Authors delve into question of gender portrayals in novels

With PLNU syllabi incorporating gender inclusive language in the last few years, students are increasingly becoming aware of gender usage within society.

Whether its Emma Watson’s recent #HeForShe campaign or J.K. Rowling publishing under the pseudonym of ‘Robert Galbraith,’ writers are taking notice of gender within their novels.

Bettina Pedersen, a literature professor at PLNU and published author, believes a question of whether men and women can be accurately represented in literature is a demonstration of an individual’s lack of understanding.

“Most basically, this question (whether men authors can write women characters accurately and authentically) arises out of an essentialist critical starting place,” wrote Pedersen in an email to the Point. “It is essentialist because it assumes that a person’s sex and/or gender precludes them from being able to understand, empathize with or identify with the inner thoughts, feelings, and motivations of a person with a different sex or gender.”

Nick Reed, a sophomore writing major, recently finished writing the first draft of his book, which remains untitled. He said the most difficult aspects of creating characters are the ways in which they relate to others within the piece, rather than in the genders of the characters themselves.

“Characters are interesting to write because you are literally trying to build a person with their own sets of values and back stories,” Reed said via email. “The hardest part is how they act around other characters. Interactions between characters are hard because you have to not only imagine what they say, but how they act during the conversation. ”

Bestselling author David Farland wrote in an online article entitled “Are Readers Sexist?” that writing characters is about creating someone to whom readers can relate.

“The truth is that most readers tend to identify best with people of their own sex, their own age and their own ethnicity,” Farland said. “It’s not that the readers can’t cross those boundaries; it’s just that it’s easier for them to become engrossed in a tale.”

The idea that book genres are split along gender-delineated lines is cited within the online writing tips on Themillions.com. Pedersen said she believes readers are capable of crossing the gender boundaries within writing.

“While I think it is possible that some men or some women do not have very wide ranging imaginative capacities for understanding others outside their own gender or sex, I resist taking the philosophical, critical and aesthetic position that such understanding is simply not possible,” Pedersen said.

Farland argues that anyone can become published within a genre, but this individual is not always guaranteed success due to the stereotypes that have persisted throughout the generations. He cites the science fiction genre as one that has long been dominated by men.

“Back in the 1950s, if you had your doctorate in theoretical physics, you were most likely a man. So the big names in hard SF [science fiction] were almost always men. If I were scanning novels and saw one by ‘Alexandra Tesla,’ it would cause me to do a double take. I’d wonder, ‘Wow, is she like a grand-daughter of the legendary inventor?’ The simple fact that I caused the reader to stop, to wonder, to think would most likely do the trick.”

Alan Hueth, a media communications professor at PLNU, said television can portray characters according to their jobs and their personalities or their lifestyles, none of which reflect the lives of the majority of people in the world. He said that the associated stereotypes of men and women are more explicit in television.

“If you base your sense of reality on television, you’ll find that there aren’t really any old people in the [television] world, and most people are cops, doctors or detectives,” said Alan Hueth, a media communications professor. “This is what you’d glean from watching television.”

Pederson said she still believes it may be easier for men to convey the thoughts and feelings of men characters and women, women characters, but that both can find common understanding.

“But I continue to believe that both women and men are able to understand and artistically depict the thoughts, feelings, and motivations of one another since there is so much of human nature that women and men share,” said Pedersen.