Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Feminine Wiles

an Edmund Dulac illustration,
Tales From the Arabian Nights,
Reader's Digest edition, 1991.

According to one of those fizzy-quizzy thingies on the net, I write like a man.

The fact that I know a Robertson screwdriver from a Phillips may have something to do with it. I also know how to BBQ, and I gave up hiding my brains a long time ago.

I do not ululate at mice or spiders, don't give a sweetgoddamn whether the toilet seat is up or down, or which way the toilet paper precipitates -- incidental details that could be interpreted as a crypto-masculine mind-set.

Just the same, no one has ever accused me of being anything other than female; or, with the exception of my mother bemoaning my lamentable tendency at times to act like a tom-boy, lacking in femininity.

Still, my attitudes definitely affect how I formulate my heroines.

A lot of tasks in this world I consider gender-neutral. They depend more on experience, strength, training or talent, rather than on chromosones.

Yet there are definitely major difference in the sexes in action, reaction and approach to life, regardless of how we define the cause of those differences.

The TSTL (Too-Stupid-To-Live) heroine, the one with the emotional maturity of a 14-year old, whose feelings trump common sense at crucial moments, is largely passe; and the strong, and sometimes kick-ass female, seems to be the favoured type.

So my question is this: with the gender-blender fact of the new equality having removed many of those acceptable and convenient little gender flickers for femininity -- passivity, weaknesses, tea-drinking, whathaveyou -- how do writers assert femininity in their females?

They can tell us a character is female, but how do they show it?


StarvingWriteNow said...

Okay, I "ululated" at a mouse that had taken up residence behind Son's TV last year. I also took flight when said mouse made a beeline for my pantleg. (They're tricky little buggers.)

This put a definite dent in my "solid as a rock" reputation; I have yet to live it down.

As for portraying femininity; one thing I observe is that women notice the little things, like a wrinkled shirt or that every hair is NOT in place--a trait I consider to be feminine.

Women also seem to be more in tune with their bodies--aware of their racing heart or that trickle of sweat or how inconvenient stilettos are for running.

Sorry, my examples stink. Need more coffee.

SzélsőFa said...

I don't know if I got the question correctly, but I'd show it by describing actions generally attached to feminity. I'm thinking of arranging flowers, getting up fallen (or thrown clothes) off of the floor, standing by a playground with loving eyes, instead of horrified ones.
By more talking than acting....
By accepting help - or is this onsidered among those old-fashioned ones?

Bernita said...

Ha, Starving!
Maybe you were wise - I'm remembering a family tale about a gggrandmother who had a squirrel run up her pantalettes...

Awareness of details, awareness of appearances - those are good points, with or without coffee.

Also good, Szelsofa.
Checking water levels, removing tired blooms, picking up clothing - automatic neatness/order actions?
At the playground, a man might more examine skill than assess personalities and interactions?

Julie said...

Same J; logo change.

I'm still laughing at the squirrel.

Women appaently talk much more than men(the cursory grunt in reply)
(meeting long term social needs);

feminity now seems to have more to do with appearance than traditional qualiities of intuition or empathy, given shifts in role perception; but grant you can't have the heroine in frocks for long today...
Perhaps accent what feminine detail there is where appropriate?

A curl on her cheek, delicate earring?

Women focus differently - pan focus, whereas men focus on a spot - why they can never see the car keys in a pile on their desk...

SzélsőFa said...

At the playground, a man might more examine skill than assess personalities and interactions?

It might also depend on the person's profession as well - a female dancer might check muscle tone in children, seek for the ease of movement, perhaps...

Jaye Wells said...

Excellent question. One I don't think I'm caffeinated enough to answer. But I'll think on it whilst I am in the kitchen today making pies. Yes, I'll be barefoot and wearing an apron.

Church Lady said...

And I thought Jaye slept with her stilettos on!

I agree with starving-that women notice more details.

hmmm...and I think women notice other women more than men notice other men. Did I say that right?

And I also agree with Szelsofa, that women are more willing to accept help. But I also think women are more willing to offer help.

I've been told by several people that I think like a man. I still don't know what that means.

