Manly Men Tales, Swingin’ Dick Stories, And Hairy-Chested Histories

Paul S. Kemp wrote a thing the other day — “Why I Write Masculine Stories” — and it’s been kind of a fingernail clipping stuck in the bottom of my foot.

For the record, I think Paul is a fine writer and the best compliment I can pay to Hammer and the Blade is that it made me want to play D&D like, right then and there. And Paul is a progressive guy, so I don’t mean this as some sort of takedown or effigy-burning.

He says he writes masculine stories which to him means for his character:

“As a rule they’re men. They drink a lot. They sometimes womanize. They answer violence with violence. They’re courageous in the face of danger. They’re stoic in the face of challenges/pain. They have their emotions mostly in check. And they act in accordance with a code of honor of some kind. Thematic elements in a lot of my work that square with this involve the obligations of fatherhood, the depths of friendship between men who’ve faced death together, the bonds of brotherhood (figuratively). Hell, there are even damsels in distress sometimes (though I like to play with that notion and things aren’t always what they seem; see, e.g., The Hammer and the Blade). The price of faith and the difficulties of redemption appear in a lot of my work, too, but that’s neither here nor there…”

(For a variant on this: Neil Gaiman’s “All Books Have Genders.”)

I’m a guy who writes a lot of female characters (sometimes called “strong” female characters though I’d rather they just be characters who are both strong and weak who are also women because once you say “strong female character” if you find you have a frail or flawed one it becomes a point of contention instead of a point of character). Two of my favorite characters of all time are Miriam Black (everybody’s favorite “psychotic psychic,” to quote Jenn Northington of WORD Bookstore) and Atlanta Burns, my Veronica-Mars-on-Adderall character.

Miriam: drinks, sexualizes men and women, answers violence with violence, is courageous, faces issues of motherhood, and faces issues of bonding with other people. She is also bound up with issues of redemption (what her power has made her versus who she really is).

Atlanta: drinks (and takes pharmaceuticals), answers violence with violence, is courageous, is stoic, has her emotions in check (unlike Miriam, whose emotional state is described in her books as being a “garage full of cats, on fire”), deals with issues around her own mother, etc.

It’s interesting, because with Miriam in particular I’ve heard charges that she’s just a girl with a dick — meaning, she’s a man with the serial numbers filed off, written by a man, not at all resembling a woman. (Aka, “masculine,” I guess you’d say?) Those reviews always worried me because first that loose assertion that men cannot write women but moreover the fact I’ve known women like Miriam. Hell, they come to my book signings. Women who respond to Miriam, who sound like her, who curse like her.

Now, on the other hand, I’ve written Mookie Pearl, a thug enforcer who’s been a bad dude, a bad dad, and is again wrestling with that notion of redemption — and for him all those presumed “masculine” traits have been more than a little bit negative in his life. They’ve led him to the starting point of The Blue Blazes where he’s a guy whose own daughter wants to kill him, who set family aside for work, who has gone so far down the anti-hero hole he’s a pube’s width from being a straight-up antagonist. Masculinity has gotten him to this place, to some degree, and part of the third act of the book — okay, in addition to all that fighty violent apocalyptic supernatural-throwdown underneath the streets of Manhattan — is about him coming to terms with the wreckage of his life and actually acknowledging all of it. It’s about opening up and seeing his daughter and realizing what he’s made of her life and his. Is that thereby “feminine?”

If the traits that Paul lists are “masculine,” do we list their opposite as “feminine?”

Femininity: doesn’t drink, no sexualizations, no violence, cowardly in the face of danger, soft versus challenges and pain, emotions out of check, no code of honor, etc. –?

Again, I don’t think Paul is actually saying these things. But, this is why I get weird about trying to define masculinity, particularly as it relates to characters in a narrative.

Once you say: “THIS is masculine,” it’s hard not to say, “THAT is feminine.”

That can get toxic pretty quick. Particularly for those folks — a lot of us, really — who don’t fit really nicely into one slot or the other. Fiction can teach us things and if it teaches us that masculinity is XYZ and we’re a man who fits X but maybe not Y and Z, where does that leave us?

How should we feel?

No surprise then to learn that masculinity is a loaded word in my own life. My father very strongly subscribed to ideas about masculinity  which was troublesome when he had a son who didn’t fit that mode quite as cleanly as everyone maybe would’ve liked. (“Be a man!”) I still liked guns and I liked girls and all that but I also liked poetry and writing stories and tinkering with computers and I had male friends who sometimes showed up wearing skirts because, you know, that’s just how they rolled. I still got sad when sad things happened (and sometimes when sad things didn’t happen because yay teenagers), but my father came from a time and a place where men didn’t get sad. Men got angry! Men were stoic. They gritted their teeth and dealt with it.

Which also made my Dad kind of a stoppered-up bottle sometimes.

It was always weird to see my father get emotional. Our one dog died and he was sad about it. It was like watching the weather do something you’ve never seen before (“That tornado just went from vertical to horizontal CALL THE NEWS”). He would get sad at Christmas when we visited the grave of his own father. (Not that we talked about it much because he’d kinda stand there and try not to cry.) And it’s easy to be kinda mad about that until you wind that empathic thread from your heart to his and see that his ideas about masculinity weren’t something he just invented. His own father passed them down. Society gave them over to him. And it made him a harder man because of it. (His later years, before his death, this softened somewhat considerably, thankfully. Though he might not approve of that word — “softened.” Maybe let’s say he “eased off the throttle a little bit.” Or in his own parlance, “took his finger off the trigger.”)

So, obviously, I’ve got thoughts and feelings on this subject. Which is why for me masculinity may exist as a thing a character believes about himself but it isn’t a thing I believe about a character, if that makes sense (and that’s probably where Paul and I differ on that point). I don’t consider those traits — in fiction or out of it — particularly masculine. I’m more interested in getting to know a character from beyond gender-based assertions — not to say it’s not interesting to have a character dealing with those assertions inside the storyworld…

…but it just doesn’t have to be something I believe about them.

(For another look, see Sam Syke’s post — “What Is A Man?“)