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Writers are from Earth - The Phantom Librarian
Spewing out too many words since November 2003
Writers are from Earth
Men are from Mars, Women are From Venus.

AKA, the only book this librarian has ever wanted to barbeque.

Scratch that. This librarian couldn't care less. But this writer, in one of her more agitated states, would gladly take a blowtorch to it.

Oh, okay. I wouldn't. Honestly. Book burning and book banning are way too far against my inborn constitution. I'd end up burning my own fingers off before I torched a book and I wouldn't be able to do a dratted thing to stop myself, no matter how annoyed I was.

That doesn't change the fact that it makes my claws come out in a serious way.

Fair warning: This isn't just a writing rant; it's a general rant about life. But I'm a writer, so that's where I'll start.

It's been ten years since The Bell Curve came out, and G-d only knows how many since Mars and Venus became gender hometowns. Both books argue statistics about differences between groups, using psychology research and psychometric exams.

Don't ge me wrong, I don't have anything against a psychometric exam or two on individuals, particularly if you're trying to figure something out (like, say, why said individual is checking her door lock twenty times before leaving the house in the morning). Nor do I deny that there might be some statistical difference among groups for whatever bizarre reason.

But here's the thing:

So the hell what?

Come here, I'll tell you a secret: You'll never ever, in your entire life, meet an abstract demographic group. You'll never examine a demographic group's job or college application. And you'll sure G-d not be writing a story about a demographic group.

Every time you meet a person, every time you create a character, every time you start a conversation, that person is--flare of trumpets--not a group.

There are some community affiliations that may mean something. Stated philosophical allegiances (religious, political, whatever) may give a clue about one aspect of a person's personality, though if it's the whole personality, the person is kind of unbalanced, so assumptions beyond the most basic are a bad idea.

But matters of birth? Even if there is an actual statistically significant deviation between groups, no individual person can automatically be assumed to be subject to that deviation. If 70% of women are "Feelers" in a Myers-Briggs sense, that still gives you no clue about the individual woman to whom you are speaking. You have to actually have the conversation and get to know her. There are no shortcuts to this.

Now, it's true that there are often clear cultural practices--boys tend to discuss their feelings less often, so it rings false if you write a room full of boys giggling over cute girls. But an individual guy? Totally plausible, depending on the guy's overall behavior, values, and experiences.

Why does this bother me so much as a writer?

Because it's a really destructive approach to creating characters. Because the writer who goes in thinking about group affiliation is automatically separating herself from her characters, and categorizing herself as well, thereby limiting herself--badly--as a writer.

I'm not speaking out of the wrong orifice here. I've been complimented on writing believable men, and I have male readers, none of whom has ever thwapped me over the head and said, "No man would think that! Are you stupid?" And if men should be aliens to anyone, it's me. I'm the only daughter of a single mother, raised in a matriarchal household by three older generations of women (Mom, Grandma, Grandma-Great). Grandma was married, but he was always a step distant--he was referred to as "Grandma's husband," not as my step-grandfather, and called by his first name instead of by an honor title. I never met my father, and, though I adored my uncles and my godfather, I only saw them a few times a year on special occasions. I've never had a boyfriend. By all experiential evidence, I should be the first writer to advocate learning all of the differences, as I hadn't spent any time observing them firsthand, and therefore should be cowed at the prospect of writing men without an expert guide.

At first, I was a little freaked. I was writing in first person as a boy--several actually (chienar knows which story it was)--and, ew, what if someone thought I was thinking icky stuff?

But a funny thing happened with that "I" point of view.

I was Charlie. I was Johnny. I was at least sometimes Michael and Scott and Brady (though Brady was a stretch; he was the Roger Davies of this world). And you know what? Looking out through their eyes and with their experiences, I actually was them, at least as much as I was any of the women. And that's when it clicked. Maybe I'm slow or something and no one else needed this revelation moment, but at some point during that weird saga, I realized that men vary as much as women do.

And hey, I bet that means black people vary as much as white people, and Asians as much as Hispanics, and...

Wait a minute, there, bub... you mean, anyone I happen to be writing could have any sort of personality at all? And I might have a whole lot more in common with a middle-aged male British werewolf than with another non-magical Boston librarian?

:sound of bell ringing:

Furthermore, if I'm not limited in who I might be, why should my characters be limited in who they can be?

