Men Written by Women: Dreamboats or Brutes?
The growing debate about the male gaze and the female gaze has impacted modern storytelling as well as changed our interpretation of past stories and characters. Just as some feminists complain about how women are depicted in books, movies, and TV shows written by men, an argument could be made that women do not know how to write male characters, either.
“Women love to write men who are just as unrealistic or lacking in depth as men love to write women. These male characters have no real personality and are measured only by their ability to satisfy the female character’s needs…”Shelby Sullivan, “Men and Women Writing Each Other Badly,” medium.com
An analysis of various male characters created by women may show how valid that argument is.
A significant number of literary classics were written by women. One such classic is Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. The novel’s protagonist, Dr. Victor Frankenstein, is brilliant but arrogant, thinking of himself as a god-like creator in his chosen scientific fields. Frankenstein is ambitious, but he does not take responsibility for the outcomes of his ambition; after successfully reanimating a corpse, he abandons the creature, labeling it a monster. After the Monster has killed people, Frankenstein attempts to hunt it down, but it is easy to guess that if he had been more responsible from the beginning, he could have prevented those tragic deaths.
“Even as he is dying, he will not admit fully to his mistakes, and the reader is left wondering whether it is Victor who is the true monster”(GCSE AQA)
Frankenstein is an example of a male character who is not presented very positively by a female writer. Perhaps a male author would have tried to convince readers that he was a good person; perhaps, if he were created by a man, he would have succeeded in heroically stopping his Monster. It seems worth noting that the Monster is male as well, and although he develops eloquence and strong argument skills, he is driven by a primal urge toward vengeance against those who have mistreated him. Shelley seems to argue that this destructive behavior is a natural instinct of life itself, at least for male life.
In romance stories, the male leads are meant to be seen as very desirable, at least by the time the female leads fall in love with them. Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre: An Autobiography and Jane Austen’s novels, such as Pride and Prejudice, focus on female protagonists and depict men from a female perspective. In stark contrast to characters like Frankenstein and the Monster, some of these male characters have become the iconic dream guys for female readers.
Fitzwilliam Darcy is the leading male love interest in Pride and Prejudice. When Elizabeth Bennet first meets him, however, she does not consider him an interest at all. He is proud, moody, and rude. He has a long list of standards that a woman should meet to be worthy of his attention, and he openly shares it, ultimately insulting all the women who hear him. He makes a very unfortunate initial impression.
Meanwhile, the other main male characters in the novel – George Wickham and John Bingley – make much better first impressions. Elizabeth and her sisters take to them quickly. However, just as Darcy embodies Pride, Elizabeth is the Prejudice in the novel’s title. Her initial impressions turn out to be incorrect. Bingley makes mistakes in his relationship with Elizabeth’s sister, and Wickham turns out to be a manipulative liar. Darcy ultimately proves her wrong as well and proves himself a very suitable gentleman for her. In this way, Jane Austen makes the argument that charming men sometimes have rotten insides and that the best men are more than meets the eye.
Edward Rochester, the leading man in Jane Eyre, is another example of initial impressions being deceiving, although in quite a different way from Darcy. Where Darcy is reserved and haughty, Rochester is passionate, empathic, and friendly with Jane Eyre, despite being her employer. These charming attributes draw Jane to Rochester. However, it is soon revealed that Rochester’s passionate lifestyle has gotten him into trouble in the past, and his mistakes still haunt both him and his home. He is married to a woman with severe mental health issues, and to protect both of them from public shame, he traps her in his attic and keeps her a secret.
Thus, Rochester’s proposal to Jane seems less-than-genuine. He does genuinely love Jane, however. He is simply not ready for a relationship with her; he is too superficial, caring more about appearances than what is best for the women he loves. His reaction to his secret being found out is to suggest Jane become his mistress and offer her expensive clothes – this is also not healthy. It is not until Rochester has been physically disabled by the consequences of his passionate lifestyle that he grows enough to be worthy of Jane.
The Bad Boys
Although Rochester’s actions are bad, he is considered a Byronic hero or anti-hero. Unlike traditional heroes, these characters do not follow strict ethical codes. They are mysterious, dangerous, and flawed in ways many female readers find paradoxically alluring. Many famous male characters created by female writers are categorized as Byronic heroes.
