I lied when I wrote that I hadn’t been reading anything while writing We Don’t Always Drown. One of the most interesting things on the web in the last couple weeks was Paul S. Kemp’s attempt to explain why he writes “masculine fiction,” which promptly exploded in a feminist fireball. Kemp is not an author I read frequently, which made his explanations more interesting because they were purely theoretical. They were also grossly gender-prescriptive and problematic.
|My idea of a manly character.|
Kemp has been taken to task by many writers, including Teresa Frohock and Sam Sykes. Most responses have either been contrasting his ideology with their own fiction, or yelling “Screw you.” Both are understandable responses. But I’d like to break down one specific paragraph from his post, in which Kemp listed criteria for what makes a character “traditionally masculine.”
So brace yourself for some meat-headedness and follow me to the bold quotes.
“They answer violence with violence.”
-That sounds like boring storytelling, but is hardly exclusively masculine. I know plenty of women who both respond with and instigate violence. What’s worrisome about this being the first criteria is the possible inference that women have another default – particularly that they may cower and be passive in the face of violence. If that’s your inference, you instantly resent Kemp. I hope, naively, that he means women have a broad range of reactions to violence rather than always punching back, so that some characters in his world are dynamic. But we doubt that’s what he means, right?
“They’re courageous in the face of danger.”
-No feminist is listening to you after this point. If courage in the face of danger is masculine and not human, then some other response is feminine. Even if he didn’t intend it, holy shit does it sound like he means that traditionally women are meek and need saving in the face of danger. Is it true? I don’t know, nor do most of the people who are mad at him right now. Most don’t care because the misogynist inferences are too easy, especially after…
“They’re stoic in the face of challenges/pain.”
-A marginally less offensive version of the highly offensive previous item. This one I’ve also never considered masculine because I’ve known so many women who are stoic in the face of challenges. And not to downplay the misogyny of his claim, but it’s also incredibly harmful to a young male reader’s psyche depict men’s default response to pain as stoicism. More of that in the next item.
“They have their emotions mostly in check.”
-This one speaks to me. For my whole life I’ve felt like American culture was telling me to bottle up or strangle my emotions, and that feeling and sharing were privileges for girls and women. “Be a man” means shut off your heart and serve. It’s messaging that screwed me up and several men who have been dear friends of mine, not all of whom are still alive. And thus this is the most troubling item on the list, because it suggests Kemp writes stories endorsing this psychologically scarring horse shit.
“And they act in accordance with a code of honor of some kind.”
-Hey, most of us like codes of honor, at least safely removed from our world and cemented in fiction where it never revenge-kills our families. This is the one where I’d need to be a Kemp reader to know what the heck he’s talking about. I hope that he’s not writing stories in which men are the only ones with honor or morality. However, I don’t know a tradition in which women have none of this. Systems that seek to strip it from them, yes, but that’s something grotesque that also deserves ripping apart.
"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)."
-If this is what he led with and emphasized, I’d be down. Who would blame any one author for being interested in these themes? That’s half The Iliad right there. But it’s hard to read it as just “my interests” after so much hard gender-prescription in front of it, and Kemp later tries to justify it by saying he believes men should die on ships before women and children, and if that doesn’t convince you, also offers the credentials of being irreligious and a Democrat.
There’s the temptation to yell at Kemp, but there are two sides to this. It’s a great service to see a man name off the things he thinks are expected of him, and Kemp makes it plain in the comments that he feels these sorts of behaviors are expected of a man. The aggravating element is that he’s also endorsing these things, and endorsing them as gendered. Saying women “can” do these things but they are still more masculine is so frustrating that… well, the internet might yell at you for doing it.