Portraying the Other Gender

What We Might Get Wrong About the Gender We’re Not

I was raised to be male. There’s no getting around that. There will be some things about women’s experience I might never understand fully.

My brain is homosexual. There’s no getting around that. There will also be some things about straight guys’ and bi guys’ experience I might never fully comprehend.

My brain is also cys. I was raised Protestant Christian, ended up Taoist. I was raised in the Upper Midwest with fairly pale skin and blue eyes. I’m currently in my 50s. If I only wrote characters who were just like me, it would be pretty boring.

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I was probably not alone in starting out as a young writer in portraying characters who weren’t like me as if they were like me. I had really ambitious, athletic, unemotional women, and everyone was able and strong and smart, even if occasionally a bit too selfish.

As I matured as a writer, I went back to my acting training more and tried to imagine a back story and circumstances for each character. I certainly bucked a few stereotypes here and there, and I challenged myself to put myself into the minds of the most different types I could, including robots, aliens, Bhutanese teen boys, young Muslim women, transgendered spaceship captains, and, most recently, a blind, bisexual, wheelchair-bound telepathic interrogator.

So what do I assume about females? I try to imagine being judged more superficially from a young age. I imagine the confusion and frustration of bleeding on a monthly basis. I imagine the social pressure to smile when I wasn’t happy and to defer to men when I had a valid point to raise. I put myself in the fear of frequent verbal abuse, blatant from my enemies and subtle from my friends. I imagine the greater burden for birth control, the conflict of children versus job, the insistence of a fertility deadline, the economic injustice of being a female employee, and my mystification at what men I meet are thinking.

What do I notice female writers getting wrong about men? Men are generally (not totally) more physical than verbal, so we are less likely to engage in debate for long, more willing to intervene with some form of touching. We are to greater and lesser degrees aware of the early trauma of having one of the most sensitive parts of our bodies cut away in circumcisions. We are often taught that showing emotions is weakness, so we may have trouble expressing them. Through sports, academics, and games, we are taught to be competitive and to win–in extreme cases, ruthlessly. Men get frustrated by their role to be the hunter and the breadwinner, because it takes a lot of effort, and sometimes we would love someone else to take that responsibility. Many times we are less prepared to take care of ourselves when we move out on our own.

When I write, however, I try to include female antagonists and scientists. I write some butch and some femme gays and lesbians, and men who aren’t sure what they want. I find the idea of wise children of any gender both believable and satisfying. I include conservatives and liberals (though the conservative mind is a lot harder for me), and that may or may not affect their gender roles. And I am even trying to get inside the head of a totally nonbinary person.

And as hard as I work to make my female characters believable and compelling, I’m sure I’m still falling short, and it’s okay to let me know that when you see it.

 

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