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.


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.


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


"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."


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.


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


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


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.


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


"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."


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


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


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.


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


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…


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…


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


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


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


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.

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avery of the dead's picture
avery of the dead from Kentucky is reading Cipher Sisters January 20, 2012 - 6:09pm

I've been waiting for this - and I am not disappointed!  Excellent column, although I was somewhat creeped out by the twenty some odd breast quotes.  I like your thinking here.

Gayle Towell's picture
Gayle Towell from North Plains, Oregon January 20, 2012 - 6:38pm

This was excellent. The heart of a character lies not in their genitalia. Breasts don’t make a woman any more than they would make a man.

cowboywerewolf's picture
cowboywerewolf from DC is reading Homage to Catalonia January 20, 2012 - 8:40pm

Though I agree that feminism and the role of women in the culture and in media (fiction especially) is a serious and important one, I think this aarticle may be overthinking things a bit.

Before I go on, I'd like to make something clear: I do consider myself to be a feminist and as a result, usually find myself appalled by the treatment of women in fiction (like the shameful DC Comics relaunch debacle), and even more so by men who burn through a hell of a lot of calories trying to defend the sexist status quo.

(discussions like this always remind me of this joke: "How can you tell if a feminist finds something to be offensive?"

"Ask her.")

That said, any decent writer avoids stereotypes of all kinds, unless they're consciously trying to dissect and examine them. Stereotypes, be they sex, gender, race, age, or sexual orientation are lazy writing.

A good author understands their characters, feels like their characters, and pains for the fates of even their most dispicable creations. That's the only way anyone can write a believable character. Understanding them includes things like race, gender, socio-economics, personal experiences, etc, but the second an author starts out saying "I'm going to write a female/black/gay/white/straight/male character", they've already lost the game. Creation should be about who the character is, and not what the character is.

There are a lot of well-known authors that are terrible at writing female characters. In my experience, though, their male characters aren't prizes either. A writer who is lazy in one area is probably lazy in many other areas as well.

Gayle Towell's picture
Gayle Towell from North Plains, Oregon January 20, 2012 - 9:35pm

"A good author understands their characters, feels like their characters, and pains for the fates of even their most dispicable creations. That's the only way anyone can write a believable character. Understanding them includes things like race, gender, socio-economics, personal experiences, etc, but the second an author starts out saying "I'm going to write a female/black/gay/white/straight/male character", they've already lost the game. Creation should be about who the character is, and not what the character is."

Well put. If you are defining your character based on external characteristics, then you aren't creating a character, you're creating a caricature. Good characters are written from the inside out, not the outside in.

aliensoul77's picture
aliensoul77 from a cold distant star is reading the writing on the wall. January 21, 2012 - 3:24am

Wow.  That is a lot of quotes about boobs.

I just read an article in Entertainment Weekly by this woman who said she would rather her sixteen year old daughter think of Lisbeth Salander from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo as a role model than the hipster chick Zooey Deschannel from New Girl because she acts so stupid in that show. It's interesting the diversity among young women and the role models they have today.

Think of young girls who look to the Kardashian women as role models versus a girl who maybe reads comic books or likes women who are action hero types and take no prisoners. I have to agree with the mother, even though the Lisbeth character is fairly goth and seems a little manic depressive. If I had a daughter, I would want her to be more thoughtful and explore her dark side instead of being a vapid party girl. The Britney Spears, Lady Gagas, Kardashian women use their sexuality as their role means of purpose and existence. What is Britney Spears but a walking commercial for "being a blonde is just so neato!" The Kardashians tell women, "Hey, I'm an independant woman, which means I'm wealthy, I can marry a guy and divorce him 72 hours later because nothing means anything to me except boob jobs and fashion". Lady Gaga says be yourself, be different but she tries SO HARD. She is like the female Marilyn Manson but her lyrics have no depth, at least Manson was trying to make a statement about religion and politics in his music.  Gaga wants to ride a disco stick.

