Whose Voice Is It, Anyway?

men describe women chart

Found at Electric Lit online magazine (click on the image to see a larger version)

The chart posted above was acquired from the article If You’re Not Sure How a Male Author Would Describe You, Use Our Handy Chart over at the Electric Lit online magazine. As I understand it, the chart was created as a gag, and I found it pretty funny. In fact, I toyed with the idea of writing a story using the chart just as a joke.

Then it took on a life of its own on twitter, as reported at the same magazine, in an essay titled ‘Describe Yourself Like a Male Author Would’ Is the Most Savage Twitter Thread in Ages.

Apparently a male author claimed he could write authentic female characters, and was immediately challenged by Gwen C. Katz (@gwenckatz). A combination of hilarity, hostility, and moral angst ensued. I should say that after writing most of this missive, I noticed these articles were written last April, but they’ve showed up in my gmail inbox from Medium in the last couple of days. Wonder what the message is?

I decided to write about this because I’ve gotten a hold of a review copy of the To Be Men: Stories Celebrating Masculinity anthology edited by Sirius Métier and published by Superversive Press. It was published digitally about two weeks ago (as I write this) and seems to be doing pretty well, both relative to its Amazon reviews (five so far, and all five star ratings) and in terms of sales.

I’m pretty friendly online with Richard Paolinelli, one of the contributors, and so have an interest in this collection of tales along with the topic. This is an anthology to which I would have loved to have submitted a story.

You see, there’s a rather large difference of perspective between those who commented on the “twitter storm” two-and-a-half months ago, and what I’ve read so far in “To Be Men” (only one story and the beginning of the second). That said, there’s also some convergence.

The twitter hashtag #OwnVoices and the associated movement, is a drive for women, people of color, and other minorities to be their own voices in the entertainment industry, including film, television, and literature. The idea is that a man couldn’t possibly write a convincing female character, a woman as she would see herself, or for that matter, a white man couldn’t write an authentic person of color character, nor could a straight man write a well-rounded gay character.

This goes for film and television directing as well as writing, and of course, any other creative role one might imagine.

I don’t particularly have a problem with that. I’m sure a woman could write a female character in a much more informed way than I could.

Decades ago, I took a cartooning extension class through U.C. Berkeley taught by Dan O’Neill of “Odd Bodkins” fame (and I’m glad to see he’s still alive).

One of the writing exercises he conducted involved having all of the female students leave the room. Then, Dan asked we hapless males to offer examples of what it feels like when a woman is on her menstrual period. He dutifully wrote our answers on the board and then called the women back in.

We didn’t do so well. The point of the exercise was that it’s hard to write about something you have no experience with. I guess that means if a man wants to write about a woman, he should probably have some women beta read his tale to see if it could be improved upon. Same for white people writing people of color characters.

I know, that’s not always practical, especially for those of us who are newbies with limited access to resources (though one wonders about women writing male characters or people of color authors writing white characters…hmmm). Still, it’s not a bad idea.

One thing the twitterati forgot about when they were raking male authors over the coals, was the intended audience of the story being written. To take an extreme example, I’m sure crime author Mickey Spillane wrote both male and female characters over his lengthy career. In fact, I specifically recall in his 1947 novel I, the Jury, that he described private investigator Mike Hammer’s secretary in what would by today’s standards be pretty sexist and sexual terms.

Of course, Spillane was writing for a largely and probably exclusively male audience, so even if he could describe a woman in a manner that would be acceptable to 21st century feminist, progressive women, he most likely wouldn’t have.

All of the comic books of my youth in the 1960s were written and drawn by white men (Jewish men if you consider Stan Lee and Jack Kirby). That means white men created Sue Storm Richards, the Invisible Girl of the Fantastic Four, Jean Grey or Marvel Girl of the X-Men, Janet Van Dyne or the Wasp from the Avengers, and so on. They also dreamed up T’Challa or the Black Panther and the entire nation of Wakanda in a 1966 issue of The Fantastic Four.

No, the characters probably weren’t depicted the way that a woman would write and draw them, or in the Black Panther’s case, the way an African-American writing/artist team would have depicted him (though T’Challa isn’t African-American, he’s African, so culturally, he’d be quite different), but they were created. Now, the Disney machine has a foundation upon which to build, for better or for worse.

manly FF

From a 1965 issue of “The Fantastic Four” comic book by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby

Those comic books were written for ten year old (probably white) boys, so again, the content was tailored for the audience. As the audience matured into the 1970s and beyond, the content changed. Now, I barely recognize comic books anymore since they’re speaking to people to which I don’t particularly relate (millennials and whoever has come after them).

Getting back to “To Be Men,” there is a growing movement that is pushing back against leftist progressive perspectives, and that desires to have fiction represent a wider audience which includes social and political conservatives as well as religious people. I know that leftists feel such a population has had control of the entertainment industry for far too long, but their solution is to delete that population, not only from current creative works, but from history as well, and replace them/us with other more underrepresented (real or perceived) populations.

I’ve said this before, but you don’t need to throw the baby out with the bath water. “To Be Men” is just one example of that, of men being depicted in positive, encouraging, protective, and nurturing roles rather than as gun-toting, country-music-listening, raw-meat-eating, woman-beating, baby-imprisoning monsters.

The first story in the anthology is “Cooper” written by Monalisa Foster. I thought her male protagonist Tim was quite believable, but must admit, my favorite character was Cooper himself. Was Foster, as a woman, writing for only for men? I doubt it. My impression thus far is that the anthology was created both for men who wanted to see themselves presented in a positive light, and women who want the same thing.

Not all women are searching for a beta male, nor do they all disdain the more traditional alpha male, though I caution my readers that, just as women, people of color, and members of the LGBTQ community are complex and nuanced individuals, so are men.

This debate isn’t only about the #OwnVoice movement or any sort of “us vs. them” mentality. It’s about the continuing quest to understand each other. Part of why I write, and actually a big, big part of why I write, is to process my thoughts, feelings, and perceptions of myself and the world around me. That’s why I write female and people of color characters. I could write about white men all day long, but I’m not interested in talking to only myself.

If you really support diversity, then you’ll have to allow even we old white guys to explore territory beyond our own borders. Otherwise, you’ll have to admit you really do want to lock us up in a concentration camp, metaphorically speaking, of course.

Let me wrap this up with a meaningful and I hope relevant quote:

When people are in emotional pain, they tend to speak and act in ways that sound angry and aggressive. And if you, too, are in emotional pain, you are likely to speak to the other person in ways that he will perceive as angry and aggressive. Each person adds to the emotional pain of the other, and the distress of everyone involved keeps increasing.

When you are calm, it’s easier to see the emotional pain of others. That is when you can build up your attribute of compassion. The goal is to have so much compassion that even when you personally are experiencing emotional pain, you are able to be sensitive to the emotional pain of the person with whom you are interacting.

Coming from a place of compassion you will be able to address the thoughts and feelings of the other person in a way that alleviates his distress. Then he is more likely to speak and act more sensibly and reasonably towards you.

-from Rabbi Zelig Pliskin’s book: Harmony with Others, p.130

If these endless and contentious debates are really two or more differing groups of people expressing their own pain, then just telling one side to “shut up” (regardless of which side it is) is exactly the wrong thing to do. Censorship and bigotry are doors that swing both ways.

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