Like a compass needle that points north, a man’s accusing finger always finds a woman. Always.—Khaled Hosseini
A few questions:
Why do some folks get in such an uproar when women simply ask for a fair shake, equal footing?
Why does anyone think women writers are exempt from institutional sexism? The Mad Men era was not long ago. The 19thamendment to the constitution, giving women the right to vote, was only ratified in 1920. Help Wanted ads were segregated by gender into the seventies.
Why are folks surprised when women don’t find screenwriter Seth Macfarlane satirical when he dismisses the breathtaking film The Accused, in which Jodie Foster plays the victim of a horrific gang rape, by noting that he got a look at a Foster’s breasts.
Rage against incidents like this is comes out time and again—so why do male writers who insult women writers continue to act surprised when there’s a backlash? Why do they then blame their words on (choose one) the interviewer, the women-without-senses-of-humor, or the cabal of angry women-commercial-writers? Does this come from the same instinctual place of those who, each time I write about domestic violence, whine and scream “women do it too!” as though, in fact, two wrongs ever did make a right?
Does it stem from the reasons listed in the comic-truth of “5 Ways Modern Men Are Trained to Hate Women?” where the author divulges:
“women took it all away .. . This is why no amount of male domination will ever be enough, why no level of control or privilege or female submission will ever satisfy us. We can put you under a burqa, we can force you out of the workplace — it won’t matter. You’re still all we think about, and that gives you power over us. And we resent you for it.”
Historically, white guys always had the better shot at topping the ‘smart writer heap.’ Writers who should know better brag (usually including—wryly—the words “I know this isn’t politically correct”) about reading only “dead white guys,” as though proving their can’t-be-beaten-out-of-them intellectual prowess. (I often wonder whether these writers would be okay if only dead people bought their books.)
Dismissive remarks against women writers make sense in the context of men (consciously or not) guarding their places in line, those hoping to enter the realm of becoming a ‘canonical writer.” Eons of privilege afford men a better shot at early admission to the canon. Who among us wants to lose power? Better to dismiss the idea that the power differential exists, or to be intellectually snide, than give up one’s that upper rung on the literary hierarchy. Power threatened engenders hostility, or, worse, outright hatred, as seen in Michelle Dean’s list on Flavorwire’s of “7 Breathtakingly Sexist Quotes by Famous and Respected Male Authors,” which includes these words from Norman Mailer: “A little bit of rape is good for a man’s soul.”
And yes, that a male writer exploring relationships and family is likely to be considered groundbreaking and a woman’s book on the same territory is called ‘women’s fiction,’ is a part of the equation. Can we equate snide comments, a pink glittery book cover vs. a moody shot, to violence against women and the recent war against women? Maybe yes, maybe no, but we can plug it right into the canon of micro-indignities which keep women from recognizing that they are entitled to half the sky.
Each comment, each dismissal of reality (see the Vida Count if you want more facts and figures) is another slice in the death of a woman writer’s esteem by a thousand cuts. Who’s holding the knives and why?
There is The Bragger:
In an interview with award winning novelist, David Gilmour, who also teaches literature at the University of Toronto, Gilmour says:
“I can only teach stuff I love. I can’t teach stuff that I don’t, and I haven’t encountered any Canadian writers yet that I love enough to teach. I’m not interested in teaching books by women. Virginia Woolf is the only writer that interests me as a woman writer, so I do teach one of her short stories. But once again, when I was given this job I said I would only teach the people that I truly, truly love. Unfortunately, none of those happen to be Chinese, or women. Except for Virginia Woolf. And when I tried to teach Virginia Woolf, she’s too sophisticated, even for a third-year class. Usually at the beginning of the semester a hand shoots up and someone asks why there aren’t any women writers in the course. I say I don’t love women writers enough to teach them, if you want women writers go down the hall. What I teach is guys. Serious heterosexual guys. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Chekhov, Tolstoy. Real guy-guys. Henry Miller. Philip Roth.”
