Last week my friend Therese Walsh from Writer Unboxed posted a blog on gender differences in dialogue:Turning X’s into Y’s: Guy Talk That Works. A critique partner had told her that her hero sounded too effeminate. She ran her hero’s dialogue through Bookblog’s Gender Genie, a tool that predicts the gender of an author based on key words and is sometimes used by authors to test if their characters’ dialogue is gender appropriate. Gender Genie thought Therese’s hero was a girl.
This made me wonder because I had read the same manuscript and did not see anything wrong with the dialogue. Therese’s hero is half British and an antiques dealer: polite, well educated, pretty much as close to a Regency hero as one can get in a contemporary novel. I thought maybe he sounded fine to me because I’m so steeped in historical fiction. Gender Genie is based on an algorithm developed using post-1960 documents. The results may have some validity for modern writing (though many people have broken the test) but should a historical author worry about it?

I decided to run some dialogue from Jane Austen’s heroes through it. The first one I tried was Mr. Darcy and he checked out as male. Whew! Next I tried Edward Ferrars and Edmund Bertram. Both tested out female–not so surprising as they are some of Austen’s more “beta” heroes. But then Mr. Knightley checked out as a girl. And the highest female score of all was from Captain Wentworth, even though the sample dialogue I used was all about the ships he’d commanded. I’d always considered him Austen’s most macho hero!

Then the final surprise. The highest male score of any of Jane Austen’s heroes came from Henry Tilney. While he was talking about muslin, no less!

Looking at Gender Genie’s key words, I’m pretty convinced that historical changes in speech patterns explain these results. Though perhaps Gender Genie did detect Jane Austen as the puppeteer behind some of her heroes?

To me, masculinity isn’t determined by speech patterns alone. For me, the character’s actions and ways of thinking about things are more important. In that respect, Jane Austen’s male characters feel like men to me. And many other readers, presumably!

What do you think about Gender Genie? Do you think it’s bogus? Do you think historical authors should adapt their heroes’ language to modern standards of masculinity? (One would hate to have an effeminate hero!) What makes dialogue feel masculine or feminine to you?

This was a fun experiment. Maybe next week I’ll try some dialogue from other authors, male and female, historical and contemporary. Who knows, I may even test out my current hero’s dialogue. But maybe not–wouldn’t it be dreadful to learn that my Waterloo veteran turned balloonist sounds like a girl?!