We had a debate in the forums about this awhile ago about if men could write women realistically.  A lot of men can't. I have even been guilty of writing exaggerated female stereotypes because I grew up watching "divas" and my mother was a strong willed woman with a hot temper.  I enjoy the Heather Locklear, Erica Kane sort of aggressive, borderline sociopathic women but that is not to confuse it with narcisstic women who follow the Scarlett O'Hara mode of entitlement. Think of women in soap operas for example, they are usually either a. the diva-bitch b. the stalker sociopath c. the needy vulnerable love interest or d. the motherly kind one who is all flowers and light. Men need to understand that women can be all these things. A woman can be a bitch but it doesn't make her a bitch, she can be promiscous without being a slut and a woman can have dark moments of depression without being a psychopath.  I think the core failure of men understanding women is that they fixate on the physical for one, second they lock them into a personality based on moods. The fallacy of this is men hide their emotions while women are more open with them so it isn't fair to judge someone by their honesty when you can't even be completely open about who you are. Also, Murakami is a chode. 

I think all men should try writing as women at one point in their writing career and not just so they can live out vicarious lesbian fantasies through them. Just as all women should try writing about men realistically. I know some writers on these forums who do a great job at that. Sex just isn't about penetration. It's about politics and emotions and gender. Men need to allow themselves to be more vulnerable in their writing and not always put up a bravado of tough guy noir. Otherwise we are all just writing fiction that doesn't reflect the human condition but perpetuates the same tired old stereotypes.

bryanhowie's picture
bryanhowie from FW, ID is reading East of Eden. Steinbeck is FUCKING AMAZING. January 21, 2012 - 9:55am

I love the quote that compares breast size and cock-size as a measure of what the characters are worth in that setting.  

When a girl says it's a good size, it's a nice way of saying it's small.


avery of the dead's picture
avery of the dead from Kentucky is reading Cipher Sisters January 21, 2012 - 10:05am

Mallrats quote makes me happy. 

Joshua Chaplinsky's picture
Joshua Chaplinsky from New York is reading Library Books January 21, 2012 - 12:37pm

Not sure how I feel about all the Murakami bashing, here. Sure, he seems a bit breast obsessed when you lump all those examples together, but those are 20 sentences out of a 950 page novel. It wasn't something that bothered me as I was reading.

I've also read a bunch of complaints about the "creepy" nature of 1Q84's sex scenes in general, specifically one involving 17 year old Fuka-Eri. Again, this wasn't an issue for me. I found the sex in 1Q84 to be matter-of-fact and clinical. Personally, I feel most sex scenes written by male authors contain an element of sexual fantasy, unless that is just me projecting my fantasies onto the writing. Either way, I find it to be unavoidable, but I feel Murakami did a decent job keeping it to a minimum.

Phil, you say that you "have no idea about Murakami as a regular dude," yet you still assert that "it was clear that Murakami was converting his sexual frustration into 'feminine understanding.'" First of all, what does that sentence even mean? He's sexually frustrated because he writes about breasts? That statement is assumptive at best, and borders on pseudo psychology. 1Q84 is the only Murakami novel I have read. Is there a similar breast obsession in all of his work? If not, I find that accusation baseless. Because aside from having a preoccupation with her own breasts, which may in fact just be Murakami's preoccupation, the character of Aomame is a complex one, and most definitely not a female stereotype, or a stereotype of male fantasy.

Aliensoul, I agree with you that Lisbeth Salander is probably a better role model for young women than Snooki or The Kardashians, but guess what? Stieg Larsson, who has been positioned by some as a feminist, and whose novels contain statistics on violence against women, did the same exact thing as Murakami. In The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, Salander expresses dissatisfaction with her breast size numerous times, and even goes as far as getting a breast augmentation. It is something that she justifies to herself and the reader more than once. Why did Larsson feel the need to include this? Is it part of the complexity of her character? Or can we infer that Larsson was a horny old man who was obsessed with big tits?

So I feel it is unfair to single out Murakami on this. It's no secret men like breasts. It's a fucking scientific fact. Yes, it sometimes affects a man's ability to successfully write a believable female character, but that doesn't mean we have to go looking sexism that isn't there.

Fylh's picture
Fylh from from from is reading is from is reading is reading is reading reading is reading January 21, 2012 - 4:51pm

I wouldn't call this "Murakami-bashing" — I don't have any particular gripes with Murakami's writing. And I don't think Murakami is being sexist, either. If you want to accuse me of making unfounded accusations, then, yeah, let's make that a universal criterion.

