During one of the panels at Illogicon this month, one writer commented that when writing women, one thing to avoid is simply writing them as a man with boobs.
On the one hand, I agree with that. I have seen characters where I thought that was an apt description. On the other hand, “that character is really a man” and “she wants to be just like a man” are such old rules of gender policing I can’t but recoil from using them.
John C. Wright, for instance, considers any woman who does more than protect her family or support her man to be a man with boobs. On the other side of the political aisle, there were feminists in the 1970s who argued any female super-hero was automatically a man in drag: real women never resort to violence to solve problems.
In the real world, “feminists want to be men” is a staple of sexist criticism. The NYT’s Maureen Dowd, for example, remembers the start of second-wave feminism thus: “Women were once again imitating men and acting all independent: smoking, drinking, wanting to earn money and thinking they had the right to be sexual, this time protected by the pill. I didn’t fit in with the brazen new world of hard-charging feminists.” Decades earlier, one of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ characters (speaking in the 1930s) dismissed The Modern Woman as no different from men—smoking, drinking, sexually aggressive, at least by Burroughs’ standards (it’s a fictional character speaking but I’ve read too much Burroughs not to think it’s the author’s own view).
Dowd’s analysis (and ERB’s too, of course) is like a lot of her work detached from facts. Women, even stay-at-home housewives, smoked and drank, even in the oh-so-gendered 1950s. Women worked, too: maids, cooks, housekeepers, waitresses. Poor and working-class women have worked from necessity even when it was unfashionable for middle and upper-class women (though some of them worked too, even in the 1950s).
But beyond that, the idea that wanting your own income or wanting to enjoy sex are naturally male attributes is ridiculous, though both assumptions — women “naturally” want to stay home and be baby machines, and “naturally” want love, not sex — are still around (case in point). More generally, the line between “man with boobs” and “non-stereotypical female character” is blurry — I suspect it’s pretty much “I know it when I see it.” So I’m not sure how useful a measure it is in figuring out how to write believable women.
Society’s fondness for gendering particular attributes is always a problem in writing fiction. It forces us to debate whether princesses can be feminist, or kick-ass warriors can be girly. For some people, the girly stuff is stereotyping; for others it’s girly stuff because a lot of girls like it; for some, being girly makes it inferior. All of which makes it hard to think clearly about who we’re writing, or for a female character to be just a character, rather than a marker or a statement about What Women Want or Should Want.
Unfortunately, I doubt we’ll get to higher clarity any time soon.