*scratches ass and heads off for another beer*

moonrat said...

while i DO "ululate" (particularly at anything with 8 legs), i have been accused of thinking like a man before. for example, on's gender test, which i took a bajillion times, trying new things. always came up male. alas.

i tried writing a book from a boy's point of view once. but all the boys who read it said that the main character was a "pansy." too feminine, apparently.

so while i can't tell you WHAT makes a character feminine, apparently i can DO it, even though i am fundamentally, umm, male.

sorry, bernita. if you unlock the secrets, please let me know.

bunnygirl said...

My female characters tend to show a wider range of emotions, whether in speech or behavior. They're more likely to have a moment of doubt or fear in a crisis before they take decisive action. They're more likely to express joy on a happy day.

If one of my females has to kill a man, she'll likely feel a little revolted afterwards and need to pull herself back together. If she's having a good day, she might impulsively pick a flower, giggle or fix her hair in a new and pretty style.

My men show a much more narrow range of emotion. Sadness and self-doubt are expressed as anger or dark moodiness, when they're not glossed over as no big deal. Happiness is expressed as quiet satisfaction. My males certainly never show interest in their appearance unless there's a darn good reason for it.

It's so hard to pinpoint what it is that makes male characters male and female characters female. It's one of those things that's so deeply ingrained in our psyche that it's like asking how we describe dogs and dog-like behavior. We just do. It's fun to take a minute and try to analyze it, though.

It's certainly more fun than working on the day before a holiday!

Robyn said...

Can you define 'feminine' for me? If I say a man is masculine, I get a vague macho picture; no metrosexual prettyboys. Someone who stands by his word, who takes action. Who protects his wimminfolk.

So would feminine mean thoughts, actions, appearance, or the overall picture? She kicks ass, but does it in designer heels and says excuse me afterwards? Interesting topic, with lots of different angles.

Bernita said...

"Women appaently talk much more than men(the cursory grunt in reply)
(meeting long term social needs);"
I like that ( maybe because it justifies my hero's short dialogue)
Intuition? Guys have always had "gut feelings" and "hunches." - so not sure that's truly a difference - though, at least formerly, "feminine intuition" had been touted as an exclusive quality.
I suppose a nice rack goes a long way toward solidifying a character.
A man might be more likely to notice how somethings fits or reveals, rather than colour, price, etc.?

That's very true, Szelsofa.
And a nutritionist might calculate the number of kids who are overweight/underweight.

But not, I trust, Jaye, pregnant - except with plot ideas!

"and I think women notice other women more than men notice other men."
Chris, I think that depends entirely on the woman! Some women ignore other women and their focus seem to be eclusively on men.
Willingness to help may depend more on situation.
Prehaps it depends on the competitives of the individual rather than their sex.
Men may be more likely to offer help in public, and woman in a private setting.

Moonmouse, if a woman produces a logical analysis of a problem or question, sans flourishes, she is sometimes accused( or complimented) of "thinking like a man."
I've noticed that many women will introduce a subject with an "I feel that..." while a man will assert "I think that..."

Bernita said...

Thank you, Bunny. The tendency toward an overt expression of some emotion may be a difference then.

I think it's worth exploring; part of our craft demands our characters conform/ring true to a degree to readers' sense of gender, and not produce girlie men or moustached women - unless we construct them that way deliberately.

My primary vision of "masculine" as well, Robyn.
Don't think I can define "femininity," but hope that comments might help deduce some characteristics.

Julie said...

Useful exercise might be to clarify what our own m/f stereotype is based on influential figures (parents or whatever) in the past to ascertain what 'femininity' means to us personally.

How feminine was mom? What qualities do we look for in a man because he was like/unlike our own father etc etc

'men should be reliable...?'

Do Fiction writers use Myer's Briggs to delineate thinking v feeling types - if femininty implied?

December/Stacia said...

