Today in better writing than mine: Phil Jourdan on feminism, breast size, and Haruki Murakami

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This one’s for the writers in the audience. Today’s article comes from LitReactor. It’s called “Her Breasts Were Too Small: Why a Dose of Feminism is Good for Writers,” and it’s a surprisingly astute meditation on the quintessential nature of the feminine and the masculine, on the widely touted idea that men can’t write female characters, and on a lot of other intriguing topics. Oh, and there’s a hilarious selection of cringe-worthy breast references from Murakami’s 1Q84 (which I have yet to read, so I don’t know if Jourdan’s critique is totally fair or not). Here’s a sneak peak to entice you to click the link:

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, the argument often goes, these female characters don’t ring true. They 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.

[ . . . ]

[I]f 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? 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?

I once created tension (without wanting to) among a group of otherwise quite progressive people by asserting, very seriously, that I would love to see a black James Bond. The responses you get from declaring something like that 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.

Check it out, if it’s your sort of thing. And while we’re on the subject of a “black James Bond,” I once heard a rumor of Idris Elba being cast as the next Bond. Alas, it’s probably too good to be true.

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