Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Thursday, 7 January 2010

Reimagining the wedge


Man is defined as a human being and a woman as female - Simone de Beauvoir


Gender. I've never understood the fuss. But then I'm male. I think gender issues are more of a female thing. I've never felt the need to fight over my right to be male. And for a very long time the whole female liberation thing puzzled the hell out of me. But then I was male. I knew growing up there were differences between males and females – long hair, lady-bumps – but I never really thought about women being anything other than a different kind of human, one with long hair and lady-bumps.

As I started to grow older I became aware that we were often treated differently, exposed to different things, pushed in certain directions, but when I looked at the things the girls were doing – playing with dolls, wanting to bake things – I can't say I felt I was having such a hard time of it.

By the time I was an adult I had long realised the difference between having one X and one Y chromosome and two X chromosomes had become an almost unbridgeable gulf. And that puzzled the hell out of me. Granted I've never had long hair and never will (and I do feel I've missed out on something there) and as regards lady bumps I've handled enough to realise, like Steve Martin did, that if I had my own I'd never leave the house and probably get nothing done. So it's probably better that another party hangs onto them on my behalf.

Harris K Telemacher: I could never be a woman, 'cause I'd just stay home and play with my breasts all day. – L.A. Story

At school I was always in the top classes for everything. I can't say I noticed a disproportionate number of girls there and that is the kind of thing I would have noticed at the time these being the third parties in possession of the long hair and the lady bumps that I was interested in at the time. Maybe there were but when the teacher asked a question I don't remember there being a clear distinction between the answers the boys gave and the ones the girls gave. There were no girlie answers, just answers, so, physical distractions aside, I didn't see that there was too much difference between male and female minds. We all agreed that 2+2=4 and stuff like that.

That being the case one might imagine that my library would contain an equal proportion of women writers seeing as one mind is much the same as another once you get it out of its housing and yet the majority of books I have read in my life have been by males. This bothers me. Because I like women. I like women a lot. I've been an honorary woman for years, an honour my wife and daughter bestowed on me.

You can go to university and take Women's Studies but I'll be honest I'd feel very uncomfortable taking Men's Studies. I'd feel I was missing out. It was like in school when the boys went off to play football or rugby and the girls trotted off to play netball or hockey. From a very early on this wedge was being driven between us. I didn't like it then and I don't like it now. I don't like any 'them and us' situation. In America you can take African American Studies. I have to wonder if there's anyone running a course in African American Women's Studies. Where do you draw the line?

And yet clearly one exists. So I have to live with it. If I pick up a book by, let's call her 'Mary Doll', I immediately think: Ah ha! This is by a woman. And a whole series of expectations click into place. I can't help it. Now, those expectations are not necessarily bad. I don't think: Oh no! A woman. But then neither do I go: Oh yay! A woman. Personally I don't want to go anything. I want to read the blurb and maybe a bit of the first page and judge the book purely on its own merits and nothing else. But I can't because there's that damn name sitting there telling all my preconceptions to jack-knife into place. Snap! Snap! Snap! Snap!

winds of war Okay, okay, okay… A question. Is there a difference between women's writing and men's? If a woman wrote a description of a cat crossing the road and a man wrote a description of a cat crossing the road, would we be able to tell? Granted often women write books that are targeted at a specific (i.e. female) audience but then males do exactly the same – I wouldn't want to read a Jilly Cooper (despite Ian Rankin's recent recommendation of her on The Book Show) any more than I would a Herman Wouk; that said I have just bought a novel about the Vietnam War written by a Vietnamese woman so go figure – more of that once I've actually read it. So we airbrush all that lot out of the picture and take a subject that is non-gender specific and ask our question again: Is there a difference between women's writing and men's?

A similar question cropped up at the recent Aldeburgh poetry festival: Do women write 'female' poetry? They hosted an event called 'The Female Poem', which boasted a distinguished panel of writers: Maureen Duffy, Annie Freud and Pascal Petit. It was so popular that it sold out in minutes and had to be moved to a larger hall. The consensus?

