It seems we’re having the first gender debate of the year, though this time around we are not talking about women writers for once, but about masculine writing.
The first volley was fired by Paul S. Kemp, author of several Forgotten Realms and Star Wars Extended Universe novels as well as of the original sword & sorcery novels The Hammer and the Blade and A Discourse in Steel, when he wrote a blogpost called “Why I write masculine stories”.
My eyes were already rolling so hard I could barely focus, when I first clicked on the link. But the truth is that the post isn’t quite as bad as the title makes it sound. Okay, so Paul S. Kemp has a rather old-fashioned idea of masculinity and there is a weird derailing into the subject of “Women and children first” in case of shipwrecks (which coincidentally applies only in very specific circumstances*). But if Paul S. Kemp wants to write about manly men, then more power to him. However, that doesn’t mean I have to read it.
Besides, I’d like to point out that some of the characteristics of “manly men” that Kemp lists, such as “drinks a lot”, “womanizing” and “answer violence with violence” don’t necessarily strike me as honourable. Nor do I think that being stoic in the face of pain and having your emotions in check are all that admirable qualities. Never mind that none of the characteristics that Kemp lists are exclusively masculine, not even the womanizing. I mean, there are lesbian womanizers. Not to mention promiscuous heterosexual women.
Sam Sykes also points out that the characteristics Paul S. Kemp lists are not in fact traditionally masculine and that gender roles and characteristics are not nearly as clear-cut in general.
At Lawyers, Guns and Money, B. Spencer points out that ninety-nine percent of men are not bad-asses either and that denigrating women won’t turn them into bad-asses.
Chuck Wendig responds by pointing out the harm that traditional and clear-cut views of gender can do to men desperately trying to suppress their emotions. He also writes about how his non-stereotypically feminine heroine Miriam Black was called “a man with the serial numbers filed off”.
Now I hate, hate, hate the complaints that a tough woman character is “a man with boobs” (transphobia right there) or “a man with the serial numbers filed off”. Because guess what? Women aren’t all the same. And several of those characters later denounced as “men with boobs” were female characters I could identify with and found inspirational growing up. Isaac Asimov’s wonderful Dr. Susan Calvin, a character who is often called “unrealistic” and “really just a man with boobs” was one of my heroines as a teenager, a much needed antidote against my boyfriend obsessed classmates, a character who I identified with and who showed me that it was possible not to care about stuff like men and relationships and still live a great life.
Indeed, I’ve lately noticed a lot of backlash against tough heroines and the media that features them (mostly urban fantasy novels by female authors) from both men and women. Instead, we are supposed to admire more stereotypically feminine heroines, women who – to quote one post by a man I cannot locate now – “wield a diaper bag instead of a sword”. Yeah right, because all women are mothers.
Now I actually believe that we should have a broad variety of characters both male and female. I want to see both heroic and cowardly characters of either gender, stoic and emotional characters of either gender, motherly types and leather-clas arsekickers.
However, a big part of my heart will always belong to the leather-clad amazon, because those were the female characters I’ve always loved. Nor is the leather-clad arsekicker merely a product of a modern urban fantasy genre. I had very vivid fantasies of sexy leather-clad and weapon-wielding women kicking the shit out of monsters and demons, often connected to pop songs of the 1980s. Where did I get those images from? I guess where everybody else got them from, namely from Emma Peel, patron saint of all leather-clad arsekickers. And this is why calling today’s leather-clad urban fantasy heroines “male fantasies” (even though most of them are written by women) hurts me. Because I wanted to be those women long before anybody decided to write books about them.
Finally, here is an older (from May 2013) post from Amanda Hocking’s blog, in which she talks about how she deliberately tried to distance herself from anything “girly” as a teenager, because she had internalized the idea that anything stereotypically feminine was automatically inferior. This post really struck a chord with me, because this rejection of anything feminine is a problem that many geek girls have (I don’t even exclude myself there, though I grew out of it) and it’s incredibly harmful.
People of whatever gender are more than just a collection of characteristics.
*Even aboard the Titanic, plenty of men, both passengers and crewmembers, did survive, while many female and minor steerage passengers drowned. However, many male first and second class passengers really did let women and children have lifeboat seats without complaints probably due to the way they were raised. During the sinking of the Empress of Ireland in 1914, only about five percent of the children onboard and thirteen percent of the women were saved, compared to nearly thirty percent of male passengers and almost sixty percent of crewmembers. Meanwhile, male passengers and crewmembers were far more likely to survive the MS Estonia sinking in 1994, while most women and youngsters died, even if they made it off the ship.