Literary Empathy, or How Spider-Woman Made Me Okay With Men Who Write Women

In recent years, some of my favorite female heroes have found themselves with their own titles. Women such as Princess Leia, Black Widow, and Spider-Woman leap off the page showing that women are just as hard core as their male counterparts. In every single one of these cases, I have only one slight disappointment and this is that the author was male. Every time, despite my excitement and adoration of the character and story, my heart sank a bit. Why, I asked myself, aren’t there women writing our stories? These are our heroes. Men have enough heroes of their own. Why can’t they stick to writing their heroes and give us a chance to write our own?

On the most logical level, I hate myself for asking these questions. I am a woman who defines herself more in terms of gender equality than the “women for women” feminism. These concerns are therefore causing an existential crisis. This gut reaction makes me feel sexist because I question men’s ability to write the female experience.

Then I read Dennis Hopeless’s Spider-Woman. As GeekMom Shiri noted, Spider-Woman is all of us. After reading the second issue, I looked at the author’s name to try to see if I could find more of her works.

Only to realize that Hopeless’s first name was Dennis. Huh. Especially since I felt Spider-Woman, specifically her response to being pregnant, really understood me in a way a lot of women don’t.

Before you sigh while trying to catch your eyes rolling out of your head, let me explain. Most narratives among women involve these magical discussions of the joy of fertility. The round womb expanding and the particularly female experience of birth. The narratives in media often have women smiling like the Madonna and resting their hand peacefully on their ever-expanding bellies now that the morning sickness has passed.

When I was pregnant? I hated it. I hated it with the violent passion of a million fiery suns. Jessica Drew manages to encapsulate everything about pregnancy that I hated. I did not own my own body. I was a stop gap residence for another human being. Despite it being temporary, I lost that sense of control over my body that makes it feel like mine.

Admitting to these feelings aloud felt as though I was betraying my womanhood. Through individual conversations, I found other like-minded souls. Unfortunately, I often felt as though these conversations were limited to the whispers behind closed doors.

Why does it bother me that there is a dude who can write my lived experience so well? It probably bothers me because in our recent discussions of the struggles women have in comics that I feel like I’m betraying the sisterhood. I want my favorite books about women to be by women.

And yet.

Yeah, there’s always an “and yet.” I turned to academic research to try to figure out how to express my thoughts here. I thought of talking about literary criticism or the feminist lens to explain how I came to my existential peace. I thought that showing what Hopeless does well would be a good approach.

After five hours of research, I found something more important.

Literary empathy. What is literary empathy? Literary empathy, in general terms, is the idea that in writing the experiences of others, writers and their readers can feel an emotional connection to this other lived experience. It is important to note that these writings of others are through a lens that does not necessarily match the real experience. In other words, men writing about women or Western cultures writing about Eastern cultures. In her essay, “Who Has the Right To Feel?: The Ethics of Literary Empathy” Kathleen Lundeen writes, “Since everyone is marked by society in a number of ways (through, for instance, ethnicity, class, sex, religion, age, physical mobility, and nationality), if we were to insist on shared identity in all areas, writers would only be fit to represent themselves, and readers, to understand representations of themselves.” Thus, accepting men who can write women well is not a betrayal of the sisterhood but a welcoming of my other, men, into my circle. I like this idea. A lot.

In fact, Lundeen’s conclusion describes my feelings on this topic better than I can in many ways:

“Nevertheless, at a deeper level writers and readers are often stymied between emotional autonomy and empathy. Since language is simultaneously a solitary and social phenomenon, the issue ceases to be whether writers and readers have the authority to show empathy but rather how they resolve the tension created by their joint impulses to individualize their response to something and to identify with another’s response. Empathy, in essence, is an ideal of differentiated union with another, and that paradox should remind us that in literature as in life, there are shared borders of identity that we are compelled to recognize but cannot cross.”

In other words, writers own their authorship and their words. Women own their experiences. Men own their understanding of women’s experiences. These are all individual, private things. The published works then go out into the greater world and become a social experience that both men and women share. By noting where men excel in writing the lived experience of women, we are able to bring men into the conversation more clearly. By noting the way that women and men negotiate these gender differences, and negotiate them well, we expand the conversation.

Image Rights: Marvel
Image Rights: Marvel

Put simply: When men write women’s lived experiences well, they do not automatically co-opt. Men writing our experiences means that they are empathizing with our unique experience and neither of us is placing one person’s authority above the other. We begin to share this experience. Through this sharing, we can use fiction to bring about greater understanding. This shared experience through fiction, or truly any art form, is what makes these arts so powerful.

Spider-Woman rocked my world. She is my miserable pregnant self, slightly bitter about not being able to do her normal things. She is the person not thrilled at being unable to control her body. She is written by a man. In short, I will continue to support those women writers and artists who work I admire; however, I will no longer feel guilty when I find men are the ones writing some of my favorite women.

Lundeen, Kathleen. “Who Has The Right To Feel?: The Ethics Of Literary Empathy.” Style 32.2 (1998): 261. Academic Search Premier. Web. 17 Jan. 2016.

Karen Walsh is a part time, extended contract, first year writing instructor at the University of Hartford. In other words, she's SuperAdjunct, complete with capes and Jedi robe worn during grading. She also works as a contract internal regulatory compliance auditor for banks. In addition, she writes comics and artist reviews at www.cosplayconnectuniversity.com.She works in order to support knitting, comics, tattoo, and museum membership addictions. She has one dog, one husband, and one son who all live with her just outside of Hartford, CT.