“Hearing things second-hand is nothing like living through them. The pain is not as raw, the emotions are one step removed, and the impact is from a distance,” wrote blogger Marcy Cook about the web television series “Transparent” in February 2015. The idea that experiencing something is necessary to successfully understand and represent it in turn in media or literature is today a generally accepted truth. What was exciting about Lena Dunham’s “Girls”was (in part) that a woman wrote it. Conversely, what Cook was criticizing about “Transparent” was that “it is written by cis-gender writers” (this was before Our Lady J was hired as a writer for the second season). Though creator Jill Soloway grew up with an actual trans parent, Cook writes that “it’s still second-hand experience. It’s just not the same as lived experience.” The centrality of lived experience to authenticity has changed the way we look at art and the way we analyze the intentions of the artist.
That we tend to accept or reject art based on the identity of the artist, particularly in relation to gender, is the popular distillation of feminist literary theory. The most modern version is an academic movement that started in the 1960s. Theorists identified what had long been considered universal values and claimed that they were, in fact, the values of men in power parading as the values of all humanity. The introduction of the term “male gaze,” coined by Laura Mulvey in a seminal essay in film criticism from 1975, gave a name to that hegemonic male perspective, which had long stood in for that of all people. The male gaze, Mulvey explained, will represent women as objects of male desire or male fear, and will exert power over them, fitting those represented snuggly into the mindset of the dominated. This is the gender heritage of the world that grew out of Greek and Latin culture and has been perpetuating itself since Homer wrote Circe.
Several years ago, I took a summer writing class, and the most significant lesson I learned seems, in retrospect, strangely at odds with the idea that one must experience an identity in order to represent it. One afternoon, the teacher handed out a double-sided photocopy of four pages from a novel. She had cut out any identifying features and made sure no one had read it already. The scene follows a woman and a man into the woman’s bedroom and onto her bed, where she loses her virginity to him. It is told in the limited third person and focuses on the woman’s experience. My teacher asked us to analyze the scene, to take as much time as we needed, and then to vote on whether a man or woman had written it. I read through it again, considering the content—the clumsy, passionate interaction—and the narration, which kept the woman constantly in view, vulnerable and capable, her fear and her desire on display. I realized I had no idea, not based on the text alone, and neither did anyone else in the class. Convinced that she was asking us in order to prove that only a woman could write about an experience like that, I decided to think it was a female author. The votes were split.
The novel was Brooklyn, by Colm Tóibín, a male author, and the teacher had brought her show and tell for the express purpose of exposing our uncertainty. Fiction, she told us, is the culmination of human imaginative ability. Writing an experience that is not ours is our sacred possibility as imaginative creatures, and empathy is never more present than when you can represent the experience of someone else in a way that demonstrates true and sincere understanding.
My teacher’s point was not to dismiss half a century of feminist literary theory; nor was it to prove her students’ nascent bigotry—that we had so absorbed the constancy of the gaze in art that we could not identify it when we saw it. She really thought it was a well-wrought representation of a female experience. Perhaps, if I had asked then specifically about the male gaze, she would have said Tóibín’s homosexuality made him somehow less subject to the necessity of oppression in writing women. But what I took away from that class was the importance of the moral imagination. Mark Johnson, in his book The Aesthetics of Meaning and Thought, writes that imagination is “constitutive of our moral reasoning.” His background in cognitive science leads him to advocate for the use of moral imagination for problem solving, but he adds that “our involvement with morally significant narratives can change the way we understand situations, feel towards others, and see them as vulnerable creatures worthy of our care.” More so, of course, from the writer’s perspective.
If writing fiction is the practice of putting oneself in the position of another, then writing a foreign experience might well be the apex of our imaginative ability. Yet it is considered problematic to put oneself in a position that is not one’s own, and we are dubious of authors who do so, often for good reason. Where does that leave writers of fiction? Are there moral limits to the imagination?
Both courses of action—to be suspicious of a man writing a woman or to admire him—should not be taken as absolutes. It is difficult to discount every rendition of a woman written by a man because it would mean to discount many characters I have loved as reader and as a woman: Shakespeare’s Cordelia, James’s Isabel Archer, Dahl’s Matilda. But I also think it is impossible not to discount some renditions of women, particularly with regard to sexuality. In April 2018, an anonymous male author claimed on Twitter that he was “living proof that it’s possible for a male author to write an authentic female protagonist.” Some rather indicting lines from his novel were quoted back to him, to much amusement (his protagonist relates, “I’m hard to miss, I’d like to think—a little tall (but not too tall), a nice set of curves if I do say so myself”). The post went on to inspire a truly entertaining challenge on Twitter: “describe yourself like a male author would.”
To laugh at the distinct failures of this empathetic potential is vital. There are good examples of places where fiction has been poorly realized, where imagination has failed, sometimes miserably. Representation necessitates responsibility to the embodied experience, and misrepresentation deserves contempt when done poorly because of the harm and oppression it might incite. Whether a cautious appreciation for an author writing the experience of someone with a different identity can be extended beyond the question of gender is not clear. Ethnic or racial experiences, for example, seem to me to be different questions than ones of gender. But for a male writer, perhaps his doing his utmost to understand and incorporate and empathize with the experience of a woman in a respectful and responsible way is a good thing. I wonder if that is an empathy that should be carefully encouraged.