While reading a blog post by Kathy Eden on the wisdom or lack thereof of “writing what you know,” I came across this statement: I’m highly skeptical of men trying to write women characters. I don’t know about you, but I’ve had enough men try to tell me what it’s like to be woman that I get a little irritated. After reading that, I was a little irritated myself.
Full disclosure: I’m in the middle of working on Book Two of the Solid Rock Survivor series, tentatively entitled Passing Through. The lead character is a woman named Roz. So I’m invested in this discussion seven ways from Sunday, not a neutral, unbiased commentator. Still, I think it’s fair and reasonable to say her comments are wrong-headed.
Notice a couple of things right off the top. She’s not merely skeptical, she’s highly skeptical. And what exactly is she highly skeptical of? Of men trying to write women characters; she speaks of trying, because in her mind, failure is almost inevitable. It’s baked in. Otherwise she’d say she’s skeptical of men writing female characters, not trying to write them. As aggravating as I find that attitude, she is not the first to express it, nor will she be the last. I have seen numerous reader reviews on Amazon confessing that the reviewer will generally not buy a book by a male author if it has a female protagonist.
Why should men be assumed incapable of writing a female viewpoint character? It’s not like females are some rare, exotic species that we’ve never observed. Most boys are raised with their mother in the home. Many boys grow up with sisters, too. According to the federal Department of Education, 76% of public school teachers are female. In college, female students became the majority in 1979, and at last count, 57% of college students are women. Yet despite all these opportunities to observe and interact with the opposite sex, men are somehow deemed incapable of writing believably about them.
The second part of Ms. Eden’s statement is most telling. “I don’t know about you,” she says,” but I’ve had enough men try to tell me what it’s like to be a woman…” First, she assumes that her reader is a fellow woman. Second, she overlooks something obvious: When a man writes a fictional female character, he’s not trying to tell anyone what it’s like to be a woman. He’s trying to tell readers what the particular fictional woman he created is like. There’s a big difference.
How would this look if the genders were reversed? Let a man say, “I’m highly skeptical whenever a woman tries to write a male character.” Faster than you can say misogyny, the Hear Me Roar brigades would be storming the walls in defense of the sisterhood. Biological sex is not a disability. Today, no one gets away with telling a woman that she is unqualified for something just because she has two X chromosomes. And I’m all for it. Our daughters can be doctors and lawyers, astronauts, athletes and astrophysicists, engineers and entrepreneurs. They just can’t write novels with male protagonists. Abiding by this limitation is what let J.K. Rowling make a moderate success of the Harriet Potter series. Oh wait, it was Harry Potter, wasn’t it?
I like to think a man could do just as well writing about a young girl as Ms. Rowling did writing about young Harry. The way novels are done today, a writer finishes a rough draft and runs it by a critique group, where the majority of members are probably women. Then he revises the text, and runs the second draft past a group of beta readers. Again, women are likely well represented here. Then he sends it to an editor. Since 78% of the staff of the American publishing industry is female, it’s likely his editor is a woman. And she will surely tell him if his female characters are unbelievable. And despite all of these checks, there are women who will refuse to read the finished book about a female lead character, simply because a man wrote it. How does the word sexism not apply here?
I have one question for those readers. I’m pretty sure I know what they tell their daughters — that girls can be anything, do anything, if they set their minds to it and work hard enough. My question is what do they tell their sons?