The boys are back

NeW THING BEING WRITTEN OMG FLAKINESS MIND-CHANGING HYPOCRISy

And for the first time in a very long time, this story has a main character and supporting cast that is all-male.

Let me explain.

Not that this is a crime or anything but … anyway.

Once upon a time, I decided I was going to be a writer. So I wrote some shit.

Stories, to be exact.

And all the stories I wrote had male main characters, or a shared main character slot with both a male and female lead. Supporting characters tended to be mostly male, however, and this was for one very simple, very common reason: I felt incredibly anxious about my ability to write credible female characters – or, more accurately, my lack of said ability. After all, I am not and was not a female-identifying person; what did I, typical straight cisgender dude that I was/am, know about the experience of being a typical straight cisgender lady? (This was before I stopped being a homophobe and learnt about the gender binary and how it, much like the cake, is a lie. Now I have a whole spectrum of lived gender experience I feel too incompetent to write about well, and I suspect I am correct.)

It was this anxiety combined with a strange, uncharacteristic story-seed I cooked up one night, in my early 20’s, a story about a teenage half-selkie girl named Tallulah, that got me to challenge myself, push my limits and see just how much I was capable of doing beyond my comfort zone. It turned out to be the first novel I’ve ever gotten beyond the first draft stage with, getting all the way through a first revision. And while I spent all of last year trying and failing to build up steam again, I will come back to Tallulah, because goddammit I want it to work.

It took me two years to get that first draft and first revision written, and during that time my anxiety abated – not necessarily because I got any better at writing credible female characters (though feedback has been mostly very affirming, thank you test-readers), but because writing a novel for two fucking years gives you a lot to worry about. Yes, I was still anxious and self-conscious, and still am, but the fact is that the more you do something, the better you get at it. I got better at it. I got quite comfortable. Again, I’m not trying to suggest that this is a good thing, because I can only see this from my perspective and, well, I’m a dude. I’m just saying that my gender-perspective-writing panic pretty much flattened out, and I now have the confidence to write female characters and just trust that they’ll be okay. Not stellar, not insightful – acceptable. Tolerable. I can live with that; I want to get better but, let’s face it, tolerable is a step up from many male writers.

During that process, most of the stories I came up with featured female main characters. Perhaps it was my newfound confidence/lack of anxiety spurring me on; perhaps it was simply getting fed up with not seeing main characters in the media I was exposed to who were not men. Perhaps (most likely) both. But I veered away from male characters, sometimes intentionally changing the gender of established characters in story ideas that weren’t particularly well-developed and thus could stand the change, or that were stuck and needed something to get them moving again. And I liked those stories; I still like them, though they really do need work if they’re ever going to work as stories.

And during that process, when I started actively taking note of this new trend in my main character design preferences, I realised something startling.

I had lost whatever confidence I once had in my ability to write credible male characters.

I don’t think this is because I’ve lost touch with my masculinity or whatever; I’m already fairly deviant in terms of the hegemonic masculine ideal, but not enough to say I’m not, I dunno, “manly”. I’m somewhere on the Andrew Largeman side of the masculine divide. And no, I’m not happy about sharing any identity-space with Andrew Largeman, but that’s a story for another time.

What I think happened was that I stopped seeing “male” as “normal” – or, rather, I started seeing masculinity and “maleness”. I realised that masculine is a gender, really fully internalised that through forcing myself to explore my own assumptions about identity and normativity by writing female characters. Where once I found male characters easy to write, simply because there was so much variety already for me to choose from, I now realise that that very variety is kinda …

Wrong.

There are plenty of interesting male characters in media, but so many of them are compromised by dodgy (patriarchal) ideology in their design, their narrative themes, their character-arcs, and there is wish-fulfillment for a lot of these characters that ends up being disingenuous because it’s either a) unrealistic or b) presented as righteous and well-deserved when it really, really isn’t. That is the pool of “male experience” that I was drawing from, and I can’t go back to it now with a clear conscience, because fuck Andrew Largeman. It’s polluted and biased, and it’s taken me so long to realise just how bad it was.

And so in a sense I’m glad that I’m uncomfortable and uncertain to write male characters credibly, because it comes from realising that I’ve been fed bullshit my whole life – or, rather, that I’ve finally realised that I was unwittingly buying into the bullshit. Everybody thinks they’re above stereotypes and cliches; they’re unrealistic for a reason. But it’s one thing to see yourself as different, and another to see the world through a different lens than that of a stereotype that’s been drilled into you your whole life. I can’t see men as “people” anymore; now they’re men. And that’s fucking fantastic.

And gives me a really existential crisis when it comes to writing male characters – hence this current story I’m getting quite inspired to work on. I do absolutely feel the mugginess of the media atmosphere when all the leads and most of the support are dudes; it’s stifling and infuriating because it’s boring and iterative and just really uninteresting. It’s not something I want to contribute to. But for my own peace of mind, I want to know that I can write this thing. And I’m more than a little interested to see what I’ve learnt about what it means to be “a guy”. Hopefully more than Garden State had to offer.

I mean last semester I wrote a 6k-word essay on how horrible Garden State and its gender politics were, one would hope I took something away from that …

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