Updated: Jan 12, 2020
The left's excommunication of J.K. Rowling for defending free speech, and for holding that women exist, is part of a broader left-wing practice of narrative subversion.
A few weeks ago, J.K. Rowling—author of the wildly popular Harry Potter series and a leftist—was widely attacked for defending a woman researcher fired for taking the view that "that women exist as a sex, [and] that protection for women’s sex-based rights still matters." Predictably, the outrage mob has unanimously screamed that Rowling's defense of the researcher is tantamount to denying that "trans people are real" and has called for her elimination from polite society.
You can read about the larger controversy surrounding Maya Forstater—the researcher fired for doing research—but it’s nothing particularly new if you’re at all familiar with the cultural Left’s habit of "cancelling" anyone who doesn't perfectly conform to their convoluted and constantly evolving gender ideology. The only thing that is surprising is Rowling’s refusal to apologize or soften her statement after intense backlash, even after GLAAD—essentially the Gay™ Corporate Mafia—slandered her on Twitter. When that didn’t work, they reached out to her PR team to facilitate a meeting between transgender activists and “scientists” in an effort to “re-educate” Rowling. She declined. (As of January 5th, at least. We'll see if she holds fast.)
I’m always pleased to see someone stick it to a bully, but I’m especially heartened to see a beloved progressive like Rowling stand firm given the fact that the rainbow-wearing outrage mob is the same mob that makes up most her militant fan base. For years, she has pandered to their various prejudices, but apparently she—unlike weakling Mark Hamill—couldn't bring herself to deny indisputable biology in order to protect fragile, intersectionality-obsessed egos. And that seems promising.
Rowling is not the only writer I admire who has pointed out the obvious regarding biological sex. Leigh Michaels, a prolific romance writer, dismantles nearly every progressive notion regarding sex, love, and romance in her book, On Writing Romance, which is based on extensive market research across all the varying sub-genres (such as inspirational romance, sweet traditionals, and chick lit, to name a few). For those familiar with the romance genre in general, you know there is no other genre that so strongly highlights the differences between the sexes, despite many authors' best efforts to subvert "traditional" standards of masculinity and femininity and the relational ideals that exist between them. After all, narrative subversion—i.e. subtly undermining widely-accepted ideas and narratives—is a favorite tool of militant progressive for forcing once-controversial ideas into dominion over mainstream society. For example, consider the way that the entertainment industry has almost single-handedly framed the narrative around homosexuality. So many characters in Hollywood and on television are gay that Americans falsely believe that gay people make up 25% of the population; the actual number is closer to 2%. At the same time, Hollywood overwhelmingly portrays gay men as being in stable monogamous relationships—in other words, a depiction designed to appear sympathetic to straight audiences—even though the data shows that gay male sexuality is more often defined by rampant promiscuity. But, as Rowling and Michaels demonstrate in different ways, subversion has its limits, and despite the constant insistence from academics and activities that gender is merely a construct, reasonable people will not buy it.
Like Rowling and Michaels, as a fiction writer, I'm interested in creating satisfying characters and story-lines, but, as a Christian, I'm willing to go many steps further. Not only do I recognize the differences between men and women, I actually embrace God’s design of the two sexes as more than an offensive reality and find them to be purposeful, thought-provoking, and (mostly) delightful if not occasionally frustrating. Unfortunately, many progressives have an increasingly strong aversion to truth, beauty, and normalcy, as seen in the lengths they will go to in order to deny or distort what is good for human flourishing. It seems that in the last decade they've really focused their hatred on masculinity specifically—probably because masculine men pose the largest threat to their authoritarianism. Rowling, before she was deemed "transphobic" and a "TERF," she was seen as one of the feminist liberals leading the girl power parade. Still, it's clear from Rowling's most well-known and beloved character, Harry Potter himself, that she knows the appeal of creating a masculine hero who embodies various traditional male virtues like bravery, loyalty, and self-sacrifice. Similarly, Michaels' many insights into the romance genre suggest that even the wokest among us can’t escape masculinity's allure no matter how hard some romance writers and readers may try. Consider some of these guidelines from her chapter on creating "convincingly attractive" heroes.
1. "The alpha hero is powerful, driven, assertive, masterful, dominant, superior, successful and charming. The beta hero is playful, relaxed, nurturing, and caring, but no less successful and no less charming. Alpha is likely to run a corporation and be trying to acquire a few more. If Beta owns the corporation, he's apt to let someone else run it day-to-day while he coaches a kids' soccer team. Both are equally welcome in today's romance fiction..." (p. 50)
It's interesting to note here that the "beta hero" as Michaels is describing is actually just an alpha hero who willingly gave up some of his responsibilities to do something noble with his free time. He's not truly a beta in the sense that he is weak, passive, or inferior to others. You will not find an convincingly attractive hero who is unmotivated or unimpressive—and that remains true in the sub-genres that pride themselves on capturing the imaginations of modern, liberated women, such as chick lit or erotica. The male hero could be somewhat unappealing at the very start of the book, but over the course of the story he will change and develop to have more admirable qualities. More and more, modern stories increasingly feature "lovable loser types" as protagonists, but they are still always significantly less loser-ish by the end. If they didn't change for the better, the story would not be satisfying.
