Columns > Published on January 17th, 2014

Her Breasts Were Too Small: Why A Dose of Feminism is Good for Writers

Originally posted 1/20/2012

What is a female character?

Serious question — and too easily misunderstood. Let's be naive for a minute: if my protagonist is meant to represent a male human being, and he meets another character meant to represent a female human being, what does it mean to "sexualize" these characters, and how do I show that they are masculine or feminine in their behaviors? Do I even need to? Have I thought this through?

I tried to impress a friend once by saying that every good male writer of psychologically interesting fiction must be a feminist today. My argument was that even if you can't stand actual women, even if your last girlfriend was a cheat and a bore and everything else, you can't possibly create interesting "women" characters unless you understand why so many women call themselves feminists.

My friend pointed out that I hadn't bothered to explain what I meant by "feminism" and so I could really be talking about some very different things. You guessed it, this was a college friend. Then we ordered pizza and moved on.

So this is a reprise. I want to continue that conversation. I've been accused of typically laddish sexism by some, of aggressive but naive feminism by others, of pointless intellectual games by a couple of those who know me well, and, most interestingly, of only being a feminist when there are no other feminists around. All of this makes me think that I need to think through my relationship with that difficult word: Woman. Not just (as a politician might say) as someone who was brought to this world by a woman, and who has a sister, and who dates women, and who could one day have a little girl — but, particularly, as a writer who doesn't want his fiction to speak to just one side of the gym. A lot of what you're going to read will seem incoherent. The most honest thing I can say is that the very attempt at articulating these things is an impossible challegnge for an idiot like me, who senses there's something important going on.

What does it mean for a male writer to "create" a female character, a patchwork of concepts and behaviors quilted together by the word "woman"? To be crude: characters don't have "real" vaginas or penises. You can't scientifically distinguish between men and women in fiction by asking the characters to show you their genitals. And that's a problem, intellectually, in the craft of writing. Every time you create a male character, you are, however subtly and however consciously, telling us that he is not a female character. And in all likelihood, since you can't just give him a penis, you're going to have to try to show his masculinity, his "typically male" behavior, through his actions. You may end up following the commonsense advice that everyone loves to give: show, don't tell. Show us your character, John, being a man among all the other things he is meant to be. At this point, you've already made a commitment.

You often hear about men who "just can't do female characters" — for whatever reason, their female characters don't ring true. These authors rely too much on stereotypes, on the bitterness or the idealism of their creators, on how horny the author happened to be while writing the book.

At the other extreme, "chick lit" as a genre is assumed (by men, who don't need to know better) to speak to women directly. From what little I've read in this genre (the Bridget Jones books and a couple of Shopaholic titles), I get the impression that there's something weirdly shameful about being a woman in these books — constantly worrying about your weight, trying to find Mr Right (or Mr Right Now!) and so on. See how blithely I just summed up an entire genre based on almost zero research, as if I were some expert? That's really easy for some guy like me to do. But it does seem that there is this particularity to the feminine, this uniqueness of experience, whether fundamental or just… man, whatever, all this talk makes it incredibly difficult to capture the feminine in the kind of fiction being written today.

What can a male, privileged, probably-much-more-naive-and-entitled-than-he-thinks writer make of the assumption that there is something about the feminine experience (and therefore about the masculine experience as well) that can be captured in writing, if you've got the talent? I think it's important to notice which side in this discussion we naturally gravitate to: According to some schools of thought, we're born into a physical body and we experience the world through the eyes and body we're given, and that's that. If we are able to bear children through our anatomy, then it is considered normal that we have a baby-making duty we don't share with men, who can't get pregnant. Others will tell you that we're born into a very different kind of body: a social body, a community — and our sense of who we are is determined in large part by how we are taught to see ourselves by our community. In this view, if a girl behaves femininely, it isn't only because she has "innately feminine" qualities. It's because she has, over the years, learned how to behave according to the expectations of others, which she has internalised. 

