In 1992 the US author and relationship counsellor John Gray wrote the best-selling book Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus. It magnified the questions around what has been an ongoing topic of debate and intrigue – how are men and women so different? Do they think differently and if so, do they see and therefore write about their respective worlds differently in fiction?
There are occasions when the divide between females and males are used to hide sexism, but often the differences between them are commonly recognised. There are certain biases that are specific to women and men. When men write novels with female characters, these biases often affect how the story is told.
Looking at classic literature, or at studied reading lists, you’ll find there’s no shortage of white male authors who’ve been celebrated for their work. However, you wouldn’t necessarily be able to say the same about women of different ages, social classes and ethnicities. Throughout history, there has been an imbalance around those whose voices and stories get published (usually elite, white men) and those who don’t (women, working-class writers and writers of colour). Therefore, on many occasions, male writers have written from a female perspective – but are they doing it right?
As storytellers, authors must carefully tread the line between appropriation and creative license. If authors don’t know what it’s like to live a day in the shoes of their characters, then how can they ensure their story is a valid representation?
Pamela by Samuel Richardson, described as ‘one of the most spectacular successes of the flourishing literary marketplace of eighteenth-century London‘ is one example of a male author writing a typically male interpretated female character, portrayed as weak and merely a sexual pursuit. Many other early literary classics have been noted for their terribly written (by men!) female protagonists, including Leo Tolstoy’s War andPeace, Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. This 2019 Buzzfeed article provides further damning evidence of ’18 Men Who Need to be Banned from Writing Female Characters Forever‘.
To be frank, most men haven’t lived a day in a woman’s shoes and they therefore know nothing about our experiences, our bodies, our emotions or the many prejudices we face. That ignorance often shows itself in their unauthentic and out of touch representations of women.
Today, in 2020, women have come a long way from the classic and “great novels” of the past. We have proven our worth and gone beyond the limits society often imposed on us, to excel in historically sexist industries like publishing. More and more women authors are being recognised for their talents and the industry is (finally) beginning to show signs of improvement. We have demonstrated that we can not only write stories, but we are even better at writing about ourselves than men. However, there is still a long way to go, including the battle to get a broader representation of authors of colour to also tell their own stories. The best stories (in my opinion) come from authors who can relate to their characters and therefore write more realistic and in turn, relatable characters for readers.
Although efforts at understanding, empathising, and inhabiting the soul of someone whose life experience is not your own enables writers to develop and grow, it really is about time that men left the more significant female characters to women. Women are the ones who know themselves best, so it makes sense that we should be writing about ourselves!