A Lesbian Dilemma: All My Heroes Are Men Who Hated Women

Ernest Hemingway, manly man, in 1939.

Photo by Lloyd Arnold, via Wikipedia

When I was a young girl, my heroes were all men who hated women. This was before I was a butch (a bookish nerd, my style back then could best be described as slovenly androgynous), and before I knew I was gay, though not before I realized I was different. I never felt I was a boy—I’m not transgender—but, for whatever reason, the personalities I modeled my young self after were male ones. Intellectual man’s man types, to be specific. Larger-than-life dudebros, like Ernest Hemingway or Christopher Hitchens. I imagined myself growing up to be an overbearing, ruthless lawyer like Jack McCoy, aka Sam Waterston’s character on Law & Order, or an angry writer denouncing idiocy wherever I found it (and finding it everywhere) like Kurt Vonnegut. Because the superiority of male people over female ones was all but unquestioned in Western culture through the mid-20th century, this meant they also tended to be the men who considered femininity to be roughly synonymous with weakness and stupidity.

To some extent, this would be true for anyone who took famous men as role models. But my fondness for sexists went far beyond mere coincidence. The sorts of guys I idolized were those least likely to be sensitive to their own sexist impulses, because what I liked best about them was that they weren’t “sensitive” to anything. Competitive, casually self-assured men. Men who were certain they were superior to everyone else and held to the superiority of men over women as an unconsidered corollary. Men who considered their loudmouthed obnoxiousness to be an asset or, at worst, a minor character flaw. That’s the sort of person my young self imagined growing into, until I realized I was actually a woman—which meant assuming that kind of personality would present a problem.

When I say I realized this, I don’t mean to imply I had a sudden, startling revelation about my femaleness. I’d always understood I was a she, and I never wanted to be otherwise. And yet somehow I was convinced that the disparaging things my male heroes said about women didn’t apply to me, not because they were untrue about females generally, but because I must not be the sort of female they were talking about. Being a strange kid helped—I had the overdeveloped intellect and underdeveloped social skills that precocious children of all genders seem to share. Since I was comfortable with being different, the masculine aspects of my personality were one more oddity among many. These oddities allowed me to nod comfortably along with sections of a novel where the author paused a moment to explain that women were like such-and-so, and then got back to the important parts, which had men in them.

For instance: “The women all had big minds, because they were big animals, but they did not use them much for this reason: unusual ideas could make enemies, and the women, if they were going to achieve any sort of comfort and safety, needed all the friends they could get.” That’s from Breakfast of Champions, by Kurt Vonnegut, which I read in sixth grade, along with Jailbird and The Sirens of Titan. I thought Kurt Vonnegut was the greatest, that I’d grow up to be just like him, and that he was totally right about women (who seemed to be way dumber than my buddy Kurt and I were).

It took high school and part of college before I began to grow out of this mentality, but eventually I appreciated that the basic difference between me and other women wasn’t that they were dumber and more frivolous than I was. Dating other women helped—unlike straight men, lesbians aren’t allowed to get away with the assumption that they’re superior beings compared with the objects of their affections. It also dawned on me, albeit slowly, that the rest of the world largely saw me as a woman like any other. I mourned this, wishing for the first time that I’d been born a boy so my combative conversational style and my impulse to dominate and destroy all comers could be met with approval, rather than dismay, from peers, teachers, and family members. But, I also recognized that the same disapproval and dismay was squelching the self-expression of women generally, not just butch lesbians.

I became, belatedly, a feminist—but I rebelled at the thought of choosing new, less problematic heroes. I never lost the yearning to be immersed in the worlds of men, not even after I understood that when women were absent from a novel, it was generally because the author failed to see women as people in their own right. To this day, I find I’m bored by novels that take the interactions between men and women as their subject, and I feel particularly impatient reading romances, heterosexual or otherwise. Novels taking place in the social domain of women are no better—even zombies couldn’t redeem Pride and Prejudice, as far as my tastes are concerned. (These preferences have nothing to do with the gender of the author, mind you—I could never stand anything by John Updike, either.)

So, give me bullfights and war stories over romances and comedies of manners any day, and feminist awakenings be damned. There is no substitute for the belligerent intellect of an old-fashioned manly man. Those of us who delight in masculinity are left with the sad task of unraveling it from thousands of years of misogynist assumptions, but the delight itself is a pure thing, and blameless. That doesn’t mean I can go back to being blind to the failings of my heroes, though. I notice them now, and it makes rereading the works of my writing idols bittersweet. I stick with them because there aren’t enough female-written alternatives (one can only reread Frankenstein so many times), and because I can’t bear losing them. Still, my hope is that the masculine writers of the future—male, female, and beyond the gender binary—will learn to rid themselves of sexist impulses, even if it means being a little bit more careful and (ugh) a little bit more sensitive.