a case of “men writing men”. Like I said, perspective and intent are always important when looking at something like this, and I want to some day write the POV of a horny teenage boy — and we all know what THAT will look like. Just to explore this, and why not.

      But there’s very valid criticism, too.
      When women are accessories or extensions of male characters, or when they’re being written in unbelievable or obviously objectified ways, they’re not women, they’re devices. This is often the case with other things, too. When a complete people suddenly appears homogenous, when aliens are all the same, but aliens are unlikely to feel hurt or offended by this, whereas I’d probably be pissed as a woman, if I found that all the women in the book I’m reading are nothing but deco objects, or being used to amplify men, or to make them look good in comparison.

      This post would have grown to enormous proportions, and I felt like splitting it up will work best, because it’s just a very nuanced topic.

      Liked by 1 person

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