On the Page: Male versus Female Intimacy

By: Aryanne Ferguson

In search of inspiration, I watched a Ted talk by anthropologist Helen Fisher called The Brain in Love. Writing-wise, what struck me was Fisher’s point that men and women express intimacy in different ways.  Two women sit face to face, making eye contact (due to generations of raising a baby?), while two men sit side by side and avoid eye contact (due to generations of facing an enemy and standing side by side with a friend?). If you buy these generalizations, how does this aspect of human behavior translate to the ways in which characters interact on the page? To answer this question, I looked to the novel I’m currently reading, Tolstoy’s War and Peace.
War and Peace
I’m currently a quarter of the way though War and Peace, which means I’ve followed royal Russian families through the early years of the Napoleonic Wars – think 1805, 1806. So far, the story flip-flops between the palaces of the Russian aristocracy and the battlefield where those royal sons fight against the French as officers. So far, Tolstoy’s male characters have charged face first into battle—they fight the French and engage in power struggles with other Russian nobles. The men are in constant conflict with few friendships. Tolstoy’s female characters aren’t given the same necessity of conflict. Most of the female characters are simply existing within the confines of the male-dominated society. To be honest,  the female characters aren’t explored to the same depth as the males. The women interact well among each other, but are portrayed as controlled in some way by a man, the method of that control being any combination of intimidation, love, money, familial obligation, and frivolity. I do think that (so far) the characters actions are true to the gender roles which Fisher mentioned, but I wonder if this holds true in a more modern novel.

On a side note – I’m tackling War and Peace because I’ve always been intimidated by this novel. No one has ever described it as a thrill ride, but it’s much easier to read than I thought. If you’ve got any literary fears to conquer, Reader, now’s the time!

Do you agree with Fisher’s generalizations about male and female behaviors in literature? How do men and women interact in your novel? Does their behavior align with traditional gender-oriented stereotypes?

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