The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Write What You Know part III: Gender

Write Who You Know Part III: Gender

Can men write about women?  Can women write about men?  Well, of course people have been doing both for centuries, but the question continues to arise.

It is my belief that it arises primarily from those who have strong political axes to grind, especially those who have a bad, or non-existent record of relationships with the opposite sex.  This is similar to the “Men are From Mars” crowd who believe there are vast differences between the genders.  It’s been my experience that the more difference people think there is, the less likely they are to have ever had a long-lasting, satisfying relationship with the opposite sex.

However, all of this is speculation.  While these essays cannot avoid representing pure opinion on my part, I want to label that as such, directly.  In fact, it is important that every writer have ideas, opinions about males and females, because the relationships between men and women are  among the most consistently successful story elements worldwide.

You should have an opinion, and be prepared to defend it.  That opinion should be congruent with the way you live your personal life, and conduct your relationships.  So, clearly labeled as my opinion, here we go.

I think that men and women are about 99% the same.  The basic biological difference is that women are the ones who get pregnant.  This leads to a certain degree of specialization: more estrogen on one hand, more testosterone on the other.  So males are larger, stronger, possessed of more burst power and aggressiveness, necessary for defending the home.  Women are longer-lived, and have better tolerance for certain long-term endurance and pain activities, related to their need to survive childbirth.

Because human beings require an exceptionally long period of training before they are ready to begin their own adult lives, this specialization has been exaggerated by society.  More than in other species, males have been conditioned to conduct more of the affairs of the outside world: business, war, etc.  Women conditioned to conduct more of the affairs within the home.  This accelerated during the Industrial Revolution, and didn’t REALLY start breaking down until the advent of reliable birth control. 

The social strictures are quite resistant to breaking down, and we are seeing some of that stress in our political and economic structures today.  They almost certainly WILL break down, however, at which time we can be pretty certain that the pendulum will swing in the other direction a while.  If men and women are pretty much the same, then they have equal wills to power—they express it a bit differently, perhaps, but
1)both   seek control over their environment.
1)     Both seek to “norm” their own behavior.  “Why won’t men commit?”  “Why are women so clingy?”  each side stumping for the other to behave the way THEY do, given their reproductive roles in a dyadic biological unit.  Huge amounts of male and female behavior relate directly to this split.  Women get pregnant, men don’t.
2)     Both sides tend to harbor beliefs that they are superior.  It is SO childishly easy to lead a group of men or women into comments about the advantages they have over the other side, and how they can do (almost) anything the others can do…and then some.  Try it sometime, but be subtle.  Superiority complexes run rampant, folks.  Don’t be smug.
3)     Both sides want to live, to reduce pain in their lives, to have love and success.  They may prioritize things like freedom and security a bit differently—it’s easy to figure out which side would TEND to favor security over freedom or vice versa, isn’t it?

There are many other things, but the core of it is that biological difference, and the social conditioning to reinforce it.  Both nature and nurture.  Endless stories can be, and have been, written about people who don’t match these stereotypes—and in fact NO ONE matches them precisely. But there are starting points.

So…can men and women write about each other?  Give me a break. If you’d been raised in Mexico City, would you speak Spanish?  All boys and girls have aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, husbands, wives, and what not.  We are absolutely surrounded by each other.  If you don’t understand the opposite sex, you don’t understand yourself.

That said, I will, again say that these are just my opinions.  Your obligation is to have your own, and think them through so that you can defend them, and express them, in your work.

Its vital, and the arguments alone are nine kinds of fun.


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