Tag Archives: sexism

Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

americanah

  • Genre
    • Drama, Realistic Fiction, Romance
  • Plot Summary
    • The story of Ifemelu, Nigerian immigrant who becomes a successful writer and returns home, and Obinze, the college boyfriend who she hopes to reunite with.
  • Character Empathy
    • Much of this book is about making you understand people. Why do some people become religious extremists, or pick up a sugar daddy, or attempt suicide? Why do people lie and steal identities? Why do people try to hide their accents? Why do people change their hairstyle? This book never preaches. You don’t get to come to conclusions as simple as “she did the wrong thing” or “she did the right thing.” You just learn to understand.
  • Tone: What’s it Like to Read This Book?
    • You’re surprised at how much you laugh, given that the protagonist grows up with war and then endures poverty, sexism and racism. Ifemelu survives by her wit, both in the sense of her intelligence and her snark. Her ability to cut through bullshit is absolutely delightful. 
  • Other Shiny Stuff
    • Nearly half of the book is just Ifemelu sitting in a hair salon getting braids and reminiscing about Obinze, and I don’t even care. She makes a hair salon so vivid and funny I could have spent the whole book there. If she ever writes a spin-off about the braiders at the salon I will buy it immediately.
    • So much feminism. It’s feminist heaven.
    • Obinze and Ifemelu are so damn shippable. I’m not typically a romance reader, because I’m too picky about couples chemistry. You can’t just tell me two people are soulmates; you have to really sell it. At the end of this I was making threats to the book about what would happen to it, library copy or no, if it didn’t end well for them.
    • Relationship conflicts that aren’t contrived and do resolve in ways that make sense for the characters.
    • Speaking as a white person to other whites, I’ve learned a lot from this whole project, but nobody has schooled me like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. This should be required reading.
  • Content Warnings
    • One sex scene may be triggering for survivors. It also might be comforting, in a “somebody gets it” kind of way. It doesn’t dominate the story but it’s a necessary turning point, and it doesn’t sexualize the event in the slightest.
  • Quotes
    • “Racism should never have happened and so you don’t get a cookie for reducing it.”
    • “If you don’t understand, ask questions. If you’re uncomfortable about asking questions, say you are uncomfortable about asking questions and then ask anyway. It’s easy to tell when a question is coming from a good place. Then listen some more. Sometimes people just want to feel heard. Here’s to possibilities of friendship and connection and understanding.”
    • “The only reason you say that race was not an issue is because you wish it was not. We all wish it was not. But it’s a lie. I came from a country where race was not an issue; I did not think of myself as black and I only became black when I came to America.”
    • “What a beautiful name,” Kimberly said. “Does it mean anything? I love multicultural names because they have such wonderful meanings, from wonderful rich cultures.” Kimberly was smiling the kindly smile of people who thought “culture” the unfamiliar colorful reserve of colorful people, a word that always had to be qualified with “rich.” She would not think Norway had a “rich culture.”
    • “She rested her head against his and felt, for the first time, what she would often feel with him: a self-affection. He made her like herself.”

The Best Reason to Remake Beauty and the Beast

Beauty and the Beast

I finally got to see the live action remake last week, and on the whole I really enjoyed it. I didn’t think it was perfect, but I did leave the theater wanting to see it again.

It got me thinking about my old posts on Beauty and the Beast and Stockholm Syndrome.  Beauty and the Beast does have, at it’s core, a story about a woman being captured and falling in love with her captor. Now, that isn’t actually Stockholm Syndrome; it’s one of the many cases where popular culture gets abuse and mental health seriously wrong. But it is still awful, and we have to face that. Our society grows from roots that are deeply oppressive to many people, and that oppression is often embedded in our favorite stories. This creates a tension between the desire to hold onto what is familiar and nostalgic, and the desire to destroy what is broken in order to make room for something better. A compromise is often to reimagine; to reshape a story in order to get rid of the worst parts while keeping whatever is left. The original Disney film did this brilliantly.

Stockholm Syndrome isn’t merely falling in love with a captor. It happens when a victim feels they cannot escape an abusive situation (whether they are literally captured or compelled to stay for any other reason) and then learns to adjust their behavior to protect themselves. Because they can produce a conditional kindness, they come to believe their abuser is a good person deep down, and that any abuse they do experience is their own fault. Falling in love doesn’t even necessarily enter into it.

The original fairy tale does leave room for this interpretation. Beauty is trapped, the Beast has compelled her to come by threatening her father and he is a perfect gentlemen once she begins to cooperate. But the first Disney film makes some important changes. The biggest ones are that 1. Belle is only restrained by her promise, and early on she attempts to leave, returning only when the Beast has earned a second chance by saving her life. This proves that she doesn’t actually feel trapped. She knows her safety is more important than keeping her word. 2. Belle stands up to him, and it’s he who has to change his behavior in order to have a relationship with her. 3. Belle does not actually fall in love until after he has explicitly set her free (the original fairy tale has him granting her a temporary vacation, after which she never gets to leave again).

In the remake, I did initially get worried about the second point. The animated film at least indicates early on that the Beast feels guilt and self-loathing. The desire to change is already there. The remake has him much darker, to start out, and even pulls out the old “daddy was mean to me” excuse. But then something happened that I loved. The servants made a conscious, collective decision NOT to tell Belle that her love would lift the curse. They instead said that what happened was their own fault, not her responsibility. The Beast was cruel and none of them stopped the events that made him that way. Nobody challenged him to become something better. Privately, they hope Belle will lift the curse. They are prepared for the possibility that this is just their fate.

