A Guide To Writing Women (For Men Who Don’t Want To Offend Them) (1/7)

Part I: Introduction: On what this is and who it is and isn’t for.
Part II: Pretty Things To Look At: Visual descriptions and their fallacies; subjects, objects and breasts; exclusivity and accidental pornography.
Part III: Pretty Things To Use: A casting call gone wrong; age of consent and why it matters; on how Daenerys Targayen said yes.
Part IV: Pretty Things To Use, continued: On sexy rigor mortis; entertainment vs. insult; on how beauty standards make it harder to write well.
Part V: Pretty Things We’ve Read Before: On building mixed ensembles; on why everybody hated Tauriel; what The X-Men teach about gender defaults.
Part VI: That’s… Not How That Works: On why you should fact-check your erotica; on how your bible studies teacher was wrong about orgasms.
Part VII: Do It Right: All the positive examples and bonus advice on how to do it right for all who made it this far.

What is this?

It all started on Twitter. On Twitter handle Men_Write_Women, specifically, where sexist writing goes to die. A place for excerpts by male authors who are under the impression that women have the ability to hide credit cards in their vaginas, or that they are sown shut down there until they have sex for the first time, when the male organ apparently… drills them open. Or something. And hey, those are pretty funny; and they only get funnier the more you think about the fact that those writers likely never got laid again after they published that. However, it’s also the last resting place of that one restaurant critic wo wrote about meeting a female fellow food lover, talked about how she ended up exchanging numbers with his companion. Other culprits gave what seems to be an overly overt, but surely inoffensive description of the female body.

In tweets past, this has caused confusion among the yet-alive male followers of Men_Write_Women.1 Is the mention of breasts offensive to women by default? Don’t they want to read about female characters getting admired? Whatever did the food guy do wrong?

Men_Write_Women is a place to vent. It is not a place to educate. It is also not a place for men to point out that “not all men would…” if for no other reason that for the majority of exhibits there, the female followers could reply with, “no woman ever would…” That doesn’t mean, though, that an interest in learning isn’t appreciated! It is, very much so. And lucky you! My friend AWintersong has asked to be educated on how to write women without offending their real-life counterparts.2 And I can never resist requests to do with writing meta. And that was that.

You might wonder what qualifies me to explain to men how to write women, other than being a woman who writes women. So, short answer: I’m a literature researcher and I wrote a doctoral thesis on how various groups of people of both genders write queer people of both genders.3 Close enough, huh? So while I’m waiting for that degree to be finalized, I’m bringing to you this. I very much thank my two peer reviewers, too, one of whom is fellow literature researcher @SilbenAlchemie, the other one a cognitive psychologist.

As a starting point, have some description of women which puzzled some male Twitter users recently:

Somehow, though, it looks like our original plan of returning to Japan on the 15th of August is going to change. After our work is done in France we may be taking a short holiday on a Greek island. this English gentleman we happened to meet here – a real gentleman, mind you – owns a villa on the island and invited us to use it for as long as we like. Great news! Miu likes the idea, too. We need a break from work, some time to just kick back and relax. The two of us lying on the pure white beaches of the Aegean, two beautiful sets of breasts pointed toward the sun, sipping wine with a scent of pine resin in it, just watching the clouds drift by. Doesn’t that sound wonderful?

(Haruki Murakami: Sputnik Sweetheart. Japan 1999)

She had terrible taste in men – the best that could be said of her endless series of boyfriends is that none of them lasted long. Pretty rather than beautiful, she had a flat, flapperish figure, but she used what she had to maximum advantage – she sent her uniforms back home to be tailored – and there was something vibrantly sexy about her ravenous, too-wide gaze. You wanted to meet it and be devoured by it.

