Don’t Fence Me In: Gendered Writing. Is there a case for it?

This is a kind of follow up to my post on gendered reading a several weeks ago. It is quite apparent that there are societal assumptions and expectations even today about what boys and girls should read and should enjoy reading. Just briefly, I, like others whom commented and other blogs I have read, indicated that this somewhat, in my view, superficial, distinction needs to be rejected in favour of letting boys and girls of any age and adults, choose what they want to read based on what they like and on their capabilities.

This brings me to my thoughts on gendered writing. I posed the title as a question because I am unsure of its prevalence as an issue. I have read many books by both male and female authors and wouldn’t be able to give a percentage or number of how many male versus female authors I have read. My thoughts today lie in the characters and the way men and women write.

Granted, it is easier to write a main character of the same gender as you, the author. I’m doing it. Not because I am a woman, because that’s what appeared to me in the planning. I have a male lead as well and am making attempts to balance out how each acts, what happens to them and so forth, and have tried to balance my supporting cast with male and female characters as well. Why? Because that’s just what fits in my story, but it has me wondering: are female authors more inclined to write a main character who is female and the same for males?

There are many books and series that might suggest this is the case. Certainly some of the best-known classics by Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters feature female protagonists and Charles Dickens has mainly male protagonists, but with a female crucial female characters such as Little Nell. Perhaps these features of their writing were characteristic of the times and places they wrote in – the early eighteen hundreds for Jane Austen and the Victorian era for Dickens. But has society changed that much? I still pick up books by female authors today such as Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander Series or Kate Forsyth’s novels and am greeted by female central characters, but I still enjoy them because these characters are just as strong in mind and spirit as their male counterparts in the novels.

Modern male authors such as Duncan Lay whom I have had the great pleasure of meeting, do write with a central male character, such as Martill in the Dragon Sword Histories. But Martill has vulnerabilities as well as strength. I think this is something that may have changed over the centuries. In past literature, male characters are often shown as quite strong and invincible, and female characters often as demure and passive – what my one university lecturer referred to in relation to fairy tales as the acted upon princess, helpless until Prince Charming came galloping up on his noble steed to rescue her from the dragon’s keep. There are exceptions though. Gretel pushes the witch into the oven. Little Red Riding Hood outsmarts the wolf wafter being cut out of his belly, at least in the Brothers Grimm version. But these are folk tales, once of an oral tradition.

Continuing with fairy tales, Angela Carter has completely inverted the gendered aspect of the way these tales were once told and recorded. The woman gains the upper hand. Bluebeard falls victim to his latest wife, and Red Riding Hood outsmarts the wolf in one tale yet in another it appears that she is the wolf, a motif that can be found in the television show Once Upon A Time.

There are female writers who have written books with male protagonists and one that jumps to mind is Harry Potter by JK Rowling. This is done, in my view extremely well and she also has the balance of male and female characters with strength, weaknesses and vulnerabilities matched. Hermione, Ginny, Luna and who could forget the sass of Minerva McGonagall which I think was at its best in Order of the Phoenix against that horrid Dolores Umbridge, are some of the best and strongest female characters, and they are wonderful role models for young girls, perhaps better than in certain other vampire and BDSM novels.

I have found that male authors can write female characters quite well. CS Lewis wrote Susan and Lucy Pevensie in a wonderful way that I always wanted to be Lucy. She was just as brave and strong as her brothers and sister. This is the one book that sticks out the most for me in this aspect. I am sure there are others though that resonate for other people.

At the far end of the spectrum of what I am referring to as gendered writing is the idea that a person can start out as one gender and by the end of the book, end up as the opposite one. There can only be one book in my mind that executes this well, and that is Orlando by Virginia Woolf. A journey across three centuries roughly from the time of Queen Elizabeth I to 1928, sees a young man begin a journey of transformation. A physical transformation from man to woman, and perhaps, as a result an emotional and internal transformation about who he/she is. This example is perhaps more about how an author of either gender can transform his or her characters into whatever they want and not have to stick to the idea that women write women better or men write men better.

True, as a female, I do find it easier at times to write my female characters but I can just as easily write my male characters. In both instances knowing what makes the character tick is the most essential and helpful aspect when it comes to writing them. But this little post has brought my no further than where I was at the start. I am still not sure we can gender writing as such. A writer’s style may have something to do with his or her gender, but this may not always be the case. And a question that lingers is “should we expect certain styles of writing from an author based on their gender?” And where does genre come into play, because my shelves are teeming with fantasy and crime books by male and female authors. My only conclusion is that, in my view, it may not be effective to gender writing in the way people attempt to gender reading. If this were to happen, then I shudder to think what the world of books would be like for women and the same for men. What would this mean for a man wanting to write romance or a woman wanting to write about something that may be deemed as only appropriate for men to write? What would be deemed appropriate for each gender to write or not write in this scenario? It would seem defining gendered writing, at least for me, is not as clear as defining gendered reading but perhaps one would need to look at the types of books boys and girls are encouraged, perhaps made to read based on gender, As I said before, there are exceptions, and I know I am one. I think I said in my gendered reading post when reading The Famous Five I found myself somewhere between Anne and George – what does this say about me? I am not a girly girl but I don’t hate being a girl either. Being somewhere in between in my life, my writing and my reading is quite amenable to me. So, my dearies, hehehehe, what be your thoughts on the idea of gendered writing and do you think it exists?

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