After I made my first Beauty and the Beast posts, I talked with someone who has was abused by someone who expected her to change him. She talked about how the real underlying message of Beauty and the Beast isn’t “Stockholm Syndrome” but the idea that it’s the victim’s job to change the oppressor. That was a really good point that I’m a bit ashamed to have missed the first time around. This is a massive myth in our culture, and it’s incredibly damaging. It brings me back to the question; is it better to abandon a story with toxic roots, or reimagine it?

I think that when a myth is pervasive, it’s often because there is an element of truth. For example, I think there are times when love can change the behaviors of someone oppressive. Look at this story about how tthe son of David Duke abandoned white supremacy, or this TED talk by a former member of the Westboro Baptist Church. I myself used to have deeply oppressive beliefs, and my friends from outside the religious right changed me. But fairy tales and romances carelessly pass around the maxim that love can redeem, and we ignore basic limitations of that principle.

  • It doesn’t work when we pretend love means never challenging or offending or calling someone out
  • It doesn’t work when the oppressor has no desire to change
  • Even if there is a desire to change, some oppressors want something else even more; power, status, the ease of a life where everyone works to accommodate their bad behavior. I know plenty of people who never changed
  • The potential redemption of an oppressor is not more important than protecting their victims

I think that a complex truth can never be told by cutting stories out of our culture. Instead, we need a variety of stories. When it comes to oppression and redemption, we don’t have much by way of stories that teach us how to recognize oppressors who aren’t willing to change, or that affirm the importance of a victim’s safety. This is one reason I loved The Force Awakens. Kylo Ren, just like Vader, has someone who loves him asking him to choose goodness. He makes the wrong choice. We almost never see that. We need to see more stories that show that, and that remind us that this whole “love redeems” thing is a gamble.

But in addition to telling more stories that show the other side, I do think we need to be more conscientious about how we tell the “love redeems” story. I think that of all the changes the original film made to the fairy tale, the addition of Gaston was one of the best. The difference between Gaston and the Beast is that, when Belle asserts herself, the Beast responds by fighting his inner darkness, and Gaston responds by escalating his misogyny. He goes from street harassment to manipulative proposals to locking her father up in order to blackmail her to, finally, attempting to kill his romantic rival. At no point does he learn that Belle’s “no” is sufficient reason to leave her alone. His entire rationale is “she’s the most beautiful, and that makes her the best, and don’t I deserve the best?”

The new film takes this contrast even further. It becomes even more explicit that the Beast has realized that, whatever the cost, nothing can justify keeping Belle against her will. As much as he wants Belle’s love to save him, he has no right to demand it. His darker behavior in the beginning even works to support this. He never really seems to expect that Belle will love him. LeFou, meanwhile, becomes explicitly attracted to Gaston. He becomes an example of love leading a person to enable oppressive behavior, rather than challenge it. In the end, he is betrayed, and learns to look for happiness elsewhere. His arc embeds into this “love redeems” story an example of how, sometimes, it doesn’t.

This is why I was glad to see Hollywood take on the old classic again. This is why I think it’s worthwhile to retell old, problematic stories. Stories are a product of their past. So are all of us. We do ourselves no favors by failing to acknowledge that. But when we revise our stories, we also re-examine ourselves; our old beliefs, our assumptions, and the oppressions we have been complicit in. Like the Beast, that examination can lead us to better ourselves.

Long Hidden, Edited by Rose Fox and Daniel Jose Older

long-hidden

  • Genre
    • Short Stories, Fantasy, Science Fiction, Alternate History
  • Plot summary
    • This isn’t just any short story collection featuring authors of some minority or other. These are the stories that, for so long, people in Western Society haven’t been able to tell. These are the stories of the resistance, of the people who had to hide their identities in the margins, of the ones who were too busy surviving to write and who, if they had, would have had their voices muzzled by the colonizer’s need to only see narratives that paint them as heroes. 
  • Character empathy rating
    • Varies by author, but on the whole, these are stories unafraid to make you empathize with characters who are dirtied, broken, and ready to fight with nothing to lose. 
    • The focus is on protagonists of color, but you also get protagonists who are trans, disabled and political dissidents. If you’ve always hungered to see yourself in a story, odds are there’s someone like you here.
  • Tone: What’s it Like to Read This Book?
    • These stories will make you feel fierce. There is always a heartbreaking element to them. Some characters survive and triumph. Others are broken, but take their oppressors with them. But whatever happens to them, they are wild, they are angry, and they are free. 
    • In short, if you liked the way Rogue One made you feel, get this anthology.
  • Other Shiny Stuff
    • If you want to sample a lot of award winning authors of color at once, this is a great option. 
    • An encyclopedia of East African ogres
    • Gangsters squaring off against sirens
    • Baba Yaga teaming up with striking coal miners
    • Enchanted soldiers rising to challenge the conquistadors
    • In short, all the cool monsters and fierce fairies you could ask for
  • Content Warnings
    • Not for the faint hearted. Blood, guts, violence, dark magic and scary monsters, the scariest of which are often human.
  • Quotes
    • “I dream in shades of green. The dusty hue of swallow herb; the new growth of little hand flower; the deep forest shade of cat’s claw. Plants are my calling and, as in waking life, they sprawl across boundaries.” – The Dance of the White Demons, by Sabrina Vourvoulias
    • “Out in the middle of the Cross River there is an island. It appears during storms or when the river’s flooding or sometimes even on clear summer days. And sometimes it rises out the water and floats in the air. The ground turns to diamond and you can hear the women playing with the sparkling rocks. I call them women, but they are not women. So many names for them: Kazzies. Shuantices. Water-Women. The Woes. I like that last name myself.” – Numbers, by Rion Amilcar Scott
    • “You got to sell your heart for freedom… I’ve been watching them round up your people. Soldiers come knocking at the door, don’t give nobody time to gather clothes. Everything you had is gone. They take the children in one wagon, the parents in the other, just to make sure nobody runs. You think they dreamed that up special for you? The ones who run – well, they don’t listen to their hearts, do they? Their hearts are as cold as ice.” – Free Jim’s Mine, by Tananarive Due

