Redheaded Neanderlady

Redheaded Neanderlady
This is a photoshopped version of something I found in National Geographic about the time I started researching

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Gender genies(geniuses?)


A recent discussion about what I might describe as "gender-based" reading and writing preferences, on a historical novel e-mail list, was quite lively. It seems that some people like to read only works narrated by female protagonists, or only female characters, but some writers like to write only from a "male perspective". For me, this is kind of a "nonstarter". Though I have what might be called "feminist hackles", I am absolutely appalled when I hear somebody claim they won't read anything written by a man(if they're a woman), or the opposite if they're a man. I also wonder about women writers who can "only" write a "male" POV or find this "easier". To be fair, I've read plenty of works by men whose female characters are flat and forgettable, but write pretty good stories, reasonably well-told. I will comment more fully on this kind of thing in another post.

For now, I just want to mention that on this same e-mail list, somebody brought up something called the Gender Genie . This Gender Genie is a website. On this website, you can submit your own or others' writing samples to a little program that claims to be able to tell whether the work you submit was written by a man or a woman. The program, developed by a "genie" at Bar Ilan University in Israel, assumes that male and female writers use words differently.

Now I think it's probably true that men and women write somewhat differently, even in this, more equalitarian day and age(at least in the western world. Men who write, often write a lot about adventure and battles and exploration, in a way that many women still don't. And as a general rule, women who write, tend to be more focused on emotions and relationships and, perhaps "character development". But I don't think Gender Genie is really concerned with differences in subject matter, or the differences in style that may go with them. They are more concerned with the kinds of words that are actually used in the written piece. Even more interesting, however, is that about half the time, the Gender Genie gets the writing samples wrong. Several writers on the historical novel e-mail list, submitted samples of their own writing. They were women. But the Gender Genie "thought" they were men. I submitted some of my own current writing, and the Gender Genie "sexed" me correctly. Which again was interesting, because one of the samples I selected had a lot of action in it.

However, when I submitted a book review from this blog to the GeTnder Genie, I was a male! I thought that was very amusing. I thought that, since it was nonfiction rather than fiction, word usage might be different, and I was right.

Then I began to think about this issue. I know women who write(and talk, also), in a kind of "passive voice" style --- and sometimes this is deliberate. "Passive voice" as in constant use of "I had gone to the grocery and I had bought milk and other things, then I had gone to the bank to deposit my paycheck", etc., etc. You used to see a lot more of this kind of writing even ten of fifteen years ago, than you do now, along with a lot more "formal" usage(e.g.) "upon" rather than "on", for example. And people who wrote this way were almost always women. And generally women of a generation slightly older than mine.

I came of age, so to speak, in a period when feminism and women's equality began to be seriously considered . Feminism and its offshoots have produced a certain amount of silliness, e.g. women who won't read anything written by a man, no matter how sensible, or women who think the world should be run entirely by women. What it produced in me, though, was an appreciation that women and men both have interesting things to say and contribute to the ongoing discourse that's going on out there, in reading, writing, and speaking. And so, I've structured my stories that way. How important the sex of the main character is, depends on what I'm writing. I have a novel called Inside, Outside, narrated by a 15-year old Neandertal girl. It's science fiction, set in the near future, and thus not medieval. It's unfinished, because I couldn't figure out how to end it in a non-flabby way. Besides, my Invaders trilogy, which I'm now writing, tugged and tugged at me. And The Invaders, and it's sequels, have one female and two male lead characters, plus several "strong secondaries" of both sexes. The Gender Genie has always pegged my fictional material as "female", possibly because the way I use words, suggest emotional states, though I can write "action" when I need to.

But there are other, younger writers, who apparently write differently than I do. The current fashion is, especially for authors relatively new to the publishing world, to write tight, short fiction(it's less costly for the publishers), unless they are writing for young adults. I guess the Gender Genie "perceives" this as a "male" style(is this program channeling Ernest Hemingway?).

Combined with the willingness of some female writers to write from a "strictly" male POV, and I can see how the Gender Genie would not be able to match the sex of the writer with the style of writing. And about all this proves to me, at the end of the day, is that each writer is an individual, and each piece of writing is unique. That is something no computer program can calculate.
Anne G


TL Boehm said...

this is quite an interesting post. As a writer, I have written pieces of poetry from a male perspective and have included male characters in my work, but haven't written a first person male character yet. Why not? Why limit oneself as a reader or a only one gender. peace. TL Boehm

Anne Gilbert said...


That's kind of my POV here. it But I guess a lot depends on the reader/writer. Some readers/writers simply haven't opened themselves to the possibility of writing from the POV of the "opposite" sex(I don't like to use "gender" because iisn't, in cultural terms, synonymous with biological sex, no matter how it's popularly used). Others simply can't conceive of doing this, or are just quite limited in their ability to do so. But since both writers and readers deal in the imaginary, at least to some extent, I, at least try to be open to writing both male and female characters. Some of my lead characters are male, others female. And I have more or less deliberately worked it that way. Like you, it's very difficult for me to conceive of limiting myself to one or the other.
Anne G