Finding The Lady in Fiction

It is a constant female refrain that male novelists are unable to portray a woman realistically, and ought not to try. Funnily enough, we never hear the corresponding complaint about female novelists’ portrayal of male characters, either because they already perform the portrayal perfectly, or because nobody cares, or else because nobody dares. Those who complain the loudest about male novelists and their unrealistic female characters are generally the very same people who require a female novelist to populate her books entirely with male creeps and assholes, since that is what they consider reflects Reality.

The credibility of a male author’s portrait of a woman is not a question that has any objective answer; like any other portrayal, it is credible, faithful or convincing only insofar as people think it is. Or rather, insofar as people admit that it is.

Now, the withholding of such admission need not be honestly motivated. Since it is an essential part of the feminine mystique not to be comprehensible to the inferior sex, a simple judgment by women readers cannot be trusted. Whatever the male novelist says his female character is like, she cannot possibly be thus, since women – say the generalising ideologues – are simply not like that. Even if another male novelist were to portray his female character in accordance with the instructions of the orthodox, then he will find that women are suddenly not like that either. Whatever a male novelist shows us, reality will be always something else.

The situation is complicated by the fact that so many women generalise so aggressively from their own persons to their entire sex, so that if our male author were to present the most perfectly accurate portrait of a real-life woman friend, they would automatically reject it because she was unlike themselves.

Which suggests that the assumption that no male writer can create a credible female character actually rests upon a higher-order assumption, namely that no writer can create a character not based closely on himself or herself. If that were so, then we must conclude that Iago, Beatrice and Lear were all aspects of Shakespeare’s own personality. It might be simpler to suggest that the person who assumes that all characters are autobiographical has no imagination of her own and cannot imagine anyone else having any. Or, better still, that she is unable to conceive of the Not-Herself.

A sound answer to the question of women in male fiction can only proceed from a blind test: let a series of female characterisations be anonymously presented to a panel of female judges, challenged to identify the sex of the authors. Until that can be arranged, the key question is: what do women lose and what do they gain from never admitting that a male writer can create a credible female character? On the credit side is the fact that unrealistic portrayals of individuals of their own sex may be deemed offensive to themselves; which means that they have a grievance; and any grievance may be redeemed for suitable compensation elsewhere. By refusing to acknowledge that the male writer has created a credible woman, they also strengthen the hegemonic discourse under which women are held to understand men but not contrariwise. Male incomprehension can thus be made into a definitional truth, so that whatever a man says about a woman is ipso facto wrong. On the debit side, what do women stand to lose from refusing to admit that any male artist’s portrayal of a woman is credible? Why, nothing at all.

Posted on June 15, 2012 at 11:38 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink
In: WHAT WOMEN WANT, The Copernican Revolution

Leave a Reply