Men and women are different from each other. If you are reading this page, you are probably aware of this fact and have come to get some advice on how to write like the sex and/or gender you are not. Well, good news: we're here to help.
A ForewordThis article has political elements to it, because in our day and age, sex and gender are inherently political topics. As such, you may see things in this article that you disagree with and want to refute. When you do, please keep your edits civil.
Contributors to this article are encouraged to break the rule about conversations in the main page. The thing about objective reality is that human beings have trouble glimpsing it, due to the fact that we are inherently subjective; each person only glimpses part of the truth. One of the best ways to counter bias is not to exclude bias, but rather to include multiple biases to get The Rashomon: a sort of rough objectivity that figures out what must be true based on what people are or are not saying. It is only through total subjectivity that we can achieve anything approaching objectivity.
Our goal here is to educate. We are trying to help people write characters of the sex they personally are not. Your viewpoint is of inestimable value in this; it helps writers understand what is being said and thought and believed about sex and gender in the world today. However, by the same token, everybody else's viewpoints—including the ones you disagree with—are also of value, because whether or not you agree with them, they are still being said. As such, do not change paragraphs you disagree with. Simply add your own perspective and move on.
Overview of Perspectives
There are many different theories about gender which can result in different advice on how to write characters. These include nature-centered theories, which can be mystical or scientific, and nurture-centered theories, which can be feminist or from a male perspective.
The mystical viewpoint, which is the traditional one, believes in a strong essentialist Mars and Venus Gender Contrast, meaning men and women think very differently. Traditional religions tend to preach God-given "different duties" which assign men positions of authority, while New Age religions tend to argue "the divine feminine" is morally superior to "masculine energy". In the mystical view, gender differences are deeply mysterious so men and women perhaps cannot understand each other's ways of thinking.
Recently, fields such as evolutionary psychology or sociobiology have attempted to provide more scientific explanations for sex differences. Unlike mystical theories, today's scientific explanations generally acknowledge that genetics is only one part of what shapes a person's psychology and not all individuals follow group tendencies. To give an uncontroversial example, most men are attracted to women and most women are attracted to men, but some individuals are LGBT.
The feminist viewpoint probably needs no introduction. It is such a large and powerful movement that there are many branches of Feminism, but all are ultimately attempts to explain female experiences of society with the aim of improving society's treatment of women. Feminists see societies past and present as a "patriarchy" designed to exploit and oppress women, citing historical injustices against women and lingering unconscious prejudices among other things. Especially since The '90s, most feminists assert that gender is entirely a social construct.
Feminism's Spear Counterpart has many names but probably the most common is the Men's Rights Movement (though YMMV on whether "rights" is the appropriate word in this context). The MRM does for male perspectives what feminism did for female perspectives, and criticizes feminism as a one-sided "equality" that has often reinforced male disadvantages while dismantling male advantages. They believe men are falsely demonized as malicious, powerful, and invulnerable. Many also question how much "real" power men had in the traditional "patriarchy", arguing men's apparently "dominant" role was actually a risky protector-provider role that benefited women. MRM ideas tend to draw on evolutionary psychology as an ultimate explanation, but emphasize the influence of society on men.
This article has been accused of having a feminist bias. It does. The thing is, there is no such thing as an unbiased version of this article. According to the traditional mystical viewpoint, you cannot learn to write a character of the opposite gender - in which case, this page cannot teach you, and should be added to the Permanent Red Link Club because nothing useful can be said on the subject. Since we cannot overcome bias, we must allow this article to contain biases in favor of various viewpoints.
Now, let's get to the writing.
"No necessary tropes" makes the hardest kind of sense. In fact, you're probably protesting now: "But there are clear and evident differences between men-folk and women-folk! What do you mean that this involves no necessary tropes? Surely there are things that are Always Female and Always Male! —Heck, there must be, or else those would be redlinks!" Well, yes, there are such categories... but even the "Always Female" page proclaims that tropes can only make it onto that pages if they are "90% of the time" female-oriented. There isn't really anything that is now, these days, 100% female—nor anything that is 100% male either.
If you look at the personalities around you, the ones owned by your friends and family, you will see this played out. Almost all (actual-people) personalities are a combination of masculine and feminine traits. Some of them may repress those traits to a greater or lesser extent (more on that later), but by and large they are combinations. The reality of the situation is that much of gender is culturally based; what counts as "masculine" or "feminine" depends on whom you ask, and where you ask them, and when (more on that later, too). When you get down to it, people are people; write your character as a person first, a gender second, and you're good to go.
Now, as to repression: In The '50s, gender roles were very clearly defined. Men go out of the house to work; women Stay in the Kitchen. But in The '60s, the radical feminist movement argued that, while men and women are different in some ways (like the fact that women can get pregnant and men can pee standing up), most of those ways are not very important in terms of how society needs to treat people. In other words, as far as feminism is concerned, gender roles are societal, not biological, and just about anything a man can do, a woman can do as well. And vice versa.
Additionally, we need to make a distinction between sex and gender, because many people conflate them. Your "sex" involves your chromosomes, from which descends your genitalia and a few other things (like boobs). Your "gender" involves, well, your gender role—how society trains you to act in light of your chromosomes and all the stuff that dangles from them. But, again, gender is very cultural. In Asia, the Communist Party of China abolished the "Stay in the Kitchen" mentality and encouraged women to become equal partners, with equal pay, in the economic process. (It worked, as it happened.) In South America, machismo is in... but includes being sensitive to one's partners and being a kind and loving father, something that stoic models of North-American masculinity place less emphasis on. It's all relative.
Hell, "masculine" and "feminine" may not be the whole story. There's one in the middle, called "androgyny," a lack of male and female gender characteristics, which both men and women engage in at will. Business suits, for instance, are basically androgynous these days, because both men and women are expected to wear them; Bishōnen characters are often androgynous, having a mix of feminine traits (long hair; pretty facial features) and masculine traits (tall, lithe, martially talented). And if three isn't enough, some say there's more positions on the feminine-masculine spectrum than just those three.