Rereading the Screwtape Letters as an Atheist; Part Fourteen

In Chapter Nineteen, Lewis leaves aside the philosophy and theology for some world building. Screwtape has accidentally contradicted himself. He has claimed, on multiple occasions, that love is not real, and also that the Enemy (God) truly loves humans. Wormwood has pointed it out, and Screwtape backpedals, claiming that of course all that stuff about the Enemy loving humans is propaganda and he didn’t mean they should actually believe it, he was only quoting because A. they don’t understand what the Enemy is really about and B. in the meantime they might as well quote his filthy lies, because that’s the closest they can come to understanding, and thus predicting, his aims. It’s up to interpretation how much Screwtape believes this. He also seems to be afraid that Wormwood might have shared some of these communications with the Gestapo of Hell, in the most literal sense. I don’t have much to say about it, which is good, because I have quite a lot to say about Chapter Twenty.

You may notice that in the last chapter I quoted Screwtape naming one advantage of the human belief that love is the best reason to get married. There was a second, which was that demons can use love, or sexual arousal mistaken for love, to convince a human to get married to someone they really shouldn’t. Or as he puts it, “any sexual infatuation whatever, so long as it intends marriage, will be regarded as ‘love,’ and ‘love’ will be held to excuse a man from all the guilt, and protect a man from all the consequences, of marrying a heathen, a fool or a wanton.” I suppose I might as well say now that Lewis’ idea of a good pairing and mine don’t entirely line up.

Here’s my acknowledgement of the good grain of a thought for the day. Simply being in love is not a sufficiently good reason to get married. The world is full of couples who are in love, but who would probably murder each other if they tried living together, much sharing finances and/or raising children as a team. Our lewd secular culture is not so blind to that fact as Lewis would paint us. TV, books and movies are full of break-ups and divorces between people who really loved each other but were not a good long term match. Magazines, online or in print, print quizzes to help you decide whether you’re with a keeper or not; these quizzes are of fairly, erm, varied quality, but they stand as testament to our general understanding that while love should really go with marriage, but we don’t think love and attraction alone make a good marriage.

I think having a good marriage is a mixture of having personalities that are either similar or complimentary, multiple shared interests and values, and the basic maturity to resolve inevitable conflicts fairly and compassionately. Lewis seems to think that a marriage can be bad simply because the woman involved is the wrong kind of hot. I wish I were making this up. To begin with, there’s the following; “in a rough and ready way, of course, this question [of which sort of men they should trick The Patient into marrying] is decided for us by spirits far deeper down the Lowerarchy than you and I. It is the business of these great masters to produce in every age a general misdirection of what may be called sexual ‘taste.’ This they do by working with the small circle of popular artists, dressmakers, actresses and advertisers who determine the fashionable type. The aim is to guide each sex away from those members of the other with whom spiritually helpful, happy, and fertile marriages are most likely… At one time we have directed it to the statuesque and aristocratic type of beauty, mixing men’s vanity with their desires and encouraging the race to breed chiefly from the most arrogant and prodigal women. At another, we have selected an exaggeratedly feminine type, faint and languishing, so that folly and cowardice, and all the general falseness and littleness of mind which go with them, shall be at a premium. At present we are on the opposite tack. The age of jazz has succeeded the age of the waltz, and we now teach men to like women whose bodies are scarcely distinguishable from those of boys. Since this is a kind of beauty even more transitory than most, we thus aggravate the female’s chronic horror of growing old (with many excellent results) and render her less willing and less able to bear children. ”

The slim silver lining here (that Lewis is criticizing the unrealistic beauty standards that women are pressured to conform to) is not only undermined but utterly obliterated by his blithe assumption that every woman who conforms to these fashions has a personality to match their outfits. A person’s taste in fashion might give clues about their background, their culture, their hobbies, the sort of work they do or that they aspire to and their favorite color, but their outfits are utterly useless for telling whether they are kind or clever or fair-minded or anything that really matters about who they are as people. The only clues clothes give prospective partners are individual, rather than general; they can help two people realize they like the same TV shows but can’t identify a person as being generally the sort you want to be in a relationship with or not.

There is also an assumption above that female value in relationships is largely defined by  their willingness to produce children. He specifically lists “won’t want to have babies” as a disadvantage of modern fashion, and also talks about using these women to breed a worse set of human being. So we’ve got a woman’s right to choose dismissed without a first, much less second thought, and a nice big side of eugenics. Fashionable women are all horrible people, and they are also terrible mothers, and if you aren’t getting married to have babies you are doing marriage wrong. Now, I realize that he isn’t writing for a modern audience, but nor is he writing in medieval times. Feminism was a thing when he was around, so while his position might have been less controversial back then, it isn’t as though this is a stance I am artificially pushing him into with the lenses of modern values. There were controversies back then about women in jobs and their role in the family, and he is consciously taking a traditional, stay in the kitchen stance.

And somehow, it gets even worse.