Another literary classic character turned Byronic anti-hero is Dallas “Dally” Winston from S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders. This book is about a gang of boys whose only bonds are with each other, and so even the most antagonistic of them is considered a good friend. This title falls to Dally. “He’s selfish, he’s dark, he’s rude, crude, and an all-around nasty dude” (The Artifice). And yet, it is revealed that Dally cares deeply about his friends. He risks his safety to save them, and when one of them dies, he feels such sorrow that he commits suicide by cop. Getting himself killed by the police preserves Dally’s tough guy image; only those closest to him know how emotional his friend’s death made him, which Dally would have considered a sign of weakness.
Like Jane Austen and Darcy, Hinton uses Dally to demonstrate that some men are better people than they first appear to be. However, unlike the classic romances, no female character falls in love with Dally because no female characters get to know him the way the readers do. Hinton’s argument is not only for women to question their initial impressions of men but for everyone to consider others more complexly.
Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight, on the other hand, is a romance. The leading men of this series are Edward Cullen, a vampire, and Jacob Black, a werewolf. Edward is another Byronic hero, mysterious and dangerous, and Jacob is Edward’s rival for the affections of Bella Swan, the series’ leading female. Throughout the first book in the series, Edward assures Bella that, although they love each other, they should not be together because the risk of him killing her is too high. This is a noble decision that only makes Edward more attractive to Bella and the series’ audience.
However, Edward has many less noble qualities. When he first meets Bella, Edward essentially gaslights her, claiming that he did not do the suspicious and inhuman things she saw him do. Edward also displays stalker behavior, staring at Bella, eavesdropping on her, and even watching her sleep.
In the opinion of many readers, Jacob is a better choice for Bella than Edward. He has a friendlier, more positive personality than the vampire. He is also somewhat safer, acting most dangerous toward Edward. He is just as protective of Bella as Edward, willing to do anything for her. However, Jacob’s willingness to put aside anything for Bella causes him to rebel against his wolf pack, denying his responsibilities and coming across as childish.
Again, Edward and Jacob are both meant to be seen as desirable by female readers who relate to Bella as she struggles to choose between them. But neither of them are good role models for male readers: Edward is toxic, and Jacob is immature in his own obsession with Bella. These details can easily be considered symptoms of them being created by a female writer.
E.L. James supposedly based her book Fifty Shades of Grey on Edward Cullen and Bella Swan’s relationship. Christian Grey, then, is inspired by Edward. Although he is not a supernatural creature, Grey is dangerous: he identifies as a dominant, only capable of physical intimacy if he is in control and even causing pain to his lover.
However, unlike Edward, Grey is always polite, bearing some resemblance to the gentlemen of Austen and Bronte’s novels. He is even willing to make certain changes to himself for the sake of Anastasia, the romance’s leading female. He strives not to cause emotional or mental damage to Anastasia, although he does hurt her unintentionally by being too guarded and distant. James makes Grey into another Byronic hero, attractive but flawed.
Yet another example of a Byronic hero is Severus Snape from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter franchise. Throughout the series, the Potions teacher at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry is almost as antagonistic toward Harry Potter as the Dark Lord Voldemort. He is cruel, creepy, and stuck-up – the last in particular being a trait associated with the path to the dark side in Rowling’s Wizarding World.
Meanwhile, Snape is undeniably good at what he does. He infamously found several shortcuts while studying Potions and even invented his own attack spell. The upsides of his stubborn attitude also include fierce commitment to the people he chooses to care about – like Dally Winston, he does care about people more than he lets on. The problem is that he has a very strange way of showing it.
Snape was in love with Lily Evans when they were students together. Lily ended up dating and marrying James Potter, one of the kids who bullied Snape. This gives Snape a strong resentment for James and results in very mixed feelings toward Harry, the boy who reminds Snape of both James and Lily. Snape is cruel to Harry in person but secretly protects him whenever he has the chance.