As you might guess, there was no final agreement as to whether there is a distinctly female poetic sensibility: some thought that you could pinpoint a unique openness to the world and the body in women's writing, others thought these were exciting options for any writer, just as territories that might be seen as particularly masculine are open to everyone. – 'Do women write "female" poetry?', The Guardian

Needless to say the article garnered a load of responses. My thought on the subject is that if you don't talk about the elephant in the room it's not that no one will notice that there's an elephant in the room but it might just wander out of the room of its own free will. I think as long as issues of gender are talked about people will be constantly looking out for differences, more differences than simply long hair and lady bumps.

You might think this is an odd place to bring up a shower scene but I'm going to bring up a shower scene. I don't know how many of you ever saw the science fiction film Starship Troopers but there's a scene in the film where the squad is showering together. It's a communal shower and no one's batting an eye; they’re all simply soldiers. Now I have no doubt that the male soldiers noticed the lady bumps and the lady soldiers noticed the male dangly bits but once you stop making a fuss about them then you can relax and have your shower in peace or as much peace as one can expect when in a room with a bunch of naked squaddies.

Starship Troopers Shower Scene


I know a lot women – I would expect the majority probably – object to the term 'poetess' in the same way that so many women these days have become actors as opposed to actresses (and yet I'm sure none of them would refuse the Oscar for Best Actress on the grounds that it's outdated and sexist). I remember my wife made a fuss about the title of this poem when I first wrote it:


(For Erica Jong)

I cannot live without
poetry in my life.

And I cannot live without you.

You make the words make sense
and gift them their meanings:

those strange, dark and sensuous thoughts.

The words were there before
and yet they meant nothing.

I guess they were waiting for you.

22 April 1997


which puzzled the hell out of me because I wasn't trying to be offensive. The very opposite. I mean, if we're going to abolish the term 'poetess' why not go the whole hog and abolish the term 'woman' – isn't it sexist? We can all just be people from now on. I think 'poetess' is a beautiful word and you can't just call the poem 'The Poet' because it's gender specific and who wants to call their poem 'The Woman Poet'? Not me.

Now I know back in the day there was SO MUCH cause for women to have to fight for basic rights like the right to vote or not be physically abused by their mates. I am not trying to suggest for one minute that women do not have a lot to bitch . . . sorry, moan . . . about. But I think the more we keep drawing attention to even the possibility of differences the more there will be differences.

Now, albeit an honorary woman I am still not a real woman so I have no choice but to write this from a male perspective. But is there not a point here?

Riders_-_Jilly_Cooper In her article Could "She" be a "He"?, Connie gives us the pseudonyms of a number of romance authors who are actually males. And one might ask the question: How many males read romance novels? I mentioned Ian Rankin earlier. On The Book Club, which is a programme on SkyArts if you're unfamiliar with it, the guests are asked to name the literary character they can most identify with or would like to be. The crime writer Ian Rankin picked a character from a novel by Jilly Cooper; I think the book was Riders ("the first of a series of romance novels known as the Rutshire Chronicles, which are set in the fictional English county of Rutshire" – Wikipedia) and the character, 'Jake Lovell'. He admits that the only reason he read the book in the first place was he was on holiday and it ended up as the only book in the place they were staying that he hadn't read but he loved it and has revisited it several times since.

This is where we come face to face with the whole issue of genres and marketing. And they're not going to go away anyway soon. In fact it's just going to get worse and worse. Women have clamoured, have fought tooth and nail, to be considered equals and yet we are living in a society that continually reminds them that they are different. They don’t say it in so many words but that's the bottom line. They tell us males we are different too. The wedge never went away, it simply got reimagined.


Kass said...

You've ventured into scary waters. I was raised in the Mormon Church so I definitely have issues about gender since men in that church have all the power. I did reach a point where I realized the only reason the men had the priesthood bestowed on them was that they needed the extra distinction and women didn't. From there I grew into the realization that I felt a certain disdain for men who seemed hell-bent on putting me 'in my place.' I've never felt like I had to fight for my worth or my voice. I just think men are stupid if they think they're better in any way.

I do think for the most part, that we write differently. Our whole life experience is dictated by our upbringing and how we integrated our gender into society.

There is only as much fuss as anyone makes.
(thanks for encouraging me to put my post back up - I got nervous about all the Mormons in my family reading it and thinking it was too blatantly sexual - but as Popeye says, "I yam what I yam.")