2. "Main characters who are similar in style, in the amount of power they have over their situation, and in their degree of outspokenness create a nice balance in the structure of a romance. That doesn't mean they should act the same, or that they must be absolutely equal in every way--just that they should both have areas and times where one is stronger than the other...The romance is far more satisfying when the power between the characters like a teeter-totter--sometimes she's on the high end, sometimes he is, but readers don't know from minute to minute who's going to have the upper hand." (p. 56-57)
This probably isn't surprising to anyone who's actually been in a satisfying romantic relationship, but it should send shock waves through feminists and progressives alike. What Michaels is describing here is essentially an aspect of complementarianism—the Biblical perspective that men and women are equal in value but different in their roles, which means there are many variances in the ways they choose to interact with one another. Embracing complementarianism over rigid egalitarianism allows men and women to experience the natural, enjoyable give-and-take of sharing power instead of obsessing over how much power they do or don't have at any given moment and clutching their pearls over every perceived slight or "microagression."
I find Michaels' insights particularly interesting for two reasons. The first is that they highlight one of the most obvious and (for some) infuriating realities defining men and women: that we are different from one anther. Ambition and success is much more attractive to women than it is men, as seen in the necessity for a ideal hero to be a (kind) alpha male. That isn't to say that men aren't attracted to those qualities in women, but they are much more attracted to physical beauty, as well as her kindness. While controversial to many, this claim isn't subjective or up for debate: it's simply hardwired into the sexes, as explained by renowned psychologist and science journalist Daniel Goleman in his book Social Intelligence.
"Desire seems to come in two forms, his and hers. When couples in love gazed at photos of their partners, a brain imaging study revealed a telling difference: for men in love--but not for women--the centers for visual processing and sexual arousal lit up, showing how his lover's looks trigger a man's passion... But for women in love, looking at their beloved activates very different centers in the brain's social circuitry: cognitive centers for memory and attention. This difference suggests that women more thoughtfully weigh their feelings and assess a man as a prospective mate and provider... A more cynical view has it, "Men look for sex objects, and women for success objects." But though women tend to find allure in signs of man's power and wealth, and men in a woman's physical attractiveness, these are not the prime draws for either sex--just the ones they most differ on. For men and women alike, kindness tops the list." (pg. 198-199)
Despite the fact that men and women are different and assess each other differently, some will still object to these differences, and their objections will all have the same ring to it. It sounds like this: "Not all women want X. I know a girl who likes Y." "Not all men like Y. I know guys who love X." And so on. Yawn.
I'll address this boring, juvenile line of reasoning by simply saying that, yes, there are outliers, anomalies, and people who desperately want to be seen as special and unique among their peers. But even if you reject obvious, widespread, evidence-based patterns in favor of anecdotes, there is still reality to contend with, and reality includes distinct biological, neurological, and physical differences between the sexes.
Secondly, Michaels' observations confirm that many "equality"-obsessed ideologies surrounding sex and romance are, at their core, unattractive. As she pointed out numerous times, convincingly attractive heroes and heroines can’t be perfect, but they also can’t be lazy, undisciplined, apathetic, or excessively weak. There are not enough progressive readers to sustain a market for such characters despite their insistence that every worldview (such as depressing nihlism or reckless hedonism), body type, and lifestyle choice is equally valid or even "beautiful." Those still in touch with reality know this is not the case. Men and women have predictable preferences, and those preferences are not inherently unjust or evil.
Writers can ignore these principles at their own peril, but the result will not be what they're hoping for. If you'd like to see what true progressive subversion looks like in action, pick up the book The Empire Rolls. If you can slog through it, note the way the author crafts the hero as a fat, slovenly, lazy coward who still manages to "get the girl" at various points in novel. It is not convincing, nor attractive, and my graduate-level class full of mostly liberals unanimously agreed it was an awful book in just about every conceivable way (probably because all that ideological subversion really takes a toll on one's creative energy and leaves little room for careful plotting.) Nonetheless, it's likely many progressive literary types would defend it simply because of those subversion tactics. Their reasoning generally sounds like nagging concerns over the inevitable "stereotypes" or "inequality" that will result if readers are exposed to traditionally admirable heroes. Even for those who find that kind of virtue-signaling persuasive, the point still stands that no one wants to be a stagnantly flawed hero in their own life. The point of all compelling stories is for heroes and heroines to overcome obstacles and become more dynamic and admirable by the end and to inspire us to do the same. Thus, those who deny basic truths and force every relationship into Marxist power-paradigms do so at a great cost to themselves and the stories they want to tell.
I'll end by saying that some subversion of what is ideal or expected works well to keep a reader's attention and create interesting conflicts (evidenced by how many stories feature protagonists who seem totally unprepared for the task set before them), but subversion has been used and abused by progressives for so long that even someone like J.K. Rowling had put her foot down. Subversion fails in fiction when it is too heavy-handed or unbelievable, and that is true in real life as well. After all, is there a more unbelievable notion than the claim that because a man feels like a woman, he should be unquestioningly regarded as such and given access to female-only events and spaces? Cultural leftism is fundamentally incompatible with storytelling because it denies capital-t Truth, or Logos, itself in the name of egalitarianism. It presents this egalitarianism as compassion, but invariably takes the form of an ideological tide of hatred, shouting over all dissent, and this is not a coincidence: the worship of unreality is too fragile to bear the slightest intrusion of truth. And as for heavy-handedness, as Rowling pointed out, real women are losing opportunities and jobs and being ignored or punished by the legal system—as seen in Maya Forstater's case, among many others—for simply stating the truth about biological sex, which is that men are men and women are women. We should commend Rowling for seeing what even some Christians do not: that real compassion requires truth and cannot survive without it. As a storyteller, Rowling ought to know.