When can you tell the gender of a writer?

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Hillsy
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When can you tell the gender of a writer?

Post by Hillsy » June 18th, 2012, 4:45 am

I subscribe to Charlie Brooker’s RSS feed; a comedian, screen writer and erstwhile gaming journalist. I’d caught a bit of the fallout rebounding off the new Tomb Raider game before, and largely agreed with it.
http://terribleminds.com/ramble/2012/06 ... ara-croft/
When I read Charlie’s post on the subject matter I did two things.
http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree ... ade-pixels
First I immediately checked out the Hitman trailer (I mean S&M assassin nuns? Who’s not going to watch that?). After that I started poking at a small ball of guilt that I, as a man who has created female characters, am as guilty of ignorant sexism as the next Michael Bay.

Here was my problem. I know the two main tropes: Weakling Damsel and Kick-Ass Mega Heroine. So no Lara Crofts and no Bond Girls. Simple, right? Well no. I’ve always treated character creation pretty much the same, male or female. Pick a strong main trait (Determination, honour, aggression, charm etc) – blend that with a weakness, then sprinkle in other flavours to achieve the required depth. Somewhere during that process I assign genitals, mainly because some quirk or motivation requires it. Seems reasonable, right?

Well, no. I’m a man, I have a male bias towards things. As such I can generally feel out what is a typical male stereotype, and what is actually a key component of ‘male’ perspective (John Scalzi talks about male privilege a lot and makes a number of excellent points that, even if you disagree with him, really highlight core areas of sexual difference). The problem is I can’t do this for a woman character intuitively, and therefore do my female characters become just a blend of postmodern tropes and men in dresses?

Take an overt one for a start (NB: this is cookie cutter thinking, I understand the truth is more subtle in an infinite way to each individual). Modern society has probably nudged the importance of attractiveness higher for a woman than a man, something the cosmetic industry is built upon. A man can still be portrayed, and widely accepted, as attractive despite having a scarred, battered face (ie Daniel Craig). The reverse is almost never true. Scarring, the same. So if I was to consciously decide to make a female protagonist unattractive in the same way, am I guilty of accepting the trope and not doing enough to deal with it from a female vantage. Do unattractive women worry more, or have they swung past caring? Did they ever care in the first place? A broken nose for a man is rarely an issue in entertainment – would an attractive woman become mortified and worried her looks would be ruined?

So what is it that makes for believable female characters? What are the things that women and men fundamentally diverge on that, should the views of one be supplanted to the other, grate too much? What motivations and personality traits are singularly female?

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Re: When can you tell the gender of a writer?

Post by Sleeping Beauty » June 18th, 2012, 5:21 am

Such an interesting post, Hillsy.

I think, more-so than 'male privilidge', it's good to examine 'the male gaze' here, which explains how 'the camera' (ie the prism through which the story is viewed) is nearly 100% always defaulted to men, even when telling women's stories. I really don't know how to apply it to writing, but it's something that's easy to identify and discuss visually; take blogs such as Escher Girls (http://eschergirls.tumblr.com/, NSFW) which pretty much pokes fun, inbetween feelings of rage and despair, at the way the male gaze completely skewers women into fantasies and stock characters.

I heard about that Lara Croft story and I was so disappointed. :cry: Not just in the the direction the plot will apparently take, but in the words of the develops, who don't think video game players (he didn't even say MEN - just PEOPLE) can actually identify with a woman. That she needs "protecting". Urgh.

I'm a girl, and I feel like I can write male characters decently. I'm not sure I can write them as well as women, and that might be down to my gender bias. So maybe it's easier for me to write men and from a male perspective because I've been exposed to stories like that all my life? The male gaze via osmosis?

And RE: when can you tell the gender of the writer? There's only two male authors who, off the top of my head, used the male gaze and still managed to make me incredulous at the fact that they weren't women - Arthur Golden for Memoirs of a Geisha and Jeffrey Eugendies' The Virgin Suicides.

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Re: When can you tell the gender of a writer?

Post by polymath » June 18th, 2012, 12:07 pm

Only one factor is solely, uniquely human female: the female biological reproduction functions. Everything else about feminine identity, sociological functions, derives from that. Women can be as masculine as men. Men can be as feminine as women. From extreme to extreme, everyone has weighted behavioral and personality traits of both.

I can tell the gender of any writer due to their limited understanding of identity, limited development of character identity. Not just biological identity, age, ethnicity, national origin, regional origin, social and financial status, social orientation, etc. Writer's can no more keep themselves from exhibiting their biases, intentional or unintentional, than anyone else.

