This is a repost of a response I did for one of my grad classes. I'd love to know what you think!
Warning – this post might include inadvertent sexism and/or stereotyping.
Not too long ago, my husband and I talked about writers writing protagonists of the opposite gender. This probably stemmed from the fact that Matt's current works involve female protagonists. I stated that I believe it is easier for women to write as men than vice versa. Matt replied, "It is both socially and craftily harder for a man to write as a woman than it is for a woman to write as a man." (Yes, he made up the word craftily).
For an example, we talked about Stephen King and his wife, Tabitha. In Tabitha's book, The Book of Reuben, she writes a very strong male protagonist. However, Stephen King, doesn't manage to grasp the female perspective as well (for a good example, see A Bag of Bones).
Personally, I don't even think Shakespeare could pull off a good woman. Take for example Othello. Desdemona was such a doofus!
The reason I believe this (I won't presume to state why Matt thinks this) is because women are more emotionally complicated than men. True, some male authors manage quite well to write from the female perspective. Arthur Golden's Memoirs of a Geisha, Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, Nicholas Sparks (though I can't stomach his books!), Phillip Pullman and others had believable female characters.
Yet, oftentimes when I read a man writing for a woman, the woman seems to come off as either too emotional or not emotional enough. Men either don’t seem to grasp the complexity of a woman or they over think that complexity.
However, when I was thinking about this, I realized there is one genre where it seems that male authors are more able to get away with (or better skilled at) writing women. That genre? Fantasy, of course!
So, this got me thinking. Are fantasy writers considered better at writing women because we will allow more latitude with women in fantastical situations? Since the female protagonist in a fantasy is not quite of the world we know, do we not expect that females emotions to be like a woman in this age?
To answer this question, what better book to look at that Terry Pratchett's Monstrous Regiment, where every character is a woman?! I will admit that Pratchett might be a bit better off in the challenge of writing women since his women are pretending to be men, but...
When I first started reading the book, I immediately felt a little uncomfortable with Pratchett's description of Polly/Oliver. Why? Because of how he described her flat chest. The only emotion Pratchett gave Polly was "sheer annoyance that a haircut was all she needed to pass for a young man. She didn't even need to bind up her bosom..." (1). Women with small chests feel one of two things – pride for that chest, or self-conscious inadequacy. Polly should have felt that annoyance that she could pass off as a man because of her chest. However, unlike Pratchett described, she should have kept feeling that way for quite some time.
I got over this, though. I believe I got over this because Polly doesn't live in a world where normal things are happening. Of course she shouldn't feel normally, right?
It's even harder to try and claim that some of the other women are acting like women because, really, what experience do we have with vampires and zombie-like things? How can any reader complain that Maladict(a) and Igor(ina) aren't acting like real females of their species should be?
The question then remains, when we suspend our disbelief of what should happen in a fantasy world, do we often suspend our disbelief of how a woman should act and think? I think we do.
So, for any of the men out there who would like to write female protagonists – your best bet is to put them in a fantastical situation.
It was recently brought to my attention by a very smart lady that I need to prioritize my life. I need to decide what's important to me and the goals I want to accomplish. Blogging will not bring me a book deal despite some very recent and popular movies that glorify blogging. Okay, so it might bring a book deal to SOME people, but it's certainly not a common occurrence. So, at what point do you sacrifice your novel writing time to blog? And do you have to make a sacrifice at all?
I don't believe so.
So I blog for fun. I have two blogs now, soon to be four. Though I imagine I will be doing more re-posting from blog to blog to steal time back for my "real" writing in the future. I do enjoy getting my thought out into the interwebz for anyone to read. I'm not 100% anyone DOES read this but I plug on despite that. All in due time, right?
In any case, I could stop in order to focus on the elusive Great American, award-winning, novel that somehow hasn't managed to write itself despite how brilliant I am. Well, brilliant, I may be, but motivated? That's another story.
Whether it's a distraction or the push I needed, blogging has brought the joy back to writing for me. And that, for now, is what makes this worthwhile. So for the moment, I guess this is up there on the priority list.
Following Natalie's cue, I'm posting one of my school blogs here...this one also deals with reader expectations. You can read more at http://blogs.setonhill.edu/MattDuvall. In her book Sexual Anarchy, Elaine Showalter contends that Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr.Hyde is actually describing "the nearly hysterical terror of revealing forbidden emotions between men....a case study of male hysteria" (107). She goes on to further state her case, citing the use of the word "queer" (112) and the way the "male homosexual body is also represented in the narrative in a series of images suggestive of anality and anal intercourse" (113).
