Gender Bias

Recently, I was reminded of the scene from the film As Good As It Gets where the novelist Melvin Udall (Jack Nicholson’s character) is talking to a receptionist. She asks Udall, “How do you write women so well?” and he replies, “I think of a man, and I take away reason and accountability.”

Is there a distinctly masculine or feminine voice in writing? Is it possible for a man to write a convincing first person narrative from a woman’s point of view—or vice versa? Or will an author’s gender bleed into a story no matter how hard he or she tries?

Let me explain what prompted these questions. I entered a writing contest last spring, and when the winners were posted, I noticed something: There were no male names on the list of finalists—none, zero, zip. I thought this was rather interesting, considering that the lone judge of the writing contest was male.

First of all, it’s important to understand that I’m a rather sore loser. Nevertheless, I also like to give credit where it is due, and if someone outdoes me in something, I believe I have enough good sense and character to acknowledge a job well done. Maybe these women outdid all the males who submitted material to the contest. If so, bravo! Yet I have to wonder what it was about these ladies’ writings that this particular judge found so appealing? Doe he simply have a penchant for feminine voices? Were there gender differences in the writings themselves—either in terms of subject matter or style—to which he unconsciously gravitated?

What about me? Does an author’s gender matter? Both male and female writers are certainly represented on my bookshelves at home, and I like to believe that I judge an author’s writing based on its own merits and not its creator’s sex. However, in the interest of full disclosure, I must admit that the male writers do outnumber the females in my library nearly three to one. Am I biased? Because I read Edward Abbey and not Danielle Steel, does this make me an insensitive, misogynistic brute? I’m not sure. You’d probably have to ask my ex-wife.

About Scott Shields

Years ago, I left the Midwest for the deserts of Arizona. Since then, I have worked in the grocery business and as a high school English teacher. Literature and writing are my passions, and I try to share my love of the written word with my students each day.

Comments

  1. I don’t think the author’s gender matters. Look at Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden. I still have a hard time believing that it was written by a man which is a testament to Golden’s talent. Yes, the judge may have preferred a feminine voice but without reading those pieces, it’s a stretch to say that they all had a feminine voice. And, I believe there are certainly degrees of femininity and that readers find their comfort zone somewhere along that continuum – e.g. find the large groups of women disgusted with the popularity of Eat, Pray, Love vs. the masses who are flocking to the film.

    Great post.

  2. Wallace Stegner, Ivan Doig, Annie Proulx–my favorite authors in reverse order. In Shipping News, Annie Proulx writes the character of Quoyle–a male who is my favorite example of character development. In Angle of Repose, Wallace Stegner’s character is a male author who writes of his grandmother with such clarity and understanding I find myself caught in self analysis moments where I wonder if I’m too much like her (um…I’m a girl, too). Ivan Doig not only understands how to write from a woman’s perspective, but somehow knew just what it might feel like to experience isolation from the perspective of a female homesteader in Montana. So. Those are examples that spring to my mind. I think Ursula Hegi does an amazing job of creating the character Trudi in Stones From the River…and Ursula Hegi is not a dwarf.

    So I’d say a good writer can make you believe in a character regardless of gender or any other personal characteristic. There may have just been a group of outstanding authors who happened to be women in that contest. It is what it is. Keep writing.

  3. This is interesting and reminded of a movie from the 80′s called “Just One of The Guys”, the premise is a hot high school chick who feels like she isn’t being taken seriously as a writer when she is denied a prestigious internship so she disguises herself as a boy and enters the contest at another high school and actually wins.
    I have guy friends who have written “chick books” with a female pen name and a really good gal friend who wrote a political book with a males name.
    I love Social Media because it seems to level the playing field and we are all even behind our computer screens. However, I have noticed that more men receive social media accolades for accomplishments and as a women I sometimes feel like i have to try twice hard to get half as much as some of the men out there doing way less than I am.
    I believe that just like when we listen to music, watch movies, look at advertising that we mirror ourselves so it makes sense that men look to other men to hear “their own voice” and women vice versa. Historically men have had better educations and that would explain why there are more male writers. I could not imagine trying to write like a guy…just too much emotion and estrogen in this body! lol
    I am just rambling at this point but wanted to respond to your great post!
    Jessica