I recently read this interesting blog post from children's author Sarah Skilton about writing boy narrators. She said that, in a twitter chat, someone had said that a boy narrator immediately loses authenticity when he starts describing someone's clothing. Sarah rebutted that detective novelists like Raymond Chandler wrote detailed descriptions of people's clothing frequently, such as in this passage from The Long Goodbye:
"She was slim and quite tall in a white linen tailormade with a black and white polka-dotted scarf around her throat. Her hair was the pale gold of a fairy princess. There was a small hat on it into which the pale gold hair nestled like a bird in its nest. Her eyes were a cornflower blue, a rare color, and the lashes where long and almost too pale. She reached the table across the way and was pulling off a white gauntleted glove and the old waiter had the table pulled out in a way no waiter ever will pull a table out for me." (p. 89)
Sarah goes on to say that it's interesting that what was common practice in the 1950's would be considered inauthentic voice today. But, I think there's something else at work here than the book simply being half-a-decade old. Raymond Chandler was a man, and his narrator was a man. Because of that, the reader might have been more accepting of this detail-orriented voice simply because they knew it was authentically male, considering the author was male.
Do we judge authors more harshly if they write narrators opposite their own gender? I think the answer to that is undoubtably yes. We probably jump to this conclusion for any number of reasons--because inauthentic voice is so repellent to most readers, because everyone can formulate an opinion considering everyone has personal experience in "girlness" or "boyness". But, I also think this gets picked on because it's an easy criticism, and is very difficult to refute--if the voice was inauthentic, it must be because the writer was female and her narrator was male. But, as any writer knows, there's so much more at work in establishing voice than the gender of the narrator. When I read a book with inauthentic voice written by an author of the same gender as their narrator, I would of course never suggest that the author's gender had anything to do with the inauthenticity. I'd try to determine what else might be malfunctioning--is it word choice? Is it tense? Is it sentence length? Is it an excess or lack of description? Were too many colloquialisms used? So much goes into forming authentic voice, yet when the author is the opposite gender of their narrator, the dialogue rarely plunges so deep--the answer is always "Well, it's obvious she just couldn't write from a boy's perspective."
As much as I think this is an unfair and lazy criticism, I realized that I sometimes draw such easy conclusions myself.
There's been intense debate about the new movie Sucker Punch. The movie follows a group of young girls living in a mental institution as they fight for escape in a make-believe, fantasy world. The plot actually sounds kind of cool, and it's directed by Zach Snyder, who made two of my favorite comic book adaptations--Watchmen and 300. But critics have reviled it, calling it gratuitous, both for it's violence and for the way the girls in the movie are presented; the young female characters appear in super short schoolgirl miniskirts, ripped fishnets and midriff-bearing tops, all while plastered with makeup. Sucker Punch has been presented as a "Girl Power" action flick, with female characters kicking butt and taking names. Except, when I first saw the trailer, I didn't feel empowered--I felt uncomfortable. I completely agreed with the critics who said that the girls had been styled deliberately to appear tantalizing to men, all while slinging swords and firing machine guns, another aspect of the film that seems very male-generated. I made judgements about the film based on the fact that I knew the creator was a man. Had the director been a woman, would I have felt differently? Would I have accepted the suggestion of "female empowerment" more readily? Yes, I probably would have.
I don't like to accept hypocrisies in myself simply because they feel correct. It may very well be that Sucker Punch is a male fantasy on film, and that Zach Snyder is the creeper some suggest he is. But, Sucker Punch may also prove empowering to the female audience who is able to suspend judgement. So, even though I wish there were less Girl Power action movies starring impossibly gorgeous girls dressed like ladies of the evening, and more starring bookish girls in glasses and jeans, I'll probably end up seeing Sucker Punch at some point. My current WIP has a male narrator, and I'd hope a reader would suspend judgement until actually reading the book; I definitely I owe the same courtesy to others.