Body Narrative: Gender


I was not ladylike, nor was I manly. I was something else altogether. There were so many different ways to be beautiful.  

                                    —Michael Cunningham (A Home at the End of the World)

Traditional conceptions of gender and sexuality permeate every aspect of our society and culture, affecting not only how we see the world around us, but also how we use language to communicate ideas and information. As a result, contemporary writers are often the subject of gender stereotyping, with male and female writers being associated with radically different styles. This sense that one must “perform” a gender role in order to be taken seriously causes many writers to conceal their authentic selves and passions because they fear the judgment of readers and other writers.  

Yet, as Edward Abbey once famously wrote, “It is the difference between men and women, not the sameness, that creates the tension and the delight.” With this in mind, many writers today are increasingly shedding the outdated dogmas of gender and investigating their own definitions of masculinity, femininity, and the areas in between and beyond. These writers are using their poetry and prose to address cultural and social biases directly, and to help others navigate the uncharted areas of modern gender and sexuality.   

A Brief Guide to Crossing the Gender Divide 

Crossing the so-called gender divide is no easy feat. Womanhood, sexual orientation, and “accepted” behavior, are steeped in literature and social discourse. It can be difficult for writers to see through the haze. The advice below for writing against gender norms will help author avoid common pitfalls and create innovative works that deconstruct the dichotomies of gender and sexuality. 

  1. Avoid gendered language. 

For many of us, traditional gender roles have been reinforced since childhood. As early as elementary school, we were taught to use masculine nouns and pronouns (he, him, his) when a subject’s gender was unclear or when referring to members of both sexes. This is often referred to as using the “universal he.” At the same time, female nouns and pronouns (her, she, hers) were often used to describe objects, animals, and forces of nature. This gendered language reflects and reinforces outmoded associations for both sexes, placing men in dominant roles and women in subservient ones. 

By using non-gendered or gender-neutral terms, writers can create content that is accessible to both male and female readers. Examples included changing stewardess to flight attendant, freshman to first-year student, fireman to firefighter, mankind to human beings, and so on. In addition, special attention should be given when writing about sexual orientation. American transgender activist and author of the award-winning novel Stone Butch Blues, Leslie Feinberg, writes about the difficulties of lesbian and transgender life, and cautions writers about confusing sex with gender when referring to a character or the self. 

By moving the emphasis away from normalized undertones of gender, sexuality, or sexual attraction, writers invite new readers and further self-reflection and imagination. 

  1. Try out new styles and aesthetics. 

It’s been proven that linguistic styles differ between males and females. Women’s speech tends to be more emotionally expressive and employs more compliments and apologies. As Australian researcher Janet Holmes suggests, “Females are more attentive to the affective function of conversation and more prone to use linguistic devices that solidify relationships” (Holmes, 1993). Likewise, Leigh Ann Jasheway (2010)—humor author and columnist, writing and life coach, and part-time instructor at the University of Oregon—says women are more likely to start a sentence with a question, state preferences in their writing rather than make demands, and use apologetic language even when being decisive. 

This means that while men prefer to write about an accomplishment—a battle won, a dog trained, a disease conquered—women often favor a focus on the relationships and emotional relevance of a story, such as what happens to the family left at home while the spouse is off fighting the war; what it’s like for the dog to learn to sit and stay; or how to handle the strain of caring for an ailing family member. 

According to the researcher Evelyn Fox Keller (1978), objectivity and rationality are highly masculine qualities, making male writing in many cases more similar to a scientific investigation than the interior journey of women’s writing. Men also tend to use more commanding and aggressive language. Jasheway (2010) says this may explain why women are more likely to read literary fiction and self-help books, while men tend to favor history, science fiction, and political tomes. 

These writing qualities, while not universal, represent how modern readers typically approach and make assumptions about a text. Rather than judge a book by its cover, readers will judge it by its author’s gender—among a host of other qualities—and respond to the text accordingly. Take for example, J.K. Rowling. She used her initials “J.K.,” because she was afraid that boys wouldn’t read her if they knew the book was authored by a woman. Other examples include: Armandine Lucile Aurore Dupin wrote novels in the 1800’s under the pseudonym George Sand and Alice Bradley Sheldon, who wrote science fiction using the pen name James Tiptree. By incorporating styles and aesthetics linked to both genders, writers can create more original and imaginative texts, which will better engage and inspire readers to overcome stereotype definitions and gender norms. 

