The Storytellers Unplugged Guide To Sex (Or Gender): Part Two

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Posted by justinemusk | Posted in Writing | Posted on 31-03-2008

The View from the XX Set

by Justine Musk

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Writing is seduction, when you think about it. Seduction is to get inside someone else’s view of things and reshape it to your own, to lead them in your chosen direction, to compel them until they are exactly where you want them, whether it’s in your story or in your bed. What writers and seducers have in common is a mindset that is empathetic enough to get into the skin, the head, of another human being and know what they are feeling and how those feelings might be altered…and an eye that is cold and objective enough to know if they’re making progress toward their aim, or if it’s time to revise the course.

Writers and seducers, then, understand human nature. And since human nature comes to us in male and female packages of experience, any real understanding needs to enfold the other sex as well as your own, or else the only people you’ll know how to seduce will be the people just like you.

And maybe not even them.

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My father likes to tell an anecdote about the time our car broke down along a dark highway during the kind of cold snowy night only a Canadian town – well, maybe a few others — can make. My father told my mother and me to stay within the safe warm confines of the car while he tried to flag down help. Minutes passed. I looked through the windshield and for just a split moment the man I saw wasn’t my father at all, but a hulking, shadowy, six-feet-plus stranger with the hood of a bulky parka pulled over his head.

I got out of the car and slammed the door and hurried to the side of the road, making sure to stand in the full glare of the oncoming traffic. My mother freaked out and yanked at my sleeve, worried that I was about to get hit. Before I could even fend her off, help had arrived.

My father likes to end this anecdote with what is more or less the point of it – how I had put myself out there like a billboard, because I knew that people would stop for me but not for him. This seemed so obvious to me that I was surprised that he was surprised by it. It was not unlike a comment a male friend would make to me at university a year or so later, about how irritated he felt when he walked through campus at night and the girl just ahead of him would cross the street to get away from him. My friend was maybe six-five, with spiked hair and a long dark overcoat. Like my father by the side of the road that night, he seemed completely oblivious to the impact he made on others — especially women — especially a young woman walking alone at night. The comment also made an impression on me because I suddenly realized that I had no idea what it was like to be perceived as the walking, physical threat, the person who, in that moment, gets tagged as a possible rapist or worse. I had never thought to look at it from that perspective.

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My father was a principal who dealt with mostly women – teachers, secretaries, mothers. He liked to complain about what I now call “pretty girl syndrome”: certain women who monopolized attention and offered up the most banal opinions with authority and confidence. They were used to people listening to them and didn’t think it was just because of their looks.

Soon after I moved to LA, I witnessed a version of this firsthand. My husband lives in a very guy-dominated world – he moves between business, technology, physics, engineering – and his friends had gotten comfortable around me. If I wasn’t quite one of the guys, I definitely wasn’t one of the girls, either, especially since I wasn’t available or under 30 – or under 25 – like the young women our friends brought to restaurants and concerts and parties. These men were highly intelligent and successful. The girls were sweet enough and probably bright enough except academia – or reading material in general – had never been a priority for them. Still, I was struck by how they would break into a conversation with a comment or statement so many light-years off from the informed, sophisticated discourse going on at the table that I would actually think they were joking. They weren’t joking. They held forth with authority and confidence on things they knew almost nothing about. When I took a longer look, I saw what my father had been talking about: these guys, who were generally nice and well-mannered guys to begin with, gave these girls a lot of attention, seemed very interested in what they had to say. It was only when the girl left the room that the nature of her male attention would abruptly change: observations about how inane or boring or annoying or ‘dumb’ she was. When the girl returned, the same guys were back to hanging off her every word. It made me realize – with a touch of what might have been shock – just how insidious the halo effect of beauty actually is and how it determines the tone of how the world treats you, which in turn shapes your perception of yourself (“I must be really interesting”) and others (“People are friendly and nice.”) For all the actresses who find it difficult to be taken seriously because of their beauty, there are, it seems, a lot of girls who think they’re being taken seriously when they’re only being beautiful. And because they never get that look into life on the other side of the great gender divide, many of them don’t realize the trap they’ve fallen into until much later, when they not only realize they don’t have the talent or intellect or skills they maybe thought they did, they no longer have that youthful beauty either. And people are no longer so friendly and nice.

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So it’s hard to see through the fog of perceptions and projections we all carry around us, especially when we’re looking at the other sex. We’re not only dealing with them, we’re dealing with the shadows we cast onto them as well as their shadows on us. And so in order to truly see them, you have to see how they truly see us.

Before you can get into anybody else’s head, you have to get out of your own.

