Can we say any more that a specific gendered character will act in a certain predetermined way, based primarily on that individual’s gender? I once had a guy critic my writing by saying that it wasn’t realistic because my male protagonist admitted to fear and weakness. Guys would never do that, this male critic said. But recently I read a novel in which the main character (or at least one of the point of view characters) did that precise thing—clearly, out loud, in front of other people, admitted his failure. The character proclaimed, in the face of others praising him as a great man, that the only way “great” applied to him would be as a great failure. The problem is that this novel was also written by a woman. Are we seeing writers who are somewhat blind to traits of the opposite gender?
Which brings up a whole can of worms. How does gender influence fiction? The gender of the author, the gender of the characters?
Can women misunderstand and misrepresent men in fiction? Or can male authors do the same to their women protagonists? Should authors avoid featuring characters of a different sex from their own?
At present, our society is so gender sensitive, our current Speaker of the US House of Representatives and her Democratic Chairman of the Rules Committee “introduced the new set of rules for the 117th Congress. It included several changes from the rules package for the 116th Congress, including using gender-neutral language instead of gender-specific language in references to pronouns and familial relationships.” (AP) As I understand it, this rule for the House is not a ban on such
specific terms as mother and father, son and daughter, and aunt and uncle.
Instead, only gender-neutral terms such as “parent,” “child,” “sibling” and “parent’s sibling” would be allowed in the text of the House rules. (New York Post; emphasis is mine)
Although this language applies to a fairly narrow aspect of government, it nevertheless points to the increased awareness of “gender issues,” specifically the idea that people can choose their own gender, no longer “limited” to two, but open to as many as 64 different gender terms that describe a person’s gender makeup (Healthline).
Of course, the discussion includes both biological traits and societal-cultural aspects. Some are imposed on an individual by society—something that has been criticized for some time—IE, girls don’t have to like pink or dolls or tea parties and boys don’t have to like trucks and army men and making loud noises (Vrrrrmm, vrrrmm, vrrrmm being an all time favorite). On the other hand, as is more often the case today, individuals are imposing on society their own understanding of gender. Hence, the House Rules change.
But how does this all play out in fiction?
Some time ago a writing instructor told me that male characters should not be adept at identifying a wide range of colors, such as beige, mauve, or turquoise? Are there still majority cultural ideas surrounding gender that can and should define a character? Or is the best plan to include as few gender specific references, or identifying markers, as possible?
Not so long ago, I read a general market young adult novel in which the main character, a girl, played the part of a boy joining the army. It fulfilled her life-long dream, and oh by the way, it protected her impaired twin brother from being conscripted. But because girls were not allowed in the army, she had to play the role of a young boy. The book was quite frank about the biological problems the character had to navigate, and the contempt some of her companions had for her lack of upper body strength.
I’ve read other books with a similar concept, but I wonder now if such stories that tinker with gender roles will survive. Or how about movies like Some Like It Hot (1959 with Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis, Jack Lemon) or Tootsie (1984 with Dustin Hoffman and Jessica Lange)? Are these stories destined to be banned one day, to be looked at as threatening in the same way as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has become in the arena of race?
Of course, for Christian writers, there’s also a need to look at our writing through the lens of Scripture. Some years ago, guest blogger Mike Duran tackled the subject of gender here at Spec Faith in an article he entitled Does Diversity in Fantasy Publishing Reflect God’s Kingdom or Identity Politics? His basic question is this: Is forced diversity really biblical diversity?
Do Christians, then, aim to write to the sensitivities of our culture or to the standards set out by the Bible?
Tootsie photo by Jan Sarkandr Tománek