You got me. I have the same problem--so many female MCs come off to me as whiny, irritating little girls instead of women.

cyn said...

very interesting topic, as always, bernita. how many of us write our mc as an opposite gender to ourselves? iris murdoch almost exclusively writes about male protags. i think if i ever made my mc a male, it would be a huge risk on my part.

thank goodness for the two male crit readers i've got. they point out things which my hero should not be doing (i had him crossing his arms and tapping his foot--OOPS!) and i warn them vice versa.

for me, my heroine led a sheltered life. she's pretty timid but determined when she leaves home. in the beginning, she is put through the wringer, but she slowly gains some independence / courage / belief in herself through her journey. how is she feminine? she moons over the hero. haha!

Billy said...

Here's an evasive answer if ever there was one, but it's how I approach the issue. I think the femininity of any given character is totally dependent on the plot and the characters she interacts with. It's a sign of the times that the issue needs debating since we don't ask how to portray a male. We allow male characters infinite diversity. The female? She has one foot in stereotype land and the other in the liberated world of the emasculating corporate intrigue. So what's in between? I think the only viable precept is the one that holds for all characters: let them tell the writer what to do and not vice versa. I'm a mystic at heart.

Bernita said...

All possible avenues, Julie.

Yes, December, emotional immaturity is a turn-off for me, and I say bad, bad words.

Thank you, Cyn.
Crossing his arms, yes, tapping his foot , no.

I think I can manage a realistic male POV, but as a secondary or indirect, not as the MC, and certainly not in first person.
I think pervasive "mooning" is definitely feminine. Perhaps guys are more compartmental in their thinking?

Bernita said...

Thank you, Billy.
But I disagree that we " we don't ask how to portray a male"
There are many on-going discussions about alpha, beta, and other types of males, and the steretypes attached and detached thereto and therefrom.

Bernita said...

Ack! "stereotypes."

raine said...

I gave up hiding my brains a long time ago.

I love it, lol.

Agree--excellent question. Other than the obvious physical descriptions, I think the nuances are often just more subtle now than before.
Women don't 'palpitate' anymore. Their hearts race.
They're still intuitive, but now more likely to act on it than before, when they thought they were being 'silly little creatures'.
No more pouting and stamping of wee feet (thank God)--now they indulge in 'brooding silences'.
So I think word choice has a lot to do with 'femininity' in writing a heroine.
She doesn't 'bellow', she 'retorts'; doesn't 'groan', she 'moans'; she doesn't 'roar' when she has an orgasm...she 'shudders', or 'screams' out his name (hopefully the right one).
I think the differences are more subtle than before, but still present.
(and kick-ass female writer or not--I will still run from a mouse, phobia of mine...)

Jaye Wells said...

"But not, I trust, Jaye, pregnant -"

Not unless you know something I don't know.

Bernita said...

"stamping of wee feet..."
Word choice for actions and descriptors.
VERY good appraisal of delicate differentiation, Raine! Thank you!

Couldn't resist, Jaye...

Shesawriter said...

I also took one of those tests. They said I write like a guy too.

Regarding your question....

It's a delicate balancing act, but I think Raine described it best. It's all in word choice and subtlety.

Scott from Oregon said...

Coming from the arena where men are brutish and crass and full of vagina tales and preoccupation with bodly functions in general, I would have to say that you come across as a more masculine version of a woman perhaps, but far from masculine.

Not to stereotype, (or to apologize for it in advance) many men writers who write male characters get the tough, crass, and "too cool for school" ones all wrong.

They try too hard to make them part of the crass, rough and tumble men-set and do it in a way that makes me think they are feminine men who never spent time working around the rougher ones.

I think the divisions are wondrous and amusing between the sexes, and I really do think the fringes of either should be mined for better fiction.

Bernita said...

Yes, Tanya.Raine made an excellent point - softer verbs, for example, not entirely different reactions.

I have never stopped and tried to figure out why, but many times one can determine the gender of a writer without any reference other than the prose itself.

"you come across as a more masculine version of a woman..."
~ resists urge to flutter eyelashes at Scott out of sheer devilment~
Perhaps that's because in my early life I struggled against people who expected me to think the way I looked.

Maybe in some cases, Scott, merely lack of experience in the milieu, rather than lack of testesterone.

Bernita said...

Double ack!

Lisa said...

