Thursday, May 27, 2010

Generalizing Gender

"I try to laugh about it

Cover it all up with lies

I try and

Laugh about it

Hiding the tears in my eyes

'cause boys don't cry

Boys don't cry."

- Smith, Robert; Tolhurts, Lol; Dempsey, Michael. “Boys Don’t Cry” The Cure

Tuesday morning just after 5:30 am, the phone rang for a Spanish teacher job. Since I had Monday off, and spent at least four hours of it writing and editing, I was happy to work. Well, as happy as I ever am to sub. The job started at the rally school, but ended at the school with the messy gym teacher who left me no plans last week.

When I reached the middle school, I found the other Spanish teacher who was happy to see me, as usual. I’d be running her first class so she could have a prep period, and then I’d be at the other school. The teachers offered me a seat and coffee. Being at this school is such a different experience from the teachers who ignored me during their lunch party the prior week.

First period students were chatty each time the other Spanish teacher left the room, but most of them worked. The boys who had gone to the Celtics playoffs game the night before were a little less focused. Luckily, the girls had gone on Saturday so they were over it.

At the second school were magazines and packets for the two seventh and two eighth-grade classes to complete. All four classes were good, especially considering it’s middle school. Most kids (especially girls) went right to work while a few (mostly boys) needed encouraging/reminding/me to sit with them/to be separated, but they were in the minority.

One group of four boisterous boys asked my name. When I told them, “Ms. Milstein,” one asked, “Can we call you M Dog?” I laughed and declined. Then they proceeded to tell me their nicknames. I’d forgotten it was a first-name teacher school. When I’d subbed gym last week, these same students wanted to call me “T Dog”, which I also turned down.

This reminded me of last week when I’d subbed gym at the high school. At the end of the day, one eleventh-grade boy shot hoops by himself. At some point, the ball rolled near the door. I watched him pick it up and notice his reflection in the door's glass. For a long time, he stood before it; practicing moves that he thought made him look cool. I pretended to look anywhere else and somehow refrained from laughing. At one point during his admiration of his reflection, the ball got away from him and bounced near me. “Sorry,” he said, “I was…” but didn’t finish his sentence.

After lunch I got sick. I’ll spare you the details but let me say it was a stomach thing. And the classroom on an eighty + degree-day was considerably hotter than outside, which wasn’t helping things. If the students weren’t so good, I don’t know how I would’ve managed.

When I got home, I fell asleep until my children came off the bus. My daughter wanted to tell me all about a t-shirt with puppies and clouds or clouds that were puppies owned by two girls in her class. “Can we buy one?” she begged. My son proudly told me about the bee that stung his leg while he played football during recess.

Most of their reports are like that. My daughter tells me about what she’s learned, and her feelings. My son tells me about football.

Of course, this is an over-generalization about my children. My son talks about football and plays bloody war video games, but he talks about inequality and the environment. He looks out for his sister. He treats all girls with respect. He appreciates flowers. He doesn’t like it when students misbehave at school. He’ll be a good boyfriend someday, in my humble opinion.

Female writers, especially of middle grade and young adult books, need to watch how they portray their boy characters. It’s easy to write teenage boys as if they’re like us. They are and they aren’t. Boys are more physical and less focused. If they’re working, it’s usually not as quietly or still. They project a false bravado. They’re funny. At least when they aren’t being jerks. (I mean that last word with love.)

I read Maggie Stiefvater’s book Shiver. Her character, Sam is sensitive, but she provides reasons for it. And I’m aware what someone feels like inside and how they behave are often quite different. Males have soft sides, but we can’t ignore the parts that are less soft. I would imagine it’s easier for women to write male characters than it is for men to write female characters. But maybe that’s an overgeneralization too.

While we can be aware of differences, whether we are writing gender or ethnicity, we want to be true to our characters’ experiences while still writing about our common humanity.

When I teach, I make a little more room for boys, while still making sure the girls don’t feel the boys are getting away with everything. It’s a fine line.

Teachers, what do you observe in your classroom? Do you see big or small differences in gender?

Readers, do you think male characters ring true or come across as unrealistic?

Writers, do you struggle writing a character of the opposite sex? If so, why?