Showalter's assertions are interesting, and should remind us as writers that while we may think we are just spinning a simple tale of multiple personality disorder, our readers will bring their own ideas to the story. They may end up reading things we did not write, or may sense a subconscious subtext that, real or imagined, we did not intend to include. However, in this case it seems that Showalter may be over-reaching in her analysis of the story.
First, Showalter begins by suggesting that the author may have been gay. She writes that "Stevenson himself was the object of extraordinary passion on the part of other men" (107). While she does go on to say that "Stevenson's real sexuality is much less the issue in Jekyll and Hyde" (107), she implies that the book is a way for him to explore his own conflicted personality and most secret desires.
Using this logic, however, Stephen King is (or at least wants to be) a mass-murderer, Jennifer Cruisie has had sex with legions of men (doubtful), and Mark Twain was a racist. Likewise, even if the book is a discourse on homosexuality, it doesn't automatically follow that Stevenson was gay.
Showalter cites examples of the personification of homosexuality in Jekyll and Hyde--"Hyde travels in the 'chocolate-brown fog' that beats about the 'back-end of the evening'; while the streets he traverses are invariably 'muddy' and 'dark,' Jekyll's house, with its two entrances" (113) is, to Showalter, the most explicit example of a man's body.
I had never noticed these things before, but after the Showalter article I started seeing homosexual references everywhere. Stevenson writes "the stick with which the deed had been done...was...rare...wood" (34). When Utterson and Enfield encounter Dr. Jekyll at one point, they have a conversation where Utterson tells Jekyll "'You should be out whipping up the circulation like Mr. Enfield and me'" and Jekyll replies "'I should like to very much; but no, no, no, it is quite impossible; I dare not'" (Stevenson 52). Near the end, "where Jekyll perhaps might have succumbed, Hyde rose to the importance of the moment" (Stevenson 95).
It is interesting how a work of fiction may have many interpretations, and how, once exposed to a certain point of view, the reader may begin to see evidence supporting that particular interpretation. For example, some reviewers feel "the relationship between Jekyll and Hyde is also characterized as almost a father and son relationship, and reflects further ambivalence on Stevenson's part towards living in a house purchased for him by his father" (Danahay 129). At the time of its publication, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was "quoted widely in sermons...as an example of the dangers of sin and vice" (Danahay 134).
So, is Stevenson's book rife with homosexual imagery? In an effort to study reader expectations, I picked a sampling of books from my own shelf and inspected them for passages that could be construed as relating to homosexuality or the human body. Here is what I found. Charlotte Bronte swings both ways in Jane Eyre. Early on the narrator says "to-night I was to be Miss Miller's bedfellow; she helped me to undress" (Bronte 42). Later, though, Jane's attention turns to "Mr. Brocklehurst, buttoned up in a surtout, and looking loner, narrower, and more rigid than ever" (Bronte 59).
Despite Dumbledore's predilections, J K Rowling mostly focuses on hetero (if somewhat underaged) desires. In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, "Hermione grimly" tells Harry to "'Watch your frog, it's escaping'" (Rowling 374). Harry realizes too late that "he was indeed squeezing his bullfrog so tightly that its eyes were popping" (Rowling 375). However, there are a few homosexual images, as Hermione has "suspected this ever since Filch accused you of ordering Dungbombs" (Rowling 374).
Even Elmore Leonard can not resist including homosexual images in his writing. In Leonard's The Hot Kid we find this very revealing passage: "'Yeah, picking nuts. But he's always let me have my head'" (171).Obviously, these examples are very contrived and almost (or extremely) silly. However, they do prove that we as readers can inject almost any context we wish into a book, and then find the evidence to support our claims. It is important to look at ourselves and our own prejudices when we are examining writing. The danger of reading too much into a work is that we will be unable to convince others when we have valid points. For example, while Showalter probably has many good and interesting ideas, I will view any literary criticism of hers with suspicion in the future.