  1. Use characters to examine gender identity. 

Speaking about women’s writing, Helene Cixous, the author of “The Laugh of the Medusa,” says the following: 

[W]omen must write her self: must write about women and bring women to writing, from which they have been driven away as violently as from their bodies—for the same reasons, by the same law, with the same fatal goal. Women must put herself into the text—as into the world and into history—by her own movement . . . I wished that that woman would write and proclaim this unique empire so that other women, other unacknowledged sovereigns, might exclaim: I, too, overflow; my desires have invented new desires, my body knows unheard-of songs. (p. 875-876) 

Cixous suggests that it is vital now, more than ever, for writers to create characters and literary voices that defy gender-based or sexual classification. Instead of painting males as dashing heroes and bloodthirsty warlords, or women as damsels in distress and emotional wrecks, writers should strive to build rounded characters that tangle with and overcome gender stereotypes. The gender of Jeanette Winterson’s narrator in Written on the Body, a romance story that examines the relationship between sex, gender, sexuality and narrative, is ambiguous. In doing so, the author challenges the notion of gender and sexuality as the foundation of identity. 

A great contemporary example is New York Times bestseller and author of the Plum Series, Janet Evanovich, who does an exceptional job of finding the balance between masculine and feminine in her own writing. Her series’ protagonist, Stephanie Plum, is a bail bondswoman who performs her job with a characteristically feminine style in a male-dominated industry. Similarly, J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series was successful not only because of its suspenseful plots and high-quality writing, but also because the characters transcend stereotypes of gender and age. This is why girls, boys, men, and women alike continue to devour her books by the millions every year. 

In a recent interview, Evanovich suggested her method for developing rounded, multidimensional male and female characters was to incorporate traditional masculine elements into female characters, and vice versa. This is a simple and useful method for all writers, leading to more exciting, unique characters that provoke further thought on issues of gender and sexuality. 


By employing everything from pronouns to syntax to gender-bending protagonists, writers have the power to take a meaningful stance on what gender and sexuality mean today and in the future. Rather than suppressing our everyday struggles with masculinity, femininity, sexuality, and gender roles, we should use them to strengthen our resolve, and to show readers with similar struggles that they are not alone. 

Writing Prompts:

Describe a time you were conflicted about the use of “girl” versus “woman” or “boy” versus “man” in your writing.

Write about your experience with masculine or feminine dominant language.

In what ways do the language, chapter titles, and references used show gender bias?

What are some of your favorite examples of intriguing male and female characters?

Explain how integrating style differences can make your work more inclusive of different genders and gender expressions.

Write a paragraph from the perspective of another gender.  When finished, write another paragraph from the perspective of someone from the opposite gender. Are there any differences?


Cixous, H. (1976). The laugh of the medusa. (K. Cohen & P. Cohen, trans.). Signs 1:4, 875-893. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Halmstad, H. (n.d.). Gender, Sexuality and Textuality in Jeanette Winterson’s

Written on the Body. Retrieved from

Holmes, J. (1993). Women’s talk: The question of sociolinguistic universals.    Australian Journal of Communication, 20:3. 125-148.

Jasheway, L. A. (September 3, 2010). How to write intriguing male and female

            characters. Writer’s Digest. Retrieved December 11, 2014 from     writing/he-said-she-said

Keller, E. F. (September 1978). Gender and science. Psychoanalysis and   Contemporary Thought, 409-433.


Debbie spent 30 years as a registered nurse. She became a certified applied poetry facilitator and journal-writing instructor in 2007. She is currently a student in the Johns Hopkins Science-Medical Writing program. Her publications have appeared in Journal of Poetry Therapy, Studies in Writing: Research on Writing Approaches in Mental Health, Women on Poetry: Tips on Writing, Teaching and Publishing by Successful Women, Statement CLAS Journal, The Journal of the Colorado Language Arts Society, and Red Earth Review.