A solution to writing a decidedly masculine or feminine character is simply to write a uniquely identifiable gender identity character. Feminine traits favor emotional bonding for building strong community bonds. Masculine traits favor status competion rites for protecting community bonds from harm.

Masculine traits tend to be firm, assertive, contentious challenges to status appeals. Feminine traits tend to be soft, nonassertive, codeterminative, cooperative, coordinative appeals to emotions. Though note, masculine and feminine, not per se male and female.

For deep insight into gendered identity, identity in general, and the writing thereof, check into sociolinguist Robin Lakoff's signal work, Language and Women's Place, 1975, updated 2004. Don't take just her word for it. She is but one position. Other sociologists and linguists contend Lakoff is wrong, wrong in parts, wrong in total, or short of comprehensive. Many critics of her work. I believe Lakoff is on to something profound. For writers, certainly.
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Re: When can you tell the gender of a writer?

Post by Aimée » June 18th, 2012, 6:18 pm

This is something I am concerned about in my writing too. I am female, but many — as a matter of fact, most — of my stories are told from the perspective of a male. I don't know why this happens, it just does. I'm a writer; I write what comes to my head... And while I'm not particularly concerned about the reader not believing in the authenticity of a male character, I am more concerned about the reader judging my writing in a different way they would judge a man's writing. This kind of crosses that line, I suppose, where the reader will say "Pft, this writer a girl; she doesn't know enough about a man's perspective to write from it," and therefore they won't trust my work.

It's strange, really, and I did an experiment of sorts with a creative writing class I took, though not on purpose. I'd written a short story with a male main character, about twenty years old. However, it was a gay man, and I wasn't particularly comfortable sharing this story with the class, so changed the story to first person instead of third, therefore never using the pronoun "he" to refer to the narrator, and giving him an ambiguous name, as well as few physical characteristics. You could literally read the story either way, never knowing 100% whether the narrator was male or female. When I showed it to the class, they automatically assumed the narrator was female, and I was shocked; I know, I know, I was ambiguous on purpose, but I thought at least someone would bring up the idea. I mean, in the previous story I shared, they thought there was incest going on, and I didn't even think of that or notice it in my own writing, let alone intend it...

I am extremely curious about why they assumed this. I figure it is because I am a female, so they read the character as a heterosexual female, even while I intended the character to be a homosexual male. I wonder if I showed this story to someone who did not know me, and if I told them I was male, would they read the character as a homosexual male?

I have read dozens and dozens and dozens of novels written from the perspective of a male, third or first person, and I think my stories have been effective. The odd thing is though, none of my male main characters have been particularly masculine, not assertive and whatnot in the stereotypical male sense. I try to show vulnerability in my characters, which may be conflicting. What do you guys think? Is it vulnerability that's the issue? And where does sexual orientation fit into the picture?

And I'll be honest Hillsy... Reading your posts here, I've always thought you were female... I feel a bit embarrassed now. :)

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Re: When can you tell the gender of a writer?

Post by wilderness » June 18th, 2012, 8:03 pm

Yeah, I've put down books that have that male "gaze". These are the types of women I find in books written by men:
1) Damsel in distress
2) Crazy femme fatale
3) Robot woman with no emotions
4) Woman who is essentially a man
5) Cute aunt type creature who means well but behaves irrationally

I think adult sci-fi has the worst offenders. My other pet peeve is that these women are either promiscuous or virginal, hardly ever somewhere in between.

On the other hand, I really like Scott Westerfeld's female characters, both in the Uglies series and Leviathan series. I know it's YA so it's a little different from adult female characters. But I like them because these girls are adventurous, strong, and smart without being slutty, emotionless, irrational, or mean. They have flaws--lots of them, but they aren't "girl" flaws, they're people flaws.

I think if you get advice and feedback from female beta readers, and you actually TRY to write decent female characters...you'll be miles ahead of the rest.

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Re: When can you tell the gender of a writer?

Post by wilderness » June 18th, 2012, 8:18 pm

Hillsy wrote:So if I was to consciously decide to make a female protagonist unattractive in the same way, am I guilty of accepting the trope and not doing enough to deal with it from a female vantage. Do unattractive women worry more, or have they swung past caring? Did they ever care in the first place? A broken nose for a man is rarely an issue in entertainment – would an attractive woman become mortified and worried her looks would be ruined?
To answer some of your specific questions:

I think a woman not considered attractive would be tough on the outside but occasionally have moments of insecurity, especially if there is a guy around who she likes. I love Coach Beaste on Glee as an example. Also I'm sure it's a feminine trait of mine that I don't want to call Coach Beaste unattractive--saying she would be not be considered attractive is as close as I can get.