“You will find, if you look carefully into any human’s heart, that he is haunted by at least two imaginary women-a terrestrial and an infernal Venus, and that his desire differs qualitatively according to its object. There is one type for which is desire is such as to be naturally amenable to the Enemy-readily mixed with charity, readily obedient to marriage, coloured all through with that golden light of reverence and naturalness which we detest; there is another type which he desires brutally, and desires to desire brutally, a type best used to draw him away from marriage altogether but which, even within marriage, he would tend to treat as a slave, an idol, or an accomplice. His love for the first might involve what the Enemy calls evil, but only accidentally; the man would wish that she was not someone else’s wife and be sorry that he could not love her lawfully. But in the second type, the felt evil is what he wants; it is that ‘tang’ in the flavour which he is after. In the face, it is the visible animality, or sulkiness, or craft, or cruelty which he likes, and in the body, something quite different from what he ordinarily calls Beauty, something he may even, in a sane hour, describe as ugliness, but which, by our art, can be made to play on the raw nerve of his private obsession.”

Elsewhere in this book, he regularly uses male pronouns, as writers of his time tended to do, when talking about humans in general, but in this passage something very strange happens. He follows “every human’s heart,” with a description that is unmistakeably only about heterosexual males, while he talks about women as being the subject of temptation, with no mention of how they feel about the whole thing or whether they are tempted by men in an equivalent fashion. Women, in this passage, are not only objects of affection, they are good or bad objects of affection based solely on how they physically present and what sorts of emotions they raise in the men observing them. Their feelings and choices have no part in whether they would make good partners or not, and the only acknowledgement that they even has personality comes with the assumption that the type of beautiful they happen to be can tell a professional tempter everything they need to know about the woman’s character.

I want to note that this is actually very uncharacteristic of Screwtape’s tone. He is very aware of how humans work, as people. His whole business is taking advantage of how people, as people, make mistakes, so while he might belittle, scorn or abuse them, he never dehumanizes them, based on gender or anything else. He explains to Wormwood how they tick, and when he thinks men and women tick differently, he will take a moment to explain how women work, presumably because he hopes that Wormwood will go on to tempt a multitude of humans, some of whom may be female. That is why, in the majority of this post, I speak of the dehumanization of women as Lewis’s problem, not a problem of Screwtape’s that we are supposed to criticize him for. Believe me, if I thought there was reasonable doubt that the misogyny was something we were supposed to criticize, rather than adapt, I would have given Lewis the benefit of the doubt, but the text does not support that conclusion.

At the same time that Lewis warns us all of this infernal Venus, his description of her is so vague as to be completely unhelpful. I’m not even sure whether he means that all women who arouse that sort of feeling are horrible women who will drag them down the road to hell by their actions, or whether they are bad because they are attractive to men in the wrong sort of way and will encourage the wrong sorts of thoughts in their heads, no matter what those women as individuals choose to do. Assuming, as he is, that all of us (meaning all men, because women apparently don’t actually exist except as philosophical zombies) are aware of this phenomenon based on it residing in our hearts. I suppose that means I can assume that the first thing that sprang to my mind, based on his crude description, was correct. I think he means Betty good, Veronica bad. If a girl is sweet and conservative in her sexuality, she’s good material, but if she is assertive and exotic and owns her sexuality, she’s bad. Apparently we also think that type is ugly deep down, and if we think that’s bunk we just haven’t explored the depths of our souls enough, sort of like how I’m not really a man and my boyfriend isn’t really not attracted to women, we are both just deceived by Satan.

Now, I don’t want to defend either Bettys or Veronicas, because number one I think that’s a very simplistic way to divide real people up, and number two… no, there is no number two. Number one covers it. In fact, most of the most strongly Veronica-ish people I can think of are actually happily married and have been for years. I can think of a number of people who are much more Betty-ish, but would probably be disastrous to marry, simply because they aren’t at that stage in their life yet. There is some maturing that needs to happen first. The majority of people I know aren’t either one; they are comfy down to earth sluts, or brash independent individuals who are looking forward to having kids, or they wear sweaters one day and stripper heels the next because real people have multiple modes they switch in and out of day to day, hour to hour. You can’t take half the population, sort them into two categories, and then say, “pick a wife from box A. and stay away from everyone in box B.” Those boxes are incorrect.

For a chapter about chastity, this is actually very sexually objectifying. People often think the “sexually” part of that phrase is the important one. It’s not. Being attractive to someone else is not a problem, and most people want to be attractive on some level. It’s the “objectifying” part that is an issue. Being aroused by someone is not a problem, but treating them as if their humanity and dignity ceases to matter in the face of your own arousal is a huge problem. Noticing that someone walking down the street has a fine ass is not necessarily sexually objectifying, but whistling at them generally is, because it ignores the fact that the ass is attached to a person who might not feel comfortable with that. Lewis is favoring women with toned down sexualities, but he is still valuing them entirely by how they sexually interest men, ignoring the fact that they have thoughts and feelings and histories and character beyond whether they wear short skirts and halter tops vs. smell like homemade cookies. Women, in this chapter, are objects.

He closes out by saying that getting a man to marry Veronica is as effective in capturing his soul as merely sleeping with her is. Again, whether this is because of the interaction between the two of them or just because the demons get to say, “ha-ha, we made you marry wrong girl” and then something mystical happens to everybody’s souls, that is not explained at all. Certain types of women are just bad, and we are supposed to all intuitively understand that he is correct about that. In this series of reviews, I have always tried to be fair, and I’ve tried to be aware of my current political and religious biases. I have erred on the side of caution, looking for the good in each chapter, as well as the bad. This is the one chapter so far that has completely failed to turn up anything redeemable. This is pure sexist sludge, with no universal moral lessons to be gleaned among the morass of misogyny.

How to Write Gender; a Trans Man’s Perspective

As someone who has lived on both sides of the gender binary, and mucked about in the murky swamp of the genderqueer, here is my carefully considered, foolproof, all-encompassing and patent-pending method for writing a character who is not your own gender; write a well rounded character, and then supply the appropriate pronouns.

Yeah, on second thoughts I can’t actually patent that, now can I?

