sexist tropes

Readers, writers, and gatekeepers all have parts to play in eroding sexist tropes.

I have loved reading my whole life, from the moment I memorized each page of Dr. Seuss’s In a People House and shouted the words while sitting on my mother’s lap. Books have always been part of my studies, my paid work, my unpaid work, and my free time. Books remain my favourite thing to buy and stack on my small IKEA bookshelf that looks more and more like a Tetris challenge every day. I also absorb stories in movies and TV, comics and graphic novels, and the occasional bullshit tale spun by someone who’s had a few too many beers. I have loved and will always love stories, even when they don’t always love me back.

I’ve noticed that I anticipate a twinge of disappointment when a female character enters a story. I wait for her to be objectified, minimized, or annihilated. Most of the time my expectations are confirmed. Then, there is the small but significant hurt that comes even when I have braced for it. It’s the hurt that comes when a female character’s nipples are described with more detail than her personality. It’s the hurt that comes when a woman’s death is a tragedy, because now her husband is lonely and drinks too much whiskey. It’s the hurt that comes when there is only one woman in a sea of men, and she might as well not be there at all.

When I feel these pinpricks, I wonder: Is that how you see us? Are we just props to you? Are we invisible? And did you care that we could read this?

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If you have followed any of my previous Town Crier pieces, you’ve noticed that I care deeply about recognizing and dismantling (or at least, minimizing) sexist tropes in writing. I have ranted about underage girls being labelled powerful seductresses. I have argued about manic pixie dream girls, cool girls, and a lot of dead girlfriends. After writing all of these pieces, my editor told me he was excited about the conclusion I was leading up to. I was flummoxed on how to come up with a solution. How could I solve sexism and lazy writing all at once?

I promise you, if I could have solved these two major problems this weekend instead of sitting in front of my laptop and wondering if I used the right recipe for baked oatmeal, I would have. Sexism is a complicated problem that must be addressed intersectionally and consistently, because we can easily slip back into a status quo that favours the simplicity of misogyny over the difficulties of equality. Lazy writing is inevitable; we will have to accept its existence, but we don’t have to like it.

But here goes my best shot at fixing these problems.

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WHAT READERS CAN DO

Readers don’t have the same amount of cultural power as the heads of publishing companies, but they do have the ability to make change. If the powers of the Internet set a Rihanna and Lupita Nyong’o heist movie in motion, anything can happen. Publishing is still a business, and as long as you have a demand the business will find a way to supply. If you stop buying offensive material, slowly but surely they will get the message.

Constructive criticism is a force for good. It can only help us build a better culture.

And remember, it’s okay to criticize the things you love. You can still adore Harry Potter and criticize J.K. Rowling idealizing Severus Snape’s unrequited love. Snape called his “love” a slur after getting embarrassed, became a wizard-Nazi, and then bullied her child for years. You can still like Lynn Crosbie’s Where Did You Sleep Last Night? even though it romanticizes toxic relationships and sexual assault. One of my all-time favourite comic series is Rat Queens, about a rag-tag group of female misfits going on fantastical quests. I recently found out that the co-creator and artist Roc Upchurch was arrested for domestic abuse, which clashes with the comic’s messages of female empowerment. I can criticize the characters, the tropes, and even the creators and still appreciate the rest of the story.

Constructive criticism is a force for good. It can only help us build a better culture.

WHAT WRITERS CAN DO

At the risk of sounding too insulting, I’m going to have award-winning writer Junot Diaz take the wheel:

The one thing about being a dude and writing from a female perspective is that the baseline is, you suck. The baseline is it takes so long for you to work those atrophied muscles—for you to get on parity with what women’s representations of men are.

You may say you’re not sexist—I think most of us would consider that a fundamental character trait. Sadly, even if you love your mom, you respect women, or you liked a tweet about feminism before, it doesn’t mean your writing is free of harmful tropes. Even being a woman does not allow you to get off completely; internalized misogyny is insidious.

The only way to write better female characters is to absorb women’s stories.

The only solution for this problem is simple as a concept, but difficult in practice: listen to women. Constantly. Read female characters written by women. Read their memoirs and essays. Read their reviews and opinions. Look at your bookshelf and see how many books are by female authors and about female characters. Is it half of your bookshelf? Are the authors all white? Are they all heterosexual? The only way to write better female characters is to absorb women’s stories.

It always helps to remember that if you put your story out there, whether it’s published by a major company or shared in the Internet wasteland, women will read it.

WHAT “GATEKEEPERS” CAN DO

You may recognize them as the agents, editors, and publishers in the writing world. I like to call them the gatekeepers because they are in charge of what gets promoted to the public.

While the publishing industry does have a lot of women at the helm, it is unfortunately very white. We need perspectives from women of diverse backgrounds, WOC, and LGBT women in order to represent all readers and ensure that our literary culture is vibrant, because different perspectives will save us from cultural stasis.

For example, in an interview with Elle about her book One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter, Scaachi Koul spoke about being one of the few Indian-Canadian voices out there. Koul mentions that at book signings, brown girls show up to talk and ask for advice:

So these girls come to these events because there’s nothing else, and at least I’m visible, and they want to know, How do I get there? And, God … it’s luck? I hate myself a lot, I drink too much—these are never the answers they want. But I get that. They’ll come to me after and give me these details, and I feel a responsibility towards them. I don’t want to leave them in the lurch, but I can’t solve this. If I could, I would. I’m doing what I can by showing up and being there, but at a certain point, isn’t it shitty that there are, like, five of us doing all this work?

Gatekeepers are responsible for making sure that groups of people don’t feel abandoned. Five is a pitiful number.

The process of eroding sexist tropes will be uncomfortable for readers, writers, and gatekeepers alike, but it is needed if women are going to be acknowledged and respected.

And this one might be more difficult than hiring and acquiring more diverse staff and writing: stop publishing purposely offensive writing. Whether it’s for clickbait or it’s for the cash, you are still actively putting harmful content out there. For example, Milo Yiannopoulos originally had a book deal for an autobiography with Simon & Schuster. Yiannopoulous had his book deal cancelled after he made pro-pedophilia comments. However, Yiannopoulos was still an alt-right, sexist, and racist attention-seeker before that scandal, and Simon & Schuster was willing to pay for his hurtful rhetoric because they knew his book would sell. They even offered an advance of $250,000 (USD). I understand that publishing is still a business, but you could make money by appealing to women and POC instead of profiting from their harm.

THERE’S STILL HOPE

The process of eroding sexist tropes will be uncomfortable for readers, writers, and gatekeepers alike, but it is needed if women are going to be acknowledged and respected. I don’t want this to come off as negative. I have the strongest hopes that we can change things. I hold on to this belief because I’ve had my expectations silenced by a story, when a sexist trope is twisted, broken down, or wiped from the pages. For that moment, I am struck with a beautiful feeling. It’s the feeling of quiet relief. It’s the feeling of brief elation. It’s the feeling when a writer speaks directly to you, without saying your name.

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