Yes, an attractive woman would be mortified if her looks were ruined, most likely. But backstory can also come into play. I find that attractive women who had an awkward stage in their adolescence behave quite differently from women who have always been beautiful and are used to men bending over backwards for them.

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Re: When can you tell the gender of a writer?

Post by cheekychook » June 19th, 2012, 6:46 pm

I've spent a good deal of time thinking about this issue because I almost always write stories told from dual POV (of the male and female main characters). I've always worried that my male characters are doing/saying/thinking/feeling things that would seem "off" to an actual male person (which I am not). Over time I've found that I can generally tell when I'm doing okay and when I do something totally unrealistic---but there are certainly grey areas where I wonder. I'm lucky in that I've had close male friends all my life, so I'm very well acquainted with how men think. I still questioned how that was coming across in my writing, so I made sure to have several male beta readers, especially early on. I've also participated in several things (online and in writers' groups) where a writing sample is submitted anonymously and the gender of the writer (among other things is debated). I usually submit my guy scenes and they have usually come back with people saying they're unable to tell for sure if the author was male or female.

I know you're talking more about creating realistic characters of the opposite sex , but you might find this interesting. There's a website where you paste in writing samples, specify if it's fiction/non-fiction/blogpost, and the computer program tells you if the writer was male or female by analyzing word us, pacing, etc. I thought it was complete nonsense but I'll be damned if it doesn't say female for every blog entry I've entered, male for every male POV scene I've ever entered, and female for every female POV scene. Freaks me right the hell out, but is oddly comforting at the same time. http://bookblog.net/gender/genie.php

As far as creating characters that are believable and real, don't worry about gender stereotypes more when writing women than you would when writing men. Women come in all types and you're likely just as capable of writing certain types of women well as you are of writing certain types of men well---assuming you agree that all men are not EXACTLY like you. What I mean is, think about what you know about people like the character you're writing. Don't stress about it being someone of the opposite sex, just think about women you've known who are something like what you're writing. Channel them. Study them. (No, I'm not advising that you start stalking women, stop somewhere short of stalking, please. Or at least be discreet. ;) ) Seriously, just as you'd have to sort of put yourself in the shoes of a male character who is different from you, put yourself in the place of the women you're trying to write. And then, after you've written, without question, find a female beta reader. I have several male writer friends and I have often beta'd for them---it stands out right away to me if they write something a woman would never (or not likely) think. Likewise I run my guy-thoughts past my male friends ("is it reasonable that if this happened a guy would react with..."). It's no different than phoning a fireman to ask him if the scene where a house burns down rings true.

Oh, and from your posts here I've always assumed you were male. There are, however, other posters whose gender identity I wondered about for a while before I figured it out.
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Re: When can you tell the gender of a writer?

Post by Hillsy » June 20th, 2012, 9:35 am

Well reading through the replies in my apparent androgeny, or hermaphrody(?) (hehe), seems there's basically 3 catch points....

1) Make a female character as deep and believable as a male character (character 101)
2) Avoid Stereotypes
3) Don't use a very male 'voice'

Right then - I guess using polymath's reasoning, my main concern seems to be this......

I write rather "masculine" female characters, in as much that I write big action/adventure epics and so I kinda need the protagonist to be combatative, assertive and dynamic, often in a physical, "Here's a fist in your chops" kinda of way. Obviously I try and forge that in believability. So I've had a soldier in a male dominated environment, an princess to an unloving king, a flamboyant and slightly sexist outlaw; their all very capable characters who've been moulded somewhat by the adversity they've faced.

So how do I then stop these characters from slipping into the "Man in a dress" stereotype without simply using another stereotype of the woman who only thinks about relationships and motherhood and shoes while doing the "traditional" male jobs of leading and fighting?

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Re: When can you tell the gender of a writer?

Post by cheekychook » June 20th, 2012, 11:39 am

"So how do I then stop these characters from slipping into the "Man in a dress" stereotype without simply using another stereotype of the woman who only thinks about relationships and motherhood and shoes while doing the "traditional" male jobs of leading and fighting?"

By remembering that no matter how tough she is, or how good she is at what she does, she's simultaneously still a woman and, as a woman will still have SOME trait, of some sort, that is defined as "female." It doesn't have to be a shoe obsession or getting googly-eyed about relationships or longing for motherhood---I assure you not all women experience those in any combination or even at all. But give her some feminine quality. Maybe she craves chocolate during stress (commonly associated with women and not really a weakness as there's a legitimate chemical explanation for why). Maybe she has a soft spot for babies even though she doesn't want one herself but the soft spot is there because she's godmother to her best friend's baby and this is meaningful or because she raised her kid sister after their parents died. Give her something that reminds us that she's a fully-dimensional personal who happens to be female.