SURVEY: Effectiveness and Outcomes for Female and Minority Writing Program Students

SURVEY: Effectiveness and Outcomes for Female and Minority Writing Program Students

Thank you for taking this survey. In this survey, we hope to collect qualitative and quantitative information on the value and outcomes of the educational experience of writing students in U.S. programs with an eye toward diversity and gender experiences and how programs, program leadership and program initiatives are meeting the needs of its female students and students of color. We do welcome and encourage student participation that does not meet the gender and diversity model as a contrast group.

This survey is a broad and qualitative sampling that will help us define a later and more narrowed quantitative focus with a goal toward exploring programs, conferences, and leadership demographics. Identities and emails will not be shared with program leadership. We welcome honest feedback from students/alumni at the Johns Hopkins University, M.A. in Writing Program as well as other universities.

Our intentions are to follow the valuable models given by VIDA and other such interest groups, but with a focus on active program values and diversities. We feel this is an underserved research component as any journal or group who publicly researches this initiative will come under the scrutiny and pressures of their housing university. At Eckleburg, we are certain that this research and these voices must be heard, regardless of scrutiny.

Please let your fellow students, alumni, and writing colleagues know about the survey and encourage them to participate.

Our qualitative objectives include:

  1. To gain an understanding of underlying reasons and motivations for program gender and ethnicity trends;
  2. To provide insights into why gender and ethnicity trends are currently occurring in order to generate and form hypotheses for later quantitative research;
  3. To uncover prevalent gender and ethnicity trends in thought, opinion and community so to help improve gender and ethnicity practices in core program focuses for best interest of student needs.

As a thank you for your time and shared experiences, we would like to offer you a free copy of our Eckleburg No. 18 digital issue. This issue will be loaded to your browser immediately upon clicking submit. Please be patient as the issue may take a minute or two to load, depending upon your  operating system and browser.

All our best,
The Editors
The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review

An Interview with Ladydrawers’ Anne Elizabeth Moore

Ladydrawers_logoThe Ladydrawers Comics Collective (AKA “The Ladydrawers”) describes themselves “an unofficially affiliated group of women, men, transgender, and non-binary gender folk who research, perform, and publish comics and texts about how economics, race, sexuality, and gender impact the comics industry, other media, and our culture at large.” The Dr. T.J. Eckleburg Review’s Liz Joynt Sandberg spoke with Ladydrawers collaborator Anne Elizabeth Moore about The Ladydrawers’ upcoming exhibit in Chicago, SEX. MONEY. RACE. GENDER.

LJS: What led to the creation of S.M.R.G.? Did the exhibition or the workshops come first? Was it always a dual-component project?

AEM: SEX. MONEY. RACE. GENDER. The Ladydrawers (of Chicago, Ill.) is the first curatorial project The Ladydrawers have ever taken on. Last summer we had—I mean that was a little more me than this is, but last summer I decided to hold a session of the Adventure School for Ladies, which is an experimental graduate school I occasionally mismanage, and a few of the longer-standing Ladydrawers collaborators, once they got a handle on what an experimental graduate school was, worked on it pretty intently too. So when we were asked to apply for the A + D residency, we had this pretty wide set of things we’d done—pedagogical projects, performances, cultural interventions, standard lectures, online comics, book-making, posters, cat-petting—and we wanted to continue experimenting in those spaces between set modes of cultural production, in this curious and experimental collaborative manner.

LJS: There is a wonderfully diverse cast of artists participating in S.M.R.G. how did you amass the group of participants?

AEM: We work with a lot of folks around the country in various ways, so about half of the people involved are just people we like from previous projects and wanted to work with again. The other half came to us through an open call for work. Whenever we do a lecture or have a new strip out or do some kind of cultural intervention (last August we hand-delivered a set of sex-ed books and comics with our pals from Our Bodies, Ourselves to MO Rep. Todd Akin, for example) we have folks who just kind of fall in love with what we do, and this was our first wide-open chance to try to work with everyone we could. Our curators—Lucy Anaya, Gabriela Mendez, and Faina Stefadu—were really thoughtful and engaged with the work and the artists who submitted stuff to us. They were really appropriately and amazingly trusting, and I think it will pay off.

