The question itself is enlightening, when we stop to think about it. Henry Higgins’ basic premise was correct; there are differences between men and women. This has nothing to do with sexism, feminism or equal rights. It’s simply a fact of life, recognized by psychologists and neurologists, that men and women act, think, and talk differently. (Deborah Tannen and John Gray, to name two prominent psychologists and writers, have made a life’s work out of explaining the differences.) And it’s important to note that neither the masculine way nor the feminine way is better; they’re simply different.
But Henry Higgins fell into the same trap most humans do. We want members of the opposite sex to react in the same way we would. Our way feels like the natural way – the right way. In fact, most of the time we don’t even realize that there’s another way to react, a way which is totally different but equally valid. In effect, we deny that any differences exist, even though we’re continually frustrated by them.
And that’s why writers sometimes get into trouble when we create characters of the opposite sex – because we show them talking, thinking and behaving not as their gender suggests they would, but in the way we – the author – would react if facing the same situation.
This happens so naturally that we often do not recognize the problem. We reach for the metaphors and descriptions and expressions which are natural to us – unless we stop and give serious thought as to whether they’re appropriate for the character.
If a female writer’s male characters think, act, and talk in a feminine way, her audience will be turned off – even if they don’t understand why they’re dissatisfied. The same is true if a male writer’s female characters don’t think or act or talk like real women. Female readers are more likely to notice fictional women who don’t ring true, while male readers are more likely to toss aside a book where the men don’t sound masculine. So this is a particularly important issue if you’re trying to appeal to an audience of the opposite sex.
Of course (and we need to get this straight right up front) gender-different behaviors are tendencies rather than firm laws. A lot of this discussion will be general – “men do this, women do that” – and of course it’s not nearly so simple or clear-cut. Most people don’t behave strictly as their gender would suggest they will. It is true that most men hesitate to stop for directions, but that doesn’t mean no man ever asks. There are women who go to the restroom in a public place without inviting all their friends along and making it a social occasion.