Oh, goodness. 1989, aged 12. Around this time, I had been in California visiting family and spent a day playing with a kid named Ray, a friend of my cousin’s. Apparently, the whole afternoon, he thought I was a boy. He obviously hadn’t caught my name, so when it came time to leave, something came up about names. “April? But that’s a girl’s name,” he said. Androgyny happens . . . especially when sporting a pre-pubescent short haircut. But I think I could go either way in this picture.
In 1832, poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge said, “The truth is, a great mind must be androgynous.”
In A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf interpreted Coleridge’s quote by saying, “And I went on amateurishly to sketch a plan of the soul so that in each of us two powers preside, one male, one female . . . The normal and comfortable state of being is that when the two live in harmony together, spiritually co-operating . . . Coleridge perhaps meant this when he said that a great mind is androgynous. It is when this fusion takes place that the mind is fully fertilized and uses all its faculties. Perhaps a mind that is purely masculine cannot create, any more than a mind that is purely feminine . . .”
Woolf asserted that “an androgynous mind is present when one is working at the absence of sex-consciousness, thus producing output at its highest capacity, without impediment and free from gender-biasness.” (source) Woolf believed that “to write without consciousness of sex is to see the piece of work for itself not as its author.” Much of this theory stems from the sexist treatment she and other women writers had endured.
Woolf received a great deal of criticism for this view, resulting in a ping-ponging of arguments, but the whole idea of having an androgynous mind is fascinating to me. Recently, author, Andrew Smith got speared for some comments he made when asked why his books lack female characters:
“I was raised in a family with four boys, and I absolutely did not know anything about girls at all. I have a daughter now; she’s 17. When she was born, that was the first girl I ever had in my life. I consider myself completely ignorant to all things woman and female. I’m trying to be better though.
A lot of The Alex Crow is really about the failure of male societies. In all of the story threads, there are examples of male-dominated societies that make critical errors, whether it’s the army that Ariel falls in with at the beginning, or the refugee camp, or Camp Merrie-Seymour for boys, or the doomed arctic expedition, they’re all examples of male societies that think that they’re doing some kind of noble mission, and they’re failing miserably.”
Some authors accused him of calling women “less than human,” while others said Smith was only being honest; that the underpinning issue is that as a culture, a book’s default is to feature white males.
So where am I going with all of this?
I’m not entirely sure, but I found Woolf’s theory intriguing. Can “a single person of either sex [embody] the full range of human character traits, despite cultural attempts to render some exclusively feminine and some exclusively masculine?” And thus, create authentic emotions and insights of characters of both genders? Is it even possible? Or are we merely guessing when we write the viewpoints of the opposite sex?
I wasn’t offended by Smith’s comments. I think he unintentionally kicked a beehive. I’d be interested to hear what Woolf would say, however. Are authors (particularly male authors) obligated to include female characters in their books? (And of course, they can’t be gun-toting, bikini-wearing blondes, right?)
I realize this is a much deeper issue than what I’m making it out to be, but in order to scratch the surface, I’d like to know, 1.) Is it possible to write with androgyny? and 2.) Are we being sexist if we don’t?