Friday, February 01, 2008

I Think There Are Male Authors That Are Female

Title cited from a high school classmate; the conversation at the time centered on whether Vergil's portrayal of Dido was an accurate portrayal of a woman's struggle.

Also note: I started this essay almost two years ago, and I'm not totally satisfied with the completion, but it really needs to get out of my drafts.

In the wake of a brief, difficult romantic entanglement with a man a couple of years ago, when I turned to my friends—predominantly female—for comfort, many of my complaints were met with, "He's just being a stupid boy," or, more simply, "He's a guy," as if either statement stood as an explanation and a reassurance. A reassurance that I was perceiving his behavior correctly? A reassurance that I was, indeed, a woman, and therefore my behavior patterns were distinct from his and thereby not as reprehensible? As someone sexually and romantically interested in most genders, men among them, I can't say I see much reassuring in believing that male behavior is inherently offensive, inherently inimical to my values, nor is it much comfort to believe that my values exist solely because I am a woman. Yet to a certain degree this seems to be the paradigm we have accepted—even among feminists, even among forward-thinkers.

I'd be a useless feminist if I didn't believe in the existence of gender differences. Authors of countless dystopias, from Lois Lowry to Aldous Huxley, have meditated on the essential distinction between equality and sameness, and ain't much use in fighting for sameness. However, I'm also coming to believe it's useless to try to extricate biological differences from socially constructed differences between the genders. Biological differences exist in spades, the growing body of research and public discourse on transsexuality making this ever clearer, but until we become an honestly equal society decent research on the topic will be a rarity, given the funding of scientific study by special-interest groups on both hands of the political spectrum and whathaveyou. So when are we becoming an honestly equal society? Ummm . . . anyone? There must be a better solution to ways of thinking about research, but I don't think I'm going to find it in this post.

More and more, though, artists of each sex seem capable of (and ever more interested in) exploring the relevance of another sex or sexes to their work and perspectives. I suppose to a certain degree this has been going on for centuries, Clarissa and whathaveyou, but as gender distinctions in general become more flexible and more difficult to define it seems an ever more relevant phenomenon. For this post I want to examine two pieces of writing from the last decade in particular, Wally Lamb's She's Come Undone and Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake.

In Oryx and Crake, Margaret Atwood's thirteenth novel, Atwood used the third-person limited perspective of a male character. It was the first time Atwood had used a male voice for a full novel (Life Before Man includes the occasional male perspective, but they aren't the focus and it also is not a very good novel). It's following a young man growing up in a dystopic non-too-distant future controlled primarily by genetic engineering, incredibly threatened by bioterrorism, with tremendous gaps between the rich and the poor. The focus of the novel is by no means his masculinity, but Atwood felt the need to tell the apocalyptic story from a male character's perspective.

Wally Lamb narrates his novel She's Come Undone from the first-person perspective of a female character, Dolores Price. We follow Dolores from age four to age forty, through familial confusion, tragic abuse, incredible weight gain, hospitalization, marriage, divorce, reevaluation. The novel's nicely done, with occasional egregious literary mistakes—if you spend so much time using a character's interaction with a psychiatrist to explain her life's symbolism, why have symbols at all?—but it's a well-executed, unremarkable coming-of-age tale, with very few standouts. What's made it a standout is the gender switch, the intimate and, for many, spot-on knowledge of femininity and femaleness, coming from a man—that's what got the novel recognition from Oprah and tipped it over to the bestseller list.

There's a little bit of oppressive appropriation at play there. A lot of female authors have admirable expertise on the woman's perspective, spot-on knowledge of femininity and femaleness, but you can't say anyone notices. A woman writing She's Come Undone would have been dismissed from the canon as "chick lit." (Of course, what is Oprah's Book Club if not "chick lit," and it's certainly an exaggeration to say that She's Come Undone is part of "the canon." It's fair to say, however, that it's one of the more respected and better-known novels of the last decade, and I think equally fair to say that there would have been no such recognition had a man not written it.) On the seventeenth hand, though, if women do find Lamb's observations and character development perceptive and substantive, then shouldn't we honor that knowledge whatever the source? Be it firsthand or otherwise, if it's perceived as accurate and honest by those who would know doesn't it qualify as knowledge? In a discussion of these two novels a while back, my friend Squiggy claimed that She's Come Undone was "the only time a man wrote about a woman and got it right." She hadn't liked Oryx and Crake: she found the story inauthentic and when I mentioned my interest in Atwood's use of the male voice, she said that there were enough male voices on the scene already, and she didn't consider it a tremendous gain just because Atwood was a female writer. For Squiggy, it was the presence of a female character, a real and complex one, that mattered more than the author behind it.

It needs to be noted, perhaps, that the first time Atwood felt in need of a male voice was for a macrocosmically scientific novel. It's by no means her first political piece, but it's only her second explicitly political novel, and her first that's really focused on the scientific future. Atwood herself grew up with scientists according to most publicity materials released when the book was published four years ago, and has the knowledge base to write what was a pretty scientifically complex novel (yeah, I know we're not really just hanging around splicing raccoons and skunks, but it's overall solid), but she felt the need to present the story as male-dominated. Which springing from our society might just be realistic, and she needed that level of reality for it to work, but I think the portrayal of Oryx was a little sexist, not just from Jimmy's perspective, but from the fact that nobody in the novel, including Oryx herself, was able to challenge that perspective in any successful way. Even more than Crake, Oryx was a sexy stereotype, all her knowledge being based, pretty much, in "worldliness" or "feminine intuition," which caused both our main male characters (Jimmy and Crake) to fall in love with her. And while I acknowledge that Atwood was trying to do something big enough that I can't rely on her to do everything politically perfectly, it does continue to feel a little strange that my favorite feminist author based her most important plot points on one of the oldest, most sexist versions of the love triangle in the book.

Then again, maybe it's been in the book for so long because it's true. It's not like nothing sexist ever happens. I wonder, then, if it was fair to expect an author, just by means of being a different gender than the one she was writing about, to challenge expected notions of the character's gender. Lamb did none of that. Oddly, it's the fact that he did not challenge any accepted thoughts about the character's gender that threw *his* gender into such sharp focus. By using a male perspective, Atwood's female perspective receded into the background, became less central or less impressive; by using a female perspective, Lamb's male perspective was seen as substantially more impressive, less limited than he would otherwise have been assumed to be. That's oversimplified, but nevertheless I wonder what it's about.

Now to read Moral Disorder and I Know This Much Is True.


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