By Colleen Oakes
I remember discussing Twilight (a book I’m not embarrassed to admit I loved) at length with a couple of girlfriends, right around the height of the hysteria that captured a nation of teenage girls and forced a lot of grumbling married men to watch Robert Pattinson stare for hours at an exasperated Kristen Stewart. We were all sitting around my sister’s kitchen table, a bottle of wine open, and our books open on the table. My friends were listing off Edward’s desirable traits:
“He’s strong and a perfect gentleman!”
“He’s rich – he loves to spoil her.”
“He worships her and sees her for who she truly is!”
I remember leaning back and considering the implications before reminding them that “He” was written by a woman. HE is a myth of our own making.
There is a danger in fictional men written by female writers. As a female author, I see this trait in myself: a propensity to write perfect, flawless men. It’s only natural – I want to give my characters the best of the species to interact with; a man who is all things that my character needs, a man who is the combined fantasy of a thousand women. He encompasses our deepest desires, he listens with the ears of our therapists and girlfriends, his touch is like wildfire – he is the male equivalent of the lady in the living room, whore in the bedroom mythos. He is all these things and more. He is a delightful illusion of the needs that we don’t feel are being met: a portal directly into our disappointment.
There are a litany of sins committed when we write men this way. First, we do a huge disservice to our characters. Our characters don’t need perfect. They need complicated. They need hurdles. They need emotional resonance, for their hearts to harden like diamonds under conflict. Their minds need expanding, and above all, no character needs easy. There is no book, no story in “easy”, and a perfect man without flaw is easy. While Edward might make our hearts beat a little faster with the intoxicating attraction of teenage love, it’s the real men, flawed men – think Jack Nicholson in As Good As It Gets – that really can turn our heads. Interesting is better than good.
The other danger in writing perfect men is that the writer, or even the reader can experience projecting – that is, when they project the expectations of a fictional character onto their real life partner. My husband, who is the best man I’ve ever known, can’t compare to a fictional man in women’s fiction. He doesn’t create elaborate dates involving hot air balloons or gallons of rose petals. He doesn’t love to clean, and he definitely never buys me cars or takes me swinging through the trees because his super strength makes me weigh practically nothing. There are no sunset horseback rides, although sometimes we do go to our favorite Thai restaurant for dinner and he lets me have one extra wonton. Our life lacks a certain romantic danger, but that’s okay, because our life is real. He may not be the rippling hunk of muscle with a secret fortune squirreled away, but this year when he dressed up like a Sith Lord to take our son, dressed as Yoda, out for Halloween, I could have fainted with adoration. He’s held my hair as I threw up in Las Vegas, he cried alongside me when we met our son for the first time, and he will never ever get his pajamas into the hamper. Ever.
But that’s okay, because he’s real. He is not a fantasy created by a female writer who is fulfilling her every Cosmo-inspired fantasy. He’s a man of flesh and blood and burps.
We don’t like it when men shove us into a box of their own pre-packaged unrealistic expectations. Let’s not do the same.