  1. As hard as I try NOT to play favorites in class, in my head and heart I know I favor the boys. When I write, I write boy books. They are so much easier for me to deal with and enjoy. Girls make me nuts sometimes, with their whiny and catty behaviors. :-)

  2. I do sometimes struggle to write characters of the opposite sex, because I want the guys to sound like regular guys talk, and not the way they do in 19th century romantic movies. But Mr. Darcy is so awesome though, sighh...

    I thought it was interesting how your students wanted to call you by a nickname/first name. That's always been an issue for me too. I make my students call me Ms. ____, because that's just how I was raised. But since I'm a younger instructor a lot of my students automatically assume it's okay to call me by my first name, and that bothers me.

  3. I seem to have an easier time writing boy characters. No idea why that is. Maybe b/c my brain is male? ;)

  4. Oh are you ok now? I hope you are better now! You can't just throw in a line saying you were sick and move on! LOL! Big healing healthy hugs from me! <<<<>>>>!

    Anyway! My current WIP (yes I do have one!! How exciting and terrifying and not just for me!! LOL) has a male MC. Actually the one MS that I've forever lost due to password problems had a male MC. Weird. But somehow I felt better in those skins. I felt better writing a main character far removed from me, completely opposite in every way, even personality wise. I found the distance made it easier to write the stories.

    I have to admit that my female MCs (my current one and the one I lost) were/are so "wicked" and sexy and just plain bad but are and were a joy to write! And of course they triumph in the end and get what they want and how!

    So it's weird. Now that I'm writing this I'm thinking why I didn't just write two female MCs (could you imagine the sexual tension there?!!?) Hmmm. Why did I have to write a male one? But are they interchangeable?

    Oh now I'm confused! Easily done!

    Anyway! It's very interesting observing how girls react from boys. We do have a common humanity but simultaneously we are worlds apart too. I think it's in encouraging and fostering that common humanity that would make for better understanding and may even blur those rigid lines that state that men are from mars and women are from venus. We are all from planet earth.

    Take care

  5. Thank you for posting something that does not give me nightmares. Gads, I'm still reeling over those scissors...


    My daughter won STUDENT OF THE MONTH this last month. There were about two dozen of them up on stage, and I counted four boys.

    Yep. Boys are harder. I have one of each and boys are harder.

    I am a boy, and boys are harder. Harder still if their brother is only 13mos younger (like mine). Nightmare.

    They're tougher, though. Women in real life don't get this. Women cry, and expect men to cry with them.

    But the man's too busy being the strong shoulder to cry on.

    Either way, the woman gets miffed.

    When I write women, I have them do inexplicable things. To me, that makes them far more realistic.

    I mean, sometimes I really ~don't~ know why she's mad.

    Why should the reader?

    Medication from birth. I can't say this enough about women.

    - Eric

  6. Theresa you have started an interesting debate.
    It takes great skill and intuition to write in the opposite sex.
    One of the best examples I can think of is Douglas Kennedy, one of the first times I read one of his novels, I had to check the author notes to double check that he was actually a He, such a good writer.
    I would say its really a question of talent, a good writer is a good writer and it shines through.

  7. I hope you are better and thanks for the Robert Smith flashback. Ahhh, love Robert. Anyway, I think I can write boys o.k. I sometimes struggle but I'm getting there.

  8. love all of this input!

    @ Shannon O'Donnell. I hear what you're saying. Girls too often tattle and get into friendship triangles, but boys are a bit hyper. So I love/dislike traits on both sides.

    @ Neurotic Workaholic. Two or three of the Cambridge schools use first names, which I don't like as much.

    @ Edith'spage, I can see it being easier for you. Women spend a lot of time trying to get into a man's head!

    My first short story attempt and the Jordan Walsh book were from a male point of view ((POV). Since then, I've written from the female POV, although The Disappearances have two chapters from Adam's perspective.

  9. @ Old Kitty, I'm sorry to keep you hanging like that. Tuesday afternoon I got sick, and wrote the post about my old and new rough drafts, which didn't take a lot of writing! Yesterday, I called in sick. I wrote post of this post last night, and edited it today. Today, I went back. I ate bland food yesterday and today, but I think I'm ready to go back to the real stuff!

    I agree that men and women are the same and different.

    I'm so glad you have a WIP! Did you enter the contest? Your characters sound interesting. Planning on posting any bit of it?

  10. @ Eric W. Trant, the student of the month girl/boy ratio is funny. At my kids' school they have to take two kids from each classroom, and try to have one male and one female. So PC!

