Tag Archives: down with the patriarchy

Stop Calling It My Maiden Name

11 Nov

In my former life, back before I had a kid and became a yoga teacher and started a cuss-filled feminist blog, I worked in the financing department of a large international bank. A few months after I started working there (and, coincidentally, a few months after I got married), one of the higher-ups was chatting me and my coworkers up when, out of nowhere, he said:

“Anne, is Thériault your married name or your maiden name?”

Flustered, I replied, “It’s just my regular name.”

“What do you mean by that?” he asked, totally nonplussed.

“I mean… it’s the name I was born with? I didn’t change my name when I got married, if that’s what you want to know.”

“So it’s your maiden name,” he said, his tone landing somewhere between condescending and wink-wink-I-get-it-you’re-making-a-joke.

But I wasn’t making a joke – I actually do really hate the term “maiden name” and will use all kinds of verbal gymnastics in order to avoid using it. Not only do I think it’s a gross term to use (more on that later), but it’s also wildly inaccurate. The term “maiden” is an archaic term meaning an unmarried girl or young woman, and is synonymous with “female virgin.” I know that this may come as a surprise, but – I am literally none of those things. I’m actually a mean old hag who gets laid on the regular, so referring to my last name as my “maiden name” does not make any sense. I am not a maiden in any sense of the word; you may as well call it my slutty old crone name*.

From the Oxford English Dictionary

From the Oxford English Dictionary

So why is the term maiden name not just incorrect but also totally problematic? Well, because it’s based on several outdated assumptions. First of all, there’s the idea that a woman is not an autonomous person but rather a thing belongs to a man, and her last name signifies which man she belongs to; until she marries, she belongs to her father, and then after she marries, she belongs to her husband. Referring to a last name as a “maiden name” reinforces the idea that it’s a transitory type of name – not a woman’s real last name, but rather just the name she keeps until she finally fulfills her lady-destiny and lands a man. Second of all, there’s all kinds of weird purity bullshit happening here. We’re basically referring to the last name a woman is given at birth as her virgin name, the implication being that she won’t have sex until she’s married, at which point she will take her husband’s name.

I mean, I haven’t done any studies and I don’t have a lot of firm data to back this up, but I’m going to guess that only 0.1% of the women over the age of 20 who still go by their maiden names are people who have never been sexually active. Like, don’t quote me on that or anything, but seriously. Come on. Other than the unmarried adult faction of the Duggar clan, how many grownups out there have never had sex? While there are for sure lots of people out there who aren’t regularly engaging in sexual activity, most of them have tried it at least once. Even the majority of the asexual people I know wouldn’t describe themselves as “virgins,” and most of them have experimented with sex at some point or another (which is often how they know it’s not for them).

It’s pretty telling that there’s no male equivalent to the term maiden name. This is because men have always been considered people, and therefore have always been entitled to their last names – unlike women, who traditionally only ever get to borrow a last name from whichever man she has the closest relationship to. People often don’t want to admit that last names are a form of showing ownership, and while I get that we don’t legally use them in this way anymore, there are still a lot of weird vestiges from the time when women were considered to be less than human. Like, if everyone’s so equal and not-patriarchal now, how come dudes almost never want to take their wives’ names when they get married? Whenever I have the should-women-change-their-name-when-they-get-married debate, one reason I often hear is that a married couple with the same last name somehow represents a stronger, more unified front than a couple with different last names. Both women and men tell me that it feels more like a family when a husband and wife both have the same last name – it makes them feel like they’re both on the same team. If this is true, then why is still almost always only women who are expected to change their names in order to show what team they’re on? If all these dudes are so fucking into showing unity, how come they’re never willing to give up their last names?

Let’s stop using the term maiden name; It’s outdated, it’s sexist, it’s weird and it’s gross. Let’s start referring to women’s last names the same way we refer to men’s last names – as their names, full stop, no qualifiers needed. And for heaven’s sake let’s stop asking women what kind of last name they have. Why is it anybody’s business whether a woman changed her name when she married or not? Why do people care? And if we really need a term to refer to the last name a woman had before she was married, why not “birth name”? It’s a well-known term, and it’s widely understood to describe exactly the thing we’re trying to describe: a name that a person was assigned at birth which they no longer use. If we can use the term “birth name” to describe, say, the former name of a performer who who took a stage name, or the former name of an author who took a non-de-plume, or really just about any other adult who for whatever reason decided to change their name, then surely we can also apply it to the instances when women take their husbands’ names when they get married. That doesn’t seem like it would be terribly complicated.