The point we're trying to make here is this: sex is biological; it's "assigned" to you in the womb. But gender is cultural; it's something you are taught. (Okay, that's also a gross oversimplification, but it works for the purposes of this article.) This is how we have tropes like Tomboy and Girly Girl, Gender-Blender Name, Masculine Girl, Feminine Boy: just because a person has girl-parts doesn't mean she has to play girl parts in her social life, or vice versa. Historically, women and men would get in trouble for trying to do things that were respectively allocated to the Always Male or Always Female category, but the fact that they tried to do so at all just proves our point: You can choose whether you want to be masculine or feminine, regardless of what junk you have.
This is even true in historical contexts. Look around at the people you are near. Most of them are not 100% masculine or 100% feminine. They exhibit at least a couple traits that are (traditionally) ascribed to the other gender. And if that's true today, it was probably true in the past, because the thing about human nature is that it doesn't change. (If it does, why do we still read works that are Older Than Dirt?) True, people were much less likely to display their differences in public, but that didn't mean they didn't exist.
And that's why the list of necessary tropes is "None." There is almost nothing a woman is guaranteed to be, nor a man either. If a person would like to fit into traditional gender roles, he or she has the freedom to do so; and if he or she would not, that is also allowed. People of each gender will be trained to act a certain way depending on what genitals they have, but they are no longer obliged to accept that training... nor are their characters.
People are people. As we said, write your character as a person first, a gender second, and you're good to go.
Non-Gendered MotivationsSo how do you write a character of the opposite sex? The answer is simple, and also our next Mind Screw: write one of your own sex, and then go from there.
Human beings are fairly simple creatures. We all want a few things. Here's a list that we learned experts at TVTropes have come up with:
- Physical needs: Air, water, food, shelter and sleep, so that we can continue to live, and in some comfort. Money, by extension, because it can be exchanged for such things.
- Companionship: friendship, love, family, sex. (This one is probably the most variable, as there are definite archetypes of people who don't want friendship or sex).
- Fulfillment: a chance to do what we personally want to do. This can involve a career that satisfies our passions, the use of our leisure time on things we enjoy, or even just getting to eat something for dinner that we find tasty.
- Creation: A sense of contributing something to the world. This is most commonly expressed as a drive to create works of media (fiction, statues, buildings, empires) that will outlive us, but can also include the sex drive and the desire to have children.
- Peace: a sense that all is right with the world. We occupy our proper place, we are appropriately respected for what we do, and the same is true for others. A lack of this feeling may not be common in Real Life, but almost all fiction starts with someone wanting something they don't have and deciding to go get it.
- Sleep / Energy, which goes up when your Sim sleeps and goes down when they are awake.
- Hunger, which goes up when your Sim eats and goes down at all other times.
- Comfort, which goes up when your Sim relaxes and goes down when they exert themselves or do something messy.
- Social Interactions, which goes up when your Sim talks with others and goes down as they get lonely.
- Fun, which goes up when your Sim does something recreational and goes down at all other times.
- Hygiene, which goes up when your Sim takes a shower or washes their hands, and goes down at all other times (especially if they are exercising or doing something messy).
- Excretion, which goes down when your Sim uses the restroom and goes up at all other times.
- Environment, which goes up and down depending on the Sim's environs. This basically measures whether they are in a pleasant location or not; clean, well-lighted and well-decorated spaces boost the meter while dirty, bare walls lower it. Unlike the other meters, this cannot be improved by in-game activities, only by spending money in Buy or Build Mode.
Psychologist Shalom H. Schwartz came up with ten "Basic Values" which (he claims) underline almost all human interaction:
- Self-Direction: independent thought and action; choosing, creating, exploring.
- Stimulation: excitement, novelty, and challenge in life.
- Hedonism: pleasure or sensuous gratification for oneself.
- Achievement: personal success through demonstrating competence according to social standards.
- Power: social status and prestige; control or dominance over people and resources.
- Security: safety, harmony, and stability of society, of relationships, and of self.
- Conformity: restraint of actions, inclinations, and impulses likely to upset or harm others and violate social expectations or norms.
- Tradition: respect, commitment, and acceptance of the customs and ideas that one's culture or religion provides.
- Benevolence: preserving and enhancing the welfare of those with whom one is in frequent personal contact (the ‘in-group').
- Universalism: understanding, appreciation, tolerance, and protection for the welfare of all people and for nature.
And "The Angry Therapist" came up with seven of them for a Facebook post:
- Emotional need: Your need to express yourself and your feelings, to feel heard, to feel validated.
- Creative need: Your need to express creatively. Use your right brain. We are all creators.
- Sexual need: This need isn't just about having sex. It's your need to feel sexy. We are all sexual beings. Feeling sexy is a basic need.note
- Physical need: Daily sweat. Your need to move. We weren't meant to sit in a cubicle all day. Connect with your body. That's where your potency lives.
- Spiritual need: You need to feel connected to something greater than you. We are all spiritual beings. (He seems to have forgotten atheism)
- Passion / purpose need. You need to feel that you are on this planet for a reason. Because you are.(He seems to have forgotten atheism)
- Tribe need. We're not meant to do life alone. How are you fulfilling your need to belong to a group, community, a tribe. We grow through others.
Look at your life, right now. Don't these lists explain almost everything you do? Guess what: they're what almost everybody spends time on, regardless of whether they're male or female. And what that means for you is that men and women are a lot more similar than we are sometimes willing to credit.
Of course, these base drives raise a new question: now that we know what a person wants, how is he or she going to get it? And here's where gender starts to come in, because it has a big impact on execution. To get food, water, shelter and money, a man is typically expected to go out and learn an industry. A woman is traditionally expected to... be a Gold Digger or get an MRS Degree. So this is where the differences come in.