(Lev Grossmann: The Magicians. USA 2009)

Well, Guthrie said, you’re looking good.
Why, thank you. She turned completely around in front of him, making a little dance. She had on a low-cut white top and tight blue jeans and boots fashioned from soft red leather. The tightness of the top she was wearing made smooth pretty mounds of her breasts.
Why don’t we go back to the bedroom, she said.
When her clothes were off Maggie was soft and creamy, as rich as if she were painted. She had large full breasts and wide hips and long muscular legs.
In Denver Dwayne took her to a few parties. They attended one on a Friday night at the apartment of some people who he knew from work, Carl and Randy. Randy was a big tall girl with tight jeans and skinny legs, and she wore a little tube top and had fixed breasts.

(Kent Haruf: Plainsong. USA 2001)

He left the room and shut the door, and Johnson said to the girl, Sit down, Prem.
Prem Bodasingh, even in the shapeless prison dress that she was wearing, appeared to him as a creature of grace. She was slender and not very tall, and her features were what one might call aristocratic, although she was in fact t-he descendant of labourers.
[…] Prem not only had these aristocratic features, but her hands were aristocratic too, with fine tapered fingers.

(Alan Paton: Ah, But Your Land Is Beautiful. South Africa 1996)

Like Nagi, Basanova was a nice place to relax. Sure, there was a ticket vending machine, and you ate at a stainless-steel counter, but the atmosphere invited lingering with a beer or two, and the owner didn’t mind our taking plenty of pictures. He even came over to chat, explained that because his parents came from opposite ends of Japan – hence from vastly different ramen traditions – taking the fusion-cuisine route was a natural decision.
As we left, Mr. MacDuckston and I were follower out the door by a young woman who’d been eying us curiously. In the street, she identified herself as Kana Nagashima, a student just returned from a decade in Singapore who had started a ramen club at her university. Her giggly enthusiasm was delightful, and she seemed as impressed with us as we were with her. Before we moved on, she and Mr. MacDuckston exchanged contact information. Talk about meeting cute.

(Matt Gross: One Noodle At A Time In Tokyo. In the New York Times 2010, source )

What’s wrong with those? If I do my job right, you’ll know at the end of the post.

Your female characters need work. Does that make you a misogynist?

I want to clear up a common misunderstanding right away, because otherwise you might just end up offended by things I write although I didn’t mean to offend, and then we’d be back at the beginning That’d be annoying.

You’ll surely have encountered more than one situation in your life where you or some other guy said something about women, or to women, and were informed that it was misogynistic. Since you very much don’t think women are in any way less than men, thank you very much, you might have gotten away from it thinking that that was way too huge an accusation just because you said something that somebody of the other gender didn’t like. So here’s what you need to internalize right now, and you’ll be happier for it: Saying that something you did or said was misogynistic is not the same thing as calling you a misogynist. Say, you mess up on a soccer pitch, and afterwards a person who knows lots about soccer points out that your mistake was in squaring the ball like that. That person isn’t saying you’re a bad player; they’re saying you shouldn’t have squared the ball like that. Hopefully, you won’t do that the next time. Hopefully, the next time you will score, and both you and the person will be pleased.

When a male author writes a thing that offends a bunch of women, he falls into one of the following four categories:

  1. He is a man who thinks of women as inferior, or of their “purpose” as existing for the pleasure of men. In other words, he’s what we commonly picture when we think “misogynist”. He believes the shit he wrote. I’m assuming that none of you belong in this category.

  2. He did or portrayed something many people do, but hasn’t heard that the thing is considered misogynistic by many. Or otherwise he didn’t have an awareness that what he did might be worthy of critique from a gender point of view. (It happens. Don’t beat yourself up over it; don’t let anybody else beat you up over it. Nevertheless, something you said, wrote or did just insulted or hurt people you didn’t mean to hurt. So man up, apologize, and make sure you understand the issue so that you won’t repeat the mistake. Move on. Next time, score.)