As I read David Punter's analysis of Robert Bloch's Psycho, I found many valid points in his discussion of the novel. I found some things especially interesting. One of the things that stood out to me was Punter's note that "...it is a double death which is referred to, the deaths of a man and a woman; although the deaths do not actually occur simultaneously" (Punter 96). I can see how the original murders - those of Norman's mother and her lover - connect in the murderers mind with these two later murders. And that's when I got to thinking. Does it have to be this way? Did Bloch have to think all these things, to plan all these deeply insightful journeys into his pyschopath's mind? Or did Bloch one day just sit down at his typewriter (that's what they used to write with in the 1950's, right?) and say, "Man, wouldn't it be great if there was this guy who killed these people dressed up in his mother's skin?!" I had these same thoughts when reading The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and discussing the possibilities of homosexual undertones in the story. Why couldn't Robert Louis Stevenson, gay or straight, just write a great story about a guy who managed to split himself into two personalities, one good and one bad? Why do we search for hidden agendas and not just proclaim the beauty of a great plot? Am I thinking this just because I don't have veiled meanings in my stories? If someone were to read my work, would they wonder about latent lesbian tendencies or how well I delved into the psyche of a Regency era woman? Would it matter if they did? Heck, I might actually be flattered that they did - and then I'd run with it and say that was exactly my intent. I know that Plato and Fish and Wolff have all debated literary theory before me, but I still wonder when plot is more than plot and words are more than words. What makes it not enough for a writer to simply tell a good story? Is there something wrong with the reader if he or she tries to dig up a meaning behind the words? What makes us as readers search for hidden meanings? Are we scared that someone like Bloch might tell a story of a shower-time decapitation without having multiple layers of psychoanalytical meaning? What would happen if all the stories we read were just that, stories? People would have to look at themselves, then, for the reaction a story created. I think that's why we love to give deeper meanings to works of art. If Stevenson didn't intend to put homosexual allusions in his story, then that means there is some part of us that sees those images in the text. That's what scares us. It's okay if an author put something in his or her story. It's not okay if we take something out of the story. Especially in horror fiction, if we see our own meaning in a story, it means that we can relate to the story. To relate to a horror story is... well, it's horrifying! No one wants to admit that they could understand why someone would have a sexual relationship with a lock of hair. So, I say to you, we need to look for the deeper meanings in literary criticism. It is clear that David Punter had mother issues. In fact, more than that, he struggles with his sexual identity. Because of how his mother treated him, he wants to turn himself into a woman, though he struggles with how to become a "young girl with beautiful breasts" (Punter 95).
Punter, David. "Robert Bloch's Psycho: Some Pathological Contexts." In American Horror Fiction: From Brockden Brown to Stephen King. Ed. Brian Docherty. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1990. 92-106.
The Thin Man turned and walked into the darkness. with every left step, he bent at the waist and with every right step he straightened. Mitch thought it strange at first but as they continued through the void, he grew used to the shuffle and snap of those steps.
"Where are we going?" Mitch asked after a very long period of silence.
Thin man's upper torso snaked around, his head the last thing to turn. "Hold up the orb."
Mitch held it in front of him. Initially, when it had been shoved into his hand, it had glowed brightly. Not long after it dimmed to a dull glow.
"You have to be thinking of light for it to glow."
Mitch glanced at the orb. It seemed silly to think the orb into lighting. He shrugged. This moment was as ridiculous as any other moment since walking through the cellar door. He imagined the green light he witnessed earlier filling every dark space around him and baring every wall, crack and crevice of where ever he was standing.
He glanced at Thin Man, disbelief and distrust evident throughout every part of him.
"You have to do more than imagine, little man. You have to believe the light is there for it to work."
Mitch scoffed. Belief? That was the best Thin Man could think up?
"Close your eyes," he hissed. "Close your eyes and imagine the light. Open your eyes knowing the light is there and it will be."
Mitch sighed, impatient, but then did as he was told. He closed his eyes, held the globe high, imagined the green light emanating around him and opened his eyes believing it was there.
Mitch looked around him at a long hall filled with doors. In front and behind him, the hallway seemed to have no end and no beginning, though in theory, he came from the beginning when he entered this place. "So now what?"
"Now, we pick a door."
"What's in all these rooms?"
"Places, people. Much like yourself, little man."
Mitch felt a tingle at the back of his neck and behind his ears. Something about what Thin Man said didn't sit right with him but he wasn't sure he wanted to know what was wrong in light of everything that had happened to him.
"So where are we now?"
"Now? We're no where now. We're in a long hallway with an infinite number of doors that lead to all kinds of places. Right now, we're in limbo, we're in the void, the abyss. Nothing happens here, except waiting and indecision." Thin Man's eyes darted left then right. He snaked a finger into Mitch's collar and pulled him close. His hot, fishy breath invaded Mitch's ear with every word that he whispered.
"You never know what you'll get when you open one of these doors. Some say there are stairs that lead to other floors but I've never found them. Other's say you can find your happiest dream here or your worst nightmares. Still others say you can find your way back to where you came from. But I never have."
Mitch stared straight ahead. Stairs? Where was he? With each passing moment, he grew more curious about this place he discovered. More curious, and more concerned. What if he never found something good here? So far, this place had been...uncomfortable. What if it got worse?
He would find the stairs. He would find the best doors in this place. And eventually, he would find his way home.
He walked toward the door in front of him and placed his hand on the shiny brass knob. As the door cracked open, he saw the most blinding light at the opening. The door, once cracked, sprang open, the white light spilling into the hallway. Mitch stepped through, pocketing his green orb.
Behind him, the door cracked shut and when he turned around, the door was gone.