Category Archives: sexism

Reading Women Writers

What an awkward subject. I find myself feeling foolish for bringing it up – “reading women writers” – because, in 2014, shouldn’t this be a non-issue? I’m a woman, many of my friends are women, many of the writers I know personally are women. Given we make up roughly half the population, we should make up half of the books on the shelves, right?

I always forget how poor I am at math.

On average, women make up less than half of the published and promoted authors today – some arenas, even less than a quarter. Even looking through my own library recently, I was surprised (and ashamed) to discover that I own far more books by men than I do by women. 

I like to think I’m an enlightened person. My parents raised me to be a thinking, inquisitive member of the world. I like to read a variety of books, on a variety of subjects. I lean towards what’s generally known as lit fic, or upmarket fiction – stories about people being people and learning about other people. I’m a feminist and have been since before I understood there was such a thing – I was the kid who couldn’t believe anyone’s ability was defined by their sex. I support women’s rights, equality, and an elevated thought process for all.

How is it, then, that when I’m asked who my favorite writers are, they’re invariably men? When I think of my favorite books, they’re written by men. I realized, today, outside the teenage girl standby of loving Sylvia Plath (and those shameful Babysitters Club books of yore), I didn’t read another book by a woman until I was in high school and was given Pride and Prejudice.

In college, I was exposed to Margaret Atwood and Sandra Cisneros. I read books about the craft of writing, by Anne Lamott, Annie Dillard, and Natalie Goldberg. I had great inspiration in my favorite writing instructor, and the fantastic Catherine O’Neill Thorn, who mentored me for years. 

Yet, ask me books I’ve read, authors I’ve admired, and they’re all men.

I’m bothered by this on a fundamental level. I am not against men as writers, and I don’t think anyone would accuse me of that. Indeed, I love reading what others have crafted, and generally care very little about the person behind the work – I want something good, something interesting, something compelling. I may be rare in that I honestly think very little of the writer of books: outside reading more of a person’s writing, I never bother to find out their politics, their beliefs, their opinions. Hell, sometimes I barely remember names. 

What’s the issue then, you might ask. If all people are equally as interesting, then why does it matter who wrote the book?

The issue is this: if women aren’t read, then we’re only characters in someone else’s story. We’re not writing the words, we’re not telling the tales. Our lives, then, are lived out through the eyes of another person, a person who, as a male, cannot understand the actuality of living as a woman.

Does this mean men can’t write women (or the opposite)? Of course not. Some of my favorite books, about women, have been written by men, in a moving manner. However, only reading books by men is like only seeing half of a movie: you’re missing out on the other part of the story, the rest of it.

Publishing traditionally favors men. This is not the fault of modern male writers, obviously: this is inborn, and perpetuated in a scope that is rather hard to grasp. Equality still isn’t a full thing – women are still underpaid, and lacking in basic rights on a lot of levels. Our media still tends to heavily favor men. This means more books that are accepted for publishing are written by men, and more authors that are promoted are men. This, quite naturally, leads people to believe that men are the thought-makers, the story-tellers, the ones with something to say and greater talent with which to say it. It’s a vicious cycle, one that is self-perpetuating: publish a man, promote a man, think only men are capable, lather, rinse, repeat. Men sell more because there are more books by men to sell!

Women have a voice. Women have talents and thoughts, beliefs and interests, and we’re doing ourselves a disservice not to explore these, experience these, and make them a part of our own considerations as well.
Why, then, are women not published? See above: we’ve created a market that favors men. Do none of these men deserve this? Of course not: the great majority of published male authors earn their acclaim, through both talent of works, and sheer effort put into producing interesting reading.

It comes down to money. There is still a pervasive sexism that causes men’s works to sell more. I’ve met more than one man – often, thinking, thoughtful, intelligent men – who have said, point-blank, they don’t read books by women, and usually on purpose. Our media is slow moving: we’re still surprised when a woman can write a crime mystery – who wasn’t shocked to find out it was JK Rowling behind Robert Galbraith? Often, books penned by women are labeled “chick lit” or “women’s fiction,” pushing them out of the realm of “legitimate fiction” which is almost entirely populated by the likes of men.

There is nothing wrong with “chick lit” or “women’s fiction,” or the traditionally female-dominated genre of romance. However, that men get the simple, straight-forward, main genre of “fiction” and women, when allowed, are relegated to a second tier, a set-apart realm that, often, is meant to indicate lesser writing, is upsetting.
How do we go about changing this? Read women. It’s really oddly simple: read more women. The numbers are what drive change, so buy more books by women. Seek out stories penned by female authors.

I almost feel like I should add an apology here, or a reassurance: you can still read your favorite authors! Men are okay! But this is not about men, or padding the feelings of such. The majority does not need our assistance. The balance is gained by assisting the minority.

Read more women. It will do us all good.


Strong Female Leads don’t Cry… or something.

Writing for women is tricky. I don’t want to take away from writing for men or writing for all genders, but in the perfidiousness of patriarchy, we  women seem locked eternally in the act of policing each other and that does add an extra component.

We do this constantly, almost without realizing it. We police ourselves – our bodies, our eating habits, our emotional expression, our sexual experience; and then we do it to the women around us. We write blogs that call for J.K. Rowling to stop writing, stop clogging up the market — while we leave the men and their bulky bibliographies alone. We say this one is too fat, and that one looks too anorexic; this one seeks too much attention and that one just shuts herself in – how can she ever hope to find a man?; this one is a prude and that one’s a slut. Of course all it means, is that the woman polices herself differently than we police ourselves, she has sex differently, cares for her body differently, engages with men or other women differently than we would (or can) – than we have internalized as the right way to behave. And we forget how many strings bind us, how deeply we have permitted ourselves to be locked in the simple struggle of being ourselves.

