I’ve been teaching literature and critical reading/writing at the University level for twenty years, and one thing seems clear to me on the subject of gender: girls are much more open-minded about what they read, view, and listen to, than boys. This is partially due to necessity: most of the writing, and art in general, in our Western culture is historically androcentric, or “male-centric,” if you will. And I’m not just talking about non-neutral gender phrasing, disingenuously assuming “he” is the proper universal pronoun. I’m really thinking of male modes of discourse and storytelling legitimized by default, and women’s marginalized by default, as “chick-lit/flicks,” “melodrama,” “sensationalism” (or worse.)
One of the more complex and rewarding texts I’ve used repeatedly is Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 masterpiece Apocalypse Now. Literary and pseudo-historical in a way that anticipates much of the film of the past 30 years, I use it to encapsulate many of the most enduring truths of the American experience of the Vietnam era—though lately I’ve preferred Oliver Stone’s biopic of Le Ly Hayslip, Heaven and Earth (1993.) But not because anyone can’t hack Coppola’s opus. The violence, torture, gore, depraved indifference to human life, the appalling ignorance of the invaders to the culture of indigenous peoples—none of these has ever disturbed a female student enough to voice an objection. Of course, the brilliant narrative, sound, characters, and visual spectacle more than compensate for the discomfort of viewing AN.
In stark contrast, when I assign a modest amount of material by or about women—Chopin’s The Awakening for example, and of course, Heaven and Earth, are both gems—the male students often exhibit ill-concealed contempt, and (at least passively) decline to engage. This rigid refusal—not inability—of males to adapt to anything resembling a feminine text, seems to come at such an early age in our ultra-competitive, aggressive society, that by the ‘tweens, it can only be reversed through a slow and relentless process of reeducation of the few willing volunteers.
Women readers—or cultural consumers, if we expand to include visual and aural media—can’t afford to overlook the vast bulk of material out there that is ill-designed for them: action movies, sports programs, adolescent sex-comedies for all ages, home-improvement programs, horror, westerns, sci-fi, heavy music of all kinds. And it should go without saying that not all women enjoy the celebrity showcases, the cooking, dance, and craft shows, and soap operas designed for them. So what’s left?
My point is that, if a writer—male or female—wishes to reach a wide audience, then rather than follow suit with the dominant culture, it might be wiser to plan and compose with an audience of women in mind, thereby creating a product that women don’t have to adapt to—or at least bend and stretch so far to enjoy, or pretend to.
–refuse to use women characters as throwaway items: victims, prostitutes, weak-minded girlfriends, evil harpies. Conversely, if deciding to use a female lead, consider that there are many types of strong women whose strength is not defined primarily (or exclusively) by sexuality—we have enough Circe types out there!
–envision the interior life of women characters (we often get relevant psychological insights into the minds of men—but what in the world are are the ladies thinking? Even the literary giants have neglected to wonder (consider Hamlet vs. Ophelia)
—sex in writing is generally laughable anyway, but rather than spending your time trying to devise the latest euphemism for penis, why not at least try on the woman’s POV?
—emotions are not easy to write about, but we all have them. Many writers shy away, as in life, from revealing any raw feelings or even humanistic values. I’m not talking about sentimental writing. There’s a fine line.
–rather than thematically celebrate the triumphs of competition, the forced separation of weak from strong, how about some explorations of the virtues of cooperation and nurturing?
–Not all good writing is linearly organized—not all “reason” is logically-based—not all “reality” is something that can be seen with the eye or touched with the finger—not all lifelike dialogue is sequential or even “about” anything—not every detail has an immediate reason for appearing—not every smile means happiness—not every tear is a reason for shame–not every motivation is conscious—not every whisper of the intuition is born of fear—not every friend will give something back, and yet may still be worth having–not all women characters are “dirty, double-crossing dames” or innocent princesses!