Eew, He's All Girly: Issues Surrounding Feminized Male Characters
by Janis Cortese
There are certain things that, like Death and Taxes, will always be with us. Among those things are the following constant complaints from slash writers:
1) "That character's such a Mary Sue - how gross!"
2) "That sex is so totally not anatomically possible!"
3) "They're turning him into a girl!"
The first two have been treated elsewhere by others and sometimes by me. The last one is going to be the focus of this article, mainly why I've lost patience with the streams of complaints that surface about how, alone among the various ways in which a character can be written poorly, the "feminization" of a male character is obviously the most egregious and horrific.
When is feminization not the real problem?
First off, we need to answer a question of precisely what counts as feminization. If I were to postulate that Daniel Jackson was repeatedly abused and raped, had fits under stress, and tried to suicide while in prison and then subsequently panicked in the middle of a military operation, I'm sure that someone would accuse me of feminizing him.
But if I don't characterize Archie Kennedy that way, I'm getting it wrong. (The particular challenge presented by Archie is to incorporate these canon aspects of his character along with his bouncy-chatterbox tendencies and his equally canon taste for killing people, ogling R-rated goings-on, and blowing things up.)
So what's feminization, anyway? Is it when a male character acts like what John Gray and his "Mars/Venus" books tell us is what women act like - and which none of us act like anyhow? Is it when he acts more like this than he did in canon? When he uses scented shampoo? When he expresses verbal tenderness toward anyone at all? When he negotiates consent with his partner? Or simply when his mischaracterization by a neophyte writer evokes uncomfortable memories in us of just how histrionic most of us were at 15?
And why do we hate this so much more than any other form of mischaracterization? Let's face it, it's every bit as wrong to paint Jack O'Neill as an athletic klutz or a wife-abuser as it is to make Daniel Jackson cry at the drop of a hat and constantly need rescuing -- and yet why do we scream bloody murder over the latter much more loudly?
"Jack's acting like a drunk abusive asshole in this fic. Oh, that's wrong."
"Daniel's acting GIRLY! OH MY GOD HOW DISGUSTING! WHO ARE THESE FOOLS WHO ARE WRITING THIS? MY GOD THEY SHOULD BE TAKEN OUT AND SHOT THAT'S SO GRO-O-O-O-O-O-O-OSS!"
I confess that I find it extremely disturbing that we seem to find it easier to hold something in contempt by first sticking a "FEMALE" label on it, and why we consider any mistake that could wear that label as being so much more deserving of contempt.
What it boils down to is that I think we often cast our complaints in the wrong language. What matters isn't getting the character male, it's getting the character right. It's strange and bothersome to have a certain subcategory of mischaracterizations hated so much more biliously simply because we can manage to stick a (wholly inaccurate and demonstrably wrong) female label on them.
When Daniel falls into tears because Jack got snitty with him, that's not feminization. That's a personality disorder -- and I really question the validity of equating a personality disorder with being female per se. I know of no women who act like that, and I don't act like that. Are we buying into what that "Mars/Venus" turd tells us about ourselves? Why?
It's possible to dislike bad characterization without slapping a "girl cooties" label on it, methinks.
When is feminization a good thing?
That said, there are times when feminizing a male character isn't necessarily a bad thing, in my opinion. I consider it to be a positive feminization when male characters ...
1) ... pay attention to body parts other than the mouth, cock, and ass. Men, as Joanna Russ observed, are for the most part, anaesthetized between chin and crotch. One of the most exasperating things about them is that, while you are enjoying the curve of their calf or lower back, they are tapping their feet impatiently, annoyed and (makes little rabbit-ear quote marks in the air here) putting up with you, because they are standing/sitting/lying there thinking to themselves, "GET TO MY DICK ALREADY." Men tend not to give a shit about any body part but one of those three. And a lot of slash stories have them paying a lot closer attention to their entire bodies, which is much more a female thing.
Why do I not mind? Simple -- the statistical male tendency to not recognize that they have any other body parts in a sexual situation pisses me off. I would like it very much if they did realize that they had other body parts, and that we did as well. (One of the most charming things about "Hornblower" fandom is the fact that yes, it was indeed custom for men to do up one another's pigtails. It's a type of touching that is extremely uncommon between men nowdays, but that can be posited with complete confidence between two 18th century sailors.) Anyway, I like reading that in slash, and will damned well continue to put it in where appropriate.
2) ... pay attention to facial expressions and correctly interpret them, or even try. When a man in a story sees his friend react a certain way and thinks to himself, "So-and-so just raised his eyebrow and turned aside slightly. That must mean that he dislikes the person standing next to him and may have a history with that person," that is, for the most part, a female thing. Men do not bother interpreting expressions of emotion in anything approaching what I as a woman would consider a reasonable level of detail. They are appallingly ignorant of that, at best. Such close observations of human behavior are more likely found in the powerless ones in any society. To have a powerful man, especially a ranking military one, behave like that, is implausible. A powerless man, a gay man, or one who has been harmed, or one who is otherwise considered one of society's untermenschen ... perhaps. When your safety depends on determining whether those two guys at the Y have twigged to the fact that you're a fag and will follow you down the street to your car and beat you to within an inch of your life, you get good at interpreting facial expressions. Among all animals, the beta adults take social cues from the alphas.
Again, I don't mind this at all, because I find it ridiculous that men are, statistically speaking, as incapable with this as they are. It's a skill, one that they could damned well learn if they held it in any value whatsoever -- but they don't. As a result, I like writing men who do this. I'm not saying it has to be that quasi-autistic obsessive thing that you read in a lot of romance novels, but a little attention paid to the fact that the second member of a slash pair just winced by the first member of said pair isn't exactly a bad thing.
3) ... recognize and admit when another person was right. One of the most beautiful slash stories I've ever read had a male character in a very bad situation, where he had to do very distasteful things to save his friends. He fully expected to be negatively evaluated for the things he'd been forced to do. His friend, one of the people for whom he'd done these things, dismissed his accurate conclusion that he would indeed be negatively evaluated by their superiors.
When it was demonstrated that the first man was correct, the second admitted to himself, "He obviously saw the potential difficulties more clearly than I." This is female, much more so than the nattering crap about who doesn't use scented shampoo and who calls whom by pet names that a lot of writers bitch about. (Even pet names, I don't mind -- when you've heard gay friends of yours call one another "Otter" and "Pook," your treacle-meter tends not to peg at "darling" or "my dearest love.")
Back to topic -- it was delightful to see the second man admit that the first was correct. I don't write slash because I want to reproduce reality, and I don't read it because I want to see it reproduced. I read and write it because reality is so unsatisfactory in this arena.
4) ... elaborately negotiate sexual consent. "Do you want me to fuck you?" "Do you want it, too?" "Only if you do." "Well ... okay, then. But I'm not just doing this because you want me to. I want it as well." "Okay, then. I want it because you want it." And they fall into one another's arms.
Again, I do think that there are instances where men in slash stories behave like women, as I've outlined above. I just don't think that it's when he's crying or whining, and I don't think that "men acting like women" involves bad personality traits. When a man whines or whimpers or acts like a victim or loses his emotional shit because of one untoward word, he's not acting like a woman. He's acting like he's got a personality disorder or has had way too much caffeine on an empty stomach.
When a man has reactive nipples, enjoys brushing another man's hair, or takes upwards of ten minutes to secure the consent of his bedpartner, then he's acting like a woman. And you know something? I don't really mind.