In which I think about gender of authors and characters…

I spend a lot of time on my blog posts, especially the ones in which I wrestle with complicated ideas like gender.  They take time because I am working hard to express myself clearly, and honestly, and thoughtfully.  They take time because I realize that I don’t necessarily have the opportunity to immediately respond and clarify with a reader, the way I would in a conversation– and so I know that I need to explain myself as fully as possible, because I may only get one shot. They are hard because I think it’s important to sometimes reveal my own foibles, mistakes, and misconceptions, not to glorify or justify them, but to understand how (and hopefully why) an essentially nice person like myself sometimes still makes mistakes.  It seems far easier– and far safer– to examine an issue by calling out someone else’s behavior, rather than admitting my own potential missteps. And yet, I believe that it’s only through honesty that I am better able to examine the how’s and why’s of the way I think and to consider the influences around me.  Through examination will come moments of revelation in which I suddenly understand how I’ve reached certain conclusions.  And if I feel that those conclusions and those influences were incorrect, at that moment I can then begin consciously and actively locating and creating sources of influence that more accurately reflect my core beliefs.

I’ve been trying to follow this process with my examination of gender in libraries by admitting that I’ve sometimes used gender stereotypes (even in a well-meaning way) to bring simplicity to a complicated topic– or even to right a perceived wrong.  I think it’s important for me to admit this– and to examine where those ideas came from, and how I’m changing– because I can’t be the only person with these experiences.  And when I start to understand how I developed these ideas I can try to create alternate behaviors to help me avoid passing these flawed ideas onto others.

One common misconception that I think is important to actively reject is the notion that books can be written for either male or female audiences.  While that may seem silly to state, because it sounds so common sense, my previous blog posts have examined why I think we still need to work on actively rejecting this idea because so much of society still supports it.

This week I’ve been thinking about the topic from the perspective of male and female characters, because I think that many people (subconsciously or not) are still using character gender as a means of determining a book’s intended audience.  I always like to be transparent in where my ideas are coming from– whether they are a library event, a discussion with a colleague, or something I read.  In this case, it’s the latter– an article on Vice in which Hugh Ryan interviewed the author Andrew Smith.

If you’re active in the young adult lit world you may have heard about this interview, lots of people reacted pretty strongly to it. If you haven’t heard of it, gird yourself before exploring it, the discussions end up taking some pretty unpleasant turns, and much of the furor seems to have centered on Andrew Smith’s response to one of Hugh Ryan’s questions. In reading about the whole event (event= publication of interview and subsequent social media/blog responses) I went back to the original interview and was immediately struck by Hugh Ryan’s questions.  At one point he says to Mr. Smith: “You also don’t seem afraid to explore the sex lives of teen boys—everything from the confusion of being attracted to your gay best friend to the trauma of sexual assault during war.”  (To be honest I’m not sure what the question was, as this seems more of a statement from Mr. Ryan) but Mr. Smith responds: “There are an awful lot of things that people are, for whatever reason, timid to talk about, and sexuality in adolescence is one. Kids ask me about that all the time. Especially boys. They’ll quietly say things like “Wow, you wrote about this. How do you feel about that? How do your kids feel about this stuff?” They’re trying to feel out some kind of an answer, because they’re curious. I think these are natural experiences during adolescence. So I tell them I’m not afraid of words, of talking about anything that I think is real or pertinent.”  So far, so good, right?  Mr. Smith seems to want to validate a range of sexuality for his readers– exactly what we all want, right?

It’s Mr. Ryan’s next question where things get problematic for me.  Here it is: “On the flip side, it sometimes seems like there isn’t much of a way into your books for female readers. Where are all the women in your work?”  This question is problematic because, to me, it reverts back to a simple gender binary belief that to enter into a book (by which I assume Mr. Ryan means “engage with” a book) a reader must see someone of their own gender. Mr. Ryan’s question seems to suggest that what enables a female to connect with a character is not whether they share the same beliefs, attitudes, struggles, or experiences, but whether or not they both share the “vagina experience.”

Mr. Ryan’s question spells disaster for any female who ever believes she gained anything from reading William Golding’s chilling Lord of the Flies, a compelling exploration of human brutality which doesn’t happen to feature a single female character. Does my appreciation of that book signal that I’m secretly male?  Or is my appreciation inherently untrustworthy because I can’t truly connect with the male characters, and so I only mistakenly “believe” I understand it?

It would be easy, at this point, to decide that Mr. Ryan’s question is a reflection of a flawed attitude that puts female readers into an incredibly small box.  And that he himself is a sexist jerk for not giving female readers more credit. But as I read the entire article I feel like Mr. Ryan actually believes that the lack of female characters in Andrew Smith’s novels is a problem, and that his question is a misguided attempt “right a wrong” by goading Andrew Smith into writing “more” female characters. Though the question itself seems sexist, I’m willing to give Mr. Ryan the benefit of the doubt that he meant to somehow support women through the question. So where does this belief in a quota fulfillment as equality come from?  I don’t think our conversation starter, Mr. Ryan, is the one who created the idea of a quota solution (or that he is the only one who suggests it as a solution).

