Before I go further, two things for the record. First, I’m never going to read The Language of Bees, either. Nor The Help. I don’t like books about only women, either. They are also boring. Second, I know this is a weakness of mine. Kim is probably an awesome book. (It is according to my mom, anyway, who has read basically everything ever and should know.) I’m defending my viewpoint here, but that doesn’t mean I don’t know that I’m missing out. I’m totally missing out. Someday, when the missing out becomes more important than the stuff I’m about to go into here, I may correct this weakness. Meantime, I’ll tell you what is keeping me here.
I talked before about how I don’t like entertainment with not enough wrinkles in it. Specifically I was talking about when the protagonist is given artificial conflict in the plot, because all the natural sources of conflict have been removed. I think that perhaps the most valuable source of conflict and potential growth is male-female interaction. Not because there isn’t any conflict in groups of one gender. (I’ll let everyone ever stop laughing at the idea that single-gender groups are good for avoiding conflict. It’s okay folks. Have some water.)
What’s actually the issue is that men and women have different ways of dealing with conflict within their own gender groups. For example: my father and I had a conversation not long ago where I brought up backhanded compliments, as in: “People who are good at it can make an insult sound like a compliment.” My dad expressed total befuddlement.
I’ve no doubt that if presented with some examples, my dad would catch on quickly, and remember some incidents where he’d seen this, or recognize it in future, or whatever. But the very fact that it was on some level news to him – even if he’d just never heard it expressed in those terms – shows something to me. Now a lot of guys (especially of my generation) wouldn’t have needed an explanation. But I think it’s fair to say that only a tiny percentage of girls and women wouldn’t understand that.
Flipping the idea – I understand intellectually being so angry at someone that you deal with it by taking a swing at them. Whatever, I playfully whack my friends with pillows when they say mean things about fictional characters (as ONE OF THEM CAN ATTEST, ahem). But that’s different. I will stop a conversation, I will lose trust or faith in an individual, I will imagine saying cutting things when I’m angry, but physical violence with the intent to do harm scares me.
Those are two very broad, very stereotypical, very cis examples of men and women handling problems differently. I was going for quick and dirty to help me illustrate a point. Now, thinking in terms of fiction. When all your heroes and your villains are of one gender, they all have in many ways the same approach towards conflict. At least, they have some of the same groundwork and assumptions. They usually have the same definition of “winning.” They assert dominance in similar ways.
Even when that sort of thing isn’t explicitly stated, or acknowledged by the author, I often feel it in the back of these kinds books. Having both male and female (and in rarer cases, trans and queer and asexual and hermaphroditic) characters means that you tend to have people operating under different assumptions, ‘way off in the back. You tend to be able to tackle more. It tends to be closer to how I deal with life.
So there’s the logical side, which I just pretty much pulled out of my ass. You know what really gets on my nerves? In Guy Books, Our Heroes look at each other and just Get It, How Hard It Is to Be a Man. (Only men can really understand that, you know.) If it’s an older book (and often with newer ones too) it doesn’t seem to occur to the characters or the author that women have understandable wants and needs.
In Lady Books, Our Heroines spend a crapton of time bitching about being girls, or else nodding about how Only Women Understand some particular thing. This time, men are there to move the women around, and the women are there to react to it.
Fuck all that shit. People is people, we affect each other, and dismissing a gender as sort of unwitting cosmic marble players is bullshit, and a cop-out. Adults who live in the world and fight crime or are international spies or interact with other human beings ever should really have gotten over that element by now.
And when we can start getting more genderqueer folks in, that’s when things will really pick up.
I will now happily debate any and all examples put forth in the comments; I have managed to refrain from bringing up several billion examples only because I’m not entirely convinced by my own logic.