Sexism in the world of writing

English: J.K. Rowling reads from Harry Potter ...

English: J.K. Rowling reads from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone at the Easter Egg Roll at White House (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I find it fascinating to think about how the world of writing is often rampant with very profound sexism, and one enforced from all sides — including the consumer end.

Writing, I know, includes rhetorical writing, which has always been dripping with extremities of thought in every direction. Same goes for informative texts — everyone has a point to make.  I often find the term non-fiction a touch funny — sometimes I think the only honest writing is fiction; it admits to being made up, then so often proceeds to give you a glimpse of some life truth through this made up account.

Still, by the same token the sexism isn’t in depiction, it’s in the industry itself.  So, yes, even in the rhetorical and non-fiction worlds.  Thing is, I’m not talking about on the paper.  I’m talking about in the material, themes, genres.

Take SF, a favourite of mine.  Speculative fiction is a vivid place full of idealised histories and shining futures.  It’s a place where women could captain a starship with dignity and respect at a time when, perhaps, they couldn’t get taken seriously as the captain of a bass boat.  It’s a place where a sorceress could cross spells with an archmagus and none could know who would prevail, and both were looked at with awe and respect — even fear.  Yet it’s a place where authors, at times, find themselves thankful for a name with a masculine tone, or find themselves writing under pseudonym.  Because, of course, women don’t know the first thing about writing Fantasy, Science Fiction, and the like!  God, no, who ever heard of such a thing?!  Oh, not to say they can’t, but it’d certainly be all fairies, unicorns, and True Love — not a decent fight scene in sight, and no mighty castings.  It’d be court intrigue and … notice how I’m sticking with Fantasy here?  Yeah, there’s a reason for that.

Sexism works both ways.  Romance.  Oh, fellas, you poor dears.  Don’t you know, not a one of you has a romantic bone in your whole body?!  You couldn’t write a touching love scene if your lives depended upon it.  Oh, sure, a bodice ripper, all sex and “love muscle” this, and “throbbing” that might be seen as okay, though you’ll probably find you’ll have better luck if you called it erotica than romance, and throw in a few colourful vulgarities or just get rather more graphic about it.

Agents and publishers aren’t as bad about it, if they were then many of the authors writing under pseudonym couldn’t.  Clearly one cannot cash a royalty cheque made out to their pen name, so obviously the agent and publisher knows who really wrote it.  It’s the readership, though, they’re the worst.  Jo Rowling‘s middle initial isn’t K.  J. K. Rowling, just doesn’t sound as feminine — it does now that we all know that she is the lovely and talented author of the Harry Potter series, but when the stories were new … oh, my … let’s not put Jo, a distinctly feminine label, on this Boy’s Adventure Fiction, it won’t sell very well.

It’s true, too.  Oh, if you ask people directly they’ll say it’s more important what’s in the book.  But that’s while they’re thinking with their forebrain.  What happens when they’re scanning the bookshelves?  What happens when they see a cover with Fabio’s arms draped with a pert young blonde in a French Renaissance dress?  They might glance at the title and see something like Jasmine’s Desire (I am not going to find out how many books have that title and nor how many have a cover remotely as I’ve made up … I won’t), in many cases if it’s by Elaine Wrotabuk the expectations for what will be between those pages will be different than if it says Edward Wrotabuk.  Ever notice just how many names on the shelves of Science Fiction are ‘male’ and how many on Romance are ‘female’?  Ever notice how many are only initials?  Ever wonder who just got clever and picked a perfectly innocuous name?

It’s not just those two genres, they’re just the easiest to pick on.  I write one and read the other, so I’m more familiar — and there’s the fact that it often appears to be the worst for it.  They’re the ‘[sex] can’t write this stuff’ genres.  In other genres it’s just assumed the content will be different.  Also, if we’re talking Young Adult, Children’s, and other stuff that might, at times, be divided into girls’ fiction or boys’ fiction, then we run into the situation where you want a male name on The Hardy Boys, a girl’s name on Nancy Drew.  

It’s in other aspects of the readership.  Men just can’t possibly write a female protagonist.  Certainly not as a point of view character.  Just as Jo Rowling, clearly, could not have penned the work with this male star-of-the-show — obviously that was done by the ambiguous, but assumed to be Mr J. K. Rowling.  