This question is a personal challenge of mine. I'm sure if I were to take the test, I would write and think more male or gender neutral than female, but environment has a lot to do with this. I lost my mother at a very young age and then joined the Air Force and worked in a predominantly male career field, so I didn't have many strong feminine influences. Some of the distinguishing characteristics I've noticed between nearly all men and women (not all) are that women do tend to be a bit more attuned and nurturing around other people -- we seem to have more of an awareness of others' mood shifts, hurt feelings, sadness and I think we tend to want to reach out in those cases. We also tend to approach problems a bit differently. Almost universally, women tend (at least sometimes) to want to vent and express frustration with the sole intent of sharing or gaining empathy from another person (not that we don't want to solve the problem too -- these are just two different activities). Men tend to rarely want to discuss a problem, unless the goal is to find a solution. For the record, I'm not afraid of mice or bugs, but I am terrified of snakes, lizards, frogs or anything that doesn't have hair or legs.

Charles Gramlich said...

I find it a minefield. I recently had a female character whose teenage son had apparently run away from home decide to go after the guy who had previously kidnapped and abused that boy as a child. The mother blamed the man for the boy's psychological problems and was angery that he'd gotten off on a technicality. I was told by the female members of my writing group that this is definetely not what a mother would do under those circumstances. However, at least two other women told me that they might well do something like this. I now have no idea what to do and it makes me want to avoid the whole plot twist.

Bernita said...

You make a couple of very good points, Lisa.Thank you.
I view many actions and reactions as gender-neutral.
I tend to rate creature on the degree of danger they pose, so while I'm wary of snakes, I am fond of frogs and toads.

Hmmm, Charles, if the mother were a stay-at-home mom without a previous history of activism of some sort, I might agree with the women who say no. She'd be more likely to spend her time trying to find him or hoping he'd resume contact - unless the kid is presumed dead. Then she might well go after the abuser, stay-at-home or not.
Still, guilt can be a strong motivator and lead a person to focus blame on a specific event in an attempt to aleviate it.
I think the time delay between the kidnapping and abuse and her decision to take justice into her own hands is more the problem.
If anyone had done that to one of my children, I would want to kill them. Immediately.

SzélsőFa said...

I keep returning to dig again.
Like Raine's verb comparison, Lisa's points and Charles's problem.
I also took the test and was found male. This is not the only gender test that tells me so.
The best I could get over the internet was a 54% feminine (the rest is masculine).

I would so love to see a study that (after comparing writings of people of unknown gender) determines the gender of the writer.

Gabriele C. said...

Maybe that's one of the reasons I have problems portraying convincing female characters - I'm so not female myself. Not exactly a tomboy (I like to wear skirts and I use nailpolish on occasion) but the way my brain works, the way I argue, the way I use logic instead of emotion. I've heard it more than once, esp. during the time at university, "you argue like a man." And it was not meant as compliment.

Being the non-woman I am, I never bothered to think about my lack of popularity. :)

Bernita said...

Szelsofa, one of those tests explained the criteria they used to determine the "gender" - word choice and frequency of word types, I believe, but I really don't remember.

Probably meant as a put-down.Intelligent women are gender freaks?
People who are intimidated by your brains are likely not worth your time, Gabriele.

Ello said...

My parents always accused me of being more boy than girl. I have a funny story to tell. I never wore dresses. Still hate them. When I was in college, I lifted weights and could bench press a significant amount (120 lbs at the time). Came home to have dinner out and my mom insisted I wear a pretty blouse which she lent me since I didn't have any. Well, when I stretched my shoulders, I tore the fabric straight down the back - like the INcredible Hulk.

I'm more guy than girl, although am deathly afraid of rodents, but not at all afraid of creepy crawlies. I think like a man and talk like a man. My vanity is my hair. I like to have my hair cut stylishly and I like pretty rings and bracelets. I noticed I do have girlish reactions like gasping loudly when startled. And I can act the girl easily if I need to - say, get out of a ticket or try to better my story in front of a authoritative figure. Yes I admit to using my wiles. But they don't come naturally to me.

Julie said...


I posted a response to your q about class idioms on previous blog.