If you didn't find the constant drawing of attention to Aomame's breasts disconcerting, then you probably had a better reading experience than I did. That's great, but it doesn't change the creep-factor for me. It's not about Murakami's sexism; I simply don't think the sexism is there. It's about the "pseudo psychology", as you call it, involved in making Aomame into a falsely complex character.

And for the record, the word "sexism" doesn't appear in my article except for when I mention that I myself am sometimes accused of it. I have no interest in talking about sexism. Surprising though it may be, not all articles about feminism need to be reduced to an argument on sexism.

Joshua Chaplinsky's picture
Joshua Chaplinsky from New York is reading Library Books January 22, 2012 - 5:12pm

Well, maybe sexism wasn't the best choice of words in that last sentence, even though it can be defined as "attitudes or behavior based on traditional stereotypes of sexual roles," which you talk about quite a bit in the article. Sexism isn't just woman bashing, it's also a misunderstanding and misrepresentation of the feminine, which you do accuse Murakami of. So in that respect, this article is kind of an argument on sexism, at least in part.

Fylh's picture
Fylh from from from is reading is from is reading is reading is reading reading is reading January 22, 2012 - 5:32pm

I have in no way accused anyone of misrepresenting the feminine, either. If anything, I have questioned the very idea of "representing the feminine" in the first place. Defining sexism in a particular way to support a minor point isn't going to change the point of the article — which isn't about Murakami, but more broadly about this idea of sexual roles in general.

Joshua Chaplinsky's picture
Joshua Chaplinsky from New York is reading Library Books January 23, 2012 - 10:55am

Fair enough. I think you're splitting hairs for the sake of your argument, and I don't want to get into an endless back and forth about the intention of the piece, so one last thing: I understand the article isn't about Murakami. But he is your only example of a feminine character being poorly handled by a male author, or whatever you want to summarize said point as. So why spend such a large portion of the article on him and his "sexual frustration?" Making assumptions about his psychology based on his description of the female body borders on ad hominem. Your point would have been better served if you had used more than one author as example.

Also, you can't invalidate my whole point because you objected to my use of the term sexism and turned that into an accusation of me accusing you of making accusations. I'm puzzled that you are taking the position that this article has absolutely nothing to do with gender politics, because it kind does.

Fylh's picture
Fylh from from from is reading is from is reading is reading is reading reading is reading January 23, 2012 - 11:15am

So what, exactly, is your issue with anything at all again? That I happen not to be impressed with Murakami's writing, and I'm not being representative enough, I'm not using other authors as examples? Is that it? What am I missing? It just feels to me like you're taking what I say about Murakami on a personal level. If you aren't, then what's the problem?

Joshua Chaplinsky's picture
Joshua Chaplinsky from New York is reading Library Books January 23, 2012 - 11:25am

Rhetorical questions are not an argument. I feel like I've made my point(s) and if I continued I'd only be reiterating what I've already said. Also, I feel like this discussion wouldn't have veered off so sharply if I had just lopped off the last paragraph of my initial comment. Anyone else want to chime in?

Jimothy Scott's picture
Jimothy Scott from Canada is reading The wise mans fear January 23, 2012 - 2:37pm

I thought the article was well written and clinical. I'm going to sit on the fence and say that I don't believe Phil made any accusations Murakami however more examples from different writers would have strengthened the piece. Personally, It has given me a few things to watch out for in my own work.


Jeff's picture
Jeff from Florida is reading Another Side of Bob Dylan by Victor Maymudes January 23, 2012 - 6:00pm

Phil, I thought your article was pretty good up to the point where you unloaded on Murakami.  How do we portray "the other"?  How do we show the "irreconcilalbles" between men and women without resorting to cliches?  Right on! Good questions. 

But I read 1Q84 and those breast quotes you lined up are a red herring. Actually he did create a sort of female James Bond in Aomame.  She's taking down big time villainous types by way of spycraft and she's got a connoisseur's appetite for what floats her boat which includes not only guys with receding hairlines but female cops with big breasts.  And what's the big deal if he mentions characters' breasts numerous times?  Far from being offended, I was amused by it:  So this is the great Murakami, I thought to myself,  a breast man if ever there was one.