Catherine @ Sharp Words said...

I agree with Kass that you've wandered into scary waters, although my reasons for thinking that are very different... Feminism has been trying to redefine itself in recent years, it seems, to refute any stereotypes that may have developed, and to make it more respectable - at the same time as trying to figure out whether women really do want to be equal with men when in some cases there is a true gender difference (and not just in the obvious).

Anyway, I read too much of that in the Guardian, so never mind it all for the moment.

This post made me wonder though what the gender bias is in the authors I read. Thanks to my detailed yearly log, I can announce that of the 104 authors I read last year, 63 were (apparently) female and 41 (apparently) male. However, that's not because I read much in genres which are automatically associated with women writers (and readers) such as romantic fiction; it's because I read a lot of fantasy (which seems, doing a quick check of my bookshelves, to be female-dominated, whereas SF seems to be more male-dominated).

I don't especially care about the gender of the authors I read... However, I read a novel earlier this year by Alex Bell, who I assumed to be male right up until I actually bothered to read the bio. And once I knew she was female, I thought 'Oh, I wouldn't have thought that a woman wrote this' - and I started to question my unthinking assumptions a little bit.
Although not so much it's made a lot of difference in my life...

Hmm, not much of a useful comment so far. I suppose I just wanted to say that yes, some genres and styles of writing are more associated with female writers and readers than others - and I've read several times that men prefer to read novels written by men, whereas women will read novels by anyone. Perhaps that's the important point I wanted to make, in a round-about way?

Art Durkee said...

Marketing is built on presumptions and stereotypes. Writing not so much. Marketing assumes desires that differentiate one group from another, but it's usually a stereotype and often there are more exceptions than not. Personally, I don't think writing is especially gendered; arguments can be made about individual writers, perhaps, but not for entire populations. That one can be "fooled" by presuming a writer's gender, then finding out one is wrong, makes a strong argument against writing being innately gendered. Since writers can adopt personae, both in narrative voice and in character voice, the only limit is the writers' imagination and personal empathy.

Cultural assumptions are at the root of it: assumptions about gender ROLES and gender TYPES, rather than actual people. In other words, it's all on the statistical population level rather than the personal level. As a species, we're far too Brownian to be totally predictable, much as advertisers make their moves on the assumptions that we are.

Just to throw a monkey wrench into your musings, there's a pretty big difference between gender-role and sexual orientation. The assumptions about the cultural status quo are thrown out quickly when one starts looking at the non-heterosexual genders and non-normative sexual orientations. Of course, the marketing people try to figure that out, too; usually pretty dismally.

Elisabeth said...

A terrific post here, Jim.

You see how Kass and then Catherine mention 'scary waters'. This to me signifies a 'feeling' state, whereas Art, who has a deep sensibility from what I've read of his posts and work, has focused on what I consider to be more cerebral - the issues of stereotyping and advertising, common assumptions etc.

I agree with all that's said above and I also think that these different orientations have a gender bias. Women tend to go for the feeling states first and men for the cognitive.

Of course this is a dreadful generalization and it's trite basing it here on three comments, two from women and one a man, assuming they are in fact who they say they are - for all I know Catherine here could be a man. I read Kass and Art's blogs, so I'm more confident about their genders, and I also agree with Art, too about sexual orientation which muddies the waters even more.

I come from a family of four girls and five boys. As far as I'm concerned the boys were shown remarkable preferential treatment. They were not required to clean the house and help in the kitchen in the same way the girls were. They were allowed to go on camping trips when the girls weren't etc etc. and that's only the beginning. Of course they were also disadvantaged in meaningful ways, which I won't go into.

In my husband's family of two girls and four boys however he reckons the reverse was the case. He reckons his mother adored the girls and therefore although they had to do all the things women were required to do in the fifties and sixties going into the seventies, they were not treated with the same disdain as the boys who became the carriers of wood, and the outdoor workers whether they liked it or not.

This of course is all very subjective and idiosyncratic. It is anecdotal. It only goes to show the differential experiences of different people and familes.

My current family constellation consists of one male, my husband and five girls, me and our four daughters. There is no doubt about it, ours is an extremely female household.