I've simplified things to a point where you could just say I'm talking about the nature-nurture problem in psychology. But remember that we're talking about writing — if I'm a man, and I want to write fiction of a certain quality involving female characters, shouldn't I keep these questions in mind at least some of the time instead of assuming I've figured it all out? Take the suspense genre. Shouldn't I ask myself, when I introduce my third femme fatale into a hardboiled novel, why I still need to make her both dangerous and gorgeous? Is there a reason I need a femme fatale at all? Does the fact that James Bond gets all the hot babes reflect something more than his effortless charm? If I created a female James Bond-type character and she slept with a couple of hot dangerous guys in every story — would I think less of her? Would I want to tell the story from the perspective of one of the hot dangerous guys instead? Why?

As you probably know if you've ever had a Black James Bond discussion on Facebook, the responses you get from declaring that you'd like to see a black Bond are telling. Someone will make a face and say, "That's… interesting." Someone else will say, "I just can't imagine a black Bond." Why not? What makes Bond a great character are his qualities as a human being, right? He's brave, he's smooth, he's attractive to all the ladies, he's funny, he's strong, he's so dizzyingly "masculine" in general that young men look up to him as a role model. Where does his race come into it? It doesn't, in the qualities I've described. Race, here, is "merely incidental". But the image people have of James Bond is a white image as well as a masculine one.

To go back to the question of writing —

— what would it mean for you to create a female Bond, or a black Bond? You might have no problem with it; but most likely you, like anyone else, have some kind of assumptions running at the back of your mind when you think of James Bond, or of any famous character, or even any archetype at all.

The transformative power of fiction is real, but it's often expressed in sentimental language. When I read a book that transforms me, I am transformed because I am jolted out of the comfortable little bed of prejudices I was given and I realize that it's not so bad sleeping on the floor for a while. And nowadays, when the question of the gap between genders is pressing and exceptionally fraught, I not-so-humbly urge writers to think through the basics that are not taught by how-to columns on writing. You can write a good thriller by following the advice of the pros, of course, but you can write an even better book if you break out of the givens of life: whichever side of the debate you end up on, whether you think we're biologically programmed to behave like men and women, or you think we're all just following codes and behaving as we were taught to behave from a young age, your fiction will surely gain psychological depth if you can think through some of these issues. Otherwise, you could end up being that guy who always writes women characters as if he hasn't had sex in five years, or you could end up that woman who is quite honestly convinced that all men are bastards and whose male characters are all greedy disappointing bastards. See how I stereotype? Nobody wants to be that guy, that gal. Stereotypes have the power to forge allegiances to characters before we've even had a chance to see them doing anything of importance.

When I half-unthinkingly said that you can't be a serious male writer without being a feminist today, I wasn't joking but I wasn't completely serious. What I thought was important in that little bit of provocation was the emphasis on the writer taking the idea of otherness more seriously. While some will argue we're too obsessed with otherness at the moment, in the academies and in political discourse, I still maintain the best psychological portraits in literature are those that manage to get you thinking about the person being described in their individuality above anything else. If I start writing a story about a woman, and constantly draw attention to how well I know women by talking about specifically "feminine" problems, I'm probably not going to do very well. Probably — there will be exceptions. But the likelihood is that I'm going to end up nauseating my readers, whose responses will vary from the impatient (why the fuck does this guy want to impress me with his knowledge of women so badly?) to the amused (does he really think all a woman thinks about is X or Y?) to the outraged (how dare he imply that she did this morally questionable thing because of her specifically feminine insecurity?).

What can breasts tell us about an author?