Once again, we have good news for you: your opposite-gender character is not required to be troperiffic. He or she today has a choice of what gender s/he presents to the world. If a woman wants to go out and be a high-powered business executive, she can be. If a man wants to be a househusband, he can be (though he may have much more difficulty finding a partner to financially support him). Both of them are going to get odd looks whilst doing it, because traditionalism is not dead, but the option is open.
But let's assume that you want to write a character who is "stereotypical" in their gender—who sticks to the gender roles associated with their sex. How do we write this person? The first step, paradoxically, is to examine yourself.
"But that doesn't help me at all," we can hear you protest. "I'm a man trying to write a woman/a woman trying to write a man! My own experience doesn't apply at all! It's Different for Girls!" And to that we would reply: Nonsense. You, like your opposite-gender character, are subject to societal pressure. From the day you were born, you have dealt with the same social conditioning everyone has. What you were conditioned to be is different, but the conditioning itself is omnipresent.
So all you have to do is ask yourself, "How was I trained to be [whatever gender I am]?" And then gender-flip it.
Let's take a simple example: crying. When you cried, how were you treated? If you were a boy, you were probably told to man up and stop being a wimp, because Men Don't Cry, you pansy. Thus, you learned to control your tears. If you were a girl, you were probably ignored and remained uncommented on... though not always. In private, you may have been encouraged to cry, since Tender Tears can be used to Charm Person. And, as such, you were conditioned to be more generous with your sobbing. And thus society proceeded along logical and accepted lines. After all, emotionality is good in a woman... but bad in a man.
Gender Roles and StereotypesHere is where we start getting into the territory of Double Standards: those old chestnuts that dominate so much of gender politics. Women are expected to be one thing and men another, because male and female personalities are completely, polar-opposite, Yin-Yang Clash- or Mars and Venus Gender Contrast-level different. This is a fundamental belief of traditionalism: that men and women are Different as Night and Day, and never the twain shall meet. A great deal of social conditioning has gone into programming people to believe this. This logic sucks, but it is nevertheless useful to us as writers because it lets us apply the vast majority of our experiences. Whatever we were taught to be, we just do the opposite.
It's hard to make generalized statements about All Women Everywhere and All Men Everywhere, because—again—all these opinions are at least partially dependent on place and time. But there are a few very general rules that define how men and women are supposed to approach things:
- Women are kind, while men are mean. If a thing involves being nice, men should not do it; conversely, if a thing involves being mean, women should not do it.
- A Real Man Is a Killer, Manly Men Can Hunt: Men are encouraged to find their capacity for violence. This is valid if you live in a hunter-gatherer society, but is Values Dissonance in any society that has evolved into something more complex (and if you can read this, yours probably has). Meanwhile, women can only inflict Amusing Injuries, and any attempt to do so is Played for Laughs (Double Standard: Abuse, Female on Male, Cat Fight, etc).
- All Girls Want Bad Boys: Nice Guys finish last because kindness is feminine, and thus unmanly (see below). Additionally, women are too stupid to use logic when it comes to selecting a male partner, make their choices based on their emotions, and will go for Jerk With A Heart Of Jerk types because jerkassery is manly. Finally, this can result in Entitled to Have You attitudes from men both Nice and Bad, precisely because they fit the stereotype.
- Ugly Guy, Hot Wife: Women are much more encouraged to fit into their culture's standards of physical attractiveness. If a man doesn't, he gets negative attention for it, but rather less of it; it's okay for men to deviate from the norm. (Proof of concept: during her 2016 campaign for the American presidency, how many times did Hillary Clinton get criticized for not smiling enough? More times than all of her competitors combined.)
- Women are discouraged from displaying bodily functions in public. If a man farts or burps in public, it's typically Played for Laughs. If he smells like sweat, it may be not a big deal or it can lead to him being shunned. But if a woman farts, or burps, or talks about farting or burping or—gasp!—pooping, then clearly she is an uncivilized savage. She must smell perfect at all times, even if she's still in the gym and just finished running five miles. And God forbid she admit that she menstruates.
- Feminists believe this is because women are considered inherently dirty. In this view, men can do dirty things (work with their hands, fart, belch, scratch themselves in public), but women are dirty by existing, and often overcompensate in their grooming habits. However, this argument could easily be flipped: perhaps women are viewed as clean by existing, and therefore are discouraged from doing anything dirty in public so as not to tarnish the image of women as clean.
- There are a lot of body-shaming messages that go towards women, many of them seemingly contradictory: A woman should be perfectly hairless and should be an ungroomed Amazon. A woman should have children, but never menstruate (or enjoy sex). A woman should exhibit Incorruptible Pure Pureness and Be a Whore to Get Your Man. Buxom Beauty Standard, but if you do have nice tits, you're encouraging male attention. (Arguably there is no contradiction in the last point, since attracting male attention is the only thing that buxom is better for.)
- Men Don't Cry vs. Tender Tears, as covered above. As Sansa Stark was taught, "Tears are a lady's weapon." In a man, they are a sign of weakness. More generally, men are expected to be The Stoic whilst women are allowed to use their emotions to get their way.
- Men are powerful, women are powerless. Brains and Brawn; Men Act, Women Are; Men Are Strong, Women Are Pretty. Women need men to do things for them. This not only means that women should Stay in the Kitchen, and that they're Never a Self-Made Woman, it also enforces Women Are Wiser (Bumbling Dad, Macho Disaster Expedition, Men Can't Keep House, etc).
- All Men Are Perverts vs All Women Are Prudes: A real man participates in sex while a real woman abstains. Women are taught that they should only have sex with their husbands, and that being sexually active before then makes them Defiled Forever. Men are taught (with a few exceptions such as some religions, though the standards apply to both men and women) that having an active pre-marital sex life makes them awesome, and ''failing'' to do so puts them straight into Loser Archetype territory.
