Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been doing a good bit of reading on the subject of feminism and humanism and I’ve come to a rather unexpected conclusion about men and writing male characters. The men get the short end of the stick, and so do the writers.
Male characters are expected to act “manly” at all times, and displays of emotion are very tricky to write unless they involve sexual desire or rage. The reason runs deeper than tropes and genre expectations.
Let me preface this by saying that while it may seem odd that the study of feminism and humanitarian issues would lead me to conclude that men are short-changed in fiction, it’s really not that far of a stretch. Women make up just slightly over half of the population, and any systematic negative impact on that large a portion of society is going to invariably make waves and effect the rest. It’s not that I’ve lost the plot of women’s suffering and paternalism and privilege and the other bits of jargon people like to throw around in the comments of skeptic, humanist, and feminist blogs. It’s simply that I’ve always been aware of that aspect of gender. I intentionally write female characters to step outside the comfortable realm of female gender roles, to be strong and capable and sometimes even stoic while maintaining their femininity. As a nurse primarily working with newborns and new mothers, as a doula (trained, professional childbirth assistant and postpartum advocate), as a lactation counselor advocating and supporting breastfeeding women, and as a woman myself, the issues of female oppression, mutilation, abuse, and gender-based societal ills have been on my radar for a while. They are made no less important by my recent realization that anti-woman cultures hurt men almost as much, if not just as much, as they hurt women.
Before any rabid mouth-foaming types jump on that last statement, let me acknowledge that privilege decidedly also benefits men, but let’s be real here. Unless we’re talking about a hermit who was raised by wolves, every man is impacted by the suppression of his mother, of his female relatives and friends, of his coworkers and neighbors, if not directly, than in other ways.
Some of the ways men are also oppressed by the continuation of sexist roles:
- Domestic violence is commonly perpetrated by men who were exposed to domestic violence as children, as well as effecting the same increased incidence of mental health disorders and substance abuse problems later in life on both boys and girls.
- Men are raped, too, in numbers that most people would find astounding, particularly in war, prison, and other hostile situations. Most of the social supports and strides made in the last hundred years toward helping female victims of violent sexual assault are intentionally made unavailable to male victims, which I find utterly abhorrent on a personal and humanistic level. In just about every online discussion on rape and rape culture I’ve found (and I’ve been looking widely), men are unilaterally painted as the perpetrators and male victims are shouted down on the rare occasion when they come forward.
- Men are expected to be emotionally stunted, a stance that is enforced both by other men and by women. Deviation from the stoic standard can lead to humiliation, harassment, and negative consequences in relationships, social circles, and the professional realm.
- Bisexual and gay men are discriminated against even more than bisexual women and lesbians in many parts of the world, partially in relation to the so-called “gay plague” that increased discrimination against gay men in the 1980’s which continues today. I’ve never heard “That’s so lesbian,” as an insult, but “That’s gay” is such a common part of the speech that it’s beginning to fade into the background noise.
- The under-utilization of societal resources holds the progress and betterment of the entire species back – men included.
- Even when men break the pattern of misogynistic treatment of women, they are continually subjected to reinforcement from men and women alike, often more so from the women in my experience (see below).
That list is by no means exhaustive, and as the mother of a young boy, even this limited list frankly scares the shit out of me. As a writer, it poses particular difficulties when attempting to create gender-neutral societies. The prejudices on both sides of the fence are so ingrained that it’s all but impossible to separate them out.
Consider the source.
Gender roles are largely learned behaviors, but let’s look at the overall picture, not only of the ways in which men are taught to be the oppressors, but also at the ways that continuing to pass along unreasonable gender roles by both men and women also oppresses men who might otherwise aspire to gender equity.
That’s right. I said it. Women have a share in passing on gender inequality. This was never so clear to me as when an older female relative (whom I adore) spent a couple of weeks in my house. After she left, my husband who is very much on equal footing with me commented that he really hated that she treated him like he should get whatever he wanted, that she continually insisted on serving him, that she constantly pushed me to serve him in the same way (to which I said, “He’s got legs” more often than not). He said she made him feel like an ogre by treating him as if he was some harem-master patriarch.
She didn’t intend to elevate him onto a pedestal or imply that she or I were inferior to him; she simply tried to press the two of us into the mold of way the world worked for her. As a mother of nine, she taught her sons and daughters that the world worked that way. She is not an evil or malicious patriarchal enforcer. She is simply a woman who has internalized the roles society set up for her and others, and who is reasonably attempting to avoid cognitive dissonance by pressing every other relationship she sees into that same pattern. She did this, by the way, while praising how thoughtful, sensitive, and wonderful my husband was for not acting like the very man she was trying to teach him to be.
Gender roles are bending among the younger generations, but they are still being systematically reinforced by everyone around us, men and women alike. As a writer who has tackled the idea that women are as strong and stable and capable as men in my writing, I have always tried to portray men as “real” in the sense that they are also vulnerable, both emotionally and physically. My recent foray into feminist blogging has reinforced for me the need to treat men as being vulnerable culturally as well. After all, they’re part of the world in which women live and while not all men are victims certainly, many men feel constrained by the very societal expectations that feminists rail against.
I’m not suggesting that writers pick a favorite soap box and harangue their readers about it for 400 pages, by any means, but considering the culture and our own internal standards, roles, and stereotypes can only help us create more realistic and rich characters. Portraying both women’s and men’s issues, flaws, and trials accurately is my goal as a writer, because truth resonates with readers, and it is that resonance that I am looking for as a writer.
What social or cultural issues do you tackle in your fiction? In what ways do you strive to portray truth in characterization?