    Oh the girl crying thing! I hate when I get mad TEARS come out! I'm mad - not sad, but my ducts don't understand the difference.

    Brigid, I'll have to check out Douglas Kennedy. I do think many male authors don't write realistic female characters.

    Christine Danek, I think any author can write any type of person, but if it's way out of their comfort zone, they should do some research. For male/female we should have enough experience in life.

  11. LOVE this post. Ok, now that I've gotten that out of the way, let me say, BOYS and GIRLS are different animals... really, we should be classified not as homo sapiens, but two different organisms. The boys in my class are wild, crazy, loving, sweet, and rambunctious. They have an energy that seems to come from nowhere, and generally speaking the attention span of a flea. I can appreciate all these traits, because I'm basically the same. I think the problem is many female teachers don't get it... I've found the female teachers that deal with boys the best are those that have sons... just my opinion of course. They get it, they've seen it, they've lived it. I don't have my own kids (yet), but I've seen and lived it as a boy (man) myself. Boys will be boys, and they are unique and special.

  12. Sorry to hear you were feeling badly, but I totally get why. When my classroom gets hot, I get miserable and sick. I'm glad you're feeling better.

    I think I write male and female characters about equally well, for what that's worth. Unless the character is a girly girl, and then I would have great difficulty I think. :)

  13. You are certainly in the right environment to observe the boy and girl differences, right in the thick of things. What a great experience to inform your writing and give it authenticity.

  14. I don't know if I write male characters better, but I do enjoy writig them more. Not sure why. However, I don't know how well I'd do with teen boys--even though I have two sons in their twenties. lol. I must say that both of them were much more patient with their little sister, than I was with my little sisters when I was a teen.

    I think you must get along really well with kids that age because they always sound like such nice kids.

  15. I really enjoyed this post. I hope you're feeling better now.

  16. I have that album! Wow, I love it when I actually KNOW these things.

    Queasy stomach and warm room do NOT mix. Not sure how you did it!

  17. My heart goes out to the kids who don't learn the ways our schools teach. So many of these kids - and yes a lot of them are boys - need to move to learn. They need to tap their pencils, bounce their legs, get up and try stuff, talk it out, put it to music, and just do it. Sitting to a lecture for them is pure torture.

    I try to incorporate as much activity, group talk and hands on stuff as I can in my day. Otherwise I'm only reaching some of my students.

    And yes - all of that should be portrayed in our writing!

  18. I definitely agree--boys and girls learn differently. Boys do tend to talk and move to learn better. They need a little more attention in order to get it.

    I've never written in a guy's voice. Until now! I kind of think it's fun but I do worry about making him too distant or emotional.

    Good post!

  19. I have so much trouble writing boy characters. Good advice! That's too bad you got sick during work. I hate when that happens. Last summer when I taught at the Summer Youth Music school at UNH I had to leave right in the middle of class to throw up. When I got back one of the students said, "Did you just hurl?" It was so embarrassing.

  20. @ Halpey1, I can tell from your posts that you get kids. Each kids needs to think they're special and lovable, so if we don't learn to work with certain behaviors, it won't make for a good school year for teacher or student.

    When I was an assistant, I worked with a few teachers who couldn't deal with fidgety, daydreaming boys. So I had to adopt them.

    @ Sarahjayne Smith, it's good that you're flexible. I don't mind writing any type of character. But I haven't done a male POV in a year, so I miss it.

    @ Joanne, being in the thick of it certainly helps my writing.

  21. Every now and again I find myself backed into a corner when trying to write about some of my male characters, but only because I have to think harder about what I want them to say or do. I just have to remember that guys, despite being pretty much as emotional as women are, don't show their vulnerabilities or feelings the way we do. And if they ever decide to do that, it takes them some time.

  22. @ Mary McDonald, I have the opposite problem. My main characters have always been under 18. Parents and teachers in the stories are older, but they just have supporting roles.

    @ aLmYbNeNr, tonight I finally feel back to normal. Last night, I went to bed at 8:30 pm!

    @ Vicki Rocho, it was one of those moments when I had my plan worked out in case I had to throw up. At least it didn't come to that!

    I love The Cure too. The lead singer did a song on the new Alice in Wonderland album.

  23. @ Jemi Fraser, if you're aware of it, then it means you're doing it. I'm sure you're a great teacher.