Writers get hung up on gender a lot. Women assume they can’t write men, men assume they can’t write women, and if you even consider writing a non-binary character you’re a very rare breed (a breed so rare I’m going to ignore it for the rest of this post. I do so not without guilt, and will probably do a follow-up on how to write outside the gender binary). For the most part, though, writers who are worried are over-complicating what they have to do. They’ve heard that men don’t cry, that women can’t stop talking, that one gender is obsessed with cars and the other is obsessed with shoes, and they feel they have to shoehorn every stereotype into this character. At the same time, they don’t want to seem to be writing a stereotype. Their creativity is blocked by these contradictory intents, and as artists they want to be creating compelling, vivid characters, which neither cliches nor social obligations to be PC can inspire them to create.

How many people never defy any gender stereotypes? I can’t think of anyone. The most feminine person I can think of, my mother, likes action movies more than almost anyone else in my family. The most masculine person I can think of is my boyfriend. As the previous sentence indicates, he’s gay. When I think of well written male and characters, the same thing is true. Penny from The Big Bang Theory is a gossipy, emotional shopaholic, who also loves beer and football games and prioritizes her career over romance. Marshall Erikson from How I Met Your Mother is a big softy who harbors a secret love of fruity cocktails. Boys are supposed to be brave and stalwart, particularly around the creepy crawlies, so they can come rescue their girlfriends from the snake on the porch and the spider in the bathroom. Indiana Jones loses his shit around snakes.

As a trans person I tend to think of your gender as your core identity, and not any of the traits or biology conventionally associated with it. I came to this conclusion because for years, I was studying gender, trying to find a way to justify my feeling that I was a boy. I tried doing it by finding a checklist of gendered traits and putting all checks on the male side. The checklist failed because not only couldn’t I do it, but nobody I knew could. Everybody I knew deviated from what men and women were supposed to be by at least one trait. Then I tried making it a game of averages. I was male because I had a crucial level of masculine traits. Again, I failed, because I knew of both women who were more masculine than me, and men who were more feminine than me, none of them uncomfortable with their birth sex. Then I tried to find some cluster of essential traits that made somebody a boy or a girl. Again, I failed. Even biology doesn’t work, and not just because of trans people. Is a woman who has had a double mastectomy less female? Even at the level of hormones and chromosomes, some people have intersex conditions with very subtle external effects, so they live most of their lives unaware they are XXY, or that their bodies produce an unusual amount of estrogen or testosterone. Are you going to tell them they are wrong to keep on considering themselves male or female? As far as I’m concerned, all you need to be male is to say you are male, and all you need to be female is to say you are female. That goes for real people, and fictional characters.

Are there differences between the genders? It’s a controversial question, but I’m going to say yes. Studies show measurable differences. Are they biological or cultural? I’m not going to touch this one, as scientists contradict each other wildly, and both can produce evidence supporting their claims. What is consistent, however, is that the differences measured, whatever their origin, are overlapping bell curves, not distinct columns. Your aim isn’t to write only characters who exist at the exact peak of the bell curve, but to write human beings, and human beings exist in every gendery combination imaginable. So if you feel like you know about a rough, masculine sort of person, don’t worry about your inability to write convincing dialog about manicures. Write a rough, masculine, wouldn’t be caught dead in a dress girl, and tell an interesting story about what it’s like to be her.

Now, I have been a little bit disingenuous. There is one important difference between men and women that is absolutely relevant to your writing. They live with different social expectations. Imagine two characters, one male and one female, who are both attracted to women, majored in physics and teach high school science, are quiet around people they don’t know well but chatty with their friends, shun makeup but think they look good in purple, prefer cats over dogs and enjoy mysteries and classical music. I can continue to list similarities, and go on to cover every gendered trait and not list a single difference between them, and you will still perceive them differently, based on their gender. A trait that is surprising for one will be presumed for the other. If one was picked on for being too feminine, the bullying will look very different from how the other was picked on for not being feminine enough. One might feel self conscious about a trait that the other barely notices. If they are equally competent at fixing a car, the woman probably had to fight harder to learn. If they can both knit, there’s probably an interesting story behind why the man can, perhaps involving an abundance of sisters.

I can’t tell you how to write that social pressure into your story. The social rules of gender change by time, culture, class and family, and every individual responds differently to their society. Scout Finch is not Scarlett O’Hara. Jane Eyre is not Mina Harker. Dean Winchester is not Sam Winchester. The only advice I can give is to be aware of it. Research if you are writing an environment outside of your experience, and if you are writing in a familiar environment, practice your observational skills. The only tools you need to write a good character of any gender are the ones you need to write any character, and the most essential one is seeing your character not as a collection of traits, but as a person.

My Response to the Lady Who Thinks All Marriages are Between Traditional Straight Couples, Part 2; the Nitpicker’s Edition

As I said previously, this is directly a response to this blog. Part one had my overview with what was wrong with what she said, so now it’s time to break Kimes’ advice down point by point, because I am nothing if not thorough in my overthinking.

“1.  Have a hot meal ready for your man when he gets home from work. Let’s face it, I’m a busy woman, and I don’t always have time to cook. But if I don’t think I’ll have the time that night, I’ll have my cook prepare something, or I will pick something up.”

There are two issues with this advice. First, she assumes that a hot meal is going to mean the same thing to everyone as it does to herself and her husband. Second, she assumes everyone has the capacity to have a hot meal every night. It’s almost hilarious how she casually mentions her cook, like “oh, you don’t have one? You should go talk to your friends at the yacht club; they’re bound to have a good recommendation.” Meanwhile, on planet Teacher’s Salary, we find spouses who can live with leftover lasange tonight.