I realise I have moved far from the point of gender and writing but I can say this: in our household of predominantly women, my husband's ability to argue and work through ideas at a conceptial level is what my children turn to when they want help with ideas. They turn to me for emotional and editorial help but not for conceptual direction.

So again, in spite of the fact that I write more than my husband, his ability with the pen holds more sway in academia for the girls than mine. This of course may not be purely gender based, but much more personality driven etc etc.

Thanks again for a thought provoking, relevant and beautifully written post, Jim. I love it.

Elisabeth said...

Have you read Ursula Guin's Bryn Maur address? I'll quote from my writing about it elsewhere. I find it useful in this discussion but please forgive me an excessively long comment. I had to split my comment in to two because such length is forbidden, but to me this stuff is fascinating in the context of what you have written. It follws:

Father tongue, the language of the academies, is as Ursula Le Guin writes, the language of public discourse, the language of power, the language of the outside world. Such a voice is essential to the development of technologies, science and the humanities. It presupposes that a common language can be spoken in laboratories, in business and governments everywhere. And “those who don’t know it or won’t speak it are silent, or silenced, or unheard” (LeGuin, 1992, p.148). Mother tongue, on the other hand is “always on the verge of silence, often on the verge of song” (p. 153). It is “an excellent dialect,” Le Guin writes. Father tongue is “The language of thought that seeks objectivity” (p. 148). Our public systems, the political and legal, our education and culture depend on it. Its “essential gesture … is not reasoning but distancing – making a gap, a space between the subject or self and the object or other” (p. 148). It can be “immensely noble and indispensably useful, this tongue, but when it claims a privileged relationship to reality, it becomes dangerous and potentially destructive” (p. 149). It is the voice that suppresses the mother tongue.

Mother tongue the language that greets us at birth reminds us that we are human. The mother tongue, that we unlearn in the academies, is conversational and inclusive, the language of stories, “inaccurate, unclear, coarse, limited” – mother tongue breaks down dichotomy and refuses splits. “It flies from the mouth on the breath that is our life and is gone like the out breath, utterly gone and yet returning, repeated, the breath the same again always, everywhere, and we all know it by heart” (p. 149).

Mother tongue is the language of story telling, the language of children, the language of women. Mothers speak and teach it to their children as they in turn learned it from their mothers. Mother tongue is binding. It does not contradict but seeks to affirm. It repeats, it explores in its very subjectivity the nature of our lives but it is not generally an acknowledged language. It is a language reserved for playful times, chaotic times or desperate times when life cannot be taken too seriously. It is the language we meet in infancy on our mother’s lap. It is the language that migrants hold closest to their hearts, especially on arrival in a new country.

Neither mother tongue nor father tongue alone are enough. We need to integrate both voices into what Le Guin calls our third language – “native tongue”, which involves “a marriage of the public discourse and the private experience” (p. 155). Le Guin wrote her paper in 1986 as a plea to a group of young women from Bryn Mawr University to value their perceptions and their own voices and not to adhere to the privileging of father tongue, as it exists in literary canons.

Jim Murdoch said...

If I was going into all of this flag-waving I might be scared, Kass, but I’m not. I’m just throwing a few thoughts out there for all of you to have a think about. I have my own experiences of fundamentalist thought – good ol’ Paul not tolerating a woman to teach and all that – and I don’t have much time for that. I was brought up in a household where my father was most definitely the head of his house and all he did was ride roughshod over his family in fact the biggest problem I have with Pauline gender role assignment is that most males don’t know how to be in charge and tend to bully. In a perfect world I’m sure it would work but I’ve never seen the point of laying down rules that your flock is fundamentally incapable of meeting; perfection is beyond us and aspiring to it only ever underlined, in my case at least, how far I was from it. Feminism is a male problem. It’s one thing men wanting women to know their place but they’ve never known theirs.

As for the writing issue I seriously doubt there is an answer. Because of all the history that’s gone on the topics that males and females are drawn to tends to identify the gender of the author and yet had I not looked up Dương Thu Hương I would never have realised that the author of Novel Without a Name, a book about the Vietnam War from the perspective of the Viet Cong, was a woman. Nothing in the writing style suggested that to me except perhaps a preoccupation with what made up meals but I put that down to the fact that everyone was hungry all the time.

