PDA

View Full Version : Write women? Or write pain? Here's an absolutely brilliant essay.



Perks
06-30-2014, 07:24 PM
I ran across this essay by Leslie Jamison, Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain (http://www.vqronline.org/essays-articles/2014/04/grand-unified-theory-female-pain). It's at turns illuminating, annoying, frank, frustrating --- just about everything you could ever feel on the topic of pain and specifically a female angle on pain - gynecological, mental, emotional, historical.

I've not had so much food for thought in I don't know how long.

If you've got the time and are in the mood to go spelunking in your own head and biases, no matter if you find yourself nodding in agreement or shaking your head in negation and disapproval (the author herself chases her tail of conclusions) this article is so worthwhile.

Dreity
06-30-2014, 08:49 PM
Wow. The author is inside my brain. Definitely bookmarking this so I can reread it often.

I have these worries with every woman I ever write. Is she hurting too much? Is she not hurting enough? How can I do her feelings justice without pissing people off? What is the most true to life, yet socially acceptable level of pain this woman is allowed to feel?

And then, when I start kicking myself for over-analyzing it, I wonder if it's just an excuse to not think deeply about the issue - an excuse to be a lazier writer.

I don't worry about these things with my male characters. I don't feel forced into making some statement about an entire gender when I write men, because my brain understands that I can't speak for "every man". But even when I include multiple women from multiple backgrounds with varying degrees of competence, moral fiber and agency, I still, like the author, worry if I'm secretly a misogynist. Women are people, just like men, but damn it, it is different, you know?

Yeah, I chase my tail a lot. :tongue

Perks
06-30-2014, 08:51 PM
Ha! Don't we all.

I'd love to see a mirror piece about men and pain, and I did find that I could imagine quite a lot of this essay and its depth applying to human beings across the board, not just to women.

I thought it was brilliant.

Roxxsmom
07-01-2014, 01:12 AM
I actually think I lay the male pain on thicker in my own writing. My pov character is a hot mess, and I have trouble imagining a woman with the same issues he has. I loves me some man pain, especially when they're all tied in knots because they think they have to hide it or shouldn't feel it at all.

sunandshadow
07-03-2014, 09:41 AM
I don't understand why that article is so focused on femaleness. :Huh: I've read many stories which have a male character crucified by pain, and his pain described as being somehow beautiful. I've read many stories where a male character is ashamed of his pain, ashamed to talk about it, embarrassed of his physical scars because they are evidence of his past hurts and the fact that he wasn't strong enough to avoid being hurt. Male characters are driven by painful feelings of guilt or inferiority to put themselves in situations where they are likely to be hurt or killed; male characters overcome by grief or despair lose the will to live; male characters self-harm or attempt suicide for a variety of reasons. I just don't see a reason for gendering pain, when it's the essential flaw of the _human_ condition, not just the female condition.

Fuchsia Groan
07-03-2014, 09:54 AM
Thanks for posting this! That was fascinating. It helped me realize that I've always had a fascination with these women who write about being in pain (Plath, Mary Gaitskill) combined with impatience and what she calls a "post-wounded" attitude. Female masochism is both compelling and deeply annoying to me.

This also casts an interesting light on female-authored m/m fiction. It's not always angsty, but it often is, to the point where certain stories are classified as "hurt/comfort." Is it safer to feel/express pain via male characters? For me I'd have to say yes. I don't actually write m/m, but I've always had an easier time writing angsty males than angsty females. I sometimes have a hard time even making my female characters express what they want because I don't want them to come off as needy and hurting. Fear of seeming wounded and self-pitying and wallowing has really hampered me in my writing. But the solution also isn't just to wallow, y'know? Because that has produced a lot of terrible writing, too.

No wonder she had so much trouble giving this essay an affirmative conclusion.

ETA: I totally agree, sunandshadow, that this isn't an exclusively female thing. Unlike Jamison, who grew up listening to angsty female singer-songwriters, I always preferred angsty guys, whether in music, film, or fiction. I was all about Elliot Smith and Raskolnikov and Heathcliff and Lord Jim. There is no shortage of male masochism on display in art, perhaps because artists in general tend to be sensitive and pain prone.

But. I do think there's a gendered difference at work here, because in our culture it's more acceptable and hence more common for women to express pain. It's also less acceptable for women to express aggression, which means anger tends to get turned inward (unless you're Carrie, which is why the horror genre can feel so liberating). I think this is bound up with the long history of patriarchy and is not going away any time soon, partly because this is one part of the system that women have used to their advantage. Through pathos, by becoming a tragic heroine, a powerless figure like Antigone can gain power. A woman who wouldn't be allowed to lead a nation politically could still become the symbol of a nation through her suffering. So "performed pain" could sometimes be a roundabout route to power that couldn't be obtained straightforwardly.

