I can admit that I don’t know much about writing. But the few valuable tidbits I do know are all thanks to my high school English teacher. He hooked me onto Pynchon (what normal 18-year-old tries to read Gravity’s Rainbow of their own volition?) and entertained me at lunch and in class when I didn’t feel like talking to anybody else. And even though I pretended to not listen, most of his maxims about writing and art will stay with me forever.
Once, he asked my class to read a random piece of prose and identify the gender of the narrator. None of us could do it — I don’t even think I fully understood the question. He insisted that all art, and especially all writing, is gendered, and that it is critical to develop tools of analysis to identify what gender the narrator identifies as.
This train of thought that at first didn’t make any sense to me has started to divulge some clarity. As we read “Bonjour Tristesse,” a novel about the hedonistic life of a 17-year-old girl in the French Riviera, I realized it was an inherently female work of art. Would someone who identifies as a man be able to speak with such nuance about the female condition, about the inherently unique trials and tribulations of being a teenage girl? That’s something I keep thinking about.
In film jargon, we use the term “the female gaze” as a counter to the traditional, established “male gaze.” These are theories where gender — of the creator, the protagonist or the viewer — significantly shapes the piece of art. I love Quentin Tarantino’s films, for example, but they are inextricably linked with the male gaze. His discussion and handling of female characters are interesting: They usually have agency and rebel against conventions of the patriarchy, but at the same time are sexualized as per the 21st-century standard of beauty. I wonder if his protagonists would be taken as seriously if they weren’t conventionally attractive.
As I become more aware of the art I consume, I’m beginning to see the manifestation of gender in the tiniest of ways. With the male director and therefore the male gaze serving as the standard of filmmaking, when I watch a movie made by a woman, I ask myself questions about what it’s trying to do. More often than not, I find empathy and understanding of what it means to be female.
In the movie “Shiva Baby,” directed by Emma Seligman, I loved how sex work is depicted — despite being a significant part of the plot, it isn’t subject to either judgement or glorification and still feels realistic. I don’t get the sense that sex work is at all accepted by the characters in the film — much like in the real world — and the film’s undramatized treatment of the subject is nothing short of refreshing. That is the power of female storytelling — to seize control of the narrative regarding subjects that men, for centuries, have been in control of.
That’s not to say that men can’t be feminists or can’t understand the female condition — it is just to say that they haven’t lived it. Some of the most groundbreaking or thought-provoking stories I’ve seen in the last few years have been told by women — perhaps they’re groundbreaking simply because they broach topics with the incision and comfort of that same lived experience.
I also think about how limited my own understanding of gender is. I don’t know of any nonbinary writers or filmmakers. Our binary understanding of gender and our heterosexual-limited understanding of sexuality unfortunately extends to this kind of analysis as well.
Much of being a great writer or artist is specificity. More and more now, I think about my tone as a writer. Identifying as a woman and living through the female experience in a male-dominated world is a big part of my self-conception. In my writing, I talk about a lot of my struggles — struggling to identify with my name, feeling lonely in urban environments, my difficulty with processing emotion and living in the moment — but I have always treated the experiences linked with my gender as conversations solely for friends. I don’t think I ever focus on the female experience in my writing, perhaps in the effort to emulate the male writers and filmmakers I grew up reading and watching. But part of carving my own path as an artist is to reflect on how my identified gender is intertwined with my story. I will never be able to write like the men I read, such as Pynchon, or Roth or Bolano, because I am not a man.
I will never achieve true specificity for as long as I try to emulate or am inspired by other artists. For that, I have to look inward, drawing on my own experiences and allowing them to shape my tone and language. My new daily affirmation? My own female gaze has the potential to make my writing more powerful. I just have to accept it.
Megha Ganapathy writes the Monday A&E column on learning and growing from experiences with art. Contact her at [email protected].