Female Audiences and the Male Universal

I am immensely excited to see Gravity tomorrow night, the new science fiction movie by Alfonso Cuarón of Children of Men fame. Sandra Bullock plays the lead role in this picture, alongside George Clooney, and I am thrilled to see another sci-fi production featuring a female lead in an otherwise male-dominated genre. According to the director, however, not everyone was this excited about the prospect as I am. During a press conference in July he indicated that producers were pushing for a male lead instead, as “science fiction is a male-dominated genre, with a male audience that wants to relate to a male lead.”

image via shakesville

image via shakesville

This is funny, because the majority of Hollywood productions features male leads, and in my over twenty years of moviegoer experience as a woman I still managed to enjoy myself quite often. My preferences didn’t really matter; I had to relate to a male lead and managed to do so, sometimes more, sometimes less successfully. Though apparently this is an impossible exercise for some…

Not so long ago, the university professor and author David Gilmour made the news with this painfully honest statement:

I’m not interested in teaching books by women. [...] when I was given this job I said I would only teach the people that I truly, truly love. Unfortunately, none of those happen to be Chinese, or women. [...] Usually at the beginning of the semester a hand shoots up and someone asks why there aren’t any women writers in the course. I say I don’t love women writers enough to teach them, if you want women writers go down the hall. What I teach is guys. Serious heterosexual guys. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Chekhov, Tolstoy. Real guy-guys. Henry Miller. Philip Roth.

Not surprisingly, quite a few people were outraged about a university teacher being so openly biased and clearly unqualified, and when Gilmour tried to defend himself, he stated that “he just loves male writers, particularly middle-aged ones, because he can relate to them (emphasis mine).

“That doesn’t meant there aren’t great women writers,” Gilmour said. “[But] the trick in my course is, I want kids to leave my course thinking, ‘I want to read more Chekhov, I gotta read more Chekhov.’ I can’t do that for Alice Munro or Margaret Atwood or any other female writers I admire who are as good as any male writers but who don’t speak to me as profoundly.”

Fair enough. When I was in school having to read Goethe, Shakespeare, Bernhard Schlink and Max Frisch, I also struggled with the fact that they did not speak to me profoundly. For a lack of alternatives, I turned to male, homosexual writers as the ones who came closest to expressing female desire (female writers are very hard to come by in a public library, if you don’t specifically seek them out). What makes perfect sense to me now, made me feel very odd and “different” back then. But I still had to read the canon, and I read many other male writers in my youth, and I loved and cried and laughed with the primarily male main characters. And I could so because I had to. I had to learn to see myself in characters profoundly different from myself.

Just a quick theoretical  digression: Following the groundbreaking thought of Simone de Beauvoir, the relationship between the sexes is defined by the role of Man as the norm, the universal (as illustrated by commonly used terms such as “mankind”) and Woman as the Other, the particular. Within this framework, it is inevitable for women to be socialized into accepting male experiences as universally applicable and relatable, whereas men see no necessity in empathizing with the Other. Even the old Freud had difficulties applying his theories to women, hence his reference to the “dark continent” (this term has, of course, strong colonialist connotations as well, which is not a coincidence, but I’m already taking this blog post way too far…).

What this boils down to is that no one ever wondered whether a female audience could relate to Frodo or Forrest Gump or Neo. It was just assumed or not deemed as important as the effects of the opposite scenario. And so I (learned to) love and enjoy and appreciate these films and novels, yes, even those by Miller, Fitzgerald and Co., despite the fact that they never spoke to me profoundly.

And if I were to be employed by the University of Toronto to teach literature (but I probably wouldn’t, and that’s part of the problem), I could teach students about these novels, how to appreciate them and – most importantly – how to read them critically. But I would definitely prefer to teach Kathy Acker, Margaret Atwood, Anaïs Nin and Isabel Allende.

So to be quite honest, I really feel for Gilmour. I can relate to him. If only he could do that, too.

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3 responses to “Female Audiences and the Male Universal

  1. very true! I have been writing fiction myself all my life (since I can write I mean) and it’s interesting to observe how I used to always write stories about (and from the viewpoint) of American boys (I was a European girl) until I was about thirteen. Now I radically write from my own perspective, but as a child it was so normal to relate to this White male story, I didn’t realise for a very long time that there even are other stories (like my own for example). And now I’m very sensitive to the fact that so many stories are untold and unread; so I try to read books from different perspectives. Due to this experience of not being a story worth telling I can relate to stories that are not from and about White straight cis-man much much better. (not that those stories are necessarily bad of course, as you eloquently explained in your post)
    thank you for writing this!

  2. Love this post! And unfortunately so true on many different levels. Although when talking about reading books by male homosexuals as opposed to not finding books on women. Wouldn’t it make more sense to refer to them as heterosexual females, rather than JUST women in general? I know it wasn’t the intention of the post, but I’ve heard other people (mostly chauvinistic men) refer to the old term, “gay men and women should stay away!” Among other variations of that. It almost gives the impression that gay men exist, but ignores gay women.

    • True, but in this case I meant I found very few novels by women, regardless of their sexual orientation, not on women.