Some of it is also that I collect these amazing people who have a delightful tolerance for me when I ask them to do ridiculous stuff. So all the workshops are people I like that have something in common with each other doing something experimental and maybe even kind of dumb just to see what might happen. And those are all coming together in this intensely exciting way. 

LJS: Your new interactive work Sentimental will be presented. How did you become interested in creating this work?

AEM: I was speaking at the Pop Culture and World Politics Conference last fall in Geneva New York, and one of the venues where we did stuff has this great print shop a friend of mine is involved in. He took me on a little tour in there one night before an event in the space and he was like, “and this is the printer on which the Declaration of Sentiments was printed in 1848.” The Women’s Rights Park in nearby Seneca Falls had deaccessioned it! And there it was, all ready to print. I’d been working in a historical vein for a few weeks before that, thinking about women’s suffrage and some great stuff Emma Goldman said about it, and another friend brought me to Seneca Falls a few days later on that same trip. It’s a strange place, with all this history that isn’t actually terribly well revered. I wrote about it for The Rumpus but that didn’t cure me of this fascination, so Sentimental emerged, too. I’m going to be researching it as a Fellow at the Newberry Library this fall, too. I’m excited about this project.

LJS: What makes S.M.R.G. the right venue to present Sentimental?

AEM: The 1848 Declaration of Sentiments was, we all know, the founding document of the women’s rights movement in the US, but it was also a fairly natural outgrowth of the abolitionist movement. Men were there, at the meeting—Frederick Douglass among them. As such, it sort of marked the end of what we now, today, call intersectionality. 1848! When folks en mass believed, and acted on the belief, that their liberation was tied up in the liberation of others. After that, these capitalist notions that there’s really only enough liberation for a chosen few set in—that there just wasn’t enough pie to go around. The Ladydrawers spends a lot of time thinking about pie, and thinking about pie charts, and we feel pretty strongly that if there isn’t enough pie to go around you have to get more pie.

LJS: Lady Drawers seems like a community-driven outfit. Does S.M.R.G. feel like a natural next step/project? Has it stretched the group?

AEM: Well, Ladydrawers is definitely whoever’s around to answer the email. We run a pretty loose ship, so anything has the potential to be a next step. We had no idea we’d be called on to create a mobile sex-ed library for Missouri congress people, for example—we went by Claire McCaskill’s office, too—so it’s hard to predict what might comes next. There’s very little that can’t be improved by a group of giggly folks across the spectrum of gender identities willing to have adventures and make jokes about cats. 

LJS: Comics, while 2 dimensional, pack a multi-faceted punch. How do you anticipate broadening the performative aspect of your work (considering Lyra Hill’s piece in particular) will further invite the audience to relate to the world and people around them?

AEM: Comics were originally an ephemeral medium—cheaply printed in pamphlets or newspapers, aimed at kids, none of this high-falutin’ graphic novel stuff we have today. And performance is one way to retain that sense that you can have this single engaging silly experience and even though it ends, it can still be important. But so are the installation projects, or the murals—all the work is based on that idea that we don’t have a ton of time together, whether it’s a single night or one person’s whole life. We may as well remake what we can of the world into something that makes us happy.

LJS: The Ladydrawers clearly communicates that you like/welcome everyone to participate. Are there challenges to welcoming everyone while still maintaining a safe space for participants?

AEM: Oh, for sure. Because we work in a pedagogical mode, our approach to safety’s a little haphazard. Nearly every one of our crew has been on the receiving end of some misogynist or transphobic or racist tirade at one point or another in the course of doing work with us. But these are sort of learning moments, as much as they suck to experience.