As for your own post I’m glad it was saved by my RSS feedreader. It’s a delightful piece, well observed and funny. I’m delighted you reinstated it.

Catherine, lots of interesting points here. I think it’s particularly noteworthy how we responded to a writer where the gender wasn’t known to us. I wonder if in the past many sussed out that George Eliot was a woman simply by the words on the page? There’s a Wikipedia entry devoted to women writers who have deliberately gone out of their way to disguise their gender.

I think one of the things that has caused me to read more male writers than female is the fact that I’ve tended to read older authors, the Kafkas and Sartres of the literary world; only now I’m getting sent books to review am I discovering more female writers. It’ll be interesting in maybe 100 years from now to see what the ratio is. Of course, we could also apply this line of thinking to the other arts. As I’m sure I’ve mentioned before although I make a point of collecting classical music written by women and will have more than most I’m usually lucky to have one CD by any particular female; more often it’s just a track or two on a compilation CD and that goes for major composers. Best represented amongst the women is actually a film composer, Rachel Portman, followed by Eleni Karaindrou and Anne Dudley in that order but compared to the Jerry Goldsmiths and James Horners they pale into insignificance. And, again, I can’t imagine any of them getting a blockbuster to score, but a costume drama, hell yes.

Jim Murdoch said...

Excellent point, Art, about sexual orientation. I think it’s a hard one to assess because for so many years gay and lesbian writers kept that side of themselves out of their writing. Even now I imagine they may feel there’s a danger that they might become a ‘gay writer’ rather than simply a ‘writer’. I’m sure I’ll have read more gay writers than I realise just as I’ll have listened to more music by gay composers than I imagined. The only writer who jumps out at me is Jeanette Winterson and yet I’ve never found her sexuality – or the sexuality of her characters to be more honest – intrusive. I certainly don’t think of her as a ‘lesbian writer’ although I have no doubt that many do.

Now I think about it I’ve filled in many marketing surveys in my time and not one of them has ever asked my sexual persuasion. I expect it’s an area they either feel they won’t be able to trust the answers or they don’t think it’s that important.

On the subject of writers and their characters it is always interesting to see how males write females and vice versa. My wife and daughter tell me that I’m good at portraying women on the page. This doesn’t surprise me because I think I struggle with masculine males. I don’t get them, they don’t interest me and so I avoid them. My current book has a woman as the central character, in fact apart from a cameo by her husband I expect all the characters will be women so I’ll be curious to see how well I do with that if I ever get the damn thing finished.

Now, of course, Elisabeth, we have another aspect, that of personality. I’ve never really considered how much my gender contributes to my personality. I think it would be naïve to imagine that although not testosterone-fuelled my masculinity cannot be ignored. Generally speaking people tend to react in one of two ways to the role models they get presented with, they either embrace them or reject them and broadly-speaking my rule-of-thumb has been to not be like my dad as much as possible when it comes to being a man although every now and then I actually hear his tone especially when I get exasperated and perhaps let my guard down. It worries me that what I’m hearing is the real me or shall we say the conditioned me?

Your broad-brush suggestion that males think and females feel is something I’ve heard before many times. In this regard I feel quite dichotomous because I feel the pull of both very strongly. I have the same problem when it comes to a left brain vs right brain classification; I don’t fall into either camp.

I don’t know Ursula Le Guin’s work. I know Carrie has a big book by her but I’ve never got round to it. I think her thoughts on mother tongue, father tongue and native tongues are fascinating. From what little is said about the father tongue I read it as impersonal as opposed to the mother tongue which speaks from the heart. I’ve never been very good at the formal. I always want to interject a bit of myself.

I knew this post would provoke a few different thoughts on the subject. I also didn’t expect any answers. The intellectual side of me gets frustrated when you can’t boil things down to a rule or an equation but wanting there to be a simple answer doesn’t mean there is going to be one. The real answer is ‘it depends’.

Marion McCready said...

I enjoyed this, Jim. The fact that you always manage to interject yourself into your general writing is a great skill. Funnily enough I'm extreme on the thinking and my husband is extreme on the feelings, but then he was brought surrounded by women!!

