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!
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.
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?
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.