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Gender Issues: Nick Hornby’s Writing is Not the Problem

In reading my colleague Noah Gittell’s recent piece praising Nick Hornby’s ability to write women well, the thought that ran through my mind was: “that means a woman didn’t get the job.”

Now hang on a minute, Internet, before you pounce on me, let me concede that Hornby really *can* write women well. I’m a big fan of Laura from “High Fidelity,” who neither embodies perfection nor a holy grail. She’s a normal human being (which may actually explain her attraction to Rob). But what’s really refreshing is that the story also puts the male protagonist’s fruitless pursuit of idealized females on garish display, and rightly argues that the idealization is precisely the problem.

The question isn’t whether or not men are capable of telling rich stories about complex women. My issue will always be that producers believed a woman wasn’t available to tell that same story. We can call for a “democratization of the process” till we’re blue in the face, but if women are deliberately, or worse, innately overlooked, we’re hardly working from a democratic framework to begin with.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t applaud Hornby’s talent; but when we do, let’s also remember that the gig he got was one a female (or transgender) writer didn’t, and not necessarily because Hornby’s just better at it. Let’s never lose sight of the fact that the story he so expertly told may have benefited from the insights of a woman.

Here’s the baggage Hornby—for all his sensitivities—doesn’t have. He doesn’t walk down the street scared that someone will follow him for a few blocks and either a) harass him, or b) assault him. He hasn’t worked out strategies to avoid either scenario. He’s also not ritually cut off mid-sentence during meetings because someone thinks however he plans to finish his thought is not worth listening to; because they weren’t really listening to him to begin with. His salary is probably fair.

He doesn’t have to contend with the fact that many publications let writers pen pieces called “Women don’t get Goodfellas.” Nothing puts out into the world poses any danger to his existence. He may not get death threats if he ever critiques video games. 

Sure, guys can write “strong” female characters (whatever that means), but if the world they inhabit is completely safe, or if the dangers they face are only of the burlesque “big bad wolf” variety, then something’s off.

Recognizing the flaws in our teachings doesn’t make us immune to those teachings, either. We saw, with “Project Greenlight,” just how deeply beliefs about gender and race can run, and just how oblivious the well-intentioned can be when they’re called out for manifesting discrimination and disparity.

As a woman, you wouldn’t necessarily represent the repercussions of gender inequality in all of your work. But because you understand what living with them daily is like, you inevitably write around it from that place. Imagining what it’s like to have that experience is compassion; the first-hand experience itself is perspective.

I’m reminded of “Stage Beauty” and how it put forth that men performing female essentially resulted in caricature. Consider how Billy Crudup’s character, Ned, coaches Claire Danes’s Maria to improve her acting. They’re rehearsing for “Othello,” with Maria’s cast as Desdemona. Despite the fact that up to now, Maria’s acting has largely been an imitation of Ned’s, she finally reveals why she can’t get the scene right.

“I always hated you as Desdemona,” she tells him. “You never fought! You just died, beautifully. No woman would die like that, no matter how much she loved him.”

It never occurred to Ned that Desdemona would fight back, because in his world, where men play the parts of women, she never does. We can’t necessarily blame him for internalizing the dominant conditioning. After all, when a cultural system works in your favour, why would you question it?

(By the by, “Stage Beauty” was written by a man, and I’m glad he wrote a scene that’s forever etched in my memory, which I was able to conjure up in this piece. That a man made the point doesn’t make it less salient, but note that his point is about things guys don’t understand. He’s speaking from his own experience, without demeaning the woman’s.)

So here’s the thing: I want men to continue writing complex female characters. I want to give them the space to do it well. And do let’s praise those who get it right.

But Hornby’s latest movie doesn't erase gender inequality. He got paid, no doubt very well, to write that movie. And I know for a fact that if a woman had been hired to do it instead, she wouldn’t have had as good a payday.

Hornby writing good female characters still hasn’t fixed that. 

Olivia Collette

Olivia Collette is based in Montreal, and has written for the Montreal Gazette, World Film Locations: San Francisco, Sparksheet, Indiewire’s Press Play blog, the Spectator Arts Blog and other outlets. She discusses pop culture at Livvy Jams.

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