On writing characters who are marginalized in a way that you aren’t

by look i have opinions

I sympathize with this advice (found via thewritingcafe.tumblr.com), but it doesn’t quite sit right with me. There are so many settings and situations where choosing not to show a character’s marginalization feels dishonest, inadequate.

I mean, it can be done, of course; it’s pretty common for men (and women) to write female characters while completely avoiding issues of sexism. But I find such portrayals somewhat unconvincing. On the other hand, it’s also common for writers to portray sexism in a way that rings completely false. Maybe male writers who do that would be better off taking this advice, at least until they understand the subject better.

There’s a truly cringe-inducing bit in Stranger in a Strange Land that seems relevant here. (The book is infamous for its sexism and homophobia generally, but never mind that for a moment.) A formerly rather prudish female character has been converted to a free love mentality. She gets a job as a nude entertainer in a club (I’m a little hazy as to why). She receives some psychic glimpses into the minds of the men looking at her, and she’s delighted and aroused by their appreciation for various parts of her body. The men lust after her, but none of them resent her; or find themselves jaded by all the bodies they’ve seen before; or mentally criticize her perceived imperfections; or project their worst experiences with other women onto her; or feel contempt for her chosen profession. For that matter, none of them are at the club to prove themselves in the eyes of other men, or their own—they’re all here because they genuinely like looking at sexy, naked women. It’s a lovely, innocent fantasy. It’s also too ridiculous to take seriously for more than a second.

Of course, in that example, Heinlein probably didn’t go wrong because he wanted to avoid depicting women’s marginalization. Presumably he just lacked awareness of it. I could come up with some fictions that deliberately avoid depicting marginalization, but they wouldn’t come off as ridiculous, just bland and subtly false.

Edit: I just realized I do have something relevant to say about Stranger. Heinlein portrays his characters’ sexual openness as healthy and moral, but he fails to portray their society’s reaction honestly, with all its sexist double standards. It would be more true to life if Gillian started out stripping for her own pleasure, then discovered how easily that sort of pleasure can be ruined by an unsafe setting or a disrespectful audience. That would be an appropriate way for Heinlein to show the marginalization of women, even though a female author might do it better.