Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman who Looks an Awful Lot Like James Joyce

It was a frequent source of frustration to me that when it was time to read aloud in English classes, teachers tended to want to dole out the male parts to the boys and the female parts to the girls.  In freshman English class, I had a bit of a tiff with my teacher, who thought I ought to read Juliet, but I frankly wasn’t interested.  Mercutio’s the only one who comes off well in that whole ridiculous affair, as far as I’m concerned, and Juliet is far too pathetic for me to want to give her voice.  He told me that if I could make a compelling case, I could read the male part.  I cited that quite useful bit of information that since all the parts were played by men in the beginning, it was no less authentic with regard to the characters’ genders than the world premiere.  He caved, and I didn’t have to do the silly swoony balcony scene.  Ever since, despite no interest at all in acting or performing of any kind, I’ve been on the lookout for good female characters, and I find I’m often left wanting.  If I were an actress, I think I’d be kind of pissed.  The guys get all the good roles, and the ladies get to be people that matter primarily in relation to them: wives, mothers, daughters, mistresses.  Forget that.  Fortunately, I think that in an age where so much of publishing is made up of women, from publishers to editors to agents to authors to readers, even the books that are not setting out to make a point about gender can have some pretty great female protagonists.  And it sometimes looks like television, at least, is starting to make similar changes.

So I was delighted when Michael sent me this LA Times piece on Daniela Comani’s gallery exhibit which takes major canonical fiction with gendered titles and reverses things.  I hate Of Mice and Men, sorry Steinbeck fans, but would I love Of Mice and Women?  Well, probably not.  Still, it’s an interesting idea to think about how things would change.  Monsieur Bovary and Lord Chatterley’s Lover would probably not be so controversial, would they?  Unless, of course, the genders of the lovers stayed fixed as the originals, which would add a whole new layer—it would be interesting to contemplate which issues overlapped in the possible versions and which were made radically different.

This makes me wonder, as an author, how much thought do you give to your character’s gender?  Do you ever consider flipping?  Do you always stick to what you yourself know or do you prefer to write from the opposite perspective?  And have you ever tried to write something gender blind and then assign a gender later?  In theory, it shouldn’t matter, but in practice, how much of the characterization would shift depending on the direction?

5 Responses to Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman who Looks an Awful Lot Like James Joyce

  1. Joelle says:

    I started out as an actress and decided to focus on comedy for the exact reasons you cite. Boring roles. Also, as a writer of comedy, I was able to write great roles for myself.

    There are something like 11 male acting roles for every 1 female acting role (old statistics, old memory, but something like that) in theatre.

    As a writer, I decided early on to always write strong female roles. It doesn’t mean my books might not have a silly or weak girl, but like most people, she also has inner strengths and smarts. I also have assigned roles to women that readers might expect to be men. And I try to make my male characters more well-rounded too. If they’re in a position of authority, I want readers to believe they’re the kind of person who earned it (or didn’t, but got it for other reasons).

    However, and I’m embarrassed to admit this, I HAD TO TRAIN MYSELF TO DO THIS. Like so many people, I often find when writing that I have assigned a role of authority to a male – like principals, doctors, and even teachers (which is ironic when you consider how many more female teachers there are than male). Luckily, there are many, many rounds of rewrites and edits that allow us to go back and fix these things.

    Thanks for bringing this up!

  2. Ciara says:

    Funny I had a few short years as a theatre director, before I realised that actors drive me doolally, and I felt the same frustrations. The vast majority of plays are written for male actors which is crazy because in my experience there were always 5 times as many female auditioning for any part.

    I find I do primarily write female characters and have to work to put male characters into my work. In fact I was thinking about this problem just today and wondering if I could swap some of my women for a men because my wip is starting to look like an alternate female only universe. Whoops.

  3. josin says:

    I was blessed with an English teacher who believed that, in order to appreciate the material presented, students needed to get over their assumptions. One of the ways she did that was to not assign the girl parts to girls and the boy parts to boys as written.

    When reading in class, she would assign both the lead parts to girls or boys, not one of each, and told us to make people forget we weren’t the right gender for the part. It was the words that mattered.

    I understand it better now, but the fact that she was able to do that, without interference from the district or parents was highly unusual, but advantageous to those of us who had the privilege of calling her our teacher.

    Yes, it was strange reading Romeo opposite another girl, but it made the material stick, and after the first, few awkward moments, the words became the important part and the players ceased to matter.

  4. Suzi McGowen says:

    The “monster” in my book was originally going to be male. I change him to her about half way through and made it a better book. She has both better (more understandable) motivation for being a monster, and I think the “dark mother” archetype is scarier.

    Interestingly, in my book, lots of people think she is a he, because she has killed millions of people (and only men do that, right?).

  5. M. Caliban says:

    As a child and teenager, I was an avid reader of science fiction and fantasy adventures. It was always the guys slaying orcs, guys discovering the mystic orb of Thinga’mawits, guys flying spaceships and dueling with lightsabers. It frustrated me and when I write speculative fiction, I make sure the ladies do the awesome, fun stuff that I wanted to read about.

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