- Today we believe All Women Are Prudes, but in Ancient Grome, it was believed that All Women Are Lustful; they were sexually out of control the way men are believed to be today. It was the man's job to have enough self-control for both of them, just as it is for women today.
- It should be noted that sexual mores are a double bind in general. "My Girl Is a Slut" and "My Girl Is Not a Slut" are both considered character flaws, with the only "acceptable" sexual outlet for women being in the context of marriage. In addition, while the whole "A Man Is Not A Virgin" thing has historically been seen as proof that a man is virile and aggressive, feminism has attempted to reframe it as predatory and self-centered, with mixed reactions from both progressives and traditionalists. There has also been very little action against the idea that men who are virgins are definitive losers. This makes sexuality a fertile topic for conflict in stories... and Flame Wars in Real Life.
- Satellite Love Interest. Women are socialized to define themselves according to their romantic lives and romantic partners. At a time when boys are throwing GI Joes or Power Rangers toys at each other's faces, girls spend time thinking about the trappings of a relationship—house, kids, the husband's career, and especially the White Wedding she hopes to have one day. ("Common Knowledge" insists that men are completely disinterested in any aspect of the wedding except for the consummation.) And almost every lifestyle choice a woman makes—hairstyle, make-up and clothing, hobbies and pastimes, career, exercise and eating habits—will be judged in terms of whether it furthers her ability to get a man. A woman never does things just because she wants to do them; it's all part of her plan to get a man.
- Career Versus Man, Family Versus Career, Stay in the Kitchen. A woman who values her career above domestic concerns is looked at as though she has grown a second head. Of course, a man who chooses to become a House Husband is looked at as though he has grown a third. Note that this also fits into the next category:
- All Men Are Perverts vs All Women Are Prudes: A real man participates in sex while a real woman abstains. Women are taught that they should only have sex with their husbands, and that being sexually active before then makes them Defiled Forever. Men are taught (with a few exceptions such as some religions, though the standards apply to both men and women) that having an active pre-marital sex life makes them awesome, and ''failing'' to do so puts them straight into Loser Archetype territory.
- Being feminine is unmanly. Some things are feminine in nature, so men are not allowed to do them; if they do, they are sissies and despised or shunned for it. Due to the influence of feminism, women are less limited in this way, but they pay other prices for it.
- Pink Is for Sissies. Women can wear just about any color, but any colors strongly associated with women (which is mostly pink in America, and purple to a lesser extent) are completely off-limits for men. The same is true for clothes; it's almost a Dead Horse Trope that Scottish men wearing traditional garb (i.e. kilts) are considered unmanly simply because a kilt is similar—similar—to a skirt. (And men from the 1600s would be laughed at by today's population for wearing high heels, even though high heels started out as a men-only accessory, simply because today they are the opposite.) Hobbies and other lifestyle choices are segregated in this way, too: knitting, crocheting, dancing, flower arranging and other stereotypically female pastimes are simply off the table for men. And let's not even get into names! Many names that started off as male-exclusive—Meredith, Evelyn, Ashley—are now only seen on women, and a number of other Gender Blender Names are likely to follow.
- Moustache de Plume. For a woman to be taken seriously in a male-dominated field, she has to hide her femininity. She might also have to over-compensate for it, at which point she's likely to be considered a bitch. And she'll still be asked why she didn't choose to Stay in the Kitchen.
- A related but prevalent trope: being male is the default setting in many workplace environments, and women are evaluated on how well they can be male. And when, as you might expect, they're not the greatest at it, they are penalized for failing to be male. Meanwhile, if a male colleague were to display identical behavior, his coworkers would Hand Wave it as him, y'know, having a personality.
- Camp Gay. Homosexual men are weird because being gay involves—guess what?—having feminine traits. Even worse, it involves a man being the receiving partner in a sexual transaction—in other words, being powerless, instead of being powerful, the way a "real man" should. (Lesbians, on the other hand, get off scot-free, because their sexual interactions don't involve perverting Sacred Masculinity and thus are morally irrelevant. Well, aside from men's cherished belief that truly satisfying sex must involve a penis.)
- Part of the reason men are required to be The Stoic is because women are allowed to show emotions; consequently, emotions are a feminine thing, and men must not show them. This becomes an even bigger Double Standard when we point out that women who do use their emotions to get their way are considered weak and undisciplined, especially if this takes place in a workplace environment. (And while there is something valid to be said about professionalism, that still leaves the problem of punishing women for conforming to societal norms.) The Unfortunate Implications are, simply, that emotions are a sign of weakness; the reason women are allowed to exhibit them is that they're weak to begin with.
- Feminists argue that femininity itself is seen as a negative quality. However, an alternative perspective is that femininity is only considered negative in men, and masculinity is only considered negative in women.
- One of the worst things you can call a(n American) woman is a cunt. The C-word is considered the dirtiest word in the English language, surpassing even the Precision F-Strike. Feminists believe this says something about how much derogation women are thought to need. They argue the fact that the most hated and derision-worthy element of a woman is her vagina—not her uterus or ovaries, from which she brings forth life; not her breasts or rear, which are her most visible symbols of femininity; but her vagina, the organ with which she interacts sexually with men—points out how deeply misogyny is built into English-speaking culture, values and language. (A non-feminist might argue for the opposite point of view on the C-word: that it shows the vagina is seen as so sacred that you’re not allowed to insult it. After all, there are also plenty of insults based on words for male genitalia - "dick", "cock", "dickhead", etc.)
If you defy these, you'll likely feel pressure—some from your peers, some from society, and some that may even have been internalized into your personality due to your culture's (successful) brainwashing—to conform. After all, you're not fitting your gender roles!! Almost everyone feels this pressure, and the question of how they resist or adapt to it, and which parts they resist or adapt to, is fertile ground for Character Development.