Lighten up!



avery of the dead's picture
avery of the dead from Kentucky is reading Cipher Sisters January 23, 2012 - 7:49pm

Going back to what Alien said, I think one of the issues I have in general is the idea that girls will naturally look up to a certain 'type' of female and will be boxed in by that.  They will be Kardashian girls, or Salander girls, or what have you.  And by saying that alone, you are putting us in boxes and asking us to categorize ourselves.  I hear about this type of thing a lot.  Young female role models.  I hear of less boxes for men.

I have never had a conversation about whether or not I want my son to be a Justin Timberlake or a James Bond, or a ... I can't even think of a third one...because this is so out there.  If you think about all the boxes we try to fit women in, it is astounding.  Are we, the girl next door?  Betty, or Veronica?  Ginger or Mary Ann?  Or is she just a bitch?  Which could lead me on to the topic of why so many curse words are gender specific, and to which gender they point to, but I won't go there.  Today.

I think the essence of writing a realistic woman (characters in general?) is in your ability to not fence them in with stereotypes. 


bryanhowie's picture
bryanhowie from FW, ID is reading East of Eden. Steinbeck is FUCKING AMAZING. January 23, 2012 - 8:16pm

I'd rather be a Jughead than an Archie or Reggie.  2nd choice would be Moose.  Him and Midge got a real good thing going.

jyh's picture
jyh from VA is reading whatever he feels like January 23, 2012 - 10:55pm

(This is somewhat related to what averydoll said, and I think it reiterates one of Phil's points:)

Isn't anyone who debates whether girls or women of such-and-such type can or should be portrayed such-and-such a way already displaying a biased view (not necessarily unreasonable) by knowing the type, by already having an image to be either challenged or reinforced?

And couldn't a more generalized version of that same question be applied more broadly to the sexes themselves?

There are differences between men and women, but people may disagree about some of the specifics, just as there are differences between this emo kid and that emo kid, but people may disagree about some of the specifics.

But the main point is about writing, right? Yes, cliches usually suck, even when they bear no resemblance to reality in all its complexity. But sometimes simple is good.

Boone Spaulding's picture
Boone Spaulding from Coldwater, Michigan, U.S.A. is reading Solarcide Presents: Nova Parade January 24, 2012 - 6:51pm

Great article on some things taken without enough thought. I have to admit, I love Richard Laymon's writing. When I first discovered Laymon (years after he passed away) I read a short story and thought, "That was a sexier story," for the horror genre. Then I read another Laymon story with another detailed description of the female protagonist as she undressed. I recalled this tactic from the other story. I read my first Laymon novel (The Midnight Tour) and every third chapter - no kidding, no exaggeration - had a description of one of the female characters' bodies as she dressed, undressed, or had her clothes pressed to her body by sweat or water. I read my second Laymon novel (Blood Games), which features five strong female characters...each of which Laymon had to describe as she dressed, or undressed, or how her swimsuit pressed to her body. And I've continued to read Laymon for his great building of suspense and unusual sideways approaches to familiar plots - and I've continued to encounter this pattern of detailed descriptions of the various states of dress and/or undress FOR THE FEMALE CHARACTERS ONLY. I cynically think to myself that maybe Laymon was using a tactic to keep his reader's attention. But in every single short story and novel? I continue to read through Laymon's incredible body of 30+ novels and dozens of short stories, but each time I come to this dependable-as-the-clock characteristic of Laymon's encyclopedic description of his female character's dressing/undressing it intrudes on the spell Laymon was creating in his writing. It begins to feel like self-parody. It begins to feel like we the audience have to attend some group therapy session with Laymon each time we sit to read his work. And, as much as I love Laymon's body of work I think of what a great thing it would be if some editor created an abridged version of Laymon's writing with all the sexual hang-ups expurgiated....

I'll be returning to reread this article and recommending it to friends... 

Jose F. Diaz's picture
Jose F. Diaz from Boston is reading Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel January 27, 2012 - 12:39am


You did an amazing job writing this and it really made me think of how I portray my characters in my writing. There are some characters that I describe with a quick stereotype because they have a very small role in the work and there are others that I spend the entire novel working with. I do gender cast my characters though. I write fanstasy/military/horror/dark humor and women never really come out on top unless they are A) protected by a man or B) cunning enough to double cross the man who is protecting them. Perhaps it is time to give women more strength and see how it plays out. Once again, very intriguing article.

