I’m afraid today’s gonna be a rant.
It all started because of a blog post I read yesterday, about stereo-typing gender in novels. And then got sort of nudged on its way by a book I was reading last night. And then my annoyance and rant was finally solidified this morning when I was hunting for Legos for my daughter’s birthday.
I’ll spare you the agony of my thought processes and instead sum up the thesis that all three of these things were putting forth: men and women are inherently different. Different enough to want drastically different things out of life. Different enough that the same behaviors mean different things. Almost different enough to be two different species, according to the blog post and its comments.
As an author, I write people who are not like me all the time. With any character, you have to ask yourself, “would this character really react this way?” It’s a question that gets harder the further away a character is from your own personal experience. Writing about a bookish girl who plays a lot of musical instruments, for instance, is going to be a different kettle of fish for me than writing about, say, a divorced astronaut with gout. One of them is a far longer jump for me than the other.
But I have to tell you, I don’t think that merely crossing the gender divide is enough to make me trade my writer pogo stick for a jet plane. A male version of me would not be as different as people seem to think. And this is what it comes down to: gender stereotypes are something that really toast my bread.
Bu they’re in reviews, in product placement, everywhere. On the Lego site, they had a ton of cool sections. Pirates, Star Wars, Castles, Fire Trucks . . . and then one section labeled “Recommended for girls.” Guess what was in it? Grocery store. House. A Lego heart. A Lego bunny. Shopping center. Post man. Garbage man. A marketplace. And pink things, of course. You know what Thing 1, my daughter, really wanted? A castle. With some swash-buckling guys and a princess. Such a thing was nearly impossible to find -- I had to get a castle and then track down a princess on eBay, because you just couldn’t get a castle with a chick in it. Because of course, girls don’t play with castles.
And then, the other day, Thing 2 (4 year old boy) came home from school and said that he didn’t want to watch a movie that he and Thing 1 used to love to watch, because it was “girly.” I said, “How do you figure?” He said that one of his friends at school had said so. He couldn’t watch it because it would somehow diminish his stature. I gotta tell you, that steamed my clams. (yes, there’s a lot of cooking going on in this post. It’s how you can tell I’m really hot around the collar)(oh! oh! the puns!)(I amuse myself).
The thing is this: yes, there are some physiological differences between men and women. They were just talking on Mythbusters last night about how women have higher pain tolerance, for instance. But the vast psychological gap between men and women, the one that makes books like Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus possible, is created after we pop out of the womb. There are little subtle things that we do every day to reinforce stereotypes. We say, for instance, that we want a sensitive man who cries. (and guess what, little boys cry just as often as little girls). But when we’re watching a movie and the big burly man cries at the funeral and says “it’s so beautiful!” what does the audience do? We don’t say “awww.” We laugh, right? So what guy in his right mind is going to not suppress his tears or his sentimentality? And we say we want strong women who make up their minds. But a woman who shoots from the hip and says just what she wants? Well, then she’s a bitch -- where’s her sense of tact?
And the thing is, so many teens I know don’t question these attitudes. They take it as fact, when in different eras, what was was seen as feminine and masculine was wildly different. Men were painters without any snickering. Women couldn’t play violin because the arm position was provocative. To be tanned was unbecoming for a woman. It was not seen as unmanly to be a patron of the arts. Society makes up a lot of rules for what it means to be a man or a woman. And society is us. That means we can unmake them too.
Okay, so I need to bring this back around to my writing philosophy. And it’s this: yes, I know there are women and men who are wildly different from one another, who fall classically along gender lines. But I also know that there are those who are not that different, the ones who have escaped or resisted a lot of the influences that makes us pink-clad shoppers versus muscle-bound Maxim readers. And when I write, my characters will often be plucked from that latter group. Boys who read poetry and girls who swear and guys who play music and chicks who love cars. I refuse to see the gender gap in YA fiction as a chasm of fixed proportions. I refuse to constantly make sure my girls are acting “girly” and my boys are acting “guyish.” That would mean letting current mores define gender and character for me.
Because when it comes down to it, a stereotype is only true now. An individual is true for ever.