Character Authenticity: Gender

Elmowrites has a post today about the problems of writing characters of a different gender than one’s own. I find it interesting because I have had this conversation many times, but always with men who are trying to write women, and this post looks at it from the other side. It ends with a good question:

But is there also an element of stereotyping? Do we feel more comfortable saying men act / think / feel a certain way than we do with other classes of character?

My take on this is that any time you say “This character is not authentic because of X,” where “X” is a socially-constructed category of behavior, there is a stereotype involved in the judgment somewhere. Having said that, I don’t think I have ever paused in my reading and thought “A man would never say that.”

However, I have said things like “Boy, this character sure doesn’t know very much about Catholicism for a priest,” and “Why is this 15th-Century Scot acting so English?” Rarely, very rarely, do I read a female character and question the authenticity of her behavior based on gender.

Supported by nothing but my own reading habits, I would suggest that readers don’t question male characters as authentically masculine as often as they question the authenticity of other categories of characters. There are more canonized male writers than female, and more men working as writers than women. That means that even when men and women are equally represented numerically in a text, the male characters tend to be better fleshed-out and therefore, more authentic from the perspective of a reader.

My sense is that the range of “masculine” behaviors depicted in fiction is much more broad and diverse than the range of “feminine” behaviors, so it stands to reason that masculinity would be questioned less often than femininity. Of course, I am a man, and I understand masculinity much better than femininity, so it could just be that I personally question male characters less often, and my own habits are not generalizable beyond white, middle-class-educated men from the U.S.

I discussed this with a friend as I was formulating my response. He suggested that the perceived gender of the author is also a factor here, such that women with masculine pen names should have the authenticity of their female characters questioned more often than they would if they used feminine pen names, and vice-versa. Which strikes me as an interesting topic for a research project.

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2 thoughts on “Character Authenticity: Gender

  1. Hi! Thanks for the pingback, and for joining in the conversation. There’s so much to say on this topic and I feel I only waved at it in my post, so it’s great to see another view.
    An example for you – male friends tell me that a straight adult male character seeing a sexually attractive adult female would ALWAYS think about sex with her, even if he’s never going to act on that urge (eg because of marriage, age, social restrictions etc). It’s certainly not true of all women, I have a feeling it’s not true of all men all of the time either, but is that what you call a “a socially-constructed category of behavior”, or am I wrong?

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    • yes, that is an example. The “social construction” there is in the fact that people are making an assumption about how a group acts based on a gender role. I don’t think it’s true of all men, but I do think it is a good example of enforced masculine behavior, because we learn that we are supposed to think that way in adolescence from locker-room antics and older boys, and lots of movies and tv shows confirm it whether it is true or not. It’s a classic case of stereotype-turned-self fullfilling prophecy.

      I was really using “socially constructed” in that comment to distinguish social categories from purely physical ones.

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