I enjoy "controversial" panels. Partially because I often like to debate things, partially because my background knowledge of the issues is pretty extensive1, and partially, at least in regards to writing, the issues are really pretty simple.
I was on the "Men Writing Women" panel at GenCon’s Writer’s Symposium. The entirety of the advice can be summed up like this:
In our society, men and women have different roles. Listen to women without your own prejudices, and then write characters true to what you hear. Your characters must make sense in your world – so make sure you know what happened to make things different than historical or present society. Apply the Bechdel test to your own work.
Simple, not easy.
If you want to convincingly write a realistic character who is a 14 year old woman in modern Western society, you have to talk to 14 year old women.2
You have to examine your own biases and be aware of them when you’re writing. In a future society where everyone’s equal, why would a character ever say "hit like a girl?"
You have to realize our current society is structurally sexist. For example:
At an earlier panel, I’d answered a question by saying, “That’s something we’re going to cover in depth with a later panel – Men Writing Women. The short answer is, your female characters shouldn’t be men with boobs.” The audience chuckled.
Another panelist said, “And the one after that is Women Writing Men, where your male characters shouldn’t be chicks with dicks.” The audience gasped a little, then laughed nervously.
The difference in reaction to essentially the same statement is an artifact of the sexist nature of our society. Those sorts of things can be subtle – and nearly invisible to us unless we actively search them out.
If you’re a male writer, I highly recommend Privilege, Power, and Difference. If you can manage it, take a class or two on women’s studies at a local college or university – and hear what they’re actually saying.
Should all your female characters going to be enlightened and liberated women? Of course not. There’s a variety of personalities in the world, and some of them aren’t very flattering. But at the same time, if you only have giggling women falling for your male lead character (or screaming when danger threatens), then you really need to re-examine your work.
1 I’ve been on both sides of religious debates, plus that sociology degree…
2 And manage to not come off as a pervert.