Finally, there's always the Double Standards article here on TV Tropes to help you out—that's where we got the above list. Study them for more ideas.
Seeking AdviceWalking in these shoes can be, well, daunting. Fortunately, you have an imagination, which will allow you to walk in the shoes of someone else who has lived under these double standards, under different ones from you. You've also probably noticed some of them at work, or heard people you are close to talking about them.
If you have friends of the opposite sex (you probably do), you can ask them for help. Show your manuscript to a friend of the opposite gender. Better yet, show it to multiple friends of the opposite gender, because not every member of the opposite gender will have the same thoughts on gender issues. For example, an apolitical woman or man might react differently to a traditionalist woman or man, who might react differently again to a feminist or men’s rights activist.
For questions that you need answers to during the writing process, online spaces such as r/AskWomen and r/AskMen can provide insights into what the opposite gender is thinking. Of course, bear in mind that each response will be from an individual who is not necessarily representative of their group.
PhysiologyThere's one issue we've dodged so far in the article: the physical differences between men and women. Anyone with breasts can tell you that you have to learn to manage them in your everyday life, as can anyone with testicles. They change your posture, your clothing, your movement, your sense of personal space... And, if you're writing a lemon or some other form of Explicit Content, they have very serious ramifications. What's that like? How does it feel to have a body of the opposite sex? How do you write that?
Bad news: you don't.
No, seriously. There are things you can ask people about social conditioning and the double standards, but matters of mere physicality are a bit harder to pin down. The problem with weighted opposites is that in order to describe one, you have to be able to describe the other. We can't ask you whether you're "austrepidacious" if you don't even know what it means to be not austrepidacious. Weighted-opposites states need to be before-and-after before we can really make a comparison. And, until and unless somebody perfects some sort of magic Gender Bender ray, we're not going to have much in the way of understanding what it's like to be a woman one day and a man the next.
There are some workarounds. Most of your female friends once did not have breasts, and can probably tell you something about the changes caused by the changes. Male-to-female transgender people have probably had similar experiences. And if you know anyone who has had to have a radical mastectomy—Angelina Jolie, for instance—she will have even more immediate recollections. These people can probably tell you something useful about how having breasts, or no longer having them, altered their behavior. Finding men who have had all their junk removed—or are willing to admit it—may be harder (again, manliness is all about sex), but they can provide similar insight in the new ways they were able to sit down after they no longer had extremely-easy-to-hurt things dangling between their legs.
Vaginas, though... vaginas are only really physically interacted with either during sexual activity, childbirth, menstruation or for medical reasons (urinating is done via a hole over the vagina called the urethra). Given the fact that they're a orifice in the body, this leads to some negative connotations.
Another potential source are post-op transgender people. They've lived in both bodies and can definitely provide you with some insight into the differences. However, there is a limit to what modern medicine can do; we can surgically alter the cosmetic aspects of the body (turn penis into vagina or vice versa), but actually shifting the function is beyond us. A person born without a uterus man will never have a period or get pregnant, which is a bit of a big deal. Likewise, a female-to-male trans person can have phalloplasty and end up with a penis, but will not ejaculate (no testicles or prostate gland exist) and may have trouble achieving an erection—which is also something of a big deal, since it will limit sexual activity, and a transgender penis does not always have the same capacity for receiving pleasure as a natural penis.
The good news, though, is this: you don't know the answers to any of these questions, or perhaps you know them as well as anyone can. Everyone else is in the same boat. There is no authority about the differences between living in a male body vs. living in a female body, so it kind of doesn't matter if you get it wrong; getting it right is physically impossible. Now, certain choices are likely to be incorrect—men are unlikely to be blasé about wearing tight underwear because they could easily jam something in an uncomfortable position; women with large bosoms will not elect to go bra-less in any situation where their breasts might swing around loose—but by the same token, every person is different, and there are no rules that are 100% true about every woman or every man. For every well-endowed woman who wears a bra almost all the time, there's one who prefers not being restricted, regardless of the inconvenience. ...Well, maybe ten to one, but the simple fact that we touched on previously is that such a person could exist, and—if you're a good writer and can provide good Character Development—you can justify her unusual behavior.
In the meanwhile, here are a few observations about having the body of a man or a woman.
MalesFacial hair is both a blessing and a curse. A well-created and distinguished beard or moustache can add enormous presence and dignity to a face... but a wimpy one just looks dumb. And facial hair is not created equally: some people just don't have a lot of it, and can't grow it fast or thick enough to be presentable in public.
It is difficult to describe the sensation of a Groin Attack. The instantaneous reaction is the "Fight or Flight" instinct which often manifests as anger. In addition to the standard pain that would come with a strike anywhere else on the body, there is an intense, throbbing pain that makes one feel like vomiting, similar to being punched in the stomach, that encompasses everything between the groin and the stomach, especially in the stomach and testicles. Even a glancing blow is enough to cause this sort of reaction, but other times even a fairly solid blow can surprisingly fail to connect just right. Prolonged unsatisfied arousal (a.k.a. "blue balls") can also cause very similar effects.
And a man's genitals are not between his legs, they are in front of them. It is in fact possible for a man to sit cross-legged, but most don't, because 1) the risk is not worth the effort, and 2) women sit cross-legged, and men aren't allowed to do anything women do. (It's kind of interesting how "patriarchy", an attitude that supposedly is all about promoting male freedom at the expense of female freedom, actually restricts both.)
FemalesWalking around with breasts means walking around with things sagging off the front of your chest. While they are not very dense, this just makes it easier to fling them around if you need to move quickly. Most men believe that women wear bras primarily to accent their assets, but the truth is that they're also the best way to keep the darn things from escaping. Most of the time, though, women don't really notice their breasts, unless something draws attention to them (the same way men don't really notice their genitals unless something draws attention to them, like an erection or injury). A lot of times you'll see a female character who has these random sensuous thoughts about her tits. This is what men think women do because it's what a man would do if he were womanified; and if he were womanified, he probably would notice his new tits... for a while. But gradually they'd just become a part of his body. For a female character to do this well into her... whatever-age-she-is-when-the-story-starts... is heteronormative thinking, pure and simple.
