Thoughts on Cross-Gender Critique: or, How NOT to Take One’s Balls and Go Home

Because hell, let’s just get it out of the way right now (Photo Credit: The Atlantic).

Anecdote 1): About a year back, I was in a fiction workshop and submitted a piece that was narrated by a female protagonist. It dealt with some pretty heavy themes overall — gender roles, sexual assault in the military — and I personally thought it was pretty timely, pretty badass. Sadly, as is common in workshops, my compatriots in workshop disagreed. Reason? A lot women in the class called bullshit. They held that my intentions were good, but that the character herself was often inaccurate and one-dimensional. She was, despite my best intentions, a stereotype, and they were right to point that out. I’ve since made substantial revisions, for the record, and the results have not only been hopefully tailored to those concerns, but also make for a better, grayer, more complicated narrative. The remarks of those readers, however candid, were enormously helpful; they helped me better my craft and raise my consciousness all at once. I still consider those individuals among my most important readers.

Anecdote 2): I had a dear beloved friend, years back now, who bless her heart used to write all dudes as either cheating douchebags or Aw-shucks-ma’am cowboy stereotypes. I felt NO resonance with any of the men in her pieces, and in fact would have probably wanted to punch them all in real life. I told this friend as much one night over drinks, told her that Look, I want to see these guys of yours functioning more as people, rather than as mere tropes. Did she take the advice I gave her? Dunno. Haven’t read any of her stuff in a while. But I think she heard me at least, and that’s as much as anyone can ask.

Point? It’s not terribly easy to write about gender, no matter where one comes from, and I think on the first couple tries most people are gonna get it wrong. I personally will probably continue to get it wrong. And that’s okay. What matters is being willing to acknowledge those criticisms when they come, and adjusting for it.

I bring this all up because I was fooling around on Kotaku this morning, reading a post on BioWare’s upcoming fantasy epic Dragon Age 3, in which the writing team shared their experiences of how diversity has shaped their writing. To be more specific, it involved a sexual subplot, that seemed innocuous to the male staffers on the team, but which came off the the women as a form sexual assault. In the words of one writer, “it was no longer good-creepy. It was bad-creepy. It was discomforting and not cool at all.” Doesn’t matter what the intent was, only whether or not the writing actually worked. And in this case, for a substantial percentage of the creative team, it didn’t.

As has been long since gathered from my Bark posts and angry Facebook rants, I’m a fairly left-of-center guy. In the words of Murakami: “Between a high, solid wall and an egg that breaks against it, I will always stand on the side of the egg.” I root for the underdog: right the wrongs, fight the good fight, all that. But the fact is this: a lot of social issues are inextricably tied to identity politics, and for all my noble intentions I am still ultimately a white, hetero, cisgender male. That means that in a lot of battles in the Culture War, I can only ever be an ally and never a true combatant. It’s taken me years to be able to accept that fact, and some men, some white people, some straight people simply never do. They get mad instead at being accused of not understanding, or of “mansplaining” (I love that phrase, even though I can easily be accused of it here). As such, the people accused tend to take their balls, so to speak, and go home. I don’t see that behavior generally AS much in the world of the MFA program, but it is still present to some extent, and I think it’s super important for us as writers to be aware of that.

I hear an awful lot of talk about intent in the world of writing: what did the author mean here, what was the author trying to say there. I generally don’t care, either personally or critically. It doesn’t matter what a person want to say, only that they actually succeed in saying it. And that’s a tough job, and no writer can do it alone. I think that, as writers especially, we need to be actively seeking out diverse feedback, whether male or female, gay or straight, cisgender or trans, rather than trusting that we ourselves actually get it (and if you think you get it, go ahead and Google the phrase “White Friends” for me. I’ll wait). Having had a lot of time to think about this, I’ve concluded that the only real “getting it” to be had is just acknowledging that we ourselves operate from a place of ignorance, and simply never forgetting that.

So yeah: that’s your happy thought for the day. I’m going to go write about football now, and beer, and date-rape. Jeah.

1 Comment

  • Sam Ligon Sam Ligon says:

    I don’t think writing a female character, if you’re a man, or a male character if you’re a woman, is necessarily writing about gender. And I think it’s really important sometimes to push characters away from yourself — so that your character’s aren’t you. (On the other hand, I’ve heard fiction writers say that all of their characters are really versions of themselves). But if you want to push character away from yourself, if you’re struggling with discovering who the character is — as separate from yourself– I think writing from the other gender is a great way to do that. Oddly, the times I’ve done it, that female character has in some ways felt more like me than any other characters I’ve written. And I think that might be because I’ve maybe been less uptight about revealing parts of myself in a character if the character’s not male.

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