The Writing Life: What is it With Some Male Authors and Their Cluelessness About Female Characters?

We begin this blog about female book characters with the tale of two male characters who appeared in books I recently finished reading.

The first character is Will, and he is one horny dude. He spends much of his time lusting over women, and much of the rest of his time having sex with them. He sleeps with just about every woman in town, even though he’s married. He even has sex with his sister-in-law. Will’s wife isn’t happy about it, but she doesn’t make a huge fuss, and Will doesn’t really care, anyway. Women are just sexual vehicles to him. He comes pretty close to committing rape, but the women don’t really mind. They just can’t get enough of this virile creature. The only other interests Will has are getting drunk and rebelling against the system. (Spoiler alert) Will dies a violent death.

The second character is Felix, and he is one horny cat. He spends much of his time lusting over females, and much of the rest of his time having sex with them. He sleeps with just about every female in town, even though he’s married. He even has sex with his sister. Felix’s wife isn’t happy about it, but she doesn’t make a huge fuss, and Felix doesn’t really care, anyway. Females are just sexual vehicles to him. He comes pretty close to committing rape, but the females don’t really mind. They just can’t get enough of this virile creature. The only other interests Felix has are getting stoned and rebelling against the system. (Spoiler alert) Felix dies a violent death.

Will and Felix, as you can see, have much in common. They appeared in books written decades apart, by two writers with nothing in common.

“Will” is Will Thompson, a character in author Erskine Caldwell’s famous and controversial 1933 novel, “God’s Little Acre,” which was later turned into a movie.

“Felix” is the lead character in cartoonist Robert Crumb’s famous and controversial 60s-era comic series, “Felix the Cat,” which was also later turned into a movie. Many of the comics were anthologized in the 2017 book, “The Life and Death of Felix the Cat.”

I’ve read a lot of books in my life – hundreds upon hundreds – but I’m not sure I’ve ever read any two books that had such contempt for their female characters. That’s saying a lot, considering how poorly females have been portrayed in books through the years.

In both of these books, females are either weak, subservient, shallow and dim, or weak, selfish, conniving and cruel. Not a single female character in either book reads like an actual human being. They are there to serve as hollowed-out props for the menfolk – carnal objects, nothing more.

Both of these books were from a long time ago, and the world has changed in countless ways since then. Misogyny isn’t nearly as prevalent as in the back-when (at least publicly), but it still exists, and even seems to be making a comeback.

But these books and others like them take it to a whole other level.

There’s a certain machismo/asshole vibe you get from certain books, something I’ve seen too much of in my life, and something that seems to be gaining renewed momentum in certain corners of society – guys demeaning women because of some inadequacy I’d rather not think too much about.

Now, in the case of R. Crumb, maybe he gets a bit of a pass. He’s a cartoonist and a satirist, whose work often depicts the darkest corners of society, and who often creates exaggerated caricatures instead of fully realized characters. Many of the characters populating his comics are over-the-top and one-dimensional. His depictions of racial minorities – blacks, Chinese – are more than a little racist.

But hoo boy – the females in “Felix the Cat” are one sorry lot of dense, lubricious airheads who either want to fuck or nag, and not much else. It’s hard to believe a grown man could write and draw all these cartoons without coming up with at least one half-coherent female character.

As for Erskine Caldwell: I simply can’t understand how the author of 25 novels, 150 short stories, 12 nonfiction collections, two autobiographies, and two books for young readers could come up with such empty and shallow female characters.

“God’s Little Acre” has three main female characters: Darling Jill, Griselda, and Rosamund. The first two ooze sexuality, and are basically there to feed the male characters’ erotic fantasies. They don’t seem to have any talent or ambition beyond that. The third, Rosamund, is the mousy wife who puts up with all of Will’s shenanigans – including physical abuse – yet remains devoted to him because, you know, he’s a working-class hero or some such shit.

Do women like this exist in the real world? I don’t know. I’ve never met any myself – and don’t expect to. But you sure do see a lot of them in books written by certain male authors, especially during the centuries leading up to 1970 or so, when the world began to change, and literature began to change with it.

As someone who writes for a living, I simply can’t get my arms around how badly some male authors whiff when it comes to writing women. It really shouldn’t be that hard. Just think of people, except with different biology.