    We have to teach to every child, which isn't easy. When I was in charge of Social Studies classes, I always mixed it up: diaries, debates, posters, reports, and anything else I could think of to reach as many students as possible.

    @ Tiffany, I'm so glad you're writing! Just do what seems real to you, and then have others look at it for authenticity. You work with teen boys and girls, so I'm sure that helps.

    @ Aubrie, how awful for you got sick, and then called out on it. "Did you just hurl?" Mind if I borrow that in some future WIP?

  24. It's funny that you ask. In Kindergarten, most of the girls want to be "girlie" with the exception of some who want none of that. They want to play with blocks and play basketball regardless of whether the playmate is male or long as they aren't giggly.

    Boys on the other hand, can be just as sweet and sensitive as the girls. They don't ever tattle though.

    I can't tell you how many little girls have come up to me with " So and so took my..." when I interrupt them and ask "Are you tattling?" When they reply no, I respond...."oh good, then run along and play" Then five minutes later they are back...sigh

  25. @ Amanda Sablan, your comment (especially your last line) shows you get guys!

    @ VKT, you've spent enough years teaching kindergarten to know how most boys and girls behave! From subbing and own kids in kindergarten, that's been my experience too.

  26. Hum, I think it is definetly hard to do male characters, but its a good challenge. I think that if we can make a male character believable, thats already a huge step.So I reserach a lot, observing my husband for example. lol

    Catch ya later, T-Dog! I´m sorry, but that was hilarious, how do these kids think its ok to call a teacher T Dog? lol Priceless!

  27. @ Clara, observing the other side is the best way to write authentically!

    Imagine the kind of teacher I'd be if I let my students call me T-Dog? Yeah, I'd have loads of authority. Catch ya later, C-Dog!

  28. This is such a great reminder for everyone. I normally have my main characters as women but I've noticed that my male characters have gotten bigger parts the more I spend time writing. My husband thinks that my male character in my current WiP is great, he said he was surprised I knew the male perspective so well, I'll say I was as well!!!

    That being said, another WiP I've been working on is down right awful when it comes to the opposite sex! He is a killer and I make him sound like he loves kittens and cotton candy, it's pretty awful. The hubs has already warned me of this problem and again was surprised since I portrayed the last male so perfectly. Difference was, he wasn't a leading man, he was just a co-star, it was easier to "generalize" what I had seen, with my male character I'm digging deeper into the soul, I thought I needed to, but I'm now realizing it hasn't worked.

    Live and learn I suppose!

  29. Sometimes I do, as a writer! There are a few males that have come across has vapid or too much of a wimp.

    I think I need to learn to get inside their heads more and not make them just the warm body to go along with whatever the girl says. (If only that happened in real life... ha, ha.)

    Have a great holiday weekend!

  30. Very interesting post. It's been a long time since I taught and then it was college level. Even at that level, it would be hard to imagine students calling the teacher by their first name, let alone if it were grade school.

    I have a feeling I'm too old to be up with what's going on now in public school. My kids have graduated.

    Straight From Hel

  31. One is reluctant to stereotype between boys and girls in education. But many boys are doers and like to be engaged with tactile actions. They appreciate immediate feedback and enjoy competition more than girls. Girls like discussion and, perhaps, are better listeners.

  32. Jackee, we all have our strengths and weaknesses as writers. We all just have to practice our weaknesses and play up our strengths.

    Helen Ginger, I'm not big fan of calling a teacher by his or her first name. I think I can still garner authority, but it bothers me.

    Paul C, you're right, boys are doers. Girls are definitely better listeners. But I've had students cross over too. Though not as often.

  33. I love how real boys are. They don't play the same head games as girls. I was always a tomboy and I think I just get boys more than girls.

  34. Theresa: Well, I live with two of them!

  35. Great post - especially the part about female writers being careful how they portray boys. Thinking about their sensitive side reminds me of how in my K class, the boys are the ones who are always hugging each other.

  36. Hmm... As a reader, I think whether or not a character rings true is not so much a matter of gender as it of skill. There are people of either gender with difficulties writing characters of either gender...

  37. Thank you for posting something that does not give me nightmares.
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  38. @Solvang Sherrie, I hear what you're saying. While I enjoy both sexes, boys have less drama.

    @Amanda, I do too!

    @Andrea, that's so cute you have hugging boys in your class!

    @Alesa, I agree. Skill is most important.

    @Nishant, I'm glad you didn't get nightmares from my post.