Gender in pop culture redux: why “men can’t understand women!” is no excuse

One of my early posts on this blog was about gender roles in pop culture, particularly TV shows. I mentioned that Avatar: the Last Airbender is one of the few shows I’ve seen that gets full marks for gender equality, and hazarded the guess that Buffy the Vampire Slayer looked promising but I hadn’t seen enough of it. Now I’ve seen almost three seasons and I can pronounce: yes, Buffy gets 100 out of 100 for gender equality.

It’s not just about whether women are portrayed as tough or smart or competent. It’s about whether women are fully formed characters, with projects of their own, with complex motivations, with their own perspective on the world of the story. When you’re writing a story, for some of the characters you really get inside their heads and figure out what the world looks like from their point of view, and for some you just bring them in as set pieces. In too much pop culture, the female characters — even the smart, tough, competent ones — exist as set pieces for the more fully-realized male characters to interact with.

When I was younger I was talking with my dad about writing characters of the opposite gender, and he theorized that it would be easier for a woman to write from a man’s point of view than for a man to write from a woman’s. I’ve heard a similar sentiment a number of times since then, sometimes to excuse the fact that male writers (who, especially in the sci-fi/fantasy fiction worlds I like to hang out in, are still the majority) don’t write more and better female characters. To those who put forth that excuse, I have two words: Bull Shit. I don’t think women are inherently more complicated or mysterious than men, and whenever I see a man claiming that they are, I suspect he’s just excusing intellectual and emotional laziness.

When a man claims that it’s impossible to understand how a woman thinks, or when he tries to write a female character and fails, I think there’s one of two things going on. First, he may be failing to really see her as a subject, not an object of sexual interest. I’ve read men writing from a female point of view, usually in a sexual or romantic context, and the female character is thinking exactly what the male character would like her to be thinking. She is preoccupied with him and her responses to him, to the exclusion of other thoughts and objects. Real human beings don’t think that way: our complete preoccupation with each other lasts for tiny moments, and in between are all our other thoughts, interests, and concerns.

If you look back on your teenage years, undoubtedly you can recall a time when a person you were crushing on was behaving in a perplexing, unaccountable way. What did they mean? One minute they were sending you strong signals of interest, the next minute they showed complete indifference or dislike. What could be going on? What were they thinking, were they crazy? In retrospect you can (I hope!) see that all their perplexing, inconsistent behavior had a simple explanation: they weren’t really thinking about you in one way or another. You did not register for them. Moments you were sure were a sign of their secret passion for you were accidental, as were moments of brutal rejection. Their behavior was confusing only because you assumed that they were thinking about you as intently as you were thinking about them. They weren’t: they were in their own world, dealing with their own stuff, and you were barely a blip on the radar. (If that’s news to anybody reading, don’t go thinking you’re an eternal nobody: it’s almost certain that you have been in the position of Oblivious Unattainable One to someone else, as well. Really. Even you.)

This happens on an individual basis to boys and girls pretty evenly. But on an overall cultural basis, I think there’s a similar dynamic  going one-way from men to women. Men in our culture are encouraged to view themselves as subjects and women as objects, and when women go about acting as subjects in their own right, it’s darned confusing. Women’s behavior is confusing to men because men are falsely assuming that, at some level, it’s all about them. It really isn’t.

The second problem men have in understanding what goes on in a woman’s head is cultural. Women and men do grow up in somewhat different cultural landscapes, and there are communication patterns, social expectations, markers of status, and other cultural hallmarks unique to each gender. (Need I mention that the degree of difference between men and women, and the specific cultural distinctions, will vary widely depending what larger culture they are in?) A person coming from a different culture is likely to have different beliefs, different prejudices, different goals, and different habits. If we want to understand them, we have to put in a little work learning where they came from, what a particular action means to them, what values and taboos they’ve been given. (And then remember that they are individuals within their culture, with individual judgements on each aspect of it.)

Back to fiction. If you’re going to write, with any goal of creating realistic, multi-dimensional characters, you’re going to have to get comfortable with cultural research, with writing characters that grew up with different pressures and values than you did, but who retain individual judgement and perspective within their culture… just like you did. And get rid of the adolescent “everything my crush does is all about me” mentality. Dare to write women who have rich internal realities, for whom being pleasured by a man is only one among many important goals (or not a goal at all). If you can’t understand women well enough to write some solid, deep female characters, then you are failing in your job as a writer.

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3 thoughts on “Gender in pop culture redux: why “men can’t understand women!” is no excuse

  1. I’ve long said that “men can’t understand women!” is just a reason for men not to try, so it becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy.

    It’s just that men don’t want to have to use their oh-so-valuable brain power to try and work out what women might want or think.

    Like

  2. Well said. I especially like your point about men taking a meta-crush view of women. I hadn’t thought of it before, but it makes a lot of sense.

    Like

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