Writing Opposite Genders: A Rant

I pride this blog on authentic real-talk and do my best to always tell it to you straight. So naturally, almost everything here is a matter of my opinion. I’ve spent more than 15 years (that’s over half my life at this point) not only writing but actively studying the craft of writing. So I like to think I have at least a small idea of what I’m talking about.

Now, here’s a topic I’ve seen bounce around various internet groups and writing communities that really irks me, and I think it needs to be addressed. The argument goes something like this:

Actual post taken from a Facebook group

Why does this need to be addressed? Because the ongoing dialogue around the equality and competency of the sexes overshadows something that is incredibly important to the craft itself. Not to mention it downplays a real problem that we, as writers, need to fix, and instead of talking about craft, we inevitably end up here:

Actual comment taken from Facebook
Actual comment taken from Facebook

*For the sake of simplicity, this article refers to gender in the binary sense of male and female. It is not meant to invalidate, minimize, or dismiss anyone who may identify as something different, nor does it reflect my personal views on the subject.

There are so many things wrong with these, but for the sake of this rant I will refrain from the modern feminism wormhole. Instead, let’s focus on the “men can write whatever women can write, and women can write whatever men can write” argument.

Though that argument isn’t completely wrong, it’s not completely true either, so here’s my addendum:

Just because you can write it doesn’t mean you can write it well. And just because you can write it doesn’t mean you should.

I can feel I’m losing a few of you, but hear me out. The idea of gender equality is a nice (and true) one, but it’s often confused with gender sameness (which is not true). As writers, when we do not adapt our writing strategy and tailor it to the other sex (or feel like research isn’t needed), we fail. Every time. And memes get made because of it.

This happens because many writers make the mistake of forgetting to handle men and women characters differently. Why? Because gender equality, in the social sense, demands that they don’t. Though equal, men and women are not the same, and when writing characters of different genders, we need to handle them very differently.

First, Let’s Get Technical

Linguistically speaking, men and women have fundamentally different ways of constructing and using language. This is to such an extent that a trained linguist can (with some exception) deduce whether a writing sample was composed by a man or a woman based solely on the way the language was used.

You don’t have to be a trained linguist to pick up on this either. There have been times where I’ve had to put a book down because I couldn’t stop imagining a woman’s voice in the place of a male narrator. Need an example? I never go anywhere without one.

I’ve heard great things about the novel Gone Girl, but I can’t speak from experience. I don’t think I made it through the first chapter because Nick Dunn’s first-person narrations were just so feminine I couldn’t envision him as anything other than a woman. And it was annoying.

If it was one thing here or there, fine, but it ran rampant throughout Nick’s narrative: his soft tone, the specific details he noticed, his word choice, the associations his brain made, it was just… too womanly for me to believe he was a man. 

Could that have been the author’s point? Maybe. I’ll never know because having to constantly remind myself who the character was in the story kept pulling me out. 

I can’t think of a single male friend of mine (even the artsy ones) who’d not only notice the shape of his wife’s head, but then think enough about it to write two entire paragraphs on how awed he was by it. That’s a woman thing. I can think of least four female friends off the top of my head who’d do that exact thing about their men.

Gone Girl was written by a woman, so it makes perfect sense that she would narrate the world the way she has Nick narrate it. The issue is she did not adapt her way of perceiving the world to fit a male character, so of course, Nick ended up sounding a lot like a woman. 

Actively not sounding like a woman while being a woman is hard! To say “anyone can do it” because the genders are equally competent is wrong, and it minimizes the skill it takes for an author to pull off.

The differences between men and woman are at times so stark they’re often comedic

Experiences Are Vastly Different

Here’s another thing: there are specific occurrences that cannot be imagined or fully understood by the opposite sex, and therefore are very hard (if not impossible) to write about, well… “well.” 

Can a man write a childbirth scene from the perspective of a woman? Sure. But I wouldn’t recommend he do it. The same goes for writing about female menstruation. Or what it feels like to get felt up by a guy who’s never heard of the word gentle. 

Men have almost no frame of reference for those things because there isn’t much of an equivalent for comparison that even I (a woman) can think to accurately compare them too. I could try, but something will get lost in translation. And it’s not a women-specific thing either.

Personally, I wouldn’t narrate what it felt like to get kicked in the balls. I’ve been told what it’s like, but I can’t say from experience, so writing it would be very difficult. If I wanted to incorporate it into a scene, I would talk to a bunch of men before (and after), and probably focus on reactions more than feelings. Why? Because I have no fucking idea what it feels like to get kicked in the balls, and I never will.

Presumption is the Enemy of Good Writing

Men and women perceive/react/experience/etc. the world around them very differently. At times, it’s so different we have problems making sense of each other! Because of this, a male writer should never presume to know more about women than a woman writer; and a woman writer should never presume to know more about men than a man.

Men, you will never understand how a woman perceives her own body better than a woman will. Women, you will never understand what a man wants more than another man will. Assuming you do is not the way to go about trying. And don’t get mad when they tell you you messed something up.

Men are more visual than women when it comes to sexual cues, so it makes sense that a male writer would naturally gravitate toward describing the female body in a more sexualized way. It’s just annoying to us. No woman defaults to seeing her own chest in a sexual way, so writing a female character describing her own chest in a slightly-sexual way is weird and a sign of presumptive writing.

What I don’t understand is why male authors get so defensive when women complain about other male authors handling the female body in weird, slightly pervy ways, or for getting our mindset wrong. Getting something wrong doesn’t make you a bad writer, assuming you’re always right makes you a bad writer.

Women writers get men wrong all the time; do men just not notice enough to point it out? Do they not care? Are they not reading female authors so they just don’t know? That’s the part that baffles me.

Writing from the perspective of another sex/gender/whatever is hard. We have to stop pretending it’s not. From a linguistic standpoint, it’s almost impossible. When writers don’t realize and/or ignore it for the sake of “I can do whatever they can do,” everyone is done a disservice.

Okay. Rant over.

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Moira is a self-identified space cadet currently trapped in the desolate wasteland of Upstate New York. She was first published at the age of nine in an anthology for children that still lives permanently on her bookshelf. Her hobbies include wine, television, and overthinking everything.

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