By Amina Gautier
A few years ago, I was invited to a public university in the Midwest to give a reading from my first short story collection At-Risk. Prior to the evening’s reading and book-signing, I was also scheduled to visit an undergraduate course in creative writing where the students had read selected stories from the collection. While visiting this class (whose members were from diverse backgrounds), one male student raised his hand to deliver a criticism of one of the short stories in the collection. Like almost half of the stories in the collection, this one was told from the point of view of a young African American boy. The story was about two brothers who were pulled apart by rumors surrounding the older brother’s sexual orientation. I do not remember what scene exactly the student objected to specifically, but his criticism was, “Boys don’t do that.” When I asked him how he knew that boys did not do or say whatever it was I’d had my male character do or say, his response was, “I’m a guy and I grew up in a household of men. I have three brothers.”
Of course I could have responded with, “Actually, I also grew up in a household of men, and in my experience I have witnessed men and boys do [whatever it was I’d had my male character do],” but I did not. I did not need to justify my writing. It is good and solid and strong and fierce and none of it is written on a whim or without careful research and observation. In any case, I had not written a story that attempted to capture and represent the experience of all boys on the planet Earth from the birth of Cain and Abel to the present day. I had written a story that represented the ways in which one particular African American boy in a particular neighborhood in Brooklyn at a particular time period with a particular family and particular family dynamic and set of circumstances came to do the thing that he did. And I succeeded.
Or I could have responded with, “We are not in the midst of an alien invasion and you have not been chosen as the sole human delegate to represent the species or take the alien to our leader. One man cannot speak for all men, just as one woman cannot speak for all women. As a man, you are joined to other men by your biological similarities. However, you are also set apart from other men by your cultural, racial, national, religious, political and sexual affiliation and by your linguistic and economic background. A rich man may not always make the same decisions or speak in the same fashion as a poor man; an illiterate man may not think in the same fashion as a literate man; a devout man might not see the world in the same fashion that an atheistic or agnostic man would. You do not and cannot speak for all men. You may be able to try and speak for the men in your household, with whom you have conferred and lived and discussed the meaning of life, but even then, you are likely to get some things wrong.”
But I did not say that either.
What I found interesting was his unwavering belief in his ability to speak for the entire male sex and correct the poor female who had gotten it “wrong.” I actually understand the impulse. There have been books I’ve read by male authors where I thought the female characters’ reactions seemed so off—so inappropriate, stereotypical, ditzy or flat to me that it led me to mentally ask What woman in her right mind would ever act that way? Or to say I don’t know any women who act like that. My sentences, however, reflect a different sort of positioning. They do not say No woman would ever do or say that. They privilege the individuality of the character’s experience over mine. No, I do not know any women who would ever do or say the things that I have read certain female characters do or say in novels, stories, plays or poems. But I do not know every woman and if in the context of the story, it is believable that that particular woman would respond that way despite my personal experience which would suggest otherwise, then that’s that (If, however, the context does not make her actions or words believable? Well, that’s a whole other thing.). There are plenty of things that I would not do and plenty of actions taken by other women that personally give me pause, but that does not lead me to deny the diversity of our experiences as women.
This is, of course, not the first time this has ever happened to me. During the process of preparing my second short story collection for publication, one of my short stories had a word changed because the word that I used was not deemed to be a word men use. In this short story, told from the point of view of a younger brother (notice a theme here? Clearly, I like writing about brothers), the two brothers get into an argument and I have my narrator say that his brother screamed at him. The editor told me that I had to change from “screamed” to “shouted,” because men don’t use the word “scream.” The editor is a man, so this is how he knows. This was news to me. Until that moment, I had been ignorant of the fact that there was not a single man on the entire planet, living or dead, who had ever used the word scream.
The two instances I describe are chauvinistic moments of verbal policing representative of the ways in which language gets gendered, where iterations of certain terms and phrases become irrevocably attributed to one sex to the exclusion of the other. This is why women who are emotional are always called “hysterical” and men are merely described as “stressed”; why women who are direct are “aggressive” while men are “assertive”; why women who initiate are “bossy” but men who do so are “leaders.” Language is policed from both the bottom and the top and women are often sandwiched in between.
