Writing like a woman

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Do man and women write the same?

Last week I wrote a post on whether men and women read differently. But what about the question of whether they write differently? This has been debated hotly in the press – check out these two articles “why men can’t write for toffee” and “can a man create women?

This debate quickly raises questions about how successfully male writers can create convincing female characters. So I asked myself do Shakespeare’s women speak like women?

Research has shown that certain words and phrases are used more by male writers than the female. Thus suggesting that passages, spoken by women, in male authored texts should still be identifiable as masculine. Research which identifies text as male or female authored has been condensed into an analytical tool called the Gender Genie. This nifty little piece of programming allows you to paste in chunks of text which it analyses in terms of whether it conforms to male or female norms of writing. So although of course it was designed for modern literature I could not resist trying it with Shakespeare…

First I thought I’d see if the Gender Genie could distinguish between male and female characters, so first I tried it with Juliet’s ‘gallop a-pace’ speech which it correctly identified as ‘female’. Well done Shakespeare, Gender Genie thinks you have created a feminine female!  Next I tried it with a contested piece of text, Miranda’s ‘abhorred slave’ speech from The Tempest . Some editors have attributed these line to Prospero rather than Miranda, can Gender Genie tell us who should speak them?  Gender Genie tells me this speech is ‘female’ –so it’s Miranda’s speech then!

Next I tried  Hamlets ‘O, that this too too solid flesh’ speech and, woops, Gender Genie thought Hamlet was female too! Well some serious academics have suggested that Hamlet was first imagined as a woman so perhaps there is some truth in that?  Next I tried Mark Antony’s ‘Friends, Romans, countrymen’ speech which Gender Genie also identified as female! So according to gender genie, not just Hamlet, but Mark Antony are convincingly female. In fact the only speech in Shakespeare’s cannon so far which Gender Genie identifies as male is the opening speech of Richard III ‘Now is the winter of our discontent… !’

Now I assume that this is largely a result of the fact that Gender Genie is constructed to analyse modern text and simply cannot cope with Shakespeare’s language. Gender genie works by counting the number of times a writer uses words associated with male and female speech and writing and it is possible that for various historical or dramatic reasons the words considered masculine are used less by shakespeare. But is does mean that Shakespeare can certainly write convincingly feminine women, as far as language goes. Finally I decided to test Gender Genie with the text of this blog which it thinks was written by a man. Oh dear!

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Author:Liz Dollimore

Someone who loves listening to people talk about Shakespeare Liz tweets at @shakespeareBT
  • Traditionally yes, the muse was female, although today it’s rather more fluid. Shakespeare played with the idea of a young man being his muse in his sonnets, so even for him the poetic muse could be both male and female. ^liz

  • By the way , aren’t all Muses inspiring women?

  • Aren’t muses all female?By the way, isn’t poetry FEMALE?

  • OK that was interesting Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass was considered male, Tennyson’s In Memoriam was also considered male (although personally I have always thought that poem very feminine) , but Hopkin’s Pied Beauty was considered female. Which suggests that there is nothing particularity female about poetry. ^liz

  • An interesting idea. It would be good to test Gender Genie with some poems from say Tennyson, Whitman, Hopkins etc and see if poetry does tend to read as feminine? Woolf was of course very interested in the ‘man-womanly’ idea explored in her novel Orlando (her best I think!) as was Shakespeare in his own way with Rosalind’s and the ‘master-mistress’ of his passion… off to feed the Genie some poetry! ^liz

  • Christian Smith

    “The truth is, a great mind must be androgynous.” Coleridge

    “Shakespeare’s mind…the man-womanly mind” Woolf

    It makes sense that most of Shakespeare’s lines would be sensed by a computer program to be ‘female.’ I wonder if the ‘female’ness is not so much the vocabulary of a woman, but the flow of the poetry.

  • Interestingly you are not the only person to find their professional work is classed as male, which I do think is possibly significant. The Gender Genie is based on research and i think the words it classes and male and female were the result of research into writing which did show that men typically used more of the words it lists as ‘male’ – the list was developed from the research. But Gender Genie is also a simplified version – the research findings were more complex. But a fun toy! ^liz

  • Oooh, that’s going to be a fun little toy to play with… though I sort of question the reasoning behind it. The words it seems to pick out as “male” or “female” seem sort of odd — I can believe that men and women use different vocabularies, but does that really extend to “at” and “the” being male and “was” and “with” being female? I’d have to read more to be convinced.

    For what it’s worth, the Genie thinks my blogs for the ASC are male, but that my personal blog is female. So I write like a man when I’m writing professionally? Hmm…

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