Christina Re's picture
Christina Re from the United States is reading something a friend wrote June 30, 2012 - 6:43pm

*So it's early where I am, and I've just realized after writing this that this is a 'cold column'.  I still find these thoughts valid, so here you go.*

I'm currently writing one of the first pieces I've ever done focusing on a male protagonist-- and find myself asking a lot of these gender questions.  I've had to ask myself several times, Is this a stereotype?  Am I trying too hard to think like a man?  How can I portray this guy fairly without seeming like I'm just "covering the basics"?  I hadn't even realized that I write primairly from the female perspective until trying to tackle this story.  At one point, I wrote this lovely bit:

"She’d said, “Rob kept everything in the garage, go ahead and look back there for the wrench or whatever it is you need”
Dean found a tackle box, a CB radio, and a stack of Playboys.
Now when he opened the garage door he revealed a sturdy workbench crowned with a pegboard storage fixture, two large tool boxes, sawhorses, and a circular saw.  It looked like a man lived in the house."

-and I felt like I realy missed something (okay, fine, a lot of things).  The laundry list of items didn't seem to say much at all.  A few of them were necessary for exposition's sake, but for the most part I just groped for stuff that seemed masculine in nature and threw everything in there.  I wish I could say my character was intended to have some insecurities with his manliness, but not so much.

So basically, my opinion is this: Writing is hard, but worth it.  Writing from another gender's POV is even harder.  We should try to represent people as people first, then as their sex.  However, I will maintain that some people do fit some stereotypes (although not completely), and some dudes I know really do store their porn in their garages.

One more thing: What do you think it says about someone who repeatedly portrays their own gender in an overtly masculine or feminine fashion? 


Vinny Mannering's picture
Vinny Mannering from Jericho, VT is reading Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow January 17, 2014 - 3:12pm

My breasts are too big. :-(

Maya Zimmerman's picture
Maya Zimmerman January 17, 2014 - 4:41pm

Really?  We're going to talk about sexism in literature and single out Murakami as totally fixed in the male gaze and base this on a single novel of his?  Murakami writes male and female characters affected by society differently, though typically somewhat misanthropic.  Most of those quotes come from two women experimenting sexually with one another.  Yes, comparison of body types is normal and, especially when you're talking about two women who are very concerned with their physical appearances (not typical Murakami characters in that regard), it's going to be an ongoing concern, amplified by intimacy (and complicated by the exploration of sexuality and how it differs when with men or women).  Hell, I don't put much stock in looks at all and I still check out my boobs, think about how they compare size-wise, and put every aspect of my appearance under a microscope from time to time, even though I'm a feminist, and even though I know my partner thinks I'm beautiful how I am.  It's what we're socialized to do and it's a very real aspect of how we interact with those around us.

And seriously, Murakami's the most mainstream author to write a totally sympathetic trangender person I'm aware of and really have a better sense than most cisgender people of the social frustration and pain we go through.  I mean, we're talking about a cisgender straight guy who can write a laudable transgender gay guy, but can't write women at all?

It's like the columnist almost understands what he's talking about, in that he understands feminism isn't about hating men (but expresses he didn't answer his friend who asked what he thought feminism is, clearly hasn't actually looking into what it really is, and even urges that his audience [and, hence, male authors] need not bother reading about feminism) and points out that Murakami may be writing these characters in the context of social influence (but then dismisses it as a pretense; why?), but was too concerned with getting the article out to follow through beyond the very surface (despite taking a stance critical of lacking depth in his perceived notion of this exact regard).

Here's an idea:  Instead of telling us what he, as a man, believes would be good for writing more realistic female characters, maybe direct the audience to what women have said about being women.  Maybe urge the audience to ask women they know how they feel about situations.  Maybe actually learn about feminism and why it's important.  Maybe stop reducing male and female to physical parts while decrying the perception of their existence meaningless.  Maybe realize that perceiving common social feminine behavior as automatically offensive due to it being "stereotypical" is itself a sexist view. Maybe recognize that women are deserving of respect regardless of whether we make up a lot of the important people in your life.  Maybe approach us as more than part of the landscape you're trying to recreate realistically, a way to make yourself look good as a writer writing about writing.  