Periods can suck. Your body is expelling a piece of itself, and it's coming out all gory and sticky, and you have to walk around with a chunk of wet cotton pressed against your downstairs to absorb it—how good a mood would you be in? Even worse, there are a lot of aches and pains associated with it: aside from the potential for cramps as your uterus tears its own insides apart, you can have acne breaking out, you can get headaches, your breasts can get extremely sensitive or even feel like they're burning, you can feel sluggish and depressed, you can start craving certain foods (chocolate, salts, fats) to the point that it becomes an obsession, your sex drive can go completely off the charts in either direction... Of course, every woman's different. Some remain chipper while some get really emotional. Some have pain while some don't. The length of the process is different from person to person. Even the quantity of discharge can vary: The Other Wiki claims that the average volume is 35 milliliters but that anything from 10 to 80 mL is still "considered typical."
SocietalAnother pitfall is the social differences between men and women. We've covered them to a certain extent, in terms of gender roles, but here, we're going to tackle something else: how men and women treat each other. Much of gender politics is tied up in these things, and much of the hard work of repairing or undoing the current state of gender politics will take place here. There is much that could be said, but here's some basics:
- According to the feminist perspective, men are typically accorded the place of dominance in mixed-gender social situations. However, many non-feminists dispute whether and to what extent this happens, whether apparent displays of male dominance are actual male dominance, and whether the status of elite males does anything to benefit males in general.
- Most highly-paid corporate executives are men, while women get paid less (though arguably, this is because women are under less pressure to be breadwinners and so tend to choose low-risk careers over high-paying ones).
- Men predominate in many fields such as STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), not to mention positions of authority in politics and religion.
- Feminists argue catcalling is evidence that men are "allowed" to sexually appraise just about any woman they want to. (However, non-feminists would dispute this claim. Who is telling women they’re not allowed to sexually appraise men? If a woman wants to catcall men on the street, what is stopping her that wouldn’t stop a man? And even before feminists criticized things like catcalling, weren't traditionalists criticizing it as unchivalrous?)
- Many cultures believe that the attitudes of the "Like Brother and Sister" or "Platonic Life-Partners" tropes are bullshit—including, in some cases, the tropes themselves. Men and women, it's believed, cannot coexist for much time before flirting begins (whether one-sided or mutual). This is an extension of the whole Mars and Venus Gender Contrast thing; women and men are so different, it's believed, that the only thing they have in common, or can have in common, is that they want to have sex with each other. (And even then there will be arguments. Doesn't that sound like a pleasant marriage, by the way?—disagreeing with your spouse about every single thing, and never being able to find common ground? Because, according to traditionalism, that's a correct marriage.)
- Men don't really talk about things. This is partially because of all them double standards. If a man is pleased, or offended, or dismayed, he may go out of his way not to show it to others... partly because displaying emotion is something that women are given more license to do. And even if he's right, others may still shame him for having feelings at all. However, this does not mean that men do not and cannot have meaningful conversations; it just means that a man is more likely to be careful about whom he has those conversations with, since he needs to trust that the other party will listen to him and/or not make fun of him.
- Women get a fair bit of socialization to avoid direct conflict. This is why there is the stereotype of the catty woman who "kills with kindness" and does verbal backstabbing once you're out of earshot.
Women feel that their bodies are judged basically all the time, as they are being evaluated by men as potential sexual partners. When some men catcall at an attractive woman, they believe they're being complimentary, and perhaps in their heart they genuinely mean well. They may also consider it a right (perhaps fearing a crackdown on sexual remarks would reduce their sexual opportunities, however clumsy their approach). In any case the existence of catcallers means that, if you are a woman, the mere act of stepping out your front door involves putting yourself on sexual display.
Women also evaluate each other as competition in a way men do not, and this can influence the way they treat each other. Men also see each other as sexual competition, which probably explains why most violence is male-on-male - but it's less clear to men on what parameters they are being judged by women, so male competition has an added layer of mystery.
There is a stereotype that men are totally unconcerned about their appearance, and will happily go out in public unshaven, with mismatched socks, and generally in an unfinished state that no self-respecting woman would allow herself to be seen in. This leads a lot of women to believe that men are simply immune to the body-image issues epitomized by tropes like Hollywood Homely or Hollywood Pudgy. The truth is, men do have body-image issues. But once again, men are trained not to show their emotions, especially not their insecurities; they are expected to be islands unto themselves. Men who admit insecurity about their attractiveness are mocked and demonized as "losers", "incels", "Nice Guys TM", etc by both traditionalists and feminists. So they keep it to themselves. But that doesn't mean they don't feel it.
Additionally, it can be much harder for men to get any sort of grounding in the area, because women tend to be much less open about which types of men they prefer. Most men rarely if ever receive any sexual attention, so they may have little to no idea whether they are attractive or how to make themselves more attractive. This is particularly bad for men who are too shy/awkward/anxious/autistic to make sexual approaches themselves, because if a man does not go out of his way to try to form sexual relationships, sex is unlikely to happen for him.
Another possible factor: If a woman were to go to her girl-friends and say, "I'm concerned that my arms have too much fat on them," they will be able to point out a dozen other women around her who have fatter ones. Male friends would not be able to, because men are not actually allowed to look at each other, not in the frank assessments necessary to get any grounding as to what actual human beings look like these days.
CulturalYet another pitfall is culture. Much of the above draws from American culture, but each nation and culture has its own standards about what's normal for men and what's normal for women, and they don't always match: hence, Values Dissonance. Even worse, cultures evolve. As mentioned above, what's normal for American women today would have been unthinkable in the 1910s or even the 1950s. More change from place to place and time to time.
