On Writing Women: Full Essay

An edited version of this essay first appeared in the Dawn. 

On Writing Women

In researching my previous column on the work of Elena Ferrante (The Women Who Do, 8/14/2016), I read how certain critics were convinced that the author was actually a man writing under a woman’s pseudonym because she wrote assertively and confidently about the domains of men, especially politics, crime, and violence. In return, Ferrante’s readers and supporters asserted that not only could a woman write well about these domains, but that “only a woman” could know of the secret interior worlds of women and write about them as truthfully and authentically as Ferrante.

Is it ever possible for a male writer to do the reverse, and describe the life and mind of a woman character as well as women writers must do when writing about men? A consensus has emerged amongst women readers and feminist critics of literature that male writers often don’t write women characters as well as they ought to. This doesn’t mean that men don’t write about women at all in their novels and short stories, screenplays and plays. What it does mean is that many male writers have not felt obligated to create women characters who are as complex, well-rounded, and three-dimensional as the men.

Virginia Woolf’s masterful creation Orlando, from her 1928 novel Orlando: A Biography, is a male poet who turns into a woman at the age of 30 and then goes on to live for centuries. Inspired by the life of her close friend and lover Vita Sackville West, the novel is accepted as the greatest treatise on women’s writing. There exists no better literary metaphor for the role of the writer than the character of Orlando; writers must perform a similar sex change, but voluntarily instead of involuntarily, in order to be able to take on multiple perspectives, multiple voices, and multiple genders in our work.

The writer has to scrub off the baggage of their own gender when inhabiting another’s for the sake of telling a story. A writer who can do this well is quickly distinguished from those who have never given much thought to what life as a person of the opposite sex might be like. Not only must this writer be a keen observer of the world of men and women, both together and apart, but they have to be a spy, and inveigle one’s way into the secret conversations and thoughts that men keep from women — and vice versa. It takes a writer of extraordinary intelligence, intuition, and most importantly, empathy to accomplish this in a way that convinces the reader that they actually know what it’s like to be a woman or a man.

What male writers have been accused of producing flattened, two- or even one-dimensional caricatures that only exist on the page as one of a few things: a sex object or its opposite, the pure and virginal girl-child who the man dreams of obtaining; a receptacle for a man’s hatred and frustrations (think of the evil mother or nagging wife stereotype); a foil for two male protagonists to fight over.  This, plus overtly sexualized descriptions and depictions of women are the result of the male gaze, the concept that the world of visual arts depict the world and women from a purely masculine point of view (a term coined by feminist film critic Laura Mulvey in her 1975 essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”).

The British art critic and novelist John Berger, who died this past week, expounded on the male gaze in art in his 1972 book and television show Ways of Seeing. 

“A woman is always accompanied, except when quite alone, and perhaps even then, by her own image of herself. While she is walking across a room or weeping at the death of her father, she cannot avoid envisioning herself walking or weeping. From earliest childhood she is taught and persuaded to survey herself continually. She has to survey everything she is and everything she does, because how she appears to others – and particularly how she appears to men – is of crucial importance for what is normally thought of as the success of her life.”

This male gaze has in turn colored literature, making the women on the page passive props next to male characters’ dominant actions, thoughts, and beliefs. The observation has become even more keen with the construction of the popular Bechdel test, which judges the agency and vitality of women characters in film by asking if the film contains two female characters talking about anything besides a man. Half of all films produced fail this test; The test itself references Virginia Woolf’s 1929 essay A Room of One’s Own, where Woolf writes:

All these relationships between women, I thought, rapidly recalling the splendid gallery of fictitious women, are too simple. […] And I tried to remember any case in the course of my reading where two women are represented as friends. […] They are now and then mothers and daughters. But almost without exception they are shown in their relation to men. It was strange to think that all the great women of fiction were, until Jane Austen’s day, not only seen by the other sex, but seen only in relation to the other sex. And how small a part of a woman’s life is that…

This harsh assessment is testament to how willing we had been to forgive men for writing women who are ciphers. Even the most famous and successful writers are guilty of this inability to create brilliant, sharply-drawn women characters: Michele Willens writing for The Atlantic calls out Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, John Updike, Jonathan Franzen, Jefferey Eugenides for their lack of it. Thanks to the feminist movement and its effect on how we read and perceive literature, women readers have decided that they are tired of reading about themselves portrayed in this way, and they are now demanding better from male writers.

Our own subcontinental writers tinge their writing with the subtle and not-so-subtle misogyny and mistrust of women that we have all grown up with: Salman Rushdie turned Benazir Bhutto into a frustrated spinster in Shame, while other women characters are cast as bewitchers or unreal seductresses. Daniyal Mueenuddin’s women characters in his short story collection In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, are for the most part greedy, grasping and unlikeable.

Mohsin Hamid’s Mumtaz in Moth Smoke and Erica in The Reluctant Fundamentalist exist as lovers, but have no other function besides that. Erica, who is not a real woman but a stand-in for an entire country, eventually goes insane and disappears, literally as well as figuratively. The academic and critic Claire Chambers observes an evolution in Hamid’s female characters, writing in the Huffington Post that “the pretty girl” in How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia is “the best female character Hamid has yet created.”

Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and Flaubert’s Emma Bovary are the two prime examples of female characters that have been imagined and executed with as much care, attention and complexity as any male character before or since. For literature coming from South Asia, short story and novella writer Aamer Hussein sensitively sketches women’s hopes, dreams, ambitions, and fears, making them central not just to the lives of the individual women but to everyone around them. A strong female character with voice and agency, Tara, exists in “The Vaporization Enthalpy of a Peculiar Pakistani Family”, the award-winning short story by acclaimed science fiction writer Usman Malik.

One South Asian author has done the most daring thing of all: taken on the voice of a female protagonist and written an entire story of the relationship between her and her best friend, another girl. This is Tabish Khair in Just Another Jihadi Jane, published in 2016; he tells the story of two British-Pakistani schoolfriends who run away together to become jihadi brides in Syria. Khair has performed the trick that Orlando did, courageously casting off his maleness to write not one but two of the most compelling and believable female characters in contemporary literature.

Khair precisely and skillfully captures the bizarre pressure cooker of youth, confusion, and femaleness, with its attendant discriminations and oppressions, that turns normal schoolgirls into the wives of terrorists. He weaves skillfully between the exterior and interior worlds of the girls through dialogues and inner monologues that actually sound like two women talking to each other about life, about religion, about choices — anything other than a man.

The worlds of men and women sometimes seem like great secrets to each other but all protagonists, antagonists, heroes and anti-heroes spring from the wealth of human heterogeneity. Writers, male and female, are the spies and secret ambassadors from each world to the other. They betray the mysteries of their own genders and ferret out the paradoxes of the opposing ones, and make them known to the world. Yet all artists owe it to humanity to expand our viewpoint of life through the eyes of women as much as that of men, because men and women are people before they take on the burden of gender, and remain human underneath it throughout their lives.

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