Conversations about gender differences are difficult to engage in now, partly because of the need for an emphasis on equality of opportunities for the sexes, and also because the lines between genders are being blurred. But these differences exist and are revealed daily in small details.
I read Timi’s Two Hundred and Counting and, like I usually do with essays on her blog, returned to see the comments. I found one made by Uju, which was fascinating in its understanding of a detail: she focused solely on blue mascara. It was the kind of observation only a woman, given to exploring the meaning of mascara and what it says or doesn’t say, would make.
The person who got me thinking about these differences in perception is P, one of the few people who have the misfortune of seeing first drafts of my fiction (I’m not being modest, they’re usually terrible). She often makes comments like, this isn’t something a woman would say, which is often right, because I’m one of those people who write characters of all sexes the same way without thought for how their thought patterns would be different, which on the surface seems like a progressive thing until you examine it and realise it’s very stupid. Whether by reason of culture, or even sheer biology (like it or not, losing blood every month and curling into a ball of pain will make you a different being), men and women don’t access details the same way. And this isn’t a bad thing.
Better writers often find ways to subvert this inherent problem, write about the other with skill, like B did in a writing workshop I attended this year, in a passage that included hair but showed such intimacy that we all saw as almost transcendent. But people like that are exceptions, and the rest of us need people to remind us that “a woman won’t talk like that.” It’s also been said that women have an advantage in this because they’ve spent a lifetime listening to men and can assume our thoughts with some level of accuracy. Given how often my female friends suss out my thoughts, I cant argue against this.
Tessa Hadley, in a conversation with Hilton Als and Helen Garner, spoke about a female student who was trying to write as a man and wrote, “He felt for a tissue in his pocket.” She continued, “Now, what a discovery that that sentence can’t really work for a man. I can’t really explain it. But, of course, that isn’t really what we think about, maleness and femaleness, anymore.” (Watch the video of their conversation here. It’s good)
Now, here’s the paragraph in Timi’s essay that started off this piece:
“The line between just asking and a free consultation is smeared with politeness. Doctors and other professionals know this. I know this now; 200 blog posts means I have a feel for what makes a piece of writing work. A party is not the place to read me a sentence then ask if it is grammatically correct or whip out your phone to show me something you wrote. That is what emails are for. I do not carry a red pen in my clutch bag; I carry red lipstick and blue mascara. People ask me to be brutally honest in my feedback, but the only place to be brutal—savagely violent or unpleasant and harsh, is the gladiator’s ring. The only adjective that should go with honesty when it comes to feedback on a piece of writing is kind. I have made and kept more friends this way.”
I read that paragraph focused on feedback, but with the help of Uju, I’ve gained more by focusing on the blue mascara—which indeed says a lot about Timi if you think about it. In writing, everything rises and falls with the detail—and so it is with the rest of life. This, sometimes, is why I try to hold conversations with people different from me in upbringing, class, gender, even faith. There are perspectives they can offer that I would never get just looking at the world with my own eyes.
It’s a shame that these diverse conversations are becoming harder even as we now have better tools to have them. It’s almost impossible to find people with opposing ideologies having civil conversations on the internet without descending to insults. We all exist in echo chambers, lacking the grace to reach out to the other side and ask that they show us how to feel the tissue or spot the blue mascara, believing instead in the absolute greatness of our ideas, their progressiveness, and their immaculate nature.This, of course, is an illusion. We are all different, and the harder it is to communicate across these differences, the more difficult it will become to expand our understanding of our common humanity.
Featured image: Yosef Tamir Man and Woman-3, via Flickr by zeevveez