*Sluttiness is a social construct! So is virginity, for that matter.

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FCKH8 Exploits Little Girls In Order To Sell T-Shirts

22 Oct

Trigger warning for rape

Yesterday, FCKH8 released a video called F-Bombs for Feminism: Potty Mouthed Princesses Use Bad Words for Good Cause that quickly went viral, and has been shared hundreds of thousands of times on Facebook alone. This isn’t surprising – it’s a video designed to hit that marketing sweet spot where people are equal parts outraged, delighted and just plain not sure what to think. I’d be willing to bet that this video has had nearly as many hate-shares and “is this offensive?” shares as it has people posting it because they think it’s great.

FCKH8’s video is carefully calculated to appeal to a certain type of young, hip feminist (as well as being designed to cause offence and outrage among right-wing conservatives). It starts out with a bunch of sweet little girls wearing princess costumes striking stereotypically cute poses and simpering “pretty” at the camera. Then there’s a record scratch, and suddenly the girls are throwing out cuss words left, right and centre: “What the fuck? I’m not some pretty fuckin’ helpless princess in distress. I’m pretty fuckin’ powerful and ready for success. So what is more offensive? A little girl saying ‘fuck,’ or the fucking unequal and sexist way society treats girls and women?”

The video then has the sweet, princessified little girls tackle a bunch of feminist issues, namely the pay gap, violence against women, and sexual assault – all while swearing up a storm, of course. What FCKH8 wants you to take away from this is that society feels more uncomfortable about cute little girls saying the word fuck than it does about the very real issues faced by women on a daily basis. Instead, what I see is a video that relies on the shock value of girls in princess costumes cussing and talking about rape in order to increase its shareability.

First of all, let’s get one thing straight: this video is not some kind of PSA, it’s an advertisement. FCKH8 is a for-profit t-shirt company – emphasis on the profit – that has put together an exploitative and manipulative two minute and thirty five second commercial for t-shirts. And while FCKH8 asserts that all of this is “for a good cause” (they’ve promised to donate $5 from each t-shirt sale to as-yet-undisclosed organizations) the only cause that’s being promoted by this video is their bank account.

There is nothing feminist about using little girls as props in order to sell t-shirts – in fact, I would argue that this is the opposite of feminism. There is nothing feminist about exploiting a bunch of little girls by having them swear and talk about rape statistics just so that FCKH8 can make a quick buck. There is nothing feminist about creating an association between potty-mouthed little kids and social justice – and that’s not a slight against potty-mouths, because I fucking love swearing, but rather a statement on the fact that this video plays into a lot of the negative stereotypes that people already have about feminism.

On top of all that, there is for sure nothing feminist about having girls as young as six years old discussing rape and sexual assault; I would hope that at that age, most kids have never even heard the word rape, let alone had to recite facts about it for an audience of thousands, maybe even millions. I feel sick that these children are being taught about subjects like rape just so that a t-shirt company can make a provocative advertisement. The point that especially crosses the line between “this is problematic” and “I want to flip a table” is the moment where the five little girls spout off the statistic that one in five women will be raped in their lifetime, and then ask which of them it will be. Having a little girl demand to know if she’ll be raped just so that you can sell a few shirts is so far beyond the realm of what should be acceptable that I have no words for it.

This is not how we protect our children. This is not how we empower girls. Forcing a child to ask an audience of adults if she’ll someday become a rape statistic so that your company can line its pockets with cash is definitely not the way to practice social justice.

This isn’t the first time that FCKH8 has done this kind of thing either – they recently came under fire after they exploited the events in Ferguson in order to sell “anti-racism gear.” As with the F-Bomb Princess video, the Ferguson video featured a bunch of children rattling off facts about racism before promising to donate a portion of each t-shirt sale to some unspecified charity. This is their business model, apparently: take something that people care deeply about, commodify it, and then make money. As a strategy, it’s slick and smart as hell. It’s also pretty unethical.

Feminism isn’t a commodity that can be bought and sold. Rape statistics should not be used as a sales tactic. Children do not exist to be used as provocateurs in manipulative advertisement campaigns for clothing.