Now, we are not saying that there are certain things a person just can't do in time-and-place combinations. The literature supports this: almost every culture ever has stories about Action Girls, and most of them have stories about feminine boys too who were celebrated for their willingness to follow their hearts. People want to be who they want to be, and typically they will find ways to do so.
What we are saying is that what counts as "feminine" and what counts as "masculine" is by no means universal; they change depending on the where and the when. So do the responses to feminine men and masculine women. In some places, deviation is punished severely—there are constant tales out of the Middle East and India about people doing savage things to women because she acted on her sexual desires. In some places, people turn a blind eye; in Ancient Grome, nobody cared who you slept with as long as you knocked up your wife. (Mythological Greece was very patriarchal; their word for wife, "gynē," also meant "womb" and gives us the modern word "gynecology". This tells you something about what Achaean men thought their women were for.) And in some places you might even get applause for it: in feudal Japan, Boys' Love was considered virtuous because it meant you were so manly that women couldn't satisfy you! ...Of course, you were expected to be the seme. (We must have some standards here. Ancient Grome felt the same way.) And this gets us right back to the first point about how the definitions of masculinity and femininity change depending on time and place. In most locales, the uke—the gay man who "receives" the sexual interaction—is considered perverted. On occasion, he is venerated, as he was in Shogunate Japan, but not most of the time. Think about modern American culture, where the idea of the seme does not even really exist (the closest is Hard Gay, which itself is almost a caricature), and the Camp Gay—you know, the effeminate one?—is the typical stereotype. When two Camp Gays get together, who's on top? American Homophobia would prefer we not answer that question. (Which is a little hypocritical of American Homophobia, since it's them who insist that the dilemma exists by refusing to admit that gay men can be masculine, but we'll just sip our tea and leave it at that.)
So: the definitions of "masculine" and "feminine", and reactions to people who break the mold, will change depending on the culture and time period your story is set in. You know what this means: research. What did men do, in your setting? And what did women do? If, for instance, you set your story in Ancient Grome, it might be tempting to shoot for the Men Are Uncultured trope; your heroic Grecian or Roman of course wants to prove himself a rough-and-tumble son-of-a-bitch with no interest in mental exercise when he could be engaging in physical exercise—right? Nope; Ancient Greece had one of the highest per-capita ratios of Cultured Badasses and Genius Bruisers in recorded history, and having both physical and mental fortitude was considered a mark of excellence. Socrates, the Philosopher and the father of Contemplating Our Navels, served with distinction in several battles and is believed to have made his living as a stonecutter (navel-contemplation not being very profitable). Your epitome of Men Are Uncultured would be considered in Greece what he's considered today: an idiot. And not in a good way.
The Actual WritingBe very, very wary of getting Mode Locked. When you're starting out, it's easy to just stick to that which is stereotypical about women and men. But this can get old quickly, not to mention undermine the Willing Suspension of Disbelief. "Stop Being Stereotypical" is difficult to take seriously if a character says it; if the audience says it, you're in serious trouble.
Ultimately, gender is a lot like your body: you don't notice it unless it's brought up to you. Women probably have it brought up a little more frequently, but it's totally possible for a man to get into situations where people treat him like a gender traitor (and the social consequences can be bigger; while there are a number of cultures where masculine females are acceptable, there are a lot fewer of them where feminine males are). But in fiction, a lot of not-the-gender-of-the-author characters seem to be thinking about being their gender 100% of the time. This is a clear sign of the not-the-gender-of-the-author thing, because that's not how people work. People are, ultimately, people, and writing them that way is one of the best ways to convincingly write someone who isn't your gender.
And spend some time, additionally, thinking about what your definition of "the opposite gender" even is, because you should subvert it in your writing as much as possible. If not, it'll show. Consider The Wheel of Time, the 14-book (!!!) magnum opus of author Robert Jordan. Almost every female character in it is a more harsh (tsun) Tsundere, simply because that's what Jordan's wife is like, and readers noticed quickly. Jordan did go to some lengths to justify his female characters being more comfortable with power and authority: his world is much more gender-even because, during the last Final Boss Fight, the Big Bad cursed all male wizards to go batshit insane. 3,000 years later, male channelers are hunted down—by women—and "gentled" in service of The Needs of the Many. When only women can use magic, of course patriarchy goes out the window. But even in a world where women can and do hold positions of enormous power (like "Amyrlin Seat," the elected president of the witchs and probably the single most powerful person on the continent), they wouldn't all have the same exact personality. Robert Jordan's writing made it clear that while he understood a woman, he did not understand women.
Of course, it can be even more blunt than that. Examine the plot structure of your story and where your conflict comes from. If you are a man, are you constantly writing events where a female character screws up and a man has to fix it? If you are a woman, are all your male characters chowderheads being kept on the straight-and-narrow by their Closer to Earth female counterparts? It goes without saying that none of this is realistic. In the vast majority of social relationships—be it a friendship, a romance, a sexual relationship, or even just two people who happen to sit next to each other at work—both parties make mistakes at different times, concerning different issues. Most people are right about some things and wrong about others. If characters who are right are always of one gender—whether or not it's the one you share—there's a blindspot in the way you think, and you might want to examine yourself.
Potential SubversionsWhere do we start? There's not much that's Always Male or Always Female anymore. Regardless of the historical contexts, audiences are receptive to just about any gender-flip you can think of.
The place where subversion can really happen is not in audience reactions, but rather in character reactions.
Say you have Alexis, who has decided to go against the flow. Maybe she's a girl who wants to play American Football. Or maybe he's a boy who wants to learn ballet. (Aren't androgynous names fun?) How are the people around Alexis going to respond? The obvious answer is to say that all of them will disapprove, because that creates tension in the story... but since we all know Alexis is going to soldier on and become the best football dancer the world has ever seen, that opposition feels hollow. Perhaps, then, universal approval? Well, that too is unrealistic, not to mention a very poor Conflict-generator. There's probably some hide-bound conservative near Alexis who will protest their atypical proclivities.
