First Gender Debate of the Year – Hurray!

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.

Liz Bourke and Deb E. Howell both point out that the list of typically masculine behaviours Kemp gives could just as well apply to 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.

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12 Responses to First Gender Debate of the Year – Hurray!

  1. Deb E. says:

    Great summary and additions.
    Absolutely hear you on distancing ourselves from all things feminine as teenagers. I still do, often — and… it stifles my writing… (eep! romance dared bare its ugly head… ew! ew! ew! but I kinda like it – no! mustn’t! it’s too girly! but…)
    As a teen I modelled my wardrobe and characteristics (saunter, language, etc) on my favourite male TV/movie characters… why? Because I guess I just didn’t know how to identify with the female role models I was being shown. And that’s probably not because they sucked, it was probably because I was taught to think less of them (I had She-Ra toys, but He-Man always out-shone her when it came to TV shows/movies/comic books, etc). I watched the Smurfs (and all the rest), with its one female. And I don’t think things have changed all that much…

    It may be eye-rolly to see us right back here having these discussions again, but clearly we need to… or seek professional help (probably that).

    • Cora says:

      I totally understand what you mean. Female role models were thin on the ground, particularly pre-1990, and the lone female character in a cast of men was often depicted as somehow lesser. Quite often, there were no toys available of her either. And then the comic and cartoon industry complains that they don’t want girls watching their shows and reading their comics, because girls don’t buy toys. Well, maybe we would buy them, if you actually made toys of the female characters.

      I first got into SFF, because the female characters were better. SFF gave me Princess Leia and Susan Calvin and Emma Peel and Tamara Jagellowsk, the ultra-cool security officer from the German SF TV show Space Patrol Orion, who responded after the dashing male lead (well, it was a 1960s show and still had some very good female characters given the era) kissed her in an “OMG – we’re going to die!” situation, “Well, now I’m relieved. Cause that was just a very average kiss.”

  2. Jay Lake says:

    I will point out that some of us have written heroines who both carry a sword and tend to a child at the same time. (KALIMPURA, to be specific, my third GREEN book.) Genderization is a strange thing, and fiction is one of the places we ought to be most free to explore.

    • Cora says:

      I absolute love the Kalimpura cover. Tough warrior woman in reasonable clothes with a blade in her hand, a baby at her chest and another on her back and a “Don’t mess with me” look on her face. What’s not to love about that?

      I totally agree that fiction gives us the freedom to explore and experiment with gender roles, which is why it is so depressing that so much fiction defaults to the most traditional of gender roles.

  3. Thanks for the round-up of responses, and additional eye-rolling.

    I think the parts that most got me were his fond memories of the Manly Men he read about as a child: “masculine stories, stories with characters who demonstrate virtus (I’m looking at you Le Morte d’Arthur, and you, Conan). And what I read shaped how I viewed myself, how I viewed the world and my place in it.”

    And I just felt like–no shit. Those were stories about how heroic and tough and strong white males could be. And a white male found them inspirational and critical to his self-identity? NO WAY.

    I read those as a kid, too. Except they taught me rather different, less “virtuous” things about myself. Femininity was either about passivity and chastity, or manipulation and deviance. I don’t have anything against manly men–I just have this naive wish that manliness didn’t have to come at the explicit expense of everybody else.

    • Cora says:

      I totally agree with you and I had my own issues with manly men as a young girl. For example, many of my issues with the western genre stem from being appalled by the manly men in Hollywood westerns, who behaved like complete and utter jerks most of the time. A lot of the time I didn’t even recognise characters played by John Wayne and his ilk as heroes, because they didn’t behave remotely heroic in my eyes. Oddly enough, I do like Italian westerns and of course Winnetou and Old Shatterhand.

      The whole Arthurian cycle may offer lots of heroic role models for straight white men (and some of them are pretty iffy, too), but there are not a lot of great role model for women. You can either be a devious manipulator like Morgause or Morgaine/Morgan La Fey (and after reading The Mists of Avalon, I couldn’t stand the stereotypical evil Morgaine anymore), passively wait and die of a broken heart like the Lady of Shalott or become an adulteress destined for a horrible fate like Guinevere or Isolde (and I came across the extra gruesome version involving rape by lepers as a young girl – eewww). No thanks.

      As for Conan, there are some tough woman characters, but lots more maidens to be rescued or act as a prize for Conan’s heroic deeds. Never mind that Conan is not a virtuous figure, nor is he intended to be. Besides, he is a total Mary Sue or would be, if Conan were a woman. Luckily, I didn’t read the original version in all its race- and gender-failing glory until I was an adult.

      Manly men are okay, but the rest of us need heroes, too.

  4. Andrea K says:

    I dislike ‘tough’ women being described as “men with breasts” as well. I enjoy female characters of a wide variety of types, and don’t see why ‘brave’ of ‘violent’ should equal ‘male’.

    I do, however, tend to find my appreciation of the character waning a little when they spend an inordinate amount of time describing their own breasts.

    • Cora says:

      Oh yes, the dreaded “omniscient breasts” syndrome. I’m not a fan of that either. Especially since the women never ever describe their breasts the way most real life women would.

      Loved your long list of women SFF writers at the Booksmugglers BTW.

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