A popular exercise among High School creative writing teachers in America is to ask students to imagine they have been transformed, for a day, into someone of the opposite sex, and describe what that day might be like. The results, apparently, are uncannily uniform. The girls all write long and detailed essays that clearly show they have spent a great deal of time thinking about the subject. Half of the boys usually refuse to write the essay entirely. Those who do make it clear they have not the slightest conception what being a teenage girl might be like, and deeply resent having to think about it.
David Graeber, “Beyond Power/Knowledge: An Exploration of Power, Ignorance and Stupidity” (pdf)
He also says much the same thing in “Revolutions in Reverse,” an essay included in the book Revolutions in Reverse (which can be read in Scribd at the link). I’d been meaning to post a quote from the second source for a while, thanks to Aaron Brady for the actual excerpt above. That last link is a good essay on the recent Rush Limbaugh BS and how patriarchy works and how male privilege is defended by having men like Limbaugh around to keep women’s opinions out of the allowed discourse on the subject. To keep high school boys forever unable to write essays that could relate to the issue of needing hormonal birth control to control ovarian cysts.
We talked about this a lot this year in English. Girls are taught from a young age that we have to connect to what we read, so when we do excercises in class, everyone talks about how they connect to Huck Finn, or to Jay Gatsby, or to Julius Caesar. We connect to all the characters because we have to, because if we don’t then we won’t survive through the years of school.
Boys don’t deal with this. Practically every book or story they encounter from the time they begin school is full of male characters and written by men. So when confronted with female characters of female authors, they don’t know what to do. They feel as if they can’t connect with these characters because of the gender boundaries. As one woman in my class pointed out, “girls have to connect to male characters, but boys don’t have to connect to female characters.” By the time they’re my age, it’s not even intentional: many honestly think that they won’t understand a female character because they have no shared experiences whatsoever.
Awesome and reminds me of the thing I was talking about last week: the deep discomfort I see with YA fiction which has a girl as a protagonist instead of a supporting character for a dude. ‘Will nobody think of the boys?’ and ‘There’s too much of this!’ and ‘This female supporting character is better than any female protagonist ever!’ The overwhelming majority of books are still slanted in favour of boys, but this panicked rejection of the ladies says a lot. I think. Makes me very proud of my genre.
I remember this coming up in at least one college-level fiction workshop: a male student insisted a classmate’s protagonist was unrelatable, and, when pressed to explain, argued that the character should be male because then more people would identify with him (never mind that the professor and at least half the class were female).
The kid was a clueless jerk, but it really drove home how thoroughly and unquestioningly we accept male (and white and straight and cisgendered and and and) as default for protagonists. These days, I see it most pronouncedly in video games—people get furious if a company dares front a game with a female character and/or a queer character and/or a character of color, writing those choices off as pandering and tokenism but never thinking to question the fact that the demographic they treat as a universal, neutral default is every damn bit as specific.
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