Haruki Murakami's 1Q84 made me laugh in despair whenever it seemed that Murakami was converting his sexual frustration into "feminine understanding" — look at this example. Women usually have breasts, so Murakami does this kind of thing all the time — get ready for an onslaught:

Tamaki was small and a bit plump with large breasts. Aomame was taller, lean and muscular, with smaller breasts.

and

She was a pro, virtually perfect. If only her breasts were a little bigger, she thought with a twinge, she might have been truly perfect. A partial frown. But hell, you've gotta work with what you've got.

and

She had a slender build, in proportion to which her full breasts could not help but attract attention. They were beautifully shaped.

and

"I know you're thinking my breasts are small," she said coldly as she looked down at him in her underwear. "You came through with a good-sized cock and all you get in return is these puny things. I bet you feel cheated."

and

She looked around, stared at her palms, inspected the shape of her fingernails, and grabbed her breasts through her shirt to check the shape. No change. Same size and shape. I'm still the same me.

and

By no means fat, the woman was round everywhere, including her face, which radiated a truly friendly warmth, and she had big breasts.

and

Her body shape had not disintegrated, and even her breasts had a degree of firmness.

and

Not that she was thrilled at the sight of her own body. Quite the opposite. Her breasts were not big enough, and they were asymmetrical.

and

"Don't you think my breasts are too big?" she asked Aomame. "Not at all. They're beautiful."

and

"I'm sure he hadn't seen very many. Yours are ordinary. Mine are too small."
"No, I like your breasts. They're very elegantly shaped, and they give this intellectual impression."

and

… wearing the familiar tight-fitting summer sweater that showed off her breasts so beautifully (taken, no doubt, at the time of the press conference.)

and

… tight-fitting sweater that showed off the lovely shape of her breasts.

and

In his memory, Aomame remained a skinny little girl without breasts, but he was able to to bring himself to ejaculation with the thought of her in gym clothes.

and

… a natural curiosity, a positive attitude, a talent for interesting conversation, large breasts that attracted attention.

and

Strangely enough, the one thing that Aomame felt she did not want to lose was her rather sad little breasts. From the age of twelve, she had lived with an unwavering dissatisfaction with regard to the shape and size of her breasts. It often occurred to her that she might have been able to live a far more serene life if only her breasts had been a little larger…

and

She touched her breasts through her tank top. They were the same breasts as always, shaped like two lumps of dough that had failed to rise…

and

Aside from size of her breasts, she was, if anything, proud of her body.

and

Her breasts were startlingly large and firm for a girl with such a slim body.

and

Her breasts were perfect hemispheres. Her nipples were not overly large, and they were soft…

and

Her perfect breasts were there in front of him, moved with calm, regular breath.

I'm cherry-picking. But notice that whenever the "she" in the subject is looking at breasts or thinking about them, they're her own, and she's judging herself — too big, too small? When there's a "he", however, it's immediately sexualized. Is Murakami drawing attention to the difference in the role that the female breast plays in men's and women's inner lives? That's not the impression I get. From what I can see, Murakami thinks that because he's writing from a woman's perspective half the time, he's being "delicate" and "understanding" by showing us that he gets it! Women are insecure sometimes! Women have problems with body image!

By the 600th page of noticing this shit, you end up wondering what the hell he's thinking. As a human being reading this, I'm not impressed by the attention to the female character's body — I am bored by it. I'm even kind of weirded out by it.

I have no idea about Murakami as a regular dude, but from reading 1Q84 I get the impression he's more interested in the fetishistic practice of writing about a woman than in just getting over the exotic gap between men and women to write something of psychological substance. Any made-for-TV movie about a young insecure woman can generate sympathy from sections of its audience by appealing to the knowledge we all have of the pressures that come with adolescence, the countless demands made of the female body in society, and so on. Why not try to think further — to wonder about where it is that men and women are irreconcilable at the level of experience, to ask questions about what is most important and what is most ridiculous in modern conceptions of gender politics, and so on? You don't need to read Lacan and his feminist critics to see how interesting and crucial these debates are.

You don't even need to like anyone.

You can be the most miserable curmudgeon in the universe and think nobody could live up to the ideals you hold of people. That doesn't have to mean your own writing should reflect the banality of common sense and popular stereotypes. Not just because it's harmful to some people — but also because, often, fiction written by people who don't give a damn about these issues (even on a purely instinctual and unarticulated level) is really, really boring.

About the author

Phil Jourdan is a writer, musician and distinctly unenlightened person. He is structural editor at Angry Robot, and a co-founder of Repeater Books and Litreactor. He splits his time between the UK and Argentina.

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