An opposite-sex-character made from the shadow-stuff of fantasy and projection never rings true. I remember enjoying the movie Knocked Up. I also remember how that movie also never thought to question or explore why a character as gorgeous, brainy and successful as the female love interest would ever be attracted to someone as immature and schlumpy as the male protagonist over his much more impressive rivals. I’m not saying it couldn’t happen – anything can happen. But her choice to be with him, as well as her choice to keep their baby, actually did require more of a look into her inner life, her head, than the movie was willing to give us. The movie just wasn’t interested in the female perspective, and as a result a lot of women have a bit of a problem with it (including the female lead Katherine Heigl, who referred to the movie as ‘sexist’ and then got slammed in the press for biting the hand that feeds her). They might have enjoyed the movie, as I did…but we were never truly seduced by it.

And it seems downright juvenile next to a film like Michael Mann’s Heat – another genre film, meant to entertain, another film made by and about men, but this story makes an honest attempt to position real female characters within that male world. You can sense the histories and psychologies that are uniquely their own, how their lives bleed past the edges of the frame and weren’t just invented to fit inside it. Mann even gives men and women different languages – the women are articulate and tend towards therapy speak – the men are direct, fragmented, and given to macho clichés. Mann seems truly interested in women and how men relate to them, or fail to relate to them, and it shows. It also enlarges his audience. I would crawl through broken glass – okay, maybe I wouldn’t, but I’d seriously consider it – to see a Michael Mann movie, whereas the thought of a Michael Bay only inspires a yawn.

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I can’t help wondering if it’s slightly – slightly – easier for women to step into the male POV than vice-versa. And not because women on the whole are more sympathetic and relationship-oriented – if anything, that could lead them into the trap of what I think of as soap-opera men: male characters who obsess and ruminate over things like feelings and relationships, while their real-world counterparts go to work and watch sports and wonder why the hell their girlfriend talk their ear off about some problem if she didn’t want him to actually solve the damn thing. Novel-writing has a rich and long history of women taking on male personas and finding through them not only commercial and social acceptability, but a new kind of power and freedom. For a male to step into anything female seems to have a kind of taint to it, a threat of stigma and downgrade, as if the continuing day-to-day invention and maintenance of one’s masculinity will be undone with one stroke of a silky pink pen.

Jonathon Franzen wrote what myself and others consider a genuinely great book with “The Corrections”, but even though he could vividly depict the female characters, he kicked up national controversy when he balked at seeing the Oprah Book Club sticker on his book. He was worried that it ‘feminized’ a hefty and serious novel, even if the novel does chronicle the disintegration of one family and the attempts of its children to correct its flaws and mistakes through the creations of their own families. In other words, even if the novel explored dysfunctional domestic life, god forbid it be tagged a domestic novel, which means a female novel, which means a lesser novel. If male writers like Franzen fret over their literary credibility when they cross over into traditionally female material, no such equivalent seems to exist for female literary writers who move into traditionally ‘male’ subjects of war, like Pat Barker did with her Regeneration Trilogy, or the kind of American violence that Joyce Carol Oates has explored through a lifetime’s body of work. If Franzen got slapped with the indignity of an Oprah sticker, writers like Barker and Oates win awards and acclaim. (Oates, by the way, had no issues with being an Oprah Book Club selection herself.) If Franzen worried that his identity was somehow in danger of being diminished — even as his sales shot through the roof — I doubt Barker and Oates entertained the same concern.

Because this, I’ve come to understand, is one of the central differences between the male and female perspective, and when I cross from female to male it’s something I really have to work to wrap my mind around. It would never occur to me, for example, to open this essay not unlike Richard Steinberg opened his on ‘Part One’ of this same topic:

Let me assure you, dear reader, that I have on me a pair of breasts. They are not huge, but they are not small. They are a large B/small C, which works well on my tall frame because I can wear whatever I want to wear, from a high-necked halter to a low-cut sweater, without looking too boyish or too floozy, and even go braless if need be without any risk of smacking myself, or anybody else, in the face. When I was pregnant, they got the job done with aplomb.

I like my breasts. I have, as you can see, an excellent relationship with them.

But I still like to write from the point of view of the opposite sex.

While female vulnerability is steeped in the physical, male vulnerability seems steeped in the idea of maleness itself. Because you can’t just look like a man — you have to act like one too, and your performance as a man is gets measured and judged day after day after day. And part of being a man is defining yourself against what is ‘female’ – including your own vulnerability. The culture helps you with this. After I had my sons, a man I had known for a long time told me about a disturbing event that happened to him in a city park when he was six. If he had been a girl, he told me, he would never have been allowed to roam free like that, and the incident would never have happened. Female vulnerability is acknowledged and validated and sometimes even celebrated. True male vulnerability is like something swept under the carpet, out of view, so that we actually need to remind ourselves — like my friend was making a point to remind me — that little boys are every bit as vulnerable as little girls. The fact that we instinctively coddle the latter over the former probably does a lot to explain why statistics show that boys are much more often the victims of sexual molestation. Predators – at least in the past — have more access and opportunity to get them.

