I’ve never been much of a girly girl. I rarely wear makeup or get my nails done. Most days I forget to brush my hair. Waxing any body part seems like a torture designed for others braver than I am.
Even so, I appreciate girly things, like clothes. I love clothes. When I was a young, single entertainment lawyer, I didn’t spend money on expensive vacations or cars. I spent it on clothes, and shoes. God, the shoes. Back then, I used to budget for the Barney’s Warehouse Sale, held for a week in an airport hangar. Everyone in the entertainment industry–lawyers like me, agents, development execs, assistants, production people–lined up to flip through racks of designer suits, tuxedos, evening dresses, coats and purses and jewelry and belts. I once found an Isaac Mizrahi evening gown marked down from $3,000 to $300. It was backless, sleeveless, classic. That same shopping trip, I also bought deliciously sensible Oxford shoes and a raw silk chocolate-brown Calvin Klein pants suit. The suit was boxy and mannish and gorgeous. I loved it even more than the dress. I wore it more. It made me rejoice in the more “masculine” side of myself that felt comfortable showing up to weekend brunches scrub-faced and wearing clogs with ripped jeans. The side that loved to sweat, that would weight train for two hours at dawn and take a spinning class at noon.
I felt free to mix it up back then. Sometimes at work I wore makeup and flirty dresses with spiky heels that hobbled my gate to a mincing crawl. Sometimes I wore my boxy suit with a bare face and hair pinned up with a pencil. Always, I felt like a girl. Not a girly girl, but my kind of girl, who could be different kinds of feminine and rejoice in being a woman on all different levels.
Now that I teach and write and spend most of my time in my head, my basic uniform consists of jeans and a t-shirt with a bargain-basement sweater thrown over it. I don’t get to change it up as much, but I still rejoice in being a woman. I still identify with my feminine and my masculine side.
But as much as I enjoy my more masculine side, and as much as I love men, I identify most closely with women. I understand their motivations, their desires, their yearnings. I don’t like all women I meet, but I can put myself in their shoes and imagine their perspective. I can absorb their experiences and channel them into a character with whom I intimately identify.
This isn’t as true with men, who often feel like a separate species to me, something mysterious and other. I’m so used to viewing the world through my own feminized perspective that it’s difficult to imagine what it would be like to walk down a dark, empty street unconcerned about whether someone might be following me, someone who could easily overpower me. Someone intent on hurting me.
But it’s not just a lack of understanding. I find myself pigeonholing men, assuming that their opinions and desires are the opposite of mine. I stereotype, which is mortifying. I’m a writer. I’m supposed to be able to put myself into any character’s perspective. Yet, when it comes to men, I hesitate to write from their perspective.
My eleven-year-old son has allowed me greater insight into men. When he shares his struggles with friends, his triumphs and accomplishments, when I watch how he must throw himself into aggressive Nerf war and basketball games, I see how his building testosterone will eventually thrust him into puberty and transform him into a man who perceives the world somewhat differently than I do. But I also see someone whose emotional sensitivity and perceptions are every bit as observant and accurate as mine.
Yet I still hesitate to write from the male perspective. I still don’t feel qualified to presume how men think or talk or perceive the world. Which is a bad thing. Men are not a separate species. They are different from women, yes, but each woman is also different from the next one. That doesn’t make me feel as if I can’t write about a woman who isn’t me. So why do I feel that way about writing from a male point of view?
I need to practice putting myself in a man’s shoes. I need to expand my horizons, not just as a writer but also as a human being, by trying to imagine myself in a man’s position instead of writing off that man’s perspective as something privileged and other simply because he has a dick that garners him more respect and authority in our male-dominated society. For me to do so is as sexist and presumptuous as any man who looks at me and sees a twat with tits and nothing more.
Practice empathy. Practice perspective. That’s my goal. It’ll make me a better person and a much better writer.
A Writing Exercise
For this exercise, examine the picture at the beginning of this post. Notice how the rider could be anyone: male, female, young, old.
Next, write 2 complete short short stories (each under 1,000 words) in response to the following prompt:
“If anyone could break him, I could.”
Allow yourself 20 minutes to write each story.
- In the first story, assign to your narrator the gender that you write from most infrequently (for instance, if you’re like me, the first story will be from a man’s POV).
- In the second story, make the narrator the opposite gender from the one you used in the first story.
Set that first 20-minute timer. Ready, set, write!
Colette Sartor’s stories and essays have appeared or are upcoming in Kenyon Review Online, Slice Magazine, the Chicago Tribune, Prairie Schooner, The Good Men Project, Colorado Review, and elsewhere. She has taught writing for over a decade and currently teach at UCLA Extension Writers’ Program as well as privately. Find her at colettesartor.com and on Twitter.
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