Few have gone on the record to question Flaubert’s right to write Madame Bovary, Richardson’s audacity to write Clarissa or Pamela, or Henry James’s right to produce Portrait of a Lady all from the points of view of female protagonists, nor tried to police their ability to know or represent what women might do or say, yet when women authors assume a male point of view, there is a frequent backlash. In worst case scenarios, women authors are accused of male-bashing, of hating men to the point where they will deliberately and maliciously use their artwork for the sole purpose of depicting men in negative fashions. In the not so worst case scenario, women are accused of simply getting it wrong, and are seen to be in need of correction. So these women authors are either viewed as malicious or plain old stupid.
When someone says, “Men don’t say that. Or women don’t do that. Children don’t do that. Or Blacks/Latinos/Asians/Native Americans don’t do that,” and justifies it with “I know because I am one, my best friend is one, I have met one, or I have read about one,” instead of acknowledging the limitless nature of humanity and the individuality of every being, the statement erases individuality, categorizes and condenses groups by age, sex, race and other identifying factors and then shrinks individuals even further by then forcing them through the lens of one person’s experience, which is presumed to be normative. If a man utters sentences such as, “Men don’t use that word,” “Men don’t behave in that fashion,” and “A guy would never say that,” he is privileging his own experience as male and as a man, reading it as normative, and conflating an individual experience with a collective one. He is basically saying, “I am a guy and I feel this way. Because I am a guy who feels this way, this feeling must be natural and normal to all guys (in all parts of the world, regardless of education, race, age, citizenship, religious affiliation, sexual orientation, political affiliation, socioeconomic background.) Thus all guys must feel the way I feel. Therefore, because I feel this way, guys feel this way.” When broken down into its implicit parts, it becomes easier to hear how smug, utterly ridiculous, incredibly stupid and reductive such a statement actually is. The statement is not only arrogant, ignorant, and marginalizing, but it is Procrustean. Instead of Procrustes stretching or severing the limbs of unsuspecting travelers in order to force the travelers to fit the dimensions of his iron bed, the utterer of this statement stretches or severs the experiences of everyone else to fit the confines of his world or experiences.
Growing up in a household of men among multiple brothers does not mean that you know masculinity or what men think, say and do. It does not make you an expert. It means that you know what masculinity looks like in your household under the particular set of circumstances in which you and your brothers grew up. Someone who grew up with more or fewer brothers under different religious, economic, social, political, national, ethnic, and racial circumstances will experience a different version of masculinity than you. Both versions will be valid. Your experience gives you access to a community of shared and overlapping experiences; it does not give you a license to authenticate, validate, approve, judge or exclude.
To say that men don’t do or say a certain thing or to say “I don’t know any men who do or say this” and to imply through that statement that men don’t do or say a certain thing asserts either that only experiences which come into your purview are valid or that you are an expert in all things and know everything, so if there is something that you don’t know, it is clearly not worth knowing. There are certainly, on this planet, men who do or say whatever certain thing you just said they do not do or say. Perhaps you need to get out more.
In a world where people have at one time or another legally deemed others to be 3/5 of a person, sanctioned forms of mass extinction of particular ethnic groups, sold men and women into slavery, dropped atomic bombs, sold women and children off for sex trafficking, locked their children in cages, microwaved them in ovens, left them locked in hot cars, attempted to have sex with infants, placed children in overhead bins on airplanes, and dismembered and eaten the bodies of others, I cannot comfortably utter the words “Men don’t do… Women don’t do… People don’t do…” with any sense of authority.
Quite frankly, I can’t think of a single thing I can say that people don’t do.
And that scares me.
Amina Gautier is the author of the short story collections At-Risk, which won the 2011 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction; Now We Will Be Happy, which won the Prairie Schooner Book Prize [see my review here], and The Loss of All Lost Things [see my review here]. She has published more than 85 stories in some of the country’s most prestigious literary journals. Her fiction has been awarded fellowships and scholarships from Breadloaf Writer’s Conference, Callaloo Writer’s Workshop, MacDowell Colony, Prairie Center of the Arts, Sewanee Writer’s Conference, and Ucross Foundation. Gautier attended Stanford University, where she earned both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in English Literature. She then attended the University of Pennsylvania, where she earned a master’s degree and Ph.D. in English Literature. She is currently a professor of English at the University of Miami. A scholar of 19th Century American literature, Gautier’s critical work focuses on such nineteenth century American authors as Charles W. Chesnutt, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Elleanor Eldridge, Benjamin Franklin, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Walt Whitman.