Probably the best advice I have ever heard for any kind of close relationship, friend, family or significant other, is to first out what makes the other person feel loved. Don’t rely on the cliched “nice things.” Those are for the coworkers who you don’t know that well but who you need to do something nice for because it’s their birthday/retirement/their mother just died. If you’re in a close, personal relationship with someone, you should be basing your nice things on what works for the relationship between the two of you. For some people, a warm meal ready is the nicest gesture possible. Other people don’t care if it’s PBJ on paper plates tonight, so long as the two of you can snuggle on the couch and watch How I Met Your Mother on the Netflix account.

Hot on the heels of that advice is that one of the first steps in taking care of others is taking care of yourself. I don’t care how nice the meal is, I want to have it with someone who is happy and healthy, not someone stressed out by the pressure of working two jobs while still rushing home to cook three courses and clean up, every single day. That will absolutely break a marriage, especially if the work starts to be taken for granted and the cook feels unappreciated for their effort. I’m glad Dr. Kimes and her husband found a gesture of love that works for everyone. For everyone else out there; find your own. Don’t feel like you need to do what someone else is doing to have a successful relationship.

“2. Don’t be a prude in the bedroom. Of course, I am not encouraging you to go out and have a threesome, BUT keep an open mind to the new things that your husband wants to try. Don’t be so quick to say “no.” Take pleasure in pleasing your man. And please try not to ever go to sleep angry.”

Oh god, no. Okay, there is the seed of a good thought in this idea. For a lot of people, opening up and trying new things in the bedroom is a great way to stay connected and happy. Sex is awesome and you and your partner should enjoy it without worrying about what outsiders might think of it. That said, sexual boundaries are also very personal. I know someone who is intellectually accepting of kink and alternative sexualities, but has also had some bad experiences and anything but the vanilla-est of vanilla sex can be emotionally triggering for her. There’s enough out there about how women have a duty to please their men, and it’s a really gross kind of pressure to put on anyone. Bottom line, nobody should make you feel like you should try a type of sex you aren’t comfortable trying. Sometimes couples split because their desires and libidos are mismatched in those areas, and that’s okay.

Also, it bothers me how the first thing she says is that of course you shouldn’t go have a threesome. Why not? Assuming it’s consensual and everyone is using appropriate protection, what business is it of hers to decide that’s the line you shouldn’t cross? It’s like she’s saying, “ignore society’s narrow ideas about what is and isn’t okay for a consenting couple to do in bed; follow mine instead!”

“3. Don’t be a nag. You don’t always have to have response. As women, we like to give our opinions, often times, unwarranted. It’s OK to not have a comment. Pick and choose your battles if it’s not that important…let it go!  Your husband does not want to hear your opinion 24/7, especially when using a loud, high-pitched tone (that some of us like to use).”

There are times in a relationship when you have to let it go. Everybody has lots of opinions and nobody can get their way one hundred percent of the time. So long as you both feel like the big things are being handled in a mutually satisfying way, you don’t have to worry about losing some of the smaller battles.

There, was that so hard to say? Notice how I phrased it in a way that made it sound like this was advice that anyone of any gender could follow, and that both people in a relationship have a responsibility to follow it? When you phrase it like it’s an issue of women having stupid little issues that bother men, you reinforce the outdated idea that women like to whine over tiny little issues. And often they do, because they are human beings and human beings like to complain. Whining just means complaining while possessing a high-pitched voice. Characterizing women specifically as the nags just encourages men to either not take the women in their lives seriously, or to just give in because “women, amirite? Can’t reason with them, and you’ll never hear the end of it until they get their way.” Which is ironic, because as a trans man who has seen both sides, a lot of the time the nagging attitude I saw in women came from the feeling that the men in their lives didn’t take them seriously unless they nagged.

There will always be irrational, immature people of all genders who can’t keep their needs in perspective relative to the needs of others. Try to be one of the ones who grew out of it, and try to avoid the individuals who did not grow out of it. Don’t pretend gender determines anything but the pronouns of the person doing the complaining.

“4. Show him your appreciation. You can catch more bees with honey than you can with vinegar. Be kind, and polite to your husband, and he will reciprocate. Show him that you are thankful for all that he does. Make your words soft and sweet. You won’t be disappointed with the results you’ll get.”

This advice isn’t bad, but it’s also annoyingly vague. How do you show appreciation? How are you kind and polite and thankful? The vagueness could be a feature rather than a bug, if she talked about how every couple develops a unique way of showing appreciation over time, whether it is leaving notes for each other or a quick “can you get the trash for me?” “sure” “you rock,” and maybe had some suggestions for how to find the best way to show appreciation (I’m thinking it would start with “comm-” and end with “-unication”). As it sits, it’s just fluffy aphorisms with a heavy salting of cliche. It bothers me that she doesn’t have actual suggestions here, but she has a very definite idea of which gender is being thankful and which one is receiving the thanks.

But other than that, yes, appreciation is good. Do that thing.

“5. Follow his lead. You married your husband for a reason, right? Hopefully you trust him enough to make the important decisions in your household. Again, don’t go with things that are immoral, or wrong, but definitely always remember to make him feel like he wears the pants.”

You married your wife for a reason, right? Hopefully you trust her enough to make the important decisions in your household. Just let her make all the calls, and trust they will be in your best interest as well. Remember, women like to feel like they wear the pants in the household.