So we’ve got expectation of content — male penned romance is smut, female romance is moving and passionate (even when it’s really smut).  Female written fantasies are just romances with pixies in it, but male penned ones are hobgoblins and epic, bloody battles.  Men can’t write convincing women, and women cannot write men to save their lives.  And women don’t know the first thing about science fiction.  Feel free to extrapolate into the expectations of horror and mystery, westerns and contemporary, and other such fictions.  

Those matters, though, I can largely be amused by.  I mean, an author can change her name for purposes of making the book on the shelf conform to societal expectations and, once the content between the pages is know — instead of only guessed at — her true name and face can be known and, now that everyone’s thinking with their higher brain functions, no one gives a damn.  J. K. can now, once more, be Jo — though for convenience’s sake the cover retains the J. K.  It’s the criticisms, analyses — the literary breakdowns that actually bother me.

It’s the feminist critique of works, for example, wherein a book by a woman (or perceived to be) can have lesbians, strong females, women who enjoy sexuality and women who loathe it, men who’re sensitive, and men who are brutish — and she is brilliant.  There’s so much spoke in this work!  Tell them though, that Sam Spade is Samuel, not Samantha, though and suddenly the lesbians are just perverse fantasy, the strong females are somehow sexist (I’ve never understood how that works), the sexual women are more perverse fantasy, and … need I go on?

It does work a little to the flip side.  A woman author who writes sensitive men, or weak men, or strong women and so forth is clearly a dyke femi-nazi or something.  Strangely I’ve noticed men tend to be less worried about this sort of thing.  Maybe it’s just taken for granted by the male of the species that women think them idiots and so are unfazed when a woman writes them as such, who knows?  Still, in all fairness, I’ve seen men get quite riled by the depiction of men in various writings.  

Why is it that something is positive for little boys, or little girls if it’s written by one gender, but horrible and perverse the other way ’round — even if the text is unchanged (I’ve actually encountered, sadly I cannot recall where or with regards to what, people reversing their attitudes when such data is brought to light)?  Why is it insulting when it’s discovered an inspiring story of homosexual romance was written by someone who’s straight?  Okay, so that’s not sexism, but prejudice is prejudice.

I know, I spoke at length of fiction, but I said rhetoric and information had the same issue.  It does.  Women aren’t supposed to know about some topics, and men aren’t.  Imagine a book on etiquette and protocol, or on flower arranging by a man — a straight one!  Or a book by a woman about DIY diesel engine repair that isn’t just Suzy Homemaker “if the sprocket-hose, this little thing right here, gets a hole in it and you’re on the interstate, don’t call triple-A, just grab your ballpoint pen and …”, no I mean “So once you have the engine mounts loose, we’ll hoist the son of a bitch out of there and get to work rebuilding it …”  

The point is we’re writers.  Writers are readers, then there’re the people who’re just readers.  We’re the weird people.  We’re not normal!  Why, then, are among the worst at maintaining stereotypes and prejudices?  Oh, sure, we love a good stereotype while writing, it’s useful for making things succinct, “For a redhead she was remarkably even tempered” and “what do you expect, he went to Oxford,” but we shouldn’t enforce the things in life.  I believe wholeheartedly that any woman who wants to know a camshaft from a steering column ought to be fully capable of showing any man at the local service shop a thing or two with a torque wrench (minds out of the gutter, folks), that a straight man can be a fantastically cultured individual with an eye for floral arrangements and interior decorating, that women are more likely to write an action filled blood and gore fightfest, and that any man who lets himself feel can write profoundly touching emotional explorations.  Some of the most scientifically and technically minded people I’ve met were female, and there’re certainly a good deal of double-Xs reading SF … and there’re straight men who don’t mind a good tearjerker and have all the technical and mechanical aptitude of an earthworm.  Maybe as the people who live in the world of facts (non-fiction), imagination (fiction), and trying to move people into new ways of seeing things (rhetoric) we ought to remember to think more forwardly in the real world just as well or more than we let ourselves in the worlds between the pages.  

Who knows, it might change the world.

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