I used to belong to an organization that would box up supplies to send to soldiers overseas, often soldiers in remote locations with little access to shops or even basic supplies. THere was a website where thy could post wish list items. It always struck me that the female soldiers, no matter how hard as nails they seem, or how "masculine" most of their requests were (beef jerky and underarmour shirts) they very often tacked on a note like "and some good-smelling hand lotion or nail polish---we are still women, even though it's hard to tell sometimes." I think that's what you need. To toss in the whatever it is that will remind readers (and you) that your character is still a woman. Because if there's not something about her that makes her uniquely a woman, you might as just write her as a male character, right?
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Re: When can you tell the gender of a writer?

Post by Mark.W.Carson » June 20th, 2012, 11:42 am

I have an opposite problem. My male protagonist starts out rather weak, and unable to fight, and then comes off as somewhat feminine to some readers. Alternately, my wife has told me she wishes there were more female characters with higher levels of authority in the book... I can't please everyone.

What I need now is to be able to write a likeable love interest whose role is not simply "Love interest."

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Re: When can you tell the gender of a writer?

Post by Doug Pardee » June 20th, 2012, 11:53 am

I dunno... for those types of characters — tough women — it's difficult to put a feminine edge on them. I'm not sure it's necessary.

From a commercial standpoint, it appears that this isn't a big concern. In Carl Sagan's movie Contact, Ellie could just as easily have been a man with almost no change in story or dialogue except for the brief interlude with the preacher. Janet Evanovich does very well selling her Stephanie Plum series, and one thing that put me off from the series is that, at least in the first book, Stephanie's feminine aspects are caricature. Stieg Larsson stripped all of the femininity from Lisbeth Salander, and people love her.

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Re: When can you tell the gender of a writer?

Post by cheekychook » June 20th, 2012, 12:01 pm

mark54g wrote:I have an opposite problem. My male protagonist starts out rather weak, and unable to fight, and then comes off as somewhat feminine to some readers. Alternately, my wife has told me she wishes there were more female characters with higher levels of authority in the book... I can't please everyone.

What I need now is to be able to write a likeable love interest whose role is not simply "Love interest."
No, you can't please everyone. Someone will always have a problem with something.

What genre is the book?
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Re: When can you tell the gender of a writer?

Post by polymath » June 20th, 2012, 12:02 pm

Besides feminine voice, writing credible female characters might realize settings where women exhibit their feminine gender identity strongly. Before getting into detail, portraying credible female characters involves plot to a degree too, as well as ideas or themes that are unique to women, and character development and events.

A philosophy of the New Feminist Art Movement is a guiding principle, not radical or reactionary Feminism, which mostly dresses women in parachute pants and the Anarchist's Cookbook, but art that expresses the unique lives of womankind. "Unique" is the key. When writing the Other, and I mean the "Other" as anyone not part of one's own identity groupings, idiosyncracy and idiom distinguish individuals from stereotypes, stock characters, and archetypes. wilderness names several of the stock and archetype female characters common in literature, missing one common tradition; that is, the hooker with a heart of gold. Speaking of the "male gaze," note that action-adventure male protagonist's rarely contend with female characters. Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer murder-mystery franchise is one exception.

A unique female character or even writing a female narrator, writing a unique female fiction persona, involves at the foundation, founding, so to speak, a unique female life problem wanting satisfaction. That speaks to plot's core, and by extension, setting, idea, character, event, and voice. A problem wanting satisfaction speaks to a dramatic complication, that in turn speaks to a dramatic conflict, theme, and other central, pivotal features of drama--tragedy or comedy--vignette, anecdote, sketch, and even picaresque, whatever narrative form.

For a man to write a credible female character he needs to understand or at least empathize with womankind's unique life. Not to imply that a male writing a male persona doesn't also need to understand and write unique menkind personas and lives.

Nitty-gritty time. What's unique to womankind? Biological functions that cause episodic vulnerabilities. Period. Birth control and hygiene products liberated womankind to a degree from those immediate concerns. Empowerment of women, a cultural and social phenomena, lags behind the technology. What's then the want that distinguishes women's needs from men's needs? A need for a community that provides sanctuary from the harsh realities of life abroad from the interior life. Where men strive to stand alone, supreme, and champion of life abroad from an interior life, or hide to lick their wounds from a previous contention, clash, or confrontation.

Alone, away from community, seeking the sanctuary of strength in numbers, are female problems wanting satisfaction, for example. Portraying them uniquely is a matter of situation-specific circumstances.