Maybe those people who called you sexist, in a laddish way or otherwise, were on to something.

Thad Pasquale's picture
Thad Pasquale January 17, 2014 - 5:38pm

One thing is for sure, you should probably read more than one of Murakami's works before drawing conclusions about his psychology.

Fylh's picture
Fylh from from from is reading is from is reading is reading is reading reading is reading January 17, 2014 - 5:52pm

Whew, this article was posted a couple of years ago. And as glad as I am to have attempted to think these things through, I have exactly nothing to say about any of it nowadays. I look back on it as an early struggle to figure out what I'd be writing for LitReactor. Worthwhile for its effects, less so for its contribution to the angry online discussion culture.

Hoveurt Thompson's picture
Hoveurt Thompson January 17, 2014 - 6:03pm

blah fucking blah who gives a shit about tits in a fuckin book. get real people. 

EricMBacon's picture
EricMBacon from Vermont is reading The Autobiography of a Corpse January 17, 2014 - 6:12pm

I agree in theory that a good writer will avoid stereotypes, but people don't necessarily avoid them in their own lives. That is why stereotypes exist. While Murakami isn't blameless in his language choice, maybe it is alright to be blunt and sexualize characters. Yes, in 1Q84 he does talk about female characters bodies quite a bit, but he talks about male characters' bodies as well. Also, Aomame is quite the capable character. She is strong, athletic, smart, and nearly perfect except when she overthinks things- just like her obsession with her smaller breasts when she is in a situation to think about them. 

Not to say that you are wrong in your assessment, but I think the genius of Murakami and other strong writers is that they make the reader participate. There are many blanks to fill in, we help flesh out characters with our own selves. 

As always, great article.

M Ister Wyman's picture
M Ister Wyman January 17, 2014 - 6:46pm

I like small breasts.

JamieWhyNot's picture
JamieWhyNot January 17, 2014 - 9:10pm

This article made me feel awful and confused and reminded me of this even more horrible article. Read it, if you'd like to see why the very act of procreation makes you a rapist. http://witchwind.wordpress.com/2013/12/15/piv-is-always-rape-ok/

So here's the thing.

It is not cool that we (male OR female) should be made to feel ashamed of our desires.

Men like boobs. They make us feel happy. Consequently they are mentioned in writing.

Murakami is an amazing writer. And you seem to have grouched through what I've heard is an incredible book with a handful of clippings and an axe to grind.

It is wrong to define a character by her cup size, or his cock size. But you have not presented proof that this is what Murakami is doing in his works. Though I've read only one of Murakami's books (Hard Boiled Wonderland) he most definitely did not stereotype his female characters.

Characters, like people, contextualize themselves in relation to each other by personality, appearance, and social status. It is therefore natural that judgement calls about breasts (and penises) appear in their exchanges. It is up to the writer whether they use this to reinforce or subvert our expectations and cultural assumptions.

Jeremy Heynen's picture
Jeremy Heynen January 17, 2014 - 11:27pm

Haruki Murakami is my favorite living author and having read everything that has been translated into English by him, I can say with certainty that Murakami always writes through his character's perspectives. These perspectives play a large role in the stories he tells as they shape the way we understand their worlds. Aomame was obsessed with what she saw as her physical flaws. Both her and Tengo's perceptions were largely based on physical appearances which makes it all that much more interesting for these characters to slip into the alternative reality that they do. As the book continues and they explore this new reality, they become less concerned with their own physical forms. They grow into characters who become content with who they are and how they look. By the end of the book, they've realized there is much more to life and even much more beyond what we are able to perceive. At least that is how I understood it. Of course writers are pushed to write about what will sell. Writing about breasts and sex is guaranteed to get some male readers. Writing about a women who obsesses with what she sees as physical flaws is something the majority of woman can relate to, especially in today's world. Murakami is the type of writer to reflect our world and challenge our perceptions. Also, there is almost always some part of the human body that is over-analyzed by a character in his novels. For instance, ears in A Wild Sheep Chase, his first full-length novel. After seeing a whale's penis, the character becomes insecure with the size of his.

