Valentine’s Day is around the corner, and the consumption of romantic media spikes as people prepare something special for their special someone. With social media promoting a ‘gold standard’ for relationships, and the almighty algorithm pushing romance content to the forefront of the internet, the pressure is on for couples to display their significant others like trophies to earn status online. For the past few years, one way that heterosexual women have sought this digitized approval is by describing their man as “written by a woman.”
“Written by a Woman”
The phrase “written by a woman” was originally used in online reading communities like BookTok and BookTube (communities on TikTok and YouTube, respectfully) to describe a man who is kind, gentle, emotionally vulnerable, and treats his lady with respect. Usually, these men are also handsome, rich, intelligent, or a combination of the three, which increases their desirability to straight female readers. In other words, being “written by a woman” implies that a male character is well-developed and has an emotional range that expands beyond rage and lust.
The literary epitome of this phrase is Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, who is rich, handsome, intelligent, and while he is an arrogant jerk at the novel’s start, he is willing to become a better person as a result of loving Elizabeth Bennet. Recently, this type of romantic lead has been seen more frequently in books and films as it has become more socially acceptable for men to show a softer side of themselves.
It is, therefore, the popularity of this concept that inspired the viral trend on social media featuring women extolling the virtues of their significant others as being “written by women.” However, most of these posts feature captions like, “My boyfriend made me breakfast in bed after a hard week at work. Proof he was written by a woman!” or “My hubby agreed to watch the kids for a WHOLE HOUR while I took a long bath. Ladies, get yourself a man who was written by a woman (insert Heart Eyes Emoji here).”
What disturbs me about this trend is that women are using a term to describe fictional men in predestined, plot-ordained relationships and attributing that title to significant others who are real humans with agency and the potential for initiative. By praising these men for doing the bare minimum to keep their relationships alive, we treat this behavior like the exception to the implied rule that straight men usually treat their significant others poorly. Therefore, the term “written by a woman” has the potential to perpetuate the reductive idea that a man who transcends toxic masculinity is a rare find and the default for a romantic male lead is aloof, misogynistic, and cares more about a woman’s breasts than her heart.
“Written by a Man”
On the subject of reductive gender norms, I would like to examine another social media trend based on the satirization of “written by a woman’s” antithesis: “written by a man.”
Popularized on sites like Reddit and TikTok, the term “written by a man” denotes a female character that is a caricature of a real woman. These characters are usually one-dimensional, unintelligent, and incapable of accomplishing basic tasks without the help of a man. Women that fall under the “written by men” category are either mother figures or (often infantilized) sex objects, and if a female character is intelligent, she is masculinized, desexualized, or vilified in the narrative.
One of the more infuriating literary examples of this term, in my opinion, are the characters of Clarisse and Mildred in Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. This is an amazing dystopian novel that features social commentary on censorship, technology and cancel culture that is surprisingly relevant to today’s sociopolitical climate, but Bradbury’s depiction of women in this novel is less than ideal. Clarisse, an imaginative (and obviously attractive) teenage girl who reads illegal books, helps the adult protagonist Guy see the world through new eyes before being presumably killed in the middle of the novel.
Due to the fact that Clarisse has no character development or personality outside of helping Guy think for himself, she is arguably the prototype for the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope. On the other hand, Guy’s wife Mildred is the human equivalent of a beige wall, incapable of saying or thinking anything intelligent, completely devoid of emotion or affection for anything outside of her television programs, and so numb that she doesn’t even recall her own suicide attempt. When Mildred goes on to betray Guy in the end, it is heartbreaking as a reader to see Mildred’s one-dimensional allegiance to a system that only hurts her.
Jumping forward to the modern technology-filled era, readers are voicing their objections to this type of female representation by satirizing “men writing women” on social media. These posts often feature young women looking perfect while doing household tasks with a voiceover narrating how beautiful and mysterious and “not like other girls” they are. This context-specific satire can be effective in raising awareness for abolishing these inaccurate stereotypes. However, I fear these posts featuring beautiful women performing traditionally feminine roles, when passively viewed with a lack of critical thinking, can perpetuate the notion that the only women worthy of respect by men are women to whom those men are sexually attracted.
Whether we are discussing the exceptional soft yet masculine man or the sweet, sexy, stupid woman, the stereotypes inherent in the “written by x gender” tropes can cause real harm to a relationship that defines its participants in this manner.
According to The Swaddle Associate Editor Rohitha Naraharisetty, “The big, gaping chasm of tenderness, care, and reciprocity in heterosexual relationships points to what critic Jane Ward called the “tragedy of heterosexuality.” It’s what makes us so preoccupied with the merits of individual men, or as Ward wrote, “fixing relationships with individual men rather than identifying hetero norms and hetero-masculinity themselves as fundamental problems.” By treating your significant other as “the only man who respects women” or “the only woman who likes cooking and cleaning but enjoys metal music,” you might just be playing into hegemonic gender roles instead of finding the unique nuances of your relationship that make you and your partner fully realized humans.
Displaying the superficial attributes of your partner is great for short-form videos or 140-character posts, but if these tropes are defining pillars of your relationship, your romantic connection might be as fleeting as internet stardom. With this in mind, perhaps it is better to leave these tropes to fictional characters and write your own love story together, thus celebrating this Valentine’s Day with love, kindness, and respect for all.
To read more about bookish tropes, click here!
To read more about men writing women, click here!