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Writing from a character’s viewpoint feels, for me, like slipping into a different kind of mindset, and the more developed that character is – the deeper I am in the writing – the more distinctive that sense of mindset, as if I’m opening the door to a character’s bedroom and stepping inside.

I’ve written two dark-fantasy novels – “Bloodangel” and its sequel, “Lord of Bones” which drops July 1 – and although the protagonist is female, most if not all of the other viewpoints are male. Those mind-rooms marked ‘male’ do seem to share a quality that maybe you could describe as ‘masculine’ — maybe the masculine shadow of the man I would have been if my chromosomes had emerged with one small but vital difference. I’m conscious of my viewpoint toughening up, turning maybe a bit more caustic, the psychic wounds more deeply buried and harder to get at. While my female protag’s angst is easily expressed, my male characters might offer up in place of it the devil-may-care sarcasm Lucas Maddox, or the wary, guarded, careful nature of teenage Ramsey, or the focus and determination of Kai. It’s not that Jess isn’t wary or focused, or that the men in her life aren’t every bit as haunted as she is (this is, after all, dark fantasy). But where Jess might turn inward, using the tools of introspection and emotion, the men turn to action and logic and banter and problem-solving. Likewise, the men are comfortable with power, supernatural and otherwise. They feel comfortable with it. But Jess’s struggle with her own emerging power and the aggressive ways she’s forced to use it – how this darkens her sense of herself and affects her relationships – forms a big part of the story.

Judging from reader email, it’s the male characters in my books that tend to be their favorites. In BLOODANGEL, the best-liked character is Ramsey, which makes me glad he didn’t meet the fate I had originally planned for him. In the sequel LORD OF BONES, the viewpoint I enjoyed writing the most, and found the most comfortable, was actually that of Lucas Maddox, a person whom I would seem to have very little in common with. Although, as a psychologist recently reminded me, all your characters are you, manifestations of you. You can’t write what you don’t understand – at least not convincingly.

So I can’t help thinking that maybe in this space of mental and creative androgyny – where the writer uses all of his or her observations of human nature in order to write from a place that enfolds both genders – some of the strongest characters are made. Instead of creating an opposite-sex character out of flimsy half-baked projections, prejudices, wishful thinking, you can meld the difference of your gender with your understanding of the other gender to make complex, fascinating, emotionally moving characters. You can write about tough men who are vulnerable and vulnerable women who are powerful (just as Joss Whedon did when he created Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a character you might have heard of).

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When Richard Steinberg suggested we collaborate on a two-part essay about writing from the viewpoint of the opposite gender, I thought of something Zadie Smith said when I went to hear her read and give an interview at UCLA. The interviewer remarked on her ability to write from the viewpoints of characters of different ethnicities. Zadie more or less shrugged off the question, saying that the purpose of fiction is to enlarge human consciousness, not to slice it down into labels and categories, not to act as if people are utterly alien to each other, all trapped as we are in this human condition. In any case, she thought the greatest difference lay not between different races, but the different genders.

Crossing that bridge involves understanding the other gender in a way that also means understanding ourselves. It means developing an eye that is deeply empathic and coldly objective at the same time. It means knowing how to seduce – even as we ourselves are seduced, with all the thrills and pleasure that involves….and also, maybe, the lies. But behind every lie is the truth, and as writers — and observers of the human condition — it’s our job to get at it.

—JM

Comments (4)

Very nice, Justine. It was a real pleasure working with you on these. If I wasn’t spending my day being sick – not from your work, I assure you – I’d praise on!

Again, a real pleasure working with you on these. Be well . . . or at least weller than I am.

Rick Steinberg

Justine,
Your essay gives one the impression that you have given its topic some bit of exploratory thought, thought that explored more than seven caches of experience. Effective illustrations. Excellent presentation.
R.C. Jones

Catching up here after hiding on April Fool’s Day, but I can’t believe only 3 people have commented (and one apparently was removed)! This is easily one of the most intelligent pieces on writing and especially gender (by itself) I’ve ever had the pleasure to read. You are not just facile with “creative androgyny,” Justine, you are a, hmmm…let me style it gender polyglot — meaning you can write the languages of what you speak. And they are languages which presuppose oceans of insight. Thanks for the inspiring piece.

– Sully

I have to agree with Thomas S. I actually thought I’d posted a comment, but it’s not here. Sorry.

I think you did a great job of exploring angles of this issue, and you raised some intriguing points for both sides.

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