Apparently last weekend, for example, the documentary crew—we’re shooting a documentary—went to C2E2, a big mainstream comics convention here in Chicago. And they found a guy who was just spewing hateful, horrible stuff about women, and they asked if he was willing to talk to them on video. He was—apparently they didn’t even need to push him too much, he was just doing his shtick for the camera. And at the end they had him sign a release form, of course. And the release form says, basically: look, women make up a big part of the comics industry and we’re making a documentary about why people assume they don’t. Apparently this guy flipped. I was elsewhere at the time but one of our newer younger collaborators was left alone trying to convince this self-avowed misogynist to, basically, look like an ass on camera. And somehow she did it.

Even if that wasn’t a learning moment for him, although I’m willing to bet that it was, it was a learning moment for her. It would be great to avoid people who hate us all the time, but the truth is that sometimes we will have to deal with jerks, have to convince them to do something for us. Generally speaking, friendliness and openness works in most situations.

Of course, we draw the line a little bit differently when we’re choosing to bring people into the fold—who we want to see and work with and hang out with every day. Racist shit does not fly, nor other kinds of intolerance. But, like, if you’re open and friendly and curious, we’ll find a way to bring you in. You don’t even have to know how to draw, really. Although you do have to be willing to try.

LJS: How has the A+D Gallery supported S.M.R.G.?

AEM: They’re great. They invited us to do this residency and have set us up with all this stuff that’ll make it easy—catalog designers and poster deadlines—an organizational structure. Meg and Julianna there are amazing. But it’s a little more than that, too—like I’ll come in with some wacky idea that the crew’s worked out, like building a set from one of our comics there in the gallery or something. And I’ll be sort of presenting this idea as if, you know, they might hate it or think it’s frivolous or silly, but they’re always like, “Oh yeah! We can also …” and then building on the potentially silly idea. Part of that’s just art people, who are the only people in the world that actually trade in the ridiculous. But I think part of it is also that they kind believe in what we do and want to help us create the world that we envision.

LJS: Pretend you’re at opening night of S.M.R.G. What do you see and sense? 

Art openings are strange beasts. The exhibition and the library with both be up, but I bet no one will even look at them because there will be so much else going on. A few of our interactive and installation works will be starting then, including Sentimental and Jacinta Bunnell’s Girls Will Be Boys coloring book pages. Elizabeth White’s Labor will be going up in the front window—a documentation, somehow, of our collective efforts in putting the show together. There is an ongoing mural project going up in one section of the gallery and an in-house comics project going on in another. We’ll have two of my favorite local comedians doing short sets, Ever Mainard and Katie McVay. That’s kind of a meta-joke, about comics. We’re hoping to have a reading series on the bathroom about trans identities and sexualities, and I’m hoping that will be incredibly uncomfortable for everyone. And we’ll have three performances. Lyra’s piece Go Down, which I’ve seen before and is very strange and great. Delia Jean’s Workout Woman, about labor and the food service industry. And Carolina Mayorga’s Maid in America. She’s going to be cleaning the gallery. Francis Kang, who’s shooting the documentary, will be there interviewing people. There will also be food, and probably fancy people milling around trying to look aloof, but I’m fairly certain the totally engaged awesome people who just want to hang out and do stuff together will outnumber them. 

Finally, the Blizzard Babies will play the punk rock music. Up the punks! Up everybody.


SEX. MONEY. RACE. GENDER. opens June 27th (Opening Reception, 5-8PM) at A+D Gallery, Chicago. The exhibit will be available during regular gallery hours June 27-July 27, 2013. Visit A+D Gallery ( for workshop listings, special events, and more.  For more on The Ladydrawers, visit



Liz Joynt Sandberg is a jack of all trades who doesn’t care so much for the second part of that aphorism. She’s a writer, performer, student, hot dog enthusiast, and mother living in Chicago’s Andersonville neighborhood. Her dance and performance art works have been presented at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, Links Hall, Defibrillator Gallery, Chicago’s Dance Union and others. She is a columnist for Rebellious Magazine’s PLUCK! Parenting as well as a blog contributor for The Huffington Post. Sandberg studies and performs improvised comedy at iO Chicago and Second City, where she is delighted to currently be performing with Mother Talkers, and The Church of the Saturday Saints. She also performs sporadically as a standup comedian. Occasionally, she even makes dinner.