Just because you trust someone, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t need for discussion and joint decision making. That said, some people do have personality types that are naturally inclined to strong leadership roles, or supporting roles. For people who happen to be a natural supporter in a relationship with a natural leader, this is great advice. In fact, in any relationship there is likely to be one person who is a little more dominant than the other. The trouble is when you tack those leader/supporter roles into people based solely on their gender. I’ve known women who would be more suited to the leader role, men who would be more suited to supporting roles. Furthermore, what works when one person is a happy leader and the other is a happy follower might not work if you have a leader and a slightly more assertive leader, or a follower and someone who is more comfortable holding the reins but doesn’t want to micromanage. Power is a reality of relationships, so talk about what kind of dynamic makes everyone happiest, and don’t assume that testosterone or estrogen alone are going to decide the issue.

“6. Your career does NOT come first. I have a super busy schedule, especially now that I am a cast member on Bravo’s “Married to Medicine.” However, when I get home from work, I turn my phone off. I am there to get my kids off the bus. Family time is very important to me. I cherish those moments.”

I was going to go into a rant about how it’s so unfair that it’s always the wife who has to make this sacrifice and not the husband, but come to think of it, this is actually one of the few tips where she doesn’t say it. Maybe her husband does hold himself to the same standard. I’m tempted to assume he doesn’t, because of the tone of the rest of the tips, but it would still be an assumption. So good for her; for once she just talked about something she does as a person without being all gender role-y about it.

I also think she’s mostly right. People don’t talk about holding down a family to provide for their jobs, after all. Careers are an important part of life and what you leave behind you, but if you’ve taken on the responsibility of children they had better be a big priority. They are also one of the biggest things you will leave behind you when you’ve gone, so get them right.

Of course, there may be circumstances when your job trumps your children, like when you’re president of the United States and someone kidnapped your kids to blackmail you into starting a nuclear war. If that every happens, I highly recommend that you immediately resign and let it be the vice president’s problem. If you neglect to do this, you are probably in a Michael Bay movie and have nothing to worry about.

7. Look sexy for him. It is so important to look good for your man. Know what your man likes, and what he thinks is attractive. I realized recently that this is MOST important! Try to keep yourself in shape and put together.”

And we are back to the gender double standard. See if you can spot it.

When I started dating my boyfriend, I started trimming some of my body hair, because that was more attractive to him. Often I shower before I see him because I like to smell nice around him. If he told me there was a shirt he thought looked good on me I would wear it around him more often. All of these are small things. They make me feel attractive around him, and they don’t make me feel any less like myself, so I am happy to do them.

If, on the other hand, he thought the nerdy T-shirts I wear were childish and pressured me to get rid of them, that would suck. I wear them because they make me feel comfy and Lane-ish. If he thought I should lose weight, when I’m already on the small side, that would suck even more. How we look is a huge part of our sense of self, taking care of our bodies is part of nurturing that sense of identity. There is  a line between looking nice for a partner and changing yourself for a partner.

She says she’s recently realized looking sexy is the most important thing, with capital letters and everything, which makes me worry about her husband’s priorities. I don’t know her or her husband, so I don’t know what was going on that made her say that. Maybe it’s entirely social pressure that has nothing to do with what her husband actually thinks of her appearance. In any case, whenever I’ve been in love with someone, he cannot look bad to me. However he looks, he is handsome, because it’s his face, right there, being all him-ish. If fulfilling this “MOST important” item is something that actually requires a lot of deviation from how you would want to look anyway, you should really question whether you are with somebody who loves the real you.

“8. Let him know it’s OK for him to be stressed. Because he is the man and is expected to take on a lot of things and it can sometimes get stressful for him. Men aren’t always good at expressing themselves when they are stressed or depressed. Let him know that it’s OK to feel that way, and make yourself emotionally available.”

Good advice. Let’s apply it to wives and girlfriends and friends and siblings and parents and coworkers and bosses and people who look like they’re having a bad day on the street. Except maybe that last one would be creepy. I dunno, some people can pull it off. I’ve had people approach me randomly on the street and say something along the lines of, “You look like you’re having a bad day. Hang in there.” It’s made me feel good, even if I was mostly okay. I wish they taught classes on how to be able to go up to random people and say nice things to them. If everybody could do that, all of us with our stressful lives would just have random people coming up to us all the time and giving hugs and the world would be full of hugs all the time and everything would be awesome.

Where was I? Oh yes, this is good advice, except for the weird sexist spin she puts on it. Husbands get “appreciate him” and “let him know it’s okay to be stressed.” Women get “don’t be a nag.” There’s something terribly unbalanced about that.

“9. Marry someone you genuinely admire and find east (sic) to respect. When you admire the man you chose to marry, it doesn’t feel like a chore when you’re accommodating him. It will be something you want to do. You’ll want to give him the respect he deserves.”

Actually, I think everybody should marry someone they genuinely dislike and find difficult to respect. It’s all a part of my evil gay agenda to destroy traditional marriage and bring on the international communist plot.

Again, this isn’t bad advice, as far as it goes. But where is the advice about how to bring up your issues diplomatically and maturely? I get the sense that she thinks if you marry a good enough guy, you can just let him take the lead in everything and not have to bring up your own issues ever. You won’t have any issues because he will read your mind, and all of your problems are stupid little whiny woman problems anyways so you should just live with them. She says pick someone you admire and respect so you can accommodate him. I say pick someone you admire and respect because odds are that’s someone you can have a healthy respectful conversation with and you can both accommodate each other really maturely.

“10. Get a support system. Surround yourself with people who are like you, or people who support your lifestyle. There is nothing worse than a friend who doesn’t agree with your lifestyle trying to give you advice. There is nothing wrong with being a submissive wife, and your closest friends should be people who aren’t judging you for it!”

Absolutely right. Being surrounded by a world that judges you for who you are really sucks. And I’ll be honest, I have met women who feel judged for their femininity by the feminist mainstream, and I feel for them. See my boxes analogy at the end of part one.

