Just Plain Wrong

There’s a complaint I keep noticing about some stories written by women about men who have romantic affairs with other men. It’s nearly, but not, symmetrical with the complaint women sometimes have about stories men write about lesbians. It’s this: the accusation that the characters are not men, that they are women in men’s disguise (or “chicks with dicks”). The nearly symmetrical but not really complaint is that men write lesbians who are not real women—they are fantasies. So, (some) men complain that (some of) the unrealistic characters they are reading about are the wrong gender, and (some) women complain that (some of ) the unrealistic characters they are reading about are not real. That’s a subtle difference, but I think it is significant, especially as I think that the thing they are reacting to in the writing is, in fact the same thing.

edit: I missed a crucial paragraph of this when I posted, so here goes:

“Chicks with dicks” is a hideous phrase, insulting to just about everyone: women, men, gay men, men whose mannerisms are more “feminine” than average. I’m not sure that “feminine” men should be called that, because the aspects of their behavior and character that mark them this way are not, generally, behaviors and personality characteristics that actually predominate in women either. I’m not sure that the label is completely wrong, though, as it sometimes seems to go with men who see themselves as rejecting aspects of masculinity they see as offensive. But I am interested in what drives the complaint behind it.

First of all when a man complains about “chicks with dicks,” I don’t think he’s reacting to characters who have physically or socially feminine markers. I think the aspects of a male character that throw men out of identifying with them, and which they identify as female, are not usually really feminine, but just wrong, and the men are grasping for what is wrong about the characters. Gender comes to mind because gender is the salient issue at hand in these stories written by women and purporting to be located in exclusively male sexuality. It’s not that the men are wearing the wrong clothes or using the wrong kind of hairbrush or deodorant. If they had those details or something like them, you’d think it was deliberate eccentricities on the part of the character. It’s more likely to be something about the character’s emotional presence, their expressions of self, the intangibles that you can stay up all night arguing about. But what these male characters are doing on the page that is wrong wouldn’t be right if you tried to make a female character do them, either.

But why do (some) male readers perceive this as feminized characters? I think, partly because they know that women wrote the stories, so the explanation “she doesn’t really know men because she’s a woman” is easy to come by. Of course it isn’t correct. But it’s an easy answer, so it almost has to be wrong.

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