IMG_6989smallI don’t think men do that. Not like this, not many of them, anyway. Lily Myers in her poem “Shrinking Woman” said something that stuck with me. To her brother, she says “We come from difference, Jonas, you learned to grow out, and I learned to grow in.” We filter, we listen, we modify ourselves and analyze because we were taught to do so from birth. Even my mother – a liberal, a hippie, a stout feminist who struggled all her life because she raised us as a single parent – admitted to me once, after I pressed that she treated us differently. That while she made my brother coffee when he was sleepy, and cut him up vegetables so he’d have something healthy with his pizza, while she left him alone to study (because it’s more important and he was busy), I was expected to eschew pizza altogether (and received sighs and looks when I didn’t), to cook healthy, to be part of the household, to do the dishes and mind her feelings. All of those are good things – but there was no proportion: my brother got so little of these admonitions and I got all the rest. And I don’t blame my mother for this. She only learned from my grandmother, who still does the same to every woman around her. I listen to her talk, and every single one has something wrong with her – from her sister, to my mother, to me, to her neighbor – of my brother she only speaks kindly, tolerantly. And how could she not? My brother is wonderful, he’s the best man I know (and he took all these pictures of me) — but she doesn’t know him at all.

Every single friend of mine has a mother who policed her food, her weight, her sexual identity, the volume of her voice – or any of a million things that we now police in ourselves, the women around us, probably our daughters one day and definitely, definitely the fictional women we read about. And here we are at the reason why writing for women is tricky.

Fictional women have to be just flawed enough not to strike us as too unrealistic, as so much better than us that it becomes uncomfortable – but they also can’t be too flawed or our teachings kick in. She has to be “strong” but not arrogant; she has to be able to accommodate our own ego without leaving us behind.

In what I’ve read and what seems to be well received – this leaves us with two basic archetypes. One is the “least offensive woman possible”. She’s the girl with very little character of her own and  who every reader can project herself into – the Bella Swans, basically. As far as I can tell – and have seen expressed in this way a lot – she is just necessary to play out the fantasy of the perfect guy, but she should be almost negligible in her effect. It’s all about him, the less the reader has to think about her, be confronted with her the better. She can be seen, but not heard, basically.

IMG_7112smallThe other archetype is the “strong female lead”, the fighter chick, the one who won’t cry a tear over some idiot, who knows how to play with her sexuality to get what she wants or eschews it altogether. These girls are tough, confident, sometimes even brash and they yeah, they kick ass.

I like a girl who can kick ass!

But we also ended up, yet again, in a strange position where we constantly pit these two against each other, and that ended us up at a very strange idea of what strength looks like in women, and reversely what weakness is.

In an author group I attend, someone recently proudly reported that she realized how much her character cried in the novel and promptly fixed it all as to not make her look so weak. Another large sheet comparing all the recent YA heroines with each other, marked almost all of them as having “poor self-esteem”.  Talking about feelings, having feelings and expressing those is becoming whiny and annoying and that makes me uncomfortable.

We live in a world in which guys are under this strain all their lives. To show emotion, they learn this from their fathers (and if they have better fathers than that, they learn it hard at school), is to be a girl, a sissy, a momma’s boy. And so they shut it down. We are faced with a generation of men who have no idea what they are feeling, because they were bullied into shutting it down. Men who can rape unconscious girls not because they are cruel, but because they have been taught that compassion and pity and kindness and sweetness is an unacceptable trait in their social circle.

And I don’t want that for women, and I certainly don’t want it for female leads.

That’s not what strength is.

 

I think I’m a pretty strong woman. I have ambitions and I work for them. I stared at a razor IMG_7125smallblade and stepped off the ledge and got help instead because of the people I love. I do things that scare me every day, I am loyal to my friends. I have convictions and I stand up for them.

But I also cry all the time – from a public service announcement about equality, to a movie, to just because I got a bad review or because I’m scared of the future. I have panic attacks and anxiety; I overanalyze everything I do and everything anyone says to me. I secretly think I am terribly ugly and nobody could ever love me.

And I am still not weak. I can be strong and cry. I can be strong and be afraid. I can be strong and quaver at the thought of my crush seeing me naked for the first time. Strength is not the denial of negative, hurtful or worrying emotions. Strength is to go on in spite of them, accepting them and limiting their power.

Strength is to stick up for friends even if that scares you, even if you could never do that for yourself. Strength is to have convictions and to stick to them — but strength is also to alter them when you grow older and learn new things. Strength is to say you were wrong and that you’re sorry, more sorry than you could ever say. And strength is to love and to trust and to be alive and open and vulnerable every day. Strength is to let people in and to show yourself to them, for who you really are.

That’s the kind of characters I want to read about.  Strong women who cry.

Episode 12: Writing sensitive male characters

lilt12

in which Laila and Lorrie talk about writing nice and sensitive men in fiction and what to look out for and why it’s nothing to be afraid of.

(If the application doesn’t work for you, please click here for the audio-file!)

What about you? How do you write male characters? Do you have a favourite male character that you’d describe as sensitive or having some non-traditional male attributes?
Credits:
101 Everyday Ways to be Allies to Women

Our intro music was taken from the Free Music Archive:
GeeNerve - Pink Fish Signs (Take Two).

Filed under: Episodes