I know I’m a sexy reader *winkwink*, but recently I’ve been thinking that I may be guilty of the very thing I’ve railed about numerous times before on this blog. Am I a sexist reader?
Studies have shown (trust me, there have been studies, I’m just too tired to look them up) that men are less likely to even pick up a book by a female writer, whereas women are equal opportunity readers almost all of the time. And I suppose when it comes down to it, this is true for me. Right now, the two books I’m juggling are Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides (Jeffrey is a man, just to clear that up) and Everything Here is the Best Thing Ever by Justin Taylor (also a man, in case you were wondering). So there’s proof that I read books written by men.
But today on Twitter, Random House was asking their followers to Tweet them the name of their favorite female author, in honor of Women’s History Month (YAY! HISTORICAL VAGINAS!). And I was all, “Huh? How the hell could I just pick one?” Most of my favorite authors are women, and that’s been true since I was a kid. Lorrie Moore, Haven Kimmel, Sarah Vowell, Dodie Smith, Mary Miller, Dorothy Allison, Sylvia Plath, J.K. Rowling, L.M. Montgomery, Beverly Cleary.
So then I put myself in this hypothetical situation: You’re in a bookstore, and you have $15, and you’re trying to pick between two equally priced books: one by a man and one by a woman. Based on that information alone, who do you pick? And honestly, I think I’d pick the book by the female author.
And then I started thinking, “Why?” Why is that true? I think it comes down to the experience of the book. I am more likely to be invested in a story that focuses on a female protagonist. It just feels right. It clicks. When I’m reading a woman’s story, it’s more likely that I’ll have those little moments of reader truths, of oneness with the author, those moments where I put the book down and say, “Hey, I thought I was the only one who thought that!”
But it’s not like all dudes are writing off-putting, chauvinistic, macho books. It’s not like books by men are full of things like, “Don’t you hate how your balls itch all the time?” And I’m like, “Um, no habla.” In fact, men can write female characters just as well as some female authors. That’s the point of writing, right? To inhabit other people and worlds and spaces.
But are they doing it as frequently as women are? And are they always aware of how their female characters might come off, and the roles they occupy in the story? For example, as we’re workshopping scripts in my advanced screenwriting class right now, I’ve noticed that a lot of the time, female characters are simply shoe-horned in, or they’re not there at all, or they play one of the few roles meant for women in film. I realize that film and television aren’t the same as books – in fact, I’d argue vehemently that these are much more sexist spaces than the literary world is. But the rules still often apply.
A few of the roles open to female characters are:
1.) The type-A workaholic, uptight bitch who just needs loosened up by some magical penis.
2.) The classic “manic pixie dream girl,” who exists solely to be quirky and to inject some meaning into the male protagonist’s life. He is her only purpose in the story.
3.) The horrid girlfriend, who will either exist to infringe upon her guy’s man-child mojo, and/or to make it “not as bad” when the man inevitably cheats on her with someone so much “better.”
4.) Madonnas and whores. Madonnas are the cherubic and kind of prudish characters. Whores are hypersexual, temptresses, and all around loose women. Most characters fit into one of these categories. Both are bad: you’re either a prude or a whore, and guys hate prudes and whores (only guys are allowed to be prudes and whores).
5.) The girl next door. She likes baseball and video games. She hangs out with the boys. She doesn’t have her own thoughts or interests. She’s the ideal woman. She’s the madonna every guy wants to turn into the whore.
6.) The ass kicker. She is a bad ass, hands down, but chances are she has a soft side, which will be brought to light yet again by some magical penis. She is also a quick way for writers who are way too literal to squeeze in a “strong” female character, because strong women are always ass kickers.
There are tons of others, of course, but rarely are they flattering. And don’t get me wrong, female writers are guilty of this too (see: most modern-day romantic comedies written/directed by women). But I think the heart of my argument is that I’m sick of seeing female characters through the eyes of male writers (and even male narrators, because a man could easily write a sexist male character while not being a sexist himself), particularly bad male writers. Because when it comes down to it, a good writer should be able to write good characters, regardless of their gender or the character’s gender.
This is something I’ve had to realize the hard way. I admit, I shy away from writing male characters. Right now I’m in the early stages of developing a TV show, and I’m at the point where I’ve got most of my characters and basic storylines mapped out. So I was pitching the show to my sister the other day (because apparently she’s a TV exec, who knew?) and as I talked, it became abundantly clear to me that I needed more male characters, particularly ones that aren’t jerks. So I’m going to devote a lot of energy, as I start thinking about the next stage of development, into crafting some likable male characters. And really, that’s all I ask of all writers. If you’re going to write characters of both sexes, put equal amounts of energy into creating and bringing them to life.