  3. He did or portrayed something that would be considered misogynistic but only by people of a certain age group, or (sub)culture, or country. That’ll keep happening, sometimes. The world is now an international place. A man from Massachusetts once assumed that the fact I don’t like to drive means I’m a bad drive. German me almost blew up in his face. Or as for age groups: Remember how Joss Whedon was the shit in feminism in the 90’s. Now millennials stare at Buffy The Vampire Slayer in terror and want to know why ever you would call that show progressive. Or: Once at work, I participated in the making of a flyer for an event targeting owners of online shops; it made use of the silhouette of a woman with shopping backs. The office poll on it came back informing us that it had been deemed misogynistic, unanimously, by one specific group – all the women in the office older than fifty. (It happens, to everybody, of all genders and education level. Don’t beat yourself up over it. Nevertheless, something you said or did just hurt somebody you didn’t mean to hurt, so buck up, apologize, and make sure you understand the issue so you won’t repeat the mistake.)
    Illustration - silhouette of a woman with shopping bags
  4. He did or portrayed something that isn’t inherently problematic, and it would ping nobody in a negative way if we lived in a world without misogyny. We’d put it down as something that should have been fixed in editing, if we took conscious notice of it at all. Alas, we do not live in such a world, and our author’s writing doesn’t exist in a bubble. The fact that the thing he wrote had been written thousands of times before by other men, often definitely in a misogynistic context, has made it unacceptable. His individual intention ceases to matter in the face of the overwhelming empirical evidence of women who have been forced to read that shit again. and again. and again. while being told by the authors that they didn’t mean it that way, either. (It happens. Don’t beat yourself up over it, et cetera, cetera.)

The majority of excerpts I will be talking about will fall into the fourth category, with the second and third being touched on as well. However, again, to be absolutely clear: We’re not talking of category #1. I assume that men who fall into category #1, and actually think women exist for their pleasure, will not be interested in this post, unless they’re here to troll.4 I assume that you, reading this paragraph right now, are a generally nice, well-meaning guy who at worst is lacking in some insights.

You see, the thing is that most of us live in cultures that have a sordid history of gender inequality. That means the inequality is inherent in the system we live in to this day. It means language, when used as is, leans towards giving the power to men, or towards favoring them. The economy does, too. The social structures do. Often, even the law does. That’s what ‘em angry feminists call the patriarchy. We all of us – men, women, genderqueers alike – do access those structures and languages and types and as long as we don’t actively work against the leanings of the system, we will lean towards misogyny automatically. That’s what makes it so hard. Not acting misogynistic requires vigilance and activity. So people who get called out often are people who didn’t mean anything by it, and don’t know what everybody is talking about, or why people are criticizing them. From their point of view, they never did anything. The very fact that they didn’t do or know something, as such, was the problem.5

Sensitive audiences – mostly but not exclusively women – have collected empirical evidence against certain descriptions of women, because they have noticed consciously what other people – mostly but not exclusively men – wrote without conscious intent. So I’ll do my best to lead you through enough examples to provide you with the beginnings of that same empirical knowledge that the sensitive readers already have, and to give you an insight into the underlying rational that connects all those offending depictions of women, no matter what the author wanted them to mean. Hopefully, at the end, you will be able to identify a good chunk of fallacies at the moment you write or encounter them. Ideally you will also have an easier time understanding the issue the next time somebody accuses you of having offended.

Let’s get started with the topic of visual description.

on to part 2:
Pretty Things To Look At

Read the footnotes via mouseover or read them here:

  1. And fear. Confusion and fear. Which is okay. We will take fear. We would prefer it to be understanding that leads to better stories, but if need be, we will settle with fear.
  2. We’re not so much friends as that he said that and I started salivating, because I react to literature analysis the way women in Books Written By Men – and some real-life women also – react to shoes. But after spending three weeks on this post, I feel like we’re BFFs.
  3. I want to apologize in advance to genderqueer people, because I will end up sounding trans exclusive in places. However, that is only owed to the fact that this post is for people who currently assume a simple gender binary, and they aren’t even getting that right yet. Please don’t be offended.
  4. In which case, please leave. Just leave. I need you like I need gum on the soles of my shoes.
  5. Sure, yes, that sucks. Not as hard as being treated like a sex doll, though.

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