The argument is eventually made that all of Snape’s cruelest attributes are a performance: he acts evil to earn the trust of Dark Lord Voldemort while secretly working with Headmaster Dumbledore against the dark side. Altogether, Snape is one of the most controversial characters in recent memory. His negative characteristics are not quite as toxic as Edward Cullen, for example, but his positive actions may not be enough to erase those flaws.
The Mutants and the Mechanic
The comic book industry includes some notable female creators, and many of them create male characters to join a traditionally male-dominated world of superheroes and supervillains. In 1986, Louise Simonson created Apocalypse, who would become one of the most notorious supervillains in the X-Men franchise. In the story of Apocalypse, Simonson converted one of the very first X-Men characters, Warren “Angel” Worthington III, into a new character called Archangel. She also created Nathan “Cable” Summers and John Henry “Steel” Irons.
Apocalypse claims to be the first mutant, an evolved form of humanity in the Marvel multiverse, and is one of the most powerful mutants of all time. Consequently, he considers himself a god even among mutants. He repeatedly tries to establish mutant dominance, with himself as the world’s ultimate ruler, through human genocide. In spite of this, Apocalypse retains some noble, almost gentlemanly features: he respects certain superheroes as worthy opponents, and his actions seem more like carefully planned plots than temperamental abuses of power.
Warren Worthington was originally a member of the heroic X-men, but after he loses his naturally grown angel-like wings, he allows Apocalypse to replace them. The resulting transformation is traumatic for him. Even after he stops serving Apocalypse, Archangel is a bit darker than he was as Angel. In his early days, Angel was a cheerful, albeit hedonistic, rich kid and a responsible hero. Archangel, in contrast, sees himself as a monster and has been known to act the part.
Transitions like Angel’s happen frequently when a comic book character is taken over by a new writer. The fact that this transition was from male writers to a female writer may explain his change from cheerful to dark and brooding – under Simonson’s control, he pretty much becomes a Byronic anti-hero!
Nathan “Cable” Summers is another Byronic anti-hero from the X-Men franchise. A time traveler who grew up in the future, Cable is usually on a mission to prevent a tragedy, even if that means killing people along the way. He has no use for manners, having lived through apocalyptic scenarios where they were completely unnecessary. Louise Simonson and her collaborators reportedly meant for Cable to be the opposite of Professor X, the leader of the X-Men. While the Professor hopes to change the world subtly and slowly, Cable pursues goals aggressively, unhindered by fear of collateral damage – like a “real man,” some might say.
Another notable creation of Simonson’s is Steel, one of Superman’s associates. John Henry Irons, a mechanical genius inventor, designed weapons and was then wracked with guilt when he saw them being used so close to his home. This prompted him to become the armored superhero Steel. He continually feels an immense responsibility to protect people, and he is easily the most noble and decent character mentioned in this article so far.
The Measure of a Man
There is no indisputable method to determine the quality of a character or how good a writer is at creating characters. The question in this debate seems to be how realistic these female-written male characters are as opposed to the infamously unrealistic female characters created by male writers for the male gaze.
The easiest complaints about the realism of male characters are their exaggerated attractiveness and/or their lack of manners. The concern is that female writers create fantasy men, raising the expectations of female audiences too high, or uncivilized brutes, turning female audiences against real men altogether. Both of these types of characters create bad examples for male audiences to follow. In analyzing the realism of the characters mentioned here, we will see how well they hit the “sweet spot” between these extremes.
As the literary blog No Sweat Shakespeare points out, “in the world of Jane Austen’s novels,” which is effectively the same world as the setting of Bronte’s Jane Eyre, “masculinity is tied up with gentlemanliness… a man’s ability to attract a woman into marriage.” Over time, the definition of masculinity has become more fluid, although it could be argued that men, particularly fictional men, continue to have the same goal – wooing women and filling their societal role as boyfriends and husbands. Therefore, whichever features attract women remain a man’s most masculine traits.
Edward Rochester is overtly masculine in the best ways, securing the attention of multiple women and marrying not one but two of them. While some of his methods are not attractive when they are revealed, he eventually changes for the better. Fitzwilliam Darcy goes through an even greater journey of development, beginning his story unattractive to almost everyone and ending it “without doubt, the most attractive and masculine man of all” (No Sweat Shakespeare). Through his actions, he demonstrates all the admirable traits that matter to the woman he wants to marry, and so he serves his purpose perfectly. Both of these characters demonstrate their authors’ ability to write characters who develop for the better.
