Liberty Henry // Blog Writer
Whenever men write women— particularly cisgender, heterosexual men— their inability to comprehend them is almost always disastrously apparent within the first few chapters, or even the first few paragraphs, of a book. While writers should obviously try to write outside of their own personal experience, at the end of the day, many of these male writers need to at least attempt to sit down with a woman and talk to her. Either way, I’ve found that male writers tend to describe/write female characters in one of a few ways:
For many male authors, the presence of a female character is just an excuse to exemplify their typically mediocre knowledge of the female form. In reality, the women they write about feel more akin to a vague shadow of a woman rather than any substantial person. Simply put, many female characters feel like objects within a story rather than characters with thoughts and feelings. Quite often, female love interests are written as prizes to be won rather than potential partners. Other times, they are like NPCs; no thoughts, no feelings— just existing.
Another aspect of this objectification is that the women in these roles will have no sense of self-actuality or self-preservation. You see this in a lot of the classics, like The Great Gatsby. In the book, Daisy is devoid of any and all personality traits other than being attracted to Gatsby and being generally passive to her own problems. Despite being the driving force of the novel (both figuratively and literally— sorry Myrtle), she doesn’t actually do much. Men fight over her, and Gatsby even dies loving her, but there aren’t many conversations about how she feels and what she wants. She’s just an item in the story.
Clearly, They Skipped Sex Ed
Admittedly, our sexual education system is lacking in a multitude of ways, but I don’t understand the disconnect for, say, a married man with children still not understanding the anatomy of his own wife. This can obviously be applied to real-life circumstances, but I find it concerning when a man writes about, say, a period, and has no understanding of how the woman might react, how her body would feel, etc. Furthermore, they don’t seem to understand how other women would react to their bodies. No, Stephen King, if periods were so taboo back in the ’80s, the other girls wouldn’t have started throwing tampons at Carrie when she started hers. Not to mention how expensive they are…
And then there’s the way that male authors write about women’s chests. It seems the universal cup size in all novels is a 36DD, although I highly doubt cup size description means anything to anyone unless you know the cup-to-fruit scale comparison (which, for anyone curious, 36DD equates to a cantaloupe). There seems to be a general lack of knowledge of both how breasts sit on the body, as well as general physics. I can assure male authors that breasts are not hydroplaning due to walking up or down stairs. I can also assure male authors that breasts do not have personality or emotions— breasts might be “perky” but they’re not going to be “smiling.” Maybe that’s where they’re putting the personalities they forgot to give to their female characters.
Existence Tethered to Men
When male authors do give their female characters, well, characterization, even then, they often are lacking aspirations that do not pertain to the male characters in the story. A female love interest is only that: a love interest. If there are multiple female characters, they will only talk about men. A woman will live and die for a man. The Bechdel Test might’ve originally been a joke (no, really), but it harps on the fact that written women do not exist for themselves.
While there might be some nuance to this, mainly in that the sole purpose of any character is to push the story along, the problem is the lack of depth these women have. Outside of their male counterparts, do these women have hobbies or lives? Do they have families? Or were they just spawned for the sole purpose of talking and falling in love with the male characters?
Sometimes male authors don’t even try to hide it. In the bane of my existence, Dune, it’s a generally mixed bag of female characters. Paul’s mother, Lady Jessica, seems to have more depth at the beginning of the novel, but it slowly weens out. Eventually, she only exists for her son and daughter. Chani is probably one of the worst-written female characters in the original book. She seems generally detached, even after marrying Paul. When some of her family dies off, she seems generally passive to it. One of the final points for both Lady Jessica and Chani is their accepting they will only be remembered as wives.
It would be wrong to say that all male authors write women in this way. In fact, there are plenty of male authors who do wonderful jobs in portraying detailed, three-dimensional female characters. Ultimately, my opinion is that not enough male writers do the necessary research or communicate enough with women, and thus struggle to comprehend how to write them. It isn’t a woman’s job to educate them, but rather a man’s job to make sure they’re putting in the work.