So, what then? Well, the obvious answer: Take a Third Option.
Alexis probably has friends who will support those football-dancer dreams, and others who think Alexis is a fool. Likewise, Alexis will meet people while football-dancing who will provide encouragement and support... and others who will offer only scorn and belittling commentary. There will probably be no homogenous reaction.
And here's the fun part: Take a fourth option! Which characters will provide support, and which will provide scorn? And why? As an author you can have a great deal of fun subverting expectations by mixing and matching characters, roles, and motivations. The muscle-bound quarterback who tries to scare Alexis off the field: maybe he's a Shell-Shocked Veteran who has seen too many friends injured while trying to play, and is concerned that a girl—typically the more fragile of the human species—will get not so much "injured" as "paralyzed from the neck down." And the one who is supportive and encourages her: perhaps he's secretly a male supremacist and is trying to get her in over her head so that she does get hurt, and he can point and laugh later. Motivation is motivation, but it can be expressed in a myriad of different ways, and you don't by any means need to stick to the stereotypes or traditions. Alexis sure isn't.
Another possible subversion is for Alexis to try out their new cross-gender-role experience and then decide it's not everything it's turned out to be, that sticking to traditional gender roles are more preferable. This runs a heavy risk of becoming a Hard Truth Aesop, but it is a legitimate decision. There's still a battle going on within feminism over the Stay in the Kitchen trope: some feminists believe that a woman voluntarily choosing to be a housewife or homemaker is immoral and reactionarynote . Your story could take the opposing attitude; its Aesop could be, "It's okay to stick to tradition, if that's what you genuinely want." (And, for the record, most feminists would agree with this; it's only the really radical ones who believe that you are morally obligated to ignore your own desires in favor of embracing progress.)
Suggested Themes and Aesops
You could probably spend a lot of time on color motifs. Just take Pink Girl, Blue Boy. It's Newer Than They Think; pink—an offshade of the very masculine red—used to be a male color, while blue—associated with Incorruptible Pure Pureness via the True Blue Femininity exhibited by the Virgin Mary—is still at least partially female.
Colors are a cultural thing, but that doesn't mean you can't use them. Heck, depending on your setting, you could even start making things up!
Yeah, no. There's far too many places that characters who have a gender could go. About 99.9% of all characters in the history of literature have had one, after all.
The GreatsOne of the best things you can do is read fiction about men written by men, or about women written by women. It might be a good idea to stick to literature for this effort, since the written word (especially amongst the classics) is somewhat less susceptible to Executive Meddling. So, men can check out things like the works of Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë and Jane Austen, or Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, or Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell, or Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery, or early novels by Astrid Lindgren (who wrote several "books for girls" before switching to children's literature), or Moribito and The Beast Player by Nahoko Uehashi, or The Twelve Kingdoms by Fuyumi Ono. On television there are shows like Gilmore Girls, Orange Is the New Black (incidentally, the same woman, Jenji Kohan, worked on both), The Golden Girls, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and Girls. On film we have Lady Bird, Brave, Frozen, Wonder Woman (2017), Bend It Like Beckham, Clueless, A League of Their Own and more. Also check out some of the things listed on the Four-Girl Ensemble and Chromosome Casting pages.
For women, this is a little easier, since the larger majority of fiction is written by men for men. Almost every Buddy Cop Show, almost every Western, almost every action movie, huge swaths of Science Fiction and Fantasy... (For those latter two, you can always just check out anything nominated by the "Sad Puppies" and "Rabid Puppies," a politically-conservative voting bloc that attempted to control the nominations slate of the 2015 Hugo Awards.)
The Epic FailsShowgirls. Basically any woman will tell you that the women in it don't act realistically. Most of the men don't either, frankly.
For something a little less time-consuming, we should point you to a Twitter thread with a simple theme: "[D]escribe yourself like a male author would." It started when a male author insisted he was perfectly qualified to write women, with his examples not quite proving his case. This took off, with a number of very cutting responses, focusing largely on the idealized female form — "The thing that stuck out to me most is how many women responded with something along the lines of, I'm old or fat or a woman of color, so I wouldn’t be described by a male author at all. I might as well be invisible." While this amount of Lampshade Hanging and Deadpan Snarking should be taken with a grain of salt, the fact that they remain excessive after said grain-of-salt should give you an idea of just how (poorly) women are portrayed in fiction.
Directed ResearchThere is a fascinating book called Self-Made Man: One Woman's Year Disguised as a Man. The author, Norah Vincent, is a Butch Lesbian who did a real-life Sweet Polly Oliver for 18 months for the purposes of journalism. It's one of the closest things we're going to get to a magical gender-flip ray; Vincent talks candidly about how men treat each other, and the perspective it gave her on being a woman. Sadly, no parallel book about men passing as women yet exists. (Note, in fact, that Dude Looks Like a Lady is almost always Played for Laughs; there are very few dramas in which a man dresses as a woman.) However, the blog "Single Dad Laughing" did release an amusing entry on wearing sanitary napkins, "A Letter to Men: The Lesson of the Saggy Burrito in my Pants."
It might also be worth checking out Sex and the City and Desperate Housewives, because their showrunners were men. Two of the most prominent female-centric shows in recent history were run by men, proving that it is possible to do a good job writing or representing people of the gender you are not.
The documentary The Red Pill, focusing on Men's Rights, was made by a woman yet is pro-men (though this had not been the filmmaker's initial intention, it's an interesting case). Again this shows that a female lens to a subject does not necessarily make it female-biased.
Also see the Youtube video "5 Massive Blind Spots about Men That Women Won't Admit in a Million Years"