Friday, 6 April 2018

"She breasted boobily" - when men write women badly

It's been a good few days if you like seeing social media moments in which some women draw attention to and make fun of something crappy that some men do, and then some men become enraged and treat this as the collapse of a free and just society into a fallen, brutal police state where being white and male is the greatest of all punishable crimes.

So, much like any other week, really.  Except that this time it's involved writers and so I've enjoyed it a lot more.

It's not a new thing to acknowledge that some male writers struggle, having of course never experienced real life as a woman, to write fictional female characters who seem authentic.  Maybe it's also a problem when women write men, although I can't say as I have personally noticed. 

What the Twitter discussions I have seen this week have sought to draw attention to is that more than a few men write women, even in first person narrative, as if they are being perceived by men; what gets called the male gaze. They proffer, before we learn anything else about them, a description that emphasises their physical attractiveness - in particular, the attributes that heterosexual men might find most appealing about them. In fact, sometimes that is all we learn about them.

And of course it's really important that we know their breast size and what their boobs are doing at that moment.

Now, plenty of good male writers don't do this.  But I've certainly read some examples that made me cringe and I'm sure these and others ring all the more inauthentic for the women reading them than they do for me. This is particularly true when the story is written first person with a female narrator - in other words, where the male author is trying to tell the story in a woman's voice.  This is where I imagine for many woman readers, as well as male readers who have at least met women, some stories can really lose their authenticity.

Where I have been thinking about this is how it relates to the genre I write in - erotica.

Erotic fiction is a genre often written by women, with the biggest selling names (EL James, Jilly Cooper, et. al) all ladies. But there are men writing erotica too, and where we do, we might well choose to write from a female point of view.  There are all sorts of reasons for that - sometimes, narratively, it just makes sense for the story we want to tell; other times it is a more commercial decision, an understanding that (in heterosexual erotica) male readers might be (needlessly) squicky about reading stories about other men, whereas both male and female readers might well enjoy a story about a woman.

Now, perhaps in some ways, it's hard to make all the same complaints when men write women in erotica. The majority of comments on Twitter about this aren't talking about erotica, after all; they're pointing out when this happens in more mainstream genres (especially literary fiction, young adult realism, and popular fields like science-fiction and fantasy).  In erotica, some of these tropes happen because they are supposed to.

For example, it is hard to see the problem with a female character seeming like a sexual fantasy of a woman in a story which is specifically about a sexual fantasy woman, and inviting the reader to picture the character in an arousing context is arguably actually necessary in a story which is supposed to provoke arousal.  The male gaze which contributes to the sexualisation of women's bodies in other media has less dominance in a medium where all bodies are sexualised by the very nature of the story being told.

But even erotic authors can fall into a trap of giving inauthentic voices to female characters and even in erotica this can be intrusive and spoil the reader's enjoyment of the story.

I say this not as a writer who believes himself to be capable of writing authentic women - I'm not on my high horse here, I'm down in the crowd with the rest of the peasantry.

(Looking back on my work it seems a mixed bag of successes and could-do-betters - I tend to avoid some of the worst and most obvious potholes of men-writing-women but as for whether the end result has any authenticity - especially given that my tendency is towards stories which can't help but objectify the women in them, because of the recurring exhibitionist themes - I cannot say).

As a male writer, I'd love to use this as a learning opportunity, to look at what women writers and readers are saying about men writing with female voices and be mindful of it in future writing.

Nobody is saying men shouldn't write female characters and female voices, or that books can't be sexy and titillating where it makes sense for them to be. You can still write about boobs.

But surely male and female readers can both enjoy better a story where the characters feel real, fleshed-out and rich in dimension, over one where all we really know of the narrator is that she has big breasts and looks good in a dress?

No comments:

Post a Comment