Thursday, October 16, 2014

Batman & The Difference a Female Writer Makes

I realize this post appears self-serving, since I'm a female author. But for a long time I thought male and female writers were equivalent and that good writing is something either gender can produce equally well.

That's mostly true. But, as I'm about to show you, there are some things that only writers of the relevant gender will think of when writing.

We were watching Batman: The Animated Series, the episode where Batgirl teams up with Supergirl to save Gotham from three female supervillains. (Lots of girl power.) In one scene we see Batgirl, a.k.a. Barbara Gordon, in plainclothes talking with a distraught Supergirl. Barbara jauntily decides on a course of action for the two of them, picks up her cowl, and puts it on symbolically.

I'd always wondered how Barbara got her cowl on. She has long, poofy red hair. Like most animated shows, the difficulty of shoving that much hair into a skin-tight outfit is glossed over. In past episodes whenever Barbara put her cowl on, her hair just magically appeared in a ponytail sticking out the back. I wish my hair styled itself!

But Girls' Night Out is one of the few episodes written by a woman. When Barbara picks up her cowl, we can see a hole in the back. She puts it on and reaches back to pull her hair through. The whole thing takes less than two seconds, but it explained the Great Hair-Cowl Mystery in one go.

It's the little things like this that women writers think about--because we experience it. Things that have to do with our bodies, our being women, or our perspective on and treatment by the world. Sexism is treated differently; menstruation, body image, and working vs. being a SAHM are portrayed differently by female authors because we get it. And there are equivalents for male characters that female authors don't pick up on, because we don't know what it's like to be male.

This isn't to say that you can't write the opposite gender. Some of the women I most relate to in fantasy were written by Robert Jordan. The women's experience of being women was accurate for me. The portrayal of polygamy in one culture and the way the women dealt with having a "sister-wife" felt like how I might react if I lived in their society where such things are acceptable. Even though they're written by a man, Jordan did a good job getting in his female characters' heads.

But it isn't always that way. This is why we need diversity in literature. Most guys aren't going to think about the hair-cowl problem. Few will accurately portray women's potential reaction to polygamous husbands. In order to get this perspective, you have to have women writers, especially since part of our understanding of the opposite gender comes from what we read.

That's not to say all women writers will do it well. To be a writer, you need to be empathetic, getting inside other people's heads. Some people, both men and women, just aren't good at that. Some women can't anticipate how any other women besides themselves think, just like some men can't seem to write the internal struggles of male characters.

But without (good) women writers, we wouldn't have gotten such an intense portrayal of Katniss's struggle between two loves, or Vega's attempt to lead her family amid the misogyny of her small town.

While I can't pretend that I can tell you the difference between men and women, I know there is one, and it's not simply in the parts we're adorned with. Something internal defines our gender, and men and women will always experience the world differently. Some of that is in how we're treated, some in the things we identify with as a result of classing ourselves with a gender, some a result of hormones, and some from how men and women's brains are wired.

I feel I shouldn't have to say this. Yes, humans all share a common experience. We are all similar for being the same species. But we are also different, and that diversity cannot and should not be erased.

This applies to race, gender, disability, sexual identity, cultural background. As many people as there are in the world, there is potential for a thousand times more diversity in books. And if we're going to portray that diversity accurately (or at least more accurately), then we need diverse authors.

The hair-cowl problem might seem silly. But lack of an explanation was one of the many subtle hints that Batman was written, directed, and produced by men. It was one of the many not-so-subtle hints that Batman was created with male audiences in mind. Creating the Batgirl sidekick may have been a step towards some sort of gender equality in the Gotham universe, but she was still created by men, with male perceptions of womanhood and woman's capabilities, and with a majority-male audience in mind.

The hair-through-the-cowl snippet showed me that there wasn't just a woman's face on the screen, but a woman behind the scenes too. It meant, for a moment, that someone was thinking like I was. And that brought me another step deeper into the story and world of Batman.

Word count: 871.