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Can Men Write Female Characters?

Can Men Write Female Characters?

Ahhhh, I love the smell of misconceptions in the morning. One of the common ones in the world of writing is that if you’re not x, you can’t write about x.
I saw this crop up again the other day. The author expressed the sentiment that men aren’t “allowed” to write female characters any more. The argument is men have reductionist understanding of women. Since they’ve never experienced the world as a woman, they can only write through tropes and stereotyping. Any female character a man writes would either be a misogynistic interpretation or a fetishized, sexualized female object there for male pleasure.

Exhibit A

This is why I say “write what you know” is stupid. If Lawrence Hill bought into this bullshit, he would never have written The Book of Negroes. Why? Because the main character—the protagonist—is a woman. Lawrence Hill is a man. The way this argument goes, Hill could never possibly understand a woman’s experience, ergo he could not write a realistic female character.
I’m not going to say Hill’s protagonist is perfect. The portrayal of any character, whether written by a man or a woman, will loan itself to different interpretations. But damn if Hill doesn’t create a powerful female voice within the confines of his novel. I never once questioned the authenticity of the character. The voice was, to me at least, authentically female.
There are other issues, of course. This woman lived during the 1700s. She was a slave. These are both things neither Hill nor I have experienced. Was her voice authentically historical? Was it an authentic “slave” voice? Nothing in the novel smacked of insincerity or anachronism, much in the same way the character’s voice didn’t smack of being a woman written by a man. Not having the experience, I can’t say for sure it was perfect. Someone else is likely to point out flaws.

Role Reversal

On the other hand, let’s take a look at J.K. Rowling, who wrote from the perspective of a young boy who finds out he’s a wizard. I’m pretty sure Rowling was never a young boy, nor did she find out she was a wizard. (She would have been a witch.) Nonetheless, her portrayal of her characters feels authentic.

Women Writing Women

How about Suzanne Collins, author of the Hunger Games? She wrote and portrayed Katniss. You’d think this would be easy then: a woman writing a young woman. Even if the author didn’t live through trials like those portrayed in The Hunger Games, she’s in a good position to adequately capture the struggles of a young woman. We might even hypothesize that she’d be invested in portraying a “strong” female lead.

Nonetheless, Katniss Everdeen has been criticized as being a “false” feminist sort of character—one who seems to exude strength, but upon closer examination, embodies a lot of very traditional ideas about women, womanhood, and femininity. Katniss, then, doesn’t feel as authentic. She might be more misogynistic than, say, Lawrence Hill’s Ameena.

Stephanie Meyers’ Bella Swan has similarly been criticized as a poor female role model, a character defined solely by the men around her and in her life, despite the fact she’s supposedly the driver of the story. Case in point: Bella attempts to kill herself in order to win Edward back, because she can’t stand the thought of living without him.

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Strong female character? Maybe not …

The Contested Issue of Femininity

What to make of all of this? Well, quite simply put, it’s difficult to write female characters. Why? Because women have occupied such problematized roles in society for so long now. If your female character is kind and sweet, she’ll be criticized for being “too nice” or “weak” or “emotional.” If she’s brash and tough as nails, people will characterize her as a “bitch.” If she’s conservative about her sexuality, she’ll be labeled a prude.  And if she’s too forward, she’ll get branded a slut or a whore.
A woman who relies too much on others to help her out is weak. A woman who does things independently is a loner or anti-social, somehow a “broken” woman. She who wants to be a mother is problematic, as is she who doesn’t want to be a mother.
Men can write female characters. Women can write female characters. Transgender people, agender people can write female characters.
None of those positions guarantees that any female character will be written well. That depends more upon the author as a writer than anything else.
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