As previously noted, Dally Winston has no romantic arc in The Outsiders, so his masculinity is not measured by his ability to woo women. Instead, it is measured by his ability to get what he wants through bold, decisive action. As a functioning member of a street gang, he is independent, successfully separated from his toxic home life. Even his death demonstrates this. “…Dallas Winston wanted to be dead, and he always got what he wanted” (The Outsiders). He is not necessarily a good role model for male audiences, but he is not meant to be. Again, Hinton’s goal was to use Dally to teach her readers to imagine everyone complexly.
Dr. Victor Frankenstein marries his childhood friend Elizabeth Lavenza. Like Edward Rochester, Frankenstein hides his greatest shame and appears attractive while this secret remains concealed. After all, he is clearly driven, like Dally Winston. These traits make Frankenstein undeniably masculine, but that is not necessarily a good thing in this case.
On their wedding night, Frankenstein’s hidden shame strangles his wife to death – something the Monster warned Frankenstein would happen. If Frankenstein had told Elizabeth the truth about his work, she may have rejected him and thus survived. Regardless, marrying a woman after being told the Monster would come to ruin his wedding is rather irresponsible of the doctor. These details detract from Frankenstein’s character.
Frankenstein’s Monster never gets a chance to pursue romance because Frankenstein refuses to create a female counterpart for him. However, the Monster inherits a similar ambitious nature from his figurative father while showing no gentlemanly restraint. Shelley seems to be associating a primal urge toward violence with masculinity. Without a bride to compare him to, we cannot say for sure if a female would be more peaceful, although Frankenstein seems to believe the Bride would be just as dangerous as the original Monster.
Edward Cullen succeeds in getting a relationship with Bella Swan, making him more masculine than Jacob Black by the classical Austen-inspired definition. However, winning Bella’s love is not Edward’s initial goal. He makes it clear that Bella should stay away from him. His stalker-like behavior demonstrates how dangerous he is, but his self-awareness of this fact demonstrates his maturity. This is another advantage he has over Jacob. Still, Edward and Bella end up getting together, suggesting that Meyer sacrificed a good example for a “happy ending.”
Christian Grey’s politeness in the midst of wooing Anastasia’s affections at first makes him a gentleman similar to Darcy and Rochester. However, he does not finish E.L. James’ first book in a relationship with Anastasia because he is keeping things from her. The fact that Anastasia recognizes this as a significant problem suggests that James also recognizes it. Grey’s character development is intentionally left unfinished.
In J.K. Rowling’s Wizarding World, where a diminutive elf can move a large cake through the air by force of will, intelligence is strength. Therefore, Severus Snape’s talent at magic contributes to his masculinity, as does his ambition. By the standards of Austen, his snobbish rudeness and his failure to marry the woman he loves may detract from his gentlemanliness, but for this debate, they do not hurt him. Snape is a quality, realistic character, even if readers cannot agree whether he is a good guy or a bad guy.
Louise Simonson’s entries in this debate are all undeniably ambitious. As previously noted, Apocalypse retains a gentlemanly nature despite his god complex. Steel has the decency to take responsibility for his ambitions when they get out of hand, unlike Frankenstein. Archangel and Cable may be more anti-hero than hero, but like Severus Snape, they still seem like quality characters.
Based on this list of well-known characters, there seems to be a trend of female-written male characters discarding gentlemanly manners over time. As women’s standards have shifted, the standards of masculinity have changed. For those who like decent men, there are the classics like Darcy and heroes like Steel. For those who prefer a little darkness, there are Byronic heroes like Rochester, Dally Winston, and Snape. And if you ever want an example of what not to do, there’s Frankenstein the mad scientist and Edward the vampire.
In the end, ironically, female audiences are more likely to have a problem with male characters leveraging their masculinity just to get girls, as if they’re prizes to be won. Combined with the way women are portrayed, men both fictional and non-fictional can do better.
What do you think? Leave a comment.