Bring Me the Head of Melvin Udall: Male Authors, Female Characters

Part 1: The Bad News

One of my greatest vices these days is my inability to resist an Internet hole. A couple of nights ago, I ventured down such a hole in search of opinions on which male authors have or have had the most success at creating complex, active, and believable female characters that transcend the usual tropes and stereotypes. One discussion thread (here) boasted over a thousand posts and replies, and lots of familiar names cropped up, from Terry Pratchett to Brandon Sanderson to Jeff VanderMeer to Garth Nix to Jasper Fforde to Charles de Lint to Scott Westerfield — worthy names, all, deserving of their places on such a list. But as I scrolled through, determined to read the thread to its end (I did mention this was a vice), I noticed that people kept bringing up the film As Good as It Gets and quoting its protagonist, writer Melvin Udall (Jack Nicholson), responding to a young female fan’s question of how he writes women so well with, “I think of a man; then I take away reason and integrity.”

Every reference to Melvin Udall and his snide riposte reminded me of how heartily I dislike that movie, and in truth don’t care for James L. Brooks’ films in general except for maybe Broadcast News. I do get that we’re not supposed to like Udall. We’re meant to chuckle at his quips because they shock and disturb us; he inspires uncomfortable rather than open-hearted laughter. We’re even left to wonder how much he actually means the things he says. Yet the line still bothers me, for a couple of reasons. First, I don’t think the fangirl deserves Udall’s disdain. Sure, she’s blonde and speaks with a high, breathy voice, but at least she has read Udall’s work, which is probably more than can be said for the movie’s female lead (Helen Hunt), who can’t even spell a common two-syllable word without asking for her mother’s help.

Secondly, and far more importantly, his pithy remark rings uncomfortably true. Many highly regarded authors, not all but mostly men, have followed Udall’s prescription when creating female characters. Twentieth century fiction, in particular, features a long list of writers whose female characters conspicuously lack reason, integrity, or both. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Philip Roth, Raymond Chandler, John Updike, Kurt Vonnegut, Jack Kerouac, Ray Bradbury, Harlan Ellison, Norman Mailer, Charles Bukowski, Saul Bellow, Ken Kesey, Eugene O’Neill, Arthur Miller, George Orwell, Ian Fleming, Arthur C. Clarke, Joseph Conrad, Anthony Burgess, Graham Greene, Kingsley and Martin Amis, and H.G. Wells seemed to struggle mightily to conceive of a woman with intelligence and honor. Of all the bright lights of the literature of this period, only Tennessee Williams manages to summon much empathy when he shapes his female characters, and even his women tend to lack integrity.

“Struggle” isn’t quite the right word for some men when they write women: they simply don’t believe a woman of reason and/or integrity can be found. “Don’t wait for the good woman. She doesn’t exist,” says Charles Bukowski. “You don’t know a woman until you’ve met her in court,” opines Norman Mailer, who also suggests that “a little bit of rape is good for a man’s soul.” L. Ron Hubbard, prolific author and head of the Church of Scientology, notes, “The historian can peg the point where a society begins its sharpest decline at the instant when women begin to take part.” We have this bon mot from T. S. Eliot in 1922: “There are only half a dozen men of letters (and no women) worth printing.” Ernest Hemingway suggests, “If you leave a woman. . . you probably ought to shoot her. It would save enough trouble in the end even if they hanged you.” Kurt Vonnegut observes, “Educating a beautiful woman is like pouring honey into a fine Swiss watch: everything stops.” And finally, Robert Jordan, one of the best-known and best-loved authors of epic fantasy fiction, responds to criticism of his writing of female characters as bullies and shrews by saying, “Women are, for the most part, consummate actresses who allow men to see exactly what they intend men to see. Get behind the veil sometimes, boys, and your hair will turn white.” (This quote, incidentally, is from 2013, a full sixteen years after the release of As Good as It Gets.)

Udall’s pithy remark to the fangirl works on me like a paper cut because it sums up what so many actual writers have said and thought. Men like this write female characters, when they bother to write them at all, in an effort to work out the unsolvable Mystery of Woman, the vast and inscrutable Other, rather than attempting to empathize with individual women as people not so very different from themselves. They can’t get female characters right because they refuse to see women as anything but a collective. What sorts of fictional women are birthed by this thinking? Many of them are embodiments of that ever-elusive Mystery — slippery, mercurial, untrustworthy. Others are shallow, materialistic, unable to think beyond the moment — the “other girls” that the ostensibly more enlightened heroines of today claim they’re not like. Yet nearly all of them share a core flaw: as Susan Isaacs puts it in Brave Dames and Wimpettes, “They can’t see past the pickets of their fences.” When they on occasion take action, they’re motivated less by ideals or ethical principles than by tangible practicalities. Lacking that crucial element of integrity, they may stand up when a loved one is threatened, but not when, or because, it’s simply the right thing to do.

Most of the men who laid the foundation for Melvin Udall’s thinking came from a time when men weren’t expected to interact much with women who weren’t their sweethearts, wives, or family members, so it shouldn’t be surprising that they had trouble envisioning female characters beyond these roles or gifting them with any traits beyond what would help or hinder them in fulfilling these roles. Traditionally, that has put male writers at a disadvantage over female writers when it comes to creating effective characters of a different gender from themselves. In general, women are better at it — because they’ve had to be.

Consider Mary Shelley, author of the iconic work generally considered the first great science fiction novel. She had a story she wanted to tell, of a genius driven by insatiable scientific curiosity to endow a stitched-together humanoid creature with life. Since this story came into her mind at the beginning of the 19th century, she had no choice but to make her central characters — the genius, the creature, the Arctic explorer who provides the frame narrative — male. Even her rich imagination couldn’t have conceived of such characters as female. She had to make the empathetic leap into the shoes of male characters to bring their perspectives to life, and readers of Frankenstein may decide for themselves how well she succeeded.

Many other women writers, both before and since Shelley, have chosen to tell male protagonists’ stories, because male characters have given them more to work with. For most of history, women’s capabilities and activities have been restricted to a narrow sphere, severely limiting the kinds of stories that might be told about them; male protagonists, by contrast, can do anything. Stepping into the shoes of male leads doubtless gave women authors prior to the 1970s a heady though vicarious sense of freedom and possibility. With such a foundation, it’s little wonder that even today, many women authors relish telling men’s stories. Writers such as Carol Berg, Anne Rice, Sarah Monette, and Courtney Schafer actually prefer writing male characters to female ones, finding the most pleasure and comfort in crafting male perspectives.

Considering how heavily the deck is stacked in favor of male characters, it’s almost a miracle that complex and memorable female characters, fictional women who possess both reason and integrity, ever get written at all. And yet, somehow, they do.

Sometimes — shocking as it may seem — they’re even written by men.