Many in the book world do talk about the need for readers to “see themselves” in books. But we don’t always specify what that means– so it can be easy to oversimplify. My sense is that it often translates to “We need more of X” with X being a: gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, setting, etc. And yes, because we do need books that represent the incredibly broad range of experiences that our readers have, we do need those things.  I myself have called (am still calling) for more realistic male protagonists.  But we need these diverse characters, settings, and experiences not just so readers can see books as a reflection of themselves, but also so they can see books which reflect unfamiliar experiences.  All my readers deserve to see realistic male protagonists, so my call for them should not be interpreted as being just for male readers.

While I agree that it’s important for a reader to at least sometimes see themselves in a novel, I don’t think that means they necessarily need to see someone who “looks” like them, or has a life exactly like their own.  There are plenty of times when I have seen “myself” in the struggles or triumphs of a main character who is male. In Melina Marchetta’s (@MMarchetta1) absolutely brilliant exploration of how family members can love and destroy each other simultaneously– Piper’s Son— I connected as much with twenty-something Tom as I did with his 40-something aunt.  I loved Gayle Forman’s (@gayleforman) If I Stay, and I loved the sequel, Where She Went, which focused on the boyfriend’s experience, even more.  I found Adam’s raging despair perfectly captured much of the emotional turmoil I experienced during a high school heartbreak. To me there is something truly powerful when an author is able to help me transcend the categories that society sometimes suggests are insurmountable (like gender) and understand that two people from different categories can share many experiences. To me, this is when the idea of “other” starts to break down, when I see that an “other’s” experience of a phenomenon isn’t really that much different than my own experience of that same event.

And even though we need diversity of character and experience in our novels, I don’t think that means that fulfilling a quota is the answer.  If we understand that sensitive and accurate depictions of characters and experiences are important to helping readers connect, we must be willing to allow authors to focus on crafting the experiences that they feel they can best best illustrate.  Whether these portrayals come from autobiographical experiences, or more traditional research methodologies, an author must be given the freedom to speak to the experiences they feel they can best represent.

Requiring all authors to cover all experiences doesn’t guarantee nuance, and it doesn’t guarantee sensitive coverage of anything. Requiring an author to include character X, or topic X, or setting X doesn’t mean that the author (no matter how much research they do) will feel qualified or comfortable representing X in their book.  And, after all, think of how quick people are to vilify an author who tries and gets it wrong.  Good luck to the author trying to recover from a cultural misstep.

So instead of seemingly suggesting that Andrew Smith needs “more” female characters, perhaps Mr. Ryan should explore what Andrew Smith does with the female characters in his books.  How the female “body count” may be low, but how Mr. Smith makes the female characters important through their actions.  Perhaps Mr. Ryan should ask Andrew Smith to explain why he doesn’t need “more” female characters in order to give his female readers a “way into” the novel because male characters can be that entryway.  And while I reject the notion that all females have an innate shared understanding and appreciation of each other due to the “vagina experience” it would be silly for me to pretend that there aren’t some experiences that are unique to women— childbirth and lower wages than equivalent male counterparts being two easy examples.  Perhaps Mr. Ryan should ask Andrew Smith, who suggests he is actively working to develop a greater understanding of what may be some uniquely female experiences, how he is gathering that knowledge.  After all, we could all benefit from exploring how we can learn to develop empathy and understanding for people with experiences that are different from our own (whether we’ll be writing a novel about them or not).

And when I say, “Mr. Ryan” I really mean all of us.  Perhaps we should all be asking these questions of not only our authors, but ourselves.  How do I attempt to understand some of the experiences my teens may be having that I never had?  The experience of poverty?  The experience of sexual abuse?  The experience of pressure to perform on standardized tests?  The potential pitfalls of living life in public social media forums?  I may not have experienced these things as a teen, but I know they are real now, though that doesn’t always immediately equate to insight.  I need to seek understanding, and seek to add books to my collection which reflect those experiences– and which understand that the lens of these experiences goes far beyond ideas of gender.  And if an author doesn’t feel comfortable with these topics, or many others which aren’t included in this list, we shouldn’t cry foul, that author likely has an equally important set of ideas and experiences to present to us.  Authors must be allowed to focus on the topics and ideas that contain personal meanings, that they feel passionate about examining in their work, and that they can feel proud of creating.  Solely focusing on what an author hasn’t given readers can mean we risk missing an awful lot of what they have.

PS This post made possible by the generosity of @charliehuette who mowed the entire, huge lawn (which was way too tall) while I wrote this afternoon.  Mwah!


One thought on “In which I think about gender of authors and characters…

  1. Pingback: Sunday Select, August 16, 2015 | Fairrosa Cyber Library

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