I've not much to add to your post other than regarding poetry there are far more male-authored collections that could have been written by a woman than vice-versa. Women have tendency to write, obviously the extent varies, about gender-specific issues. And it's right that woman can and do write about such things.

Jim Murdoch said...

My wife and I are also an interesting mix, Sorlil. On the whole she’s far more level-headed and practical than I; she was an engineer for most of her working life and still has that mentality. I’ve always let my heart rule my head. I project a cerebral, intellectual personality but that’s mostly smoke and mirrors. On the surface we’re an odd couple and yet we complement each other quite well on the whole. I really have no desire to be ‘the man’ in this relationship. Glad you enjoyed the post. I knew we’d get a few good comments from it.

Kass said...

I forgot to mention how much I like the picture of both kinds of wedgies.

Jim Murdoch said...

Glad you liked the picture, Kass. I'm not especially handy with Photoshop but they really seemed to go together.

Conda Douglas said...

I've always liked the fact that my name, at first glance, could be male or female. And while there is some delineation between male and female readers, I can tell you, from working in a bookstore, it's not much. Men read romances, women read war novels.

Jim Murdoch said...

Strange, Conda, I never for a second thought the name was anything other than female. As for what I buy, I do like to think I’m my own man and I dislike being dictated to. Whenever I’m at a checkout and see stuff there my first thought is always “impulse buy” and so I only ever pick up something if I genuinely need it.

Marketers are manipulators. I could be kind and say that they’re helping me select by thoughtfully reducing the number of things I would have to go through to come to the same conclusion but they’re not; they’re telling me what I should like and worse, they’re telling me if I use x product women will flock to my side and after fifty years of being un-cool true coolness is within my grasp. “At last!” I cry. “Here, take my money. Wait! I’ll buy two and then I’ll be twice as cool.” Yeah, right.

Dave King said...

Wow! U B brave man, U B! Thinking back to my first awareness of gender issues, I was five and the doctor, who had been with my mother for hours, came down to tell me that I had a new baby brother. I was bitterly disappointed because I had so wanted a sister. The doc suggested it was because I wanted to pull her hair. It wasn't, it was because I wanted to play with her dolls house - but I didn't dare tell anyone. Pulling hair would have been more acceptable than playing with a dolls house. For years I resented the fact that I couldn't have one! God knows what that adds to the discussion!

Dick said...

Thanks, Jim, for reminding me of that wonderful Steve Martin line.

Sorlil makes an interesting point concerning gender identification through poetry and how there's more male poetry that might pass as female than the other way round. I'm not sure that I agree with that - and certainly in respect of prose, women are much more adept at characterising the male persona credibly than the other way round.

Another fine post, Jim.

Jim Murdoch said...

You know, Dick, there are some films that you can just slip into any time and enjoy them and L. A. Story is one of them. I particularly love the scene when he’s standing in front of a huge abstract work of art and is describing it in the most sensual – dare I say, erotic? – terms. I think it’s a crying shame that he’s squandering his talent on movies like The Pink Panther and Cheaper by the Dozen. Have you read any of his books? I bought my daughter both Shopgirl and The Pleasure of My Company and she raved about both of them. I quite like the film adaptation of Shopgirl too. Martin’s role is so out of character – he does a good job but it’s impossible to get that “wild and crazy guy” out of your head.

As regards how well women write men as opposed to men writing female characters I guess it depends on the writer. I wonder if you find the male characters written by female authors more realistic because you’re male and you naturally round them out in your head whereas you wouldn’t be able to do that with the female characters. I don’t have any answers. I just wanted to stir things up a bit and I have.

j said...

I'm still thinking about this -- the differences are real, but the outcome (or output) may be the same.

I've written and rewritten a lot in this little comment box (and reread your post a couple of times), but this will have to do for now.

Jim Murdoch said...

Maybe what you need to do, Jennifer, is write a post on the subject. Trying to cram your thoughts into a comments box is hard and I always find I write too much. My wife tells me all the time: "You know, you should have written a blog about that," and occasionally I have done, expanded a comment and explored the topic at a more leisurely pace.

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