YA author Gwen C. Katz came across a forum thread about men’s ability to write female characters. There was the usual toxicity there – brushing off any criticism as more ‘SJW bullshit’. She wanted to speak out, but she had no idea her comments would strike such a chord. Her twitter comments were retweeted over 20,000 times and spawned the hilarious challenge ‘describe yourself like a male author would.’

How depressing that so many women could instantly understand what it meant to describe themselves like a man would. This is hardly a new issue. Many of the literary giants that continue to fill high school reading lists are guilty of one-dimensional, objectifying descriptions of women. But the concerning thing is that contemporary prize-winning novelists continue to write – and be praised for – such drivel. It is well and truly time for us to put an end to such limiting descriptions of women.

‘Being attractive to men is so central to all the archetypes for women.’

Much of the problem comes down to physical description, whether done from first or third person point of view. Women, particularly when written by men, have a tendency to think a great deal about their breasts. While we focus on the lumps of fat on our chests, we also reflect on how attractive we are to the other sex at all times. Every time we enter a room, we think about how our breasts look, who is looking at them, what others think of them, whether we can see their reflection in a handy mirror… right? What do you mean, you don’t do that?!

While men are given more scope to think about themselves in different ways, as varied as their view of the world around them, women in literature apparently all think the same way.

These childish physical descriptions don’t end with women flirting with themselves in mirrors (thanks, Dickens). Nor do problematic descriptions only appear when in reference to women. This is a problem for all minority groups. Women are likened to animals, people of colour have their skin colour described as food. All of these lazy descriptors have one thing in common: they are ultimately dehumanizing, no matter how innocent the author’s intentions may have been.

‘When we assume that not having a description makes the character universal we may still be making assumptions about what universal means.’

Writing good descriptions isn’t easy. But it can be done. We need to stop taking shortcuts and think about what our character descriptions say about our socially embedded assumptions.

Further reading:

  • How to Suppress Women’s Writing by Joanna Russ
  • To Write Like a Woman by Joanna Russ
  • ‘Unquestioned assumptions’ by Ursula K. Le Guin
  • ‘Science Fiction and Mrs. Brown’ by Ursula K. Le Guin
  • Tough Guide to Fantasyland by Diana Wynne Jones

Gwen C KatzGwen C. Katz is a writer, artist, game designer, and retired mad scientist easily identified by her crew cut and ability to cause trouble. Originally from Seattle, she now lives in Altadena, CA with her husband and a revolving door of transient mammals. Her first novel, Among the Red Stars, came out in October.