You get the idea that these authors really were as clueless as they seemed – that they just didn’t know much about women, didn’t spend a lot of time talking to them, understanding them, getting to know them, or thinking about them in any non-carnal context. What you end up with are cartoon characters, even when they were not creating cartoons.

Most women authors didn’t write shallow and one-dimensional female characters, even way back when. For that matter, they didn’t write shallow, one-dimensional male characters, either, for the simple reason that women were forced to become experts on the male psyche simply to survive.

When someone asks how I write female characters (they don’t, but let’s pretend), my answer is this: I don’t try to write female characters. I just try to write people. That sounds cliché, but it’s rooted in something practical: I don’t want to force myself into making assumptions about how women might think, act or talk, because every woman thinks, acts and talks differently. Just like anyone else.

I’ve had the good fortune of growing up with two sisters and befriending a lot of women in my life. For many years I was often the only guy hanging out with four or five female drinking buddies. The one thing I have learned is that women and men are pretty much the same in most of the important areas, and vastly different only in a few, mostly to do with violence and ego (men tend toward a lot more of both).

The conversations during our nights out were pretty much the same regardless of gender – work, sports, money, music, movies, TV, politics, the clogged toilet, the lousy cable service. My female crew would spend more time talking about guys, and my male crew would spend more time talking about gals. Other than that, it was just folks sitting around making merry.

But somehow, the women I’ve known rarely show up in books by certain authors, even today.

I won’t go into the long history of how male authors have characterized female characters. Go google it, you’ll get a couple hundred million results (I did, and you do).

I do know that even writers I admire – all those 20th century crime noir masters – often wrote women as props, there to serve one of the following roles: romantic interest, femme fatale, or damsel in distress. I’ll admit to reading and enjoying their books, and looking past the shallowness of the female characters (and the often racist depiction of people of color).

But, man, “God’s Little Acre” and “Fritz the Cat” pushed me to my limits.

Well, things have changed much for the better over the last few decades – not so much because male authors suddenly became enlightened, but because societal changes forced them to change their points of view if they wanted to keep getting published. But even now, you get a good dose of misogyny from certain modern authors.

In my novel “Voodoo Hideaway” – buy it here! – there are two main female characters.

One is Jade, a jazz singer from the farmland who landed in the big city with dreams of making it big. She’s smart, tough, attractive, ambitious, deceitful, and proud – good with guns and her fists, tired of being condescended to by men.

The other is Sydney, a private investigator from the West Indies who landed in the big city with dreams of making it big. She’s smart, tough, ambitious, attractive, athletic, and proud – good with guns and fists, tired of being condescended to by men and Caucasians.

Let’s take how I developed the character of Sydney. I knew I wanted her to be a private detective, because you don’t find a lot of books with black, female private detectives. But that was where the “female” part ended with me. Her backstory is that she was a good enough basketball player to earn a college scholarship. After graduation she joined the Army through Officer Candidate School. When her military duty was up, she became a cop – first as a patrol officer, then as a detective.

I wrote Sydney based on those characteristics – the daughter of an immigrant family, a person of color, an athlete, an Army officer, a cop. The decisions she made were mainly driven by those things, not her gender. I tried to avoid overplaying her gender unless she was confronted with it directly. She was tall and athletic, with military and police training, so by default she was a physical badass as well as being disciplined, smart, and streetwise.

I wanted Sydney and Jade to be whole human beings, not just female characters for the sake of being female characters. I shied away from asking myself, “What would a woman do in this situation?” unless I thought it was necessary.

Looking back on it, they are two of my favorite characters, fun to write and fun to develop, with interesting backstories.

If there is one misstep I might have made, it’s this: Both are physically attractive. That just seemed important to me. Maybe because I figured that’s what readers expected. Or, what I expected.

I wrote a lot more main male characters (seven) than female characters. Of those seven main male characters, maybe one is very good looking.

That’s the male author in me, I guess. The women characters must be very good looking. The males, not so much.

Next time, if there is a next time, maybe I’ll know better.

Note: The image, of course, is the famous 1951 photo, “The American Girl in Italy,” taken by photographer Ruth Orkin. I don’t guess I have strict permission to use it, but nobody told me I couldn’t, so…..You can read more about the photo here.

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