SammyB's picture
SammyB from Las Vegas is reading currently too many to list January 18, 2014 - 12:56am

There have been a lot of times when I've read books by both men and women that made me roll my eyes. Characterization is tough. I am a feminist, but not a man hating, hairy lesbian who burns bras. lol. Oh stereotypes. Sometimes women are portrayed as vapid, sometimes they are portrayed as weak, and sometimes they are portrayed as sex objects. However, there are some great books with wonderful female characters that are well rounded and feel real. I wonder if my personal beliefs and desires cause me to struggle to relate to some characters. I'm probably one of the few women who gets annoyed when a book says something like, "every girl dreams of her wedding day". Nope. Some of us chicks don't even want to get married.

You can also argue that men are drawn poorly too. Especially in romance novels. I'm sick to death of the alpha male who has major issues, but is like catnip to the vulnerable and insecure ladies. They are too controlling and are rude, yet they meet little miss insecure and suddenly become super romantic. Then they move into stalker/possessive jerk off mode. Or how about the guy who can't cook to save his life, so he eats pizza, Chinese take out, and drinks a ton of beer every day, but still has sexy abs and muscular arms instead of a beer gut and heart problems? And they all have huge cocks. I just gave myself eye strain from rolling them too hard.

On a side note... Do women spend that much time thinking about their boobs? I don't really think about mine. They're just there. No big deal. The only time breasts really come up in conversation is when a friend is pregnant, nursing, or got a boob job. Which isn't that often in my life. I do notice that boobs come up in fiction a lot though. More than necessary actually. Anyway, I'm done ranting. That's all I seem to do these days :) rant, rant, rant.

Gunnar Patriksson's picture
Gunnar Patriksson January 19, 2014 - 12:20am

To be fair to Murakami--I assumed he was putting all that emphasis on her asymmetrical breasts because they were tied symbolically to the asymmetrical moons in the sky.

I'll never pretend to understand Murakami's symbolism, but I'm pretty sure it's in there for a symbolic reason rather than as a lazy character shorthand. (Given that basically everything Murakami puts in his stories is some abstruse symbol.)

andork's picture
andork January 19, 2014 - 9:34am

I wish I could interview Murakami about this - interestingly, in his two earlier works I've read (A wild sheep chase & dance, dance, dance) I don't remember any attention to boobs like this. He may have mentioned them in sex scenes or something, but not with the almost obsessive focus you show from these quotes. Let's entertain the theory that he was trying to paint a portrait of gender relations absurdly revolving around breasts; where the subconscious disappointment at least some women must feel with small breasts is an intrusive daily frustration, and similarly men are constantly thinking about boobs (okay, that's probably not far from the truth!) Let's assume he did this just to make the reader feel awkwardly, painfully aware about our subconscious thoughts about breasts; it certainly accomplishes that, no?

As I said, I wish I could interview Murakami because only then would I have a better idea what was going on in his mind. But given the contrast between this and other works of his, I don't think you can immediately claim he was converting sexual frustration and fantasies, or making a poor attempt to sympathize with women.

Regarding his female characters in the two books I've read, I think they're pretty good and realistically feminine; but I'd have to think more about it to decide how good a job he did on them. However, I think he struck a sufficient balance between the women giving men satisfaction and being aloof and independent, that I didn't sense he was writing out personal fantasies or sexual/romantic frustration.

andork's picture
andork January 19, 2014 - 9:41am

Also, I like the idea of a black James Bond. Similarly, I think someone should remake classic movies with all characters being minority-race LGBT women, done completely non-tongue-in-cheek as if it's representative of how society has always been.

Flaminia Ferina's picture
Flaminia Ferina from Umbria is reading stuff January 20, 2014 - 3:11am

The article is written for transgressive writers -- this website's population -- who want to write compelling gendered characters, and for bon vivant readers who don't feel like spending their read time on templates. Phil does a great job at it, too bad the discussion got stuck on Murakami and boob fetish. It probably means Phil struck the right nerve.

