A recent Twitter challenge to “describe yourself like a male author would” has gone viral, with women satirising the sexual objectification and tired clichés found in much of contemporary fiction. The challenge was instigated by Whitney Reynolds (media personality and television talk show host) in response to a tweet from Gwen C. Katz, who had shared a message from an unnamed male author claiming to be “living proof” that men can write realistic female protagonists.
Katz ridiculed his ability to create authentic female personas by exposing quotes from his book, in which the first-person narrator describes herself as: “a little tall (but not too tall), a nice set of curves, if I do say so myself, pants so impossible tight that if I had a credit card in my back pocket you could read the expiration date.” The extract went on to describe the protagonist’s breasts as “propped up all front and center, in a perfectly ladylike way” and her red lips as looking “like I had just devoured a cherry Popsicle covered in gloss”.
Reynolds requested that her readers share a description of themselves written in the same derivative, appearance-obsessed style and she was met with a multitude of replies. Top picks included Samantha Shannon’s tweet, which mocked a shallow and comically conspicuous focus on the female form: “She slid her legs into skintight jeans, the better to flaunt their leg-like shape, and strode down a corridor, walking on her legs, which were long.” Whilst others, such as Kelechi Okafor, condemned the fetishization of women of colour as exotic: “As she moved, her strong cocoa body gleamed as if calling to the Country of Africa. Her chocolate waist moved like an alluring siren calling me to crash on the rocks of her brown buttocks.”
Disturbingly, some readers refused to create a description at all, stating that a lack of representation within fiction renders them invisible and hence not the type of person to be written about. LJ Breedlove chose to criticise an exasperating attention to physical defects, which is so often performed with a tone of condescension, and comes with the author’s praise of their own benevolence for bestowing their precious adjectives on an unsightly woman. This was exemplified in her parody: “Carolyn was old. Not sure how old, doesn’t matter, too old for the likes of me. And fat. Wore glasses, No makeup. It’s like she gave up trying to be attractive for men.”
It is clearly false and unfair to suggest that male authors are incapable of creating layered female interiors. However, the fact that what began as an innocuous challenge has spawned into a thread with replies in the thousands attests to the isolation female readers can feel when confronted with their crudely written counterparts. Sceptics may be ready to protest that that these linguistic misdemeanours are the carelessness of an ignorant few, whose prejudices bear minimal resemblance to prevalent attitudes towards femininity.
the fact that what began as an innocuous challenge has spawned into a thread with replies in the thousands attests to the isolation female readers can feel when confronted with their crudely written counterparts.
Yet, disturbingly these same trends have permeated mainstream and non-fiction culture, for instance in Rob Haskell’s interview with Selena Gomez for Vogue, which is written in the style of an egregious, kitchen-based romance: “As I slip an apron over her mane of chocolate-brown hair, for which Pantene has paid her millions, and tie it around her tiny waist, I wonder whether her legions have felt for years the same sharp pang of protectiveness that I’m feeling at present.” Similarly, Rich Cohen drew media wrath by opening his Vanity Fair profile on Margot Robbie not with a discussion of her cinematic achievements, but rather the lines: “She is blonde but dark at the roots. She is tall but only with the help of certain shoes. She can be sexy and composed even while naked but only in character.”
Whilst these examples focus on contemporary writing, my own reading attests to centuries worth of women whose breath smells like the sweetened scent of freshly-picked bluebells, or whose femininity must be proven by a reiterative performance of fainting every few pages. At times, I’ve become desensitised to such stylisations and, to be frank, heavy romanticising is at least preferable to the Earl of Rochester comparing a woman’s vagina to putrefied sewer.
my own reading attests to centuries worth of women whose breath smells like the sweetened scent of freshly-picked bluebells, or whose femininity must be proven by a reiterative performance of fainting every few pages.
Reading this Twitter challenge has forced me to realise that the way we represent women really does matter. Recently, authors like Kazuo Ishiguro, Phillip Pullman and Neil Gaiman have triumphed with their powerful female-fronted stories. Rather than falling into the uninventive dichotomies of coy enchantress or lonely spinster, they have used their impeccable writing skills to answer a demand for feisty, complex women. These refreshing literary interventions, alongside Reynold’s Twitter thread, signal the dawn of a new era, one in which female readers will refuse to consume alienating and impoverished literary material, and defer to male authors who exhibit a perceptive interest in a woman’s inner life.