All this pitting of sex against sex, of quality against quality; all this claiming of superiority and imputing of inferiority, belong to the private-school stage of human existence where there are ‘sides,’ and it is necessary for one side to beat another side, and of the utmost importance to walk up to a platform and receive from the hands of the Headmaster himself a highly ornamental pot.— Virginia Woolf
Often seen? The: “Oh, yeah? Well it’s worse in other places!”fellow:
Frank Bruni wrote a thoughtful NYT piece regarding “Sexism’s Puzzling Stamina,” reflecting on, “. . . all the recent reminders of how often women are still victimized, how potently they’re still resented and how tenaciously a musty male chauvinism endures. On this front even more than the others, I somehow thought we’d be further along by now.”
Jonathan Franzen responded to Bruni (who referenced VIDA’s research on the disparity of women’s work being highlighted in the media) with a letter to the editor which included following:
“There may still be gender imbalances in the world of books, but very strong numbers of women are writing, editing, publishing and reviewing novels. The world most glaringly dominated by male sexism is one that Mr. Bruni neglects to mention: New York City theater.”
It is puzzling why a famed writer wastes time defending statistical disparity by saying “it’s worse in other fields.” Really? What is behind the odd defensiveness?
When all else fails, there is always the role of The “Name-caller”
Jeffrey Eugenides, given the chance (in the midst of a swell of coverage of his newly released novel The Marriage Plot) to reflect on gender disparity, responds to the interview question “Would “The Marriage Plot” have had a different cover if it was written by a woman? Something pink or frilly or less serious?” with:
“As a male you can never know and you’re not supposed to talk about it. But I have lots of female literary novelists who I don’t think would agree. I’m friendly with Meg Wolitzer and she was a big fan of “The Marriage Plot,” and she wrote something about this, and especially about the treatments of the covers. I wondered about that, if that might be true, if women get treated differently in the way that their covers are marketed. You know, it’s possible.
To me, it was a little bit … I didn’t really know why Jodi Picoult is complaining. She’s a huge best-seller and everyone reads her books, and she doesn’t seem starved for attention, in my mind — so I was surprised that she would be the one belly-aching. There’s plenty of extremely worthy novelists who are getting very little attention. I think they have more right to complain. And it usually has nothing to do with their gender, but just the marketplace.”
Belly-aching? Nothing to do with gender? Has he seen the numbers? Has he heard of the pink ghetto of women’s books on domestic drama vs. the treatment men get writing on the same topic? Does he know about the ‘cover flip?’
Why the denial of reality?
And one can always become a “Name it and it shall be true!”declarant
VS Naipaul, a winner of the Nobel Prize for literature, considered one of the greatest British writers of his generation said in an interview that no woman writer could be his literary equal; that Jane Austen’s “sentimental sense of the world” made her his inferior; “I read a piece of writing and within a paragraph or two I know whether it is by a woman or not. I think [it is] unequal to me.”
I’m not concerned with your liking or disliking me… All I ask is that you respect me as a human being.—Jackie Robinson
Chuck Wendig wrote an essay titled “25 THINGS TO KNOW ABOUT SEXISM & MISOGYNY IN WRITING & PUBLISHING, where he reaches out to other men with the words: “I hate to borrow a twee saying from our Masters at Homeland Security, but when you see inequality, it’s time to kick up some dust, time to throw a little sand. To borrow another twee sentiment: all evil requires is for good folks to stand by and do nothing. All sexism needs to thrive is for good people to do the same.”
Wendig recognizes that this is not a women-writer issue, literary-writer issue, commercial-writer, genre-writer or any-slice-of-writer issue: it is a writer issue. Perhaps I should paraphrase the tweet by K. Tempest Bradford, in response to a shower of sexism in the literary world of science fiction and fantasy:
“This would be a good time for the men who write science fiction who aren’t douchecanoes to step up and tell the other dudes to go to hell.”
“We’re tired of your sexism and hate. Clean up or ship out. You’re holding back the genre we love. And it’s time for the men of SF to step up and also say this behavior is not acceptable.”
So, to borrow from Bradford: Can you help handle the gentlemen, guys? Your friends, daughters, girlfriends, wives, and mothers are wondering—which side are you on?
Deliver me from writers who say the way they live doesn’t matter. I’m not sure a bad person can write a good book. If art doesn’t make us better, then what on earth is it for. Alice Walker