Starting with a broad theme, that of an individual in society, develop a related dramatic conflict, say of alienation; therefore, acceptance or rejection. Then a dramatic complication, a problem wanting satisfaction: Miss Jane Doe moves to a new locale, fleeing unwanted attentions from a persistent ex. Leaving a supportive community that let her down, she seeks a new community to build strong bonds.

Miss Doe encounters rejection at every turn due to her desparate need for acceptance. That's causation, from struggling to fulfill her need causes her problems. She's a clingy and high-maintenance friend. Therein is a possible source for portraying her uniquenesses: how she exhibits her desparateness, how she handles rejection, and how she goes about attempting to build bonds. In other words, develop her character through her problem wanting satisfaction.

Thus Miss Doe is on a personal journey. A comedy outcome would find her settled into a strong community; tragedy, rejected and come to an accommodation with her plight. Though for a personal journey she might be rejected by the community but experience a profound personal growth. She finds the strength to go it alone and puts paid to her persistent ex. Then, lo and behold, a supportive community springs up around her. Huzzah!

This is valid regardless of whether a female is lead character, supporting character, auxilliary, nemesis, or villain: What's my motivation? What do I want most? What's my problem wanting satisfaction? Give a dramatic persona an accessible and credible motivation that clashes with other personas' motivations and the character development will fall into line.
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Re: When can you tell the gender of a writer?

Post by cheekychook » June 20th, 2012, 12:10 pm

Doug Pardee wrote:I dunno... for those types of characters — tough women — it's difficult to put a feminine edge on them. I'm not sure it's necessary.

From a commercial standpoint, it appears that this isn't a big concern. In Carl Sagan's movie Contact, Ellie could just as easily have been a man with almost no change in story or dialogue except for the brief interlude with the preacher. Janet Evanovich does very well selling her Stephanie Plum series, and one thing that put me off from the series is that, at least in the first book, Stephanie's feminine aspects are caricature. Stieg Larsson stripped all of the femininity from Lisbeth Salander, and people love her.
I didn't mean she needed a characteristic that made her weak or soft---people love Lisbeth because she's so edgy and dark. She's still distinctly female. People love Lara Croft because she's tough and hot. Being tough and bitchy can, in fact, be a uniquely feminine defining feature. There's still no forgetting the character is a woman in any of these examples.

Ellie, in Contact, showed intense vulnerability in spite of trying everything in her power to fight against that. I disagree that she could have been male or that the story line would have worked as effectively if it didn't include the relationship with the preacher, which carried through the entire story and was significant at the end (it wasn't just a brief interlude). For a male character to have had the same revelation and character growth things in the story would have needed to be changed.

Obviously all just my opinion. And a lot of this depends on the nature of the character and the genre of the book at hand.
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Re: When can you tell the gender of a writer?

Post by polymath » June 20th, 2012, 12:33 pm

cheekychook wrote:I used to belong to an organization that would box up supplies to send to soldiers overseas, often soldiers in remote locations with little access to shops or even basic supplies. THere was a website where thy could post wish list items. It always struck me that the female soldiers, no matter how hard as nails they seem, or how "masculine" most of their requests were (beef jerky and underarmour shirts) they very often tacked on a note like "and some good-smelling hand lotion or nail polish---we are still women, even though it's hard to tell sometimes." I think that's what you need. To toss in the whatever it is that will remind readers (and you) that your character is still a woman. Because if there's not something about her that makes her uniquely a woman, you might as just write her as a male character, right?
Toss in? Okay. But what would women soldiers asking for aromatic products mean in the context? Meaning is key. Foul smells are not good for community bonds. They are alienating at times when what a woman wants most is supportive community. On the other hand, strong perfumes could give away the unit's position and maybe even identity to the enemy.

Perfume thus becomes a motif, perhaps symbolism, if given in concert with similar problems wanting satisfaction. Not imagery, which is symbolism also but from visual sensations.

Other woman's wants for motifs on the battlefield that are difficult to satisfy are warm and fuzzy pajamas and silky, slinky apparel. The overarching needs are those of personal comfort and attracting welcome attention. The last thing anyone wants on a battlefield is to attract attention. Other similar basic woman's wants: food, yes, for psychological comfort, though not unique to women; recognition by a group, the stock battlefield archetype is a tom boy playing grownup boys' games, another is the hooker with a heart of gold, another is the brass-drawered big woman with a sharp tongue and the muscle behind it to barge in on men's contentious arguments.

Tie motifs together based on a problem wanting satisfaction and the meaning of them draws together. Meaning, that's what's significant for emotional subtext, motif, imagery, symbolism: expressing intangible meanings through concrete meanings.
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