"Miles and miles of perfect skin, I swear I do, I fit right in. Miles and miles of perfect sin, I swear, I said, I fit right in, I fit right in your perfect skin."
- Hole, "Reasons to Be Beautiful"
This is an issue near and dear to my heart, so I'm actually going to respond to it: Can Male Writers Successfully Write Female Characters?
Rod Rees defends his female characters in a way that makes you really appreciate Cormac McCarthy's refusal to write female characters, because he just knows he can't pull it off. Because if there's one thing worse than a man who claims all women are incomprehensible, it's the man who claims to understand all women!
The old adage is write what you know and living in a house with two hi-achieving, confident and very ambitious teenage girls and having an intelligent and thoughtful wife (who happens to be beautiful to boot!) gave me, I thought, something of an insight into the female mindset.
Beautiful to boot! I'm sure that makes her easier to try to understand. Based on his descriptions of them, his female protagonists tend to be young, feisty, and ready and able to market themselves to men. They admire their breasts in the mirror, use their sexual wiles to get themselves out of a tight corner (the backseat of a Volkswagen?), and call themselves "a lush thrush with a tight tush." Rees protests that women do, indeed, objectify themselves. And yes, many women do - many women are constantly preoccupied with their bodies, but about 80-90% of the time, such preoccupation comes from a very scary place of self-hatred and envy. Even my most confident friends say things like, "bad news, I got fat :(" and when they tell their mirror selves, out loud, "I look hot," it's to combat the years and years of negative internal dialogue, their relatives' nitpicking, their boyfriends' secret stash of porn featuring women that look nothing like them, and of course, that ol' bugaboo, the media.
Rees also protests that women - grown-up women, that is, in the "visceral world of adult fiction" - use their sexual wiles. Yeah, also true; some women do. But again, it's accompanied by a whole host of other issues: flashbacks to uncomfortable/negative/non-consensual sexual experiences, fear of "something going wrong," and of course, the above body shame. There's also the issue of personality shame: "I'm too awkward," "I scare people away," "no one likes me," "I'm not popular." I'm not saying guys don't have this too - they do - but that this is a real insecurity experienced by many, many women (pretty much every woman I know) who are under pressure to be the kind of socially-adept coquettes that Rees apparently thinks is standard adult female behavior. And as I argued in my essay on Shirley Jackson
, women who fail to play the social roles assigned to them rarely if ever appear in fiction, and almost never as heroines. This doesn't mean there's not a hunger for them, among both men and women, which is why fucked-up, maladroit women like Kara "Starbuck" Thrace and Lisbeth Salander have proved so popular, and why I've got high hopes for Sonya Cross on "The Bridge." The issue, for me, isn't that Rees writes about women who don't exist. I'm sure they do, somewhere - there's a lot of women in the world - and they're probably fucked-up in ways that Rees can't imagine. The issue is that female characters like his are so obviously a male fantasy, and all they really do is contribute to the huge pile of excrement that is The Portrayal of Women in Media.
What it comes down to is this: spending your life looking at
women does not give you insight into what it's like to be
a woman, to think like one, to act like one. All it does is enable you to create avatars who fetishize themselves. When temporarily transformed into a woman for a movie, Dustin Hoffman came to the astonishing conclusion
that the world was full of interesting women that he had not deigned to talk to, because they didn't meet "his" standard of beauty - because he had been brainwashed. This is a really important discovery that more men need to make. To some extent, it goes both ways, but men have more social tools at their disposal: wealth, power, seniority, wit, or even just being "not creepy." By in large, women are still defined and judged by their physical characteristics.
Once female writers venture into the more visceral world of adult fiction they find this stereotype doesn’t work and hence struggle. Just a thought.
The stereotype, by the way, is the "ideal" heroine who doesn't "see herself as an object of male sexual interest" and doesn't "use her sexual charisma as a means of achieving an objective." This is probably the most woeful, enraging assertion of all, but I guess I shouldn't be surprised that Rees hasn't read a lot of books, or stories, or songs written by women. I mean, if he's really suggesting female writers write female characters who have no idea they're objects of male sexual interest, he really needs to listen to Courtney Love's entire ouevre, for one, and Catherine Breillat's, and Sylvia Plath's. Believe me: we know.
And actually, there are
female writers who write his type of self-fetishizing female characters: teenage girls writing bad fanfiction, copying what they've seen in some romance novels, some erotica, and male-gaze sex scenes. He's got plenty of company.