When creating my characters I never think of only two sexes, for what I see in the world is that thousands -- or maybe millions -- of genders exist. With that in mind, when one character is faced with gender-specific problems of the heteronormative kind, I turn to the ones I see operating in my environment such as, for example, a fear of being called a fag for a heterosexual man and a fear of being called a slut for an unmarried woman. If I write about a gay person, he or she will have to go through endless pains whenever he or she leaves the good friends circle, provided there's any, and there would be a lot of dope involved too. Because I'm a (post)working-class writer and that's what happens in my whereabouts.

Last night I was talking with a young man who just did some time -- a six year conviction for attempted murder. He actually had to defend himself from a group of goons of a rival mob. So I asked how it was in jail (actually a high security prison). He very quickly specified that there was no sex whatsoever, and added that one of the greatest dangers in his prison is to be seen speaking to a pedophile. There is a high percentage of mafia dons in this prison, and a strict code of honor. So my take is the young man I talked to indeed had no sex in six years, for his coming in contact with pedophiles would have meant prison rape and he didn't want any of that.
Now, if I want to write about this young man and his jail story, it would be pretty silly on my part to focus on the size of his penis.

Well, I see that done all the time with women's features. It's just plain boring and totally unsatisfying.
Too often a woman, in entertainment and culture, becomes a body part. We want to change that. We want women who are complete humans.

I would immediately close a book telling a woman inmate's story that starts off with the size of her tits, unless convicts in that jail use their huge boobs to smash the faces of rival inmates. It would be a boob-fight story, it would make sense and soon be turned into a Russ Meyer spin-off. But do we need more of that? Or more of the polar titless lolita that seems so inoffensive? Yes okay, but there's stuff in the middle too. A whole lot of it in all possible combinations. Let's get unstuck.

Daria's picture
Daria January 21, 2014 - 5:49am

As a female who loves literature, I'm impressed by this article. It's easy enough to spot overt sexism in books, but less easy for a man to realize that an author's depiction of female self-consciousness through her fixation on breast size is also pandering to stereotypes. Yes, women in our society are subjected to images of "beauty" that are unattainable and cause many of us to feel dissatisfaction with ourselves. Yes, some women probably spend a lot of time worrying about their breast size. But for most women, that is no more important than worrying about their height, or the shape of their legs, or how big their feet are... to distill it to one feature - a specifically sexual feature - is a male conceit. And Steig Larsson was just as bad in this sense as Murakami (he tried to make Lisbeth Salander "complex" by simply stacking a selection of stereotypes on top on each other in a single character. Horrible, I barely made it through one book.)

On the whole, I have to admit that I have long ago stopped looking for believable female characters in books by men - and take descriptions of women that lead with the boobs as a matter of course. And no, the only alternative is not "chick-lit" (a vague suggestion of a false dichotomy here, but maybe not intended.) Women write *real* literature about women too. This year Rachel Kushner floored me with "The Flamethrowers," for example. This article, though, made me think about which books by men have had female characters or narrators that felt real to me. W. Somerset Maugham and E.M. Forster were both very good at it. They described fears and insecurites that are recognizable as particular to women, with little mention of breasts. Lately, Jonathan Franzen's Freedom really impressed me. Also Jeffrey Eugenides' Middlesex. Although the narrator of this book is intersexed and lives as a man, the female voice really comes through. It's very, very nice work. But one of the best (male) representations of femininity I've ever read was in a sci-fi book and wasn't even a human character. That was China Miéville's Perdido Street Station. The lead female character is a sort of insectoid alien who doesn't even *have* breasts, but her concerns are typical for women in western culture. For example, the clash of loyalties between cultural legacy and personal attachments... this is something that gets ignored when men make it all about breast size and good sex. It is the woman's role to raise the children and to pass on cultural legacy - they are the traditional guardians of tradition. Men's representations of women often fail by assuming that giving us depth means exploring sexuality and relationships from "our side." There's so much more to (particularly) women's issues than our relationships with men. I suggest that men who want to write good female characters stop trying to imagine themselves in a female body and read some great literature by great female writers. There's PLENTY out there. Message me if you would like a list of recommendations :-)

Species84's picture
Species84 from Fluidic space is reading UNIX a standard operating system (1985) by Austen & Thomassen March 31, 2014 - 6:57am

Fact: my dicksize is 5'2 inches, in erect mode that is.