And this just makes both men and women even more suspicious of women who showcase their pain in some aesthetically attractive way. Do angsty men get the same scrutiny? I guess. But it's different somehow.

When a woman shows pain, people tend to think she's just taking the path of least resistance. When a man shows pain, he's breaking the cultural taboo that dictates male stoicism, so there's an assumption that his pain must be really bad, because he took a risk in displaying it.

Those are just my off-the-cuff thoughts; I wish the perception of pain weren't gendered, but I think it still is.

Perks
07-03-2014, 04:29 PM
FG, I think you answered that really well. This article happens to be about the cultural-mental-historical angles of pain (and the expression, thereof) in women. Nowhere does the article hint that men don't feel or express pain, or have a nuanced history with what's acceptable and desirable in it. This piece was long as it is and the author, in the span of it, was interested in the facets she described, but she never claimed (the hint is in the title) that she was going to address all pain everywhere. Nor is there any need for every venture into any topic have to be all-encompassing. This was a detailed diagram of one thing.

Like I said before, there's a fascinating companion piece about the also-very-interesting mechanics of the perception and expression of male pain. We just have to hope some guy writes it!

Kitty27
07-05-2014, 11:28 PM
I love it!

This is very timely as I was having a discussion with a friend about books featuring Black female characters who do nothing but suffer.
And suffer some more. With an extra side of suffering sprinkled with heartache and agony. I have seen obvious depression and other mental illness treated as "a female being a female" and the Strong Black Woman trope employed to deal with it.

I don't have a problem with a character who has been through something. But I do have an issue when she is constantly catching hell. Worse,it is written as either she deserves it or it's just part of being a Black woman(see Tyler Perry's entire catalog.) Sometimes,it's both!



Very interesting essay and I'm bookmarking it.

Rhoda Nightingale
07-06-2014, 07:01 AM
This was really powerful. Thank you for sharing it here.

ETA: This line in particular got to me: "We don’t want anyone to feel sorry for us, but we miss the sympathy when it doesn’t come. Feeling sorry for ourselves has become a secret crime—​a kind of shameful masturbation—​that would chase away the sympathy of others if we ever let it show."

crunchyblanket
07-06-2014, 03:41 PM
A 2001 study called “The Girl Who Cried Pain” tries to make sense of the fact that men are more likely than women to be given medication when they report pain to their doctors. Women are more likely to be given sedatives. The study makes visible a disturbing set of assumptions: It’s not just that women are prone to hurting—​a pain that never goes away—​but also that they’re prone to making it up. The report finds that despite evidence that “women are biologically more sensitive to pain than men … [their] pain reports are taken less seriously.” Less seriously meaning, more specifically, “they are more likely to have their pain reports discounted as ‘emotional’ or ‘psychogenic’ and, therefore, ‘not real.’ ”


Well, this resonates emotionally with me in so many ways. What an amazing essay. A lot to think about.

Persei
07-06-2014, 06:14 PM
I thought most of it was actually genderless. Since I'm not a native speaker, I found the language too convoluted to follow it through entirely -- jeez, she doesn't spare metaphors -- but most paragraphs I managed to read are akin to the human condition. She focus more on female-specific examples, but the logic itself is rather genderless, except maybe for the final paragraphs.

That aside, I do agree with her message. I'm chronically ill and I've self-harmed. I'm in some degree of pain quite often and either I'm not actually that ill or I'm a helpless ill person. Much like her, I'd like to acknowledge my pain without being a "wound-dweller" or helpless.

LupineMoon
07-07-2014, 10:45 PM
Wow. The author is inside my brain. Definitely bookmarking this so I can reread it often.

I have these worries with every woman I ever write. Is she hurting too much? Is she not hurting enough? How can I do her feelings justice without pissing people off? What is the most true to life, yet socially acceptable level of pain this woman is allowed to feel?

And then, when I start kicking myself for over-analyzing it, I wonder if it's just an excuse to not think deeply about the issue - an excuse to be a lazier writer.

I don't worry about these things with my male characters. I don't feel forced into making some statement about an entire gender when I write men, because my brain understands that I can't speak for "every man". But even when I include multiple women from multiple backgrounds with varying degrees of competence, moral fiber and agency, I still, like the author, worry if I'm secretly a misogynist. Women are people, just like men, but damn it, it is different, you know?

Yeah, I chase my tail a lot. :tongue

I have the same problem with my characters. My female characters are much more emotional than my male characters, especially when it comes to grief. I'm not sure if it's because I unconsciously buy into the "men need to hide their feelings" thing or not.