I mean, I think we all think this on a conscious level, because it's just the done thing. But when that subconcsious dam breaks and you realize that a person really is a person and will be shaped by individual experiences and proclivities more than abstract group characteristics... honestly, that's the most liberating experience in the world. As a person, yes. But as a writer, it's beyond a general philosophical thing.

That's why one of the assignments I gave my writing class this spring was to write first person from the POV of a person of the opposite gender. If I'd had more time in the class, I'd ask for a different age as well, and a different background. If you want to write, you have to get out of the group-identity box. (This is also why I don't like the theory that kids should only read books about kids who look like them--the idea phrased as "What is there for a young African-American girl to benefit from in Harry Potter, the story of a middle-class white English boy?" Give kids good books, whoever they happen to be about, because good books are always about humanity, and we're all human, thanks.)

Okay. That wasn't well organized, but occasionally, I just have to rant on the topic. It's one of my (individual) crazy buttons, and this morning I read an article on The Bell Curve and how its statistics really were right (or whatever) and it seemed like a good time to write a long essay saying, "So the hell what?"

And now I'm done for awhile.

I feel a bit...: annoyed ranty

18 comments or Leave a comment
azaelia_culnamo From: azaelia_culnamo Date: October 15th, 2004 08:21 am (UTC) (Link)
It's sad indeed that people have this mentality. Truthfully, I've actually seen people say Harry Potter is downgrading to women because there's no strong male characters. (A), there *are.* (B), what about all those books where all the male characters are jerks except the Lover? I've seen them out there, but they don't get any slack. Sometimes, I almost wonder if men are going to need a "maleist" movement. Sure, "girl power" is fine, but some people take it too far.

And don't get me started on people who think that guys with slightly feminine traits, or girls with slightly male traits, are definitely gay. Why should that even matter?
ashtur From: ashtur Date: October 15th, 2004 09:10 am (UTC) (Link)
Oh, there's been an off and on men's movement... (find a copy of Iron John), but really, I agree with everything FernWithy has to say. We're all different. World would be really boring otherwise.
volandum From: volandum Date: October 15th, 2004 08:28 am (UTC) (Link)
Wow. Thank you.
likeafox From: likeafox Date: October 15th, 2004 09:07 am (UTC) (Link)
I remember writing a story for my middle school writing team (yes, we had a writing team, and it was awesome! *g*) about a kid who went on a roller coaster on a dare, despite being deathly afraid of heights. The thing was written in first person, but I had always intended the character to be a girl. The funny thing was when I got back the comment sheets from the judges they both referred to my character as a "he". I remember my friends giggling over the mix-up (We were in 7th grade. We still giggled a lot more than anyone should.) but I just thought it was cool because, hey, I was writing about a person
sophonax From: sophonax Date: October 15th, 2004 07:14 pm (UTC) (Link)
You were on a middle-school writing team and you have a Lyra/Iorek icon.

You rock. May I friend you?
likeafox From: likeafox Date: October 15th, 2004 09:59 pm (UTC) (Link)
Sure! You can never have too many friends!
mafdet From: mafdet Date: October 15th, 2004 09:32 am (UTC) (Link)
Excellent essay. I hate those John Gray books, too. Bleah. And I hate "The Bell Curve" not only for generalizations but because it's racist as all get-out.

I'm sure you realize this as I've said it before, but I <3 your Ted Tonks and think he's a very believable character. Honestly, you don't need to be a man, or a black person, or an elderly person, etc. to write a man/black person/elderly person/etc. in your story. Jane Austen wrote believable male characters and relationships - believable enough to be widely read some 200 years later - and she was never married.

People are individuals, not "genders" or "races." Writers need to be good observers of other people - the more you people-watch, the more you can come up with interesting characters and observations - but saying "All men like sports, beer and CHIX" and writing from there is a sure way to create a really bad character.

On that note: I'm beginning to see where some of those awful Draco-Stus come from...
epsilon_delta From: epsilon_delta Date: October 15th, 2004 10:02 am (UTC) (Link)
Very well said. I've always thought that there's a reason statistics is usually taught alongside with probability. If statistically, women are more likely to be "Feelers," it only means that for any woman you meet, there is an above-average chance that she is a "Feeler," whatever that neat little box you can put people in means. But it provides you with no conclusive information at all.

Besides which, I've never trusted statistics because my math teacher has seen fit to educate me on all the ways statistics can be technically true but manipulated to completely fudge up the real picture.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: October 15th, 2004 11:10 am (UTC) (Link)
My uncle's a market research statistician. One of the first things he taught me was to be very, very careful of what I looked at when I looked at statistics--what's the sample? How much of the data collected is being represented? What other factors might contribute? It's useful when you're trying to market to have some understanding of your intended demographic (hence my utter puzzlement at the fairly misogynist Nip/Tuck being advertised during the girl-power Buffy...), but random statistics being thrown around? Caveat emptor.
From: arclevel Date: October 15th, 2004 06:50 pm (UTC) (Link)
I can understand Nip/Tuck ads due to the station trying to promote its current "big show" as much as it possibly can. OTOH, I've occasionally watched Angel late at night and seen commercials for children's toys. Now, I've never taken a marketing class, but I just don't think that's the best slot for that commercial.

Finding ways people lie with statistics is always fun -- also rather disturbing. My first day of biostats, the teacher gave a rather impressive example of sampling-gone-wrong. "Say we want to find what percentage of students are women at this university. We don't want to count them all, so we just count the students in this department." Most of us started chuckling right there -- our department had essentially the reverse of the school's quite lopsided gender ratio.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: October 15th, 2004 08:37 pm (UTC) (Link)
The scariest thing about that is that there are people who do that seriously. In fact, if you're in a closed environment, it's hard not to do it instinctively--I know mentally that the polls on the election are even, but I live in Boston and hang out on LiveJournal, where it's so lopsided in favor of Kerry that if Bush wins (which he could--they are dead even in the real world, to the best of my knowledge), you know there are going to be conspiracy theories, because the hate is so "obviously" ubiquitous in the population.

On Nip/Tuck, I guess it just seems odd that they're not at least trying to match it to the shows they advertise during. Then again, the Buffy stars are pretty to look at, and N/T is about being pretty to look at, so maybe there's some crossover.
From: arclevel Date: October 16th, 2004 12:37 am (UTC) (Link)
I may live in the single most liberal city in the midwest, so I tend to get the same thing. That's helped along by the fact that, if your own opinion is very strong, it's hard to understand how any rational person can possibly *not* agree with you, so you don't realize that many do (unless you happen to be in the significant minority, and then maybe).

Polls are basically dead even, yes. Of course, that's popular vote, which is all but irrelevant. Slate (www.slate.com) has a daily tracking page which lists the most recent poll for each state and works out the "current" electoral votes from that -- it's currently 270-268 Bush, with about half the votes from states with a close margin between the candidates. In other words, it's a complete toss-up. (If you aren't familiar with it, Slate has a distinct but not extreme liberal bias.)

There's also the factor of "You're watching TV! Look, it's a TV show! And you must be desperate for a new TV show since you're watching a *rerun*!"
vytresna From: vytresna Date: October 15th, 2004 11:20 am (UTC) (Link)
By "the Roger Davies of this world," do you mean "vacuously girl-crazy"? I'm not sure.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: October 15th, 2004 11:22 am (UTC) (Link)
That's exactly what I mean.
From: hobviously Date: October 15th, 2004 02:25 pm (UTC) (Link)
Hear, hear! Humanity: Try It Sometime, People.

Also, I was just thinking about how wonderful Roger Davies is (the fact that JKR took pains to invent him) and seeing him name-dropped by you has made my morning.
sophonax From: sophonax Date: October 15th, 2004 06:18 pm (UTC) (Link)
I don't often say this, but


(from a fellow female NT!)
From: arclevel Date: October 15th, 2004 06:55 pm (UTC) (Link)
To use some other statistics (though I don't have the actual numbers), genetic variation in humans is higher within groups than among groups. In other words, genetically, there is more difference between two given individuals of one race or ethnic group than there is separating that group, collectively, from any other group.
From: 88l71 Date: October 15th, 2004 08:18 pm (UTC) (Link)
One of the funniest bumper stickers I have ever seen said "Men are from Earth. Women are from Earth. Deal with it."

People say I write a good Padme despite being male and I never really thought of her as being "female" as much as a character with identifiable characteristics just the same as with Anakin, Obi-Wan, etc. But yeah, statistics don't mean crap in "real life" - if you look at Lizzy and I, for example, she's the stable, pragmatic one, while I'm the moody, dreamy one.


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