Think Lisa's point is valid regarding how some women are put in a position where they naturally overidentify with men as a peer group, and possibly listen less to the right brained intuitive and emotional side than other women.(ie, they have it but maybe handle it differently).

A common reaction to Charles' scenario could be denial, but guess that doesn't make good fiction!

Bernita said...

Interesting thing about gasping when startled, Ello.I do too( like eeep! )
Are not men more likely to swear when surprised, rather than make inarticulate air intake noises?

Thank you very much, Julie! That expression has been bugging me.
I am apparently "whole brain" ( according to another of those proliferating internet tests)but there's merit in that explanation.

Lisa said...

I felt like I needed to come back and add one more comment about this, because I'd been thinking about that word, "feminine". Since I did mention I was in the Air Force, I realized that to many people, a woman in the military might be associated with that horrific footage of the sociopathic female at Abu Ghraib. What working along side men in the military challenged me to do was to work much harder (often physically) than they did in order to prove myself and to dispel any thoughts that I was the weak link in any way. That also meant learning not to do stereotypical things like bursting into tears or acting helpless. But I never felt masculine in any way.

Earlier I was referring to the differences in how we think. I always felt very feminine, although not in a lace and ribbons way. If you think of music, I was very much a rock and roll versus pop kind of girl. I identified more with people like Chrissie Hynde, Lita Ford, Tracy Chapman and Aimee Mann -- singer/songwriter/musicians as opposed to pop stars and divas. Consequently, my fashion sense was patterned more along those lines.

From a male/female relationship standpoint, I always had boyfriends, but I was probably the type of girl that more timid guys might have thought of as a little scary because I was very outwardly confident.

On a recent test, I came up as a whole-brained (versus left or right brained). So I feel like I really learned a lot more about how men think and act than a lot of women do and I probably never would have identified with ultra-girly women no matter what.

Jennifer McKenzie said...

This is a fascinating discussion.
We had a contest for "Best Dialogue" for a forum I belong to and the tags removed.
So, when we read the entries to judge them, we had to GUESS at the actions, tone and so on.
In most of them, I could tell which character was male and which was female.
I can't tell you why, but the voice, the word choice, SOMETHING clued me to the gender of the speaker.
I'm still stumped but it gave me a new appreciation for the speaking voice.

Julie said...

Are a lot of the subconscious que's coming more from the interraction with the male in dialogue - ie, most fiction is not based on female soliloquoy - sailing here into the area of implicit role relation,...

Think a writer is to some extent an atypical creature and has to utilize a bicameral view of reality to convincingly represent both sexes - their relative objectivity and subjectivity whatever.

Hightened awareness of the difference makes it easier to exploit it?

Julie said...



I'd be very interested to see a post sometime on what people write fiction for...if you've not already covered this....(as opposed to prose).

ie, motivation, what they wish to communicate, where it comes from in their psyche or previous life experience. Or what they feel the difference is if they write both...

Sam said...

It's hard to say without falling into stereotypes, and that's easy to do.
I'm so tired of the alpha male who can only snarl and the female who can only moan about her looks that when I meet one in a book, I just shut it. (or delete it, seeing as I read mostly e-books, lol.)
So how to convey feminity? I think szélsöfa has a good point -
Women tend to communicate more easily than men, and men are more prone to action. So a woman would be more likely to pause and think or mutter aloud before doing something. The woman: "Darn, where did I put those car keys?"
The man: Stan dug through his coat pockets.

I think at a playground a man would be more likely to be participating - helping kids up ladders, whowing them how to use the monkey bars. The wioman would be talking with each other, or telling the kids ot be careful.

Bernita said...

Thank you, Lisa.
No such reaction from me - for obvious reasons!
I hope that other writers would not be quick to so stereotype.

Jennifer, would probably be valuable for us to try to figure out the "why" -- so to aid in crafting our dialogue and differentiate between the sexes, especially if one omits occasionally the "he said/she said" tags.

I very much agree, Julie.
We can't forget inference by association. No writing element can be truly isolated.

I believe I did do a post on that, Julie, some time ago. We do tend to fall into rather standard categories.

Good points, Sam.
Females are more vocal, more articulate, and more apt to explain, stage direct, announce and cue their actions.