In the end, though, it’s kind of annoying getting that advice from someone whose big point of controversy is that she lets her husband run the household. Last weekend, I visited my boyfriend, who is working every weekend this month in Philly. As I said goodbye to him on Sunday in the hotel lobby, I didn’t give him a kiss. I wanted to so badly, and I think it would have been safe to, but he’s fairly cautious and I would never do anything that made him feel uncomfortable or unsafe. Instead I hugged him and kissed his shoulder, where nobody else could see. Unless Kimes is married to a white guy and they got together back in the sixties, I don’t think she has any idea what that’s like. I don’t want people to sneer at her for having a relationship that makes her happy, but I’d have a lot more sympathy if I got a sense that she had respect for queer marriages or straight couples who don’t want a patriarchal structure to their relationship.

How to Give Good Advice; My Response to the Lady Who Thinks All Marriages are Between Traditional Straight Couples, Part 1

I’ve been working on taking a look at the blogs of people who read my own work, and this one from The Editor’s Journal intrigued me. It’s a very neutral reposting of the matrimonial tips of someone named Dr. Heavenly Kimes. The intent of the post is less to criticize her directly and more to start a conversation in the comments. The tips are fairly provocative, in that they assume a traditional, patriarchal structure is the ideal marriage. This is one of those rare times where I’ve fully enjoyed reading the comment section. Reactions varied, but on the whole they were thoughtful and respectfully phrased, even if they were fairly vehement and opposed at times.

My own response was too lengthy to be a comment. I had something to say about every one of the tips Kimes gave, because all of them were their own mixture of good and bad. There was at least the grain of a good thought in all of them, but phrased in such a way that following it verbatim would be likely be a terrible for many couples. Now, the fact that she is apparently in a husband-is-the-head-of-the-family marriage doesn’t bother me. If that’s what makes her happy, it’s her right to live that way. What bothers me is her assumption that what makes her happy will make everyone else happy; that her relationship is the kind everyone else should have. Her advice doesn’t read like she thoughtfully looked at what made her marriage work and which elements can be generalized for just about anyone. It looks like she slapped down a list of things that happened to work for her and called it a day.

For an analogy, let’s pretend that I found a great way for me to get over writer’s block was to have a beer while I write my first draft. It makes a certain amount of sense; alcohol helps many people relax and stop overthinking, so it might shut up that annoying, overly critical inner editor, at least until I’m ready for a rewrite. All that is fine. However, if I were to put “have a beer while you write” up on the internet, say as item four on my list of top ten ways to beat writer’s block, that would be a problem. My decision may have been informed by the fact that I am  not an alcoholic and don’t have any other health issues that would make a drink a day an issue, but that’s not something I can assume about all my readers. Medical issues aside, for some writers it really is important to write a great first draft, so they need their heads clear to do their best writing the first time around. For some people, alcohol can make them feel more anxious or depressed, so it might make their writer’s block worse. Of course, whether my readers actually follow my advice or not is up to them, but it would still be fair to judge the advice I just gave as bad. When I was trying to decide what to do for myself, the only standard was whether or not it worked for me. When I started giving advice, now a new set of standards apply. If my suggestion would have adverse effects on a substantial number of the people I’m advising, that is practically the definition of bad advice.

That’s not to say that I can’t draw on my experience to give advice; I just need to phrase it in a way that is likely to be actually helpful for the audience at large. For example; “If there’s an inner editor who won’t shut up, find things you can physically do to help distract yourself from it. I like to have a beer while I write. For other people, going to another setting helps them focus. Some people take a walk and talk into a recorder, and then transcribe their thoughts later. Some people even like having some music or the TV on in the background.” Now the advice is better. I’ve given a good guideline, and some concrete examples of how to apply it. For some readers none of the suggestions will work, and that’s okay. Where a single inapplicable suggestion is unhelpful, a series can still provide material from which the reader can begin to brainstorm.

The other issue I have with her tips is that many of them play into sexist double standards. That issue could have disappeared if she had prefaced her article with something like; “I’m a straight woman in a traditional the-man-is-the-head-of-the-family relationship, and we both like it that way. It might not work as well for everybody, but if you are the same way, or think you might want to be, here’s what has worked for us.” The issue with sexism is that it forces gender roles onto people who don’t want them, or under circumstances they don’t want. For people who happen to be fairly traditionally masculine men or feminine women, it is all right to still be that way. You are not betraying the whole of feminism by staying home and cooking for your family. I know masculine men and feminine men, tomboys and girly women, trans people and cis people and people who zig zag over the gender lines like a crayon in the hand of a two year old. My goal is not to take people out of one set of boxes and put them into another. It’s to demolish the boxes, and if some people drift over to space that happened to once be encompassed by a box, that’s fine. So long as it is an open space, rather than a crammed corner full of miserable people who didn’t want to be there, I say mission accomplished.

In a boxless world, I might be able to read Kimes’ presuming good intentions and say no harm done. As someone who doesn’t fit in the boxes, however, I can attest that we are not in a boxless world. We are in a world where the boxes have gotten badly dented and often there is a hole you can escape out of. There is still a lot of social pressure to stay in the box, and within that context, I can’t help reading her advice as a part of that pressure, whether she intended it that way or not. This is the other issue with the thoughtlessness of her advice. In my made up example, there isn’t a lot of social pressure to be a drink-while-you-draft writer. If you read it and know drinking that much would be bad for you, that can make it fairly easy to ignore. For a married woman struggling to build a good career for herself, hearing for the twelve thousandth time that no husband wants a wife who puts her career first, the effect is different. There probably is some harm done. So even though I will acknowledge several places where Kimes has makings of a good point, on the whole her approach is badly flawed.

Coming up next; a blow by blow analysis of all her points, because overthinking is fun!