It would be really great if FCKH8 would realize that using little girls as shock-value props in their t-shirt commercial is not feminist in any sense of the word. No little kid should have to wonder aloud whether or not they’ll be raped one day, and especially not just so some grownup can make money.

feminism102114-600x337

Reign’s Rape Problem

20 Oct

TW for rape

When I first heard about the CW show Reign, I knew that it was going to be my next guilty pleasure. A young Mary Stuart and her ladies-in-waiting living with Catherine de’Medici in Renaissance France? Yes please. Court intrigue and awkward teenage romance? Yes please. Weird pagans in the woods and flower crowns and a murderous queen and a (very anachronistically hot and young) Nostradamus? DOUBLE YES PLEASE. PASS THE FLOWER CROWNS, SON, I’M IN.

I talked my friend into watching it with me, and by the end of the first episode we were both hooked. We would make a ritual out of it – order a pizza, get a bottle of wine, and then sit down to make fun of plot holes and not-very-historically-accurate clothing and overblown teenage FEELINGS for an hour. But as much as we giggled over the poor life choices of the characters, and as often as I yelled “NOBODY WORE TUTUS IN THE 16TH CENTURY,” we developed a real fondness for the show.

And why not? There’s honestly a lot to like. Reign is all about the various ways that women wield power, both in gross and subtle ways. It’s about the relationships between women, and the electrical charges of jealousy and sneaky competitiveness that often sour them. It’s about female sexuality – in fact, the pilot featured a pretty hot-n-heavy female masturbation scene. To top it all off, every single episode of the series so far passes the Bechdel test, meaning that there is always at least one scene involving two women who talk to each other about something other than a man – which I know doesn’t sound like very discriminating criteria, but you would be surprised how many pieces of media fail to meet even this grimly minimal standard. But not Reign! Reign has, for all of its quirks, been generally pretty pro kick-ass women, a fact which I’ve really appreciated.

Plus I’m also here for the elaborate hair styles an the dark, secret poisons and the dudes in tight leggings. But I digress.

This week, a spoiler for an upcoming episode of Reign was leaked. This spoiler revealed that in an upcoming episode of the show, Mary will be violently raped. This rape, by the way, will not be a portrayal of a historical fact. Instead, it will be used as a plot device, a ratings grab and a cheap facsimile for character development.

Rape as a plot device is a lazy way to show a strong woman’s “vulnerability,” all the while demeaning and exploiting the experiences of real-life rape survivors. Rape as a plot device is also often used to take female characters down a peg, to put them in their place, to force them to rely on men for protection. Rape as character development is most often used as what Chris Osterndorf refers to as “an explain-all for complicated female characters” – in fact, we’ve already seen Reign pull that old trope with Queen Catherine, when it tossed in a quick rape story to justify her actions and make her more sympathetic to viewers.

None of these are good reasons to include a rape scene in a film or book or television show; I am disgusted that the writers and producers of Reign would use sexual assault to somehow drive the arc of the show forward or reshape Mary’s character. There is absolutely no reason to show Mary being violently raped, and doing so will only have harmful results.

People who defend this scene will say that it’s accurate, perhaps not in a way that’s specific to Mary Stuart, but in a broader, historical context. They’ll argue that Reign is fairly portraying how prevalent violence against women was in 16th century Europe. They’ll smugly explain that these types of scenes create awareness about rape.

First of all, let me assure you that everyone is aware of rape. Women, especially, are painfully aware of the threat of sexual assault. We live with that threat every damn day, and we don’t need a television show to educate us on how frightening and dangerous life as a girl can be.

Second of all, these scenes nearly always sensationalize rape, using the act of sexual assault to shock or create intrigue in audiences. They are not thoughtful portrayals of a difficult and incredibly sensitive subject; they play into the pervasive media narrative that centres violence itself instead of the experiences of women. These scenes also desensitize audiences to the issue of violence against women, especially when a rape is used to drive the plot forward – when rape is just a mechanism to make a character behave a certain way or do a certain thing, the very real emotional fallout that rape survivors experience is often only briefly touched on, and certainly almost never given the gravity and attention it deserves.

Rape is not a plot device. It is not character development. It is not a great way for television shows to get higher ratings. Rape is something that one in four women will experience in their lifetime. It is not something that should ever be used for shock or entertainment value.

Please, writers and producers of Reign, re-write this scene. You are better than this. You show is better than this. You’ve got something really wonderful and unique going on – please don’t foul it up now. And to everyone else reading, please go sign this petition. Even if you don’t watch the show. Do it for the women you know who are rape survivors. Do it for all the teenage girls watching the show who don’t need to see one of their heroines subjected to sexual assault just to close up some screenwriter’s plot hole. Or just do it because it’ll take five seconds and it’s the right thing to do.

Flower Crowns R Us

Flower Crowns R Us

Sheriff’s Office Re-Victimizes Rape Survivors

6 Oct

Trigger warning for rape

When Lori O’Brannon found a card in the mail from Clark County Sheriff’s office addressed to her 18 year old daughter Josie, she didn’t give it much thought. The card, a blue, standard post-card sized piece of cardboard, said that the evidence department had something to release to Josie. Lori figured that it was probably something innocent enough, left over from Josie’s wilder days when, as Lori put it, Josie had “been in trouble” a few times. So Lori called the number on the card, made an appointment, and drove Josie to pick up the “evidence.”

Neither of them could have predicted what was actually in the brown paper bag that the Sheriff’s office handed to her: a soiled grey shorts and a pair of women’s underwear. Both Josie and Lori recognized the articles immediately – they were what Josie had been wearing just over three years earlier, when she’d been raped the day before her 15th birthday. The clothing had been collected by PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Centre (the same hospital, in fact, where Josie had been born) as part of the rape kit done shortly after her assault.

She was being given back the evidence of her rape.

Josie, who her mother describes as a “tough little fighter,” started to shake at the sight of the bag, with its huge red BIOHAZARD sticker and neatly typed label showing Josie’s name, age, date of birth. Lori, a rape survivor herself, knew that her first priority was to get her daughter out of there before she collapsed. She stuffed the evidence bag in her trunk, managed to get Josie into the passenger side, and headed for home. Lori remembers thinking during the drive home that she might throw up; Josie said she felt like she’d been hit by a truck.

A few days later, when she felt a bit calmer, Lori called the Clark County Sheriff’s office to find out why, exactly, this had happened. She was hoping that it was all some kind of accident. Maybe there had been a miscommunication. Maybe the person who sent out the little blue cards hadn’t realized exactly what the “evidence” in question was in this particular case. Surely this couldn’t have been done on purpose? Surely someone would apologize and promise that it would never happen again. But no, Lori was told, this was standard procedure. The clothing was Josie’s property, and the sheriff’s office was simply returning it. There was nothing more to it than that.

Like most rape survivors, Josie knows exactly who her rapist was. And like most rapists, he was never convicted. The evidence bag from the sheriff’s office was a harsh reminder of these facts; ever since receiving it, Josie has been struggling to function. She has daily, debilitating headaches, sometimes so bad that she throws up. When she sleeps, there are always nightmares. When she’s awake, even the most innocuous things can trigger vivid flashbacks. Lori is struggling to get Josie some kind of help, but she hasn’t had much luck. The local YWCA mentioned getting both Josie and her mother into a rape survivor support group, but Lori doesn’t know what to do until then.

Josie

Josie

What she does know is that she never wants another rape survivor to have to go through what Josie has gone through.

“We are not ashamed,” says Lori. “We are angry.”

Both Lori and Josie want this story to be told. They hope that by sharing what has happened to Josie they might prevent the same thing from happening to anyone else. No one should have to be re-victimized in this way. No rape survivor should ever have to experience the trauma of being given back the clothing they were wearing when they were raped. This specific type of suffering one hundred percent preventable, and the onus is on law enforcement to make sure that rape survivors do not have to experience this.

I often hear people complain that they don’t think that rape culture exists, or else that it’s just a clever term with no real meaning. Well, if you need evidence of rape culture, here it is, contained perfectly in a single picture:

evidence bag

Rape culture is the fact that no one thought twice about having a teenager come pick up the outfit she was raped in. Rape culture is the fact this teenager was summoned to come pick up her “evidence” with a little blue postcard that gave absolutely no indication of what was waiting for her at the sheriff’s office. Rape culture is the fact that the manager of the Clark County Sheriff’s Office had no response for Lori other than “it’s procedure” when Lori called to ask why this had happened. Rape culture is the fact that the manager sounded bored when Lori told her that their standard procedure was “horrible and wrong.” Rape culture is the fact that Josie’s rapist is still out there somewhere, free and easy, while Josie can barely get out of bed.

That’s rape culture.

No, I Don’t Want To Learn How To Love Criticism, Thanks

30 Sep

Tara Mohr recently wrote a piece in the New York Times about women and criticism. The article is called “Learning to Love Criticism,” but it could probably more accurately be titled “Haters Gonna Hate,” because that’s the type of approach that she advocates. She starts out promisingly enough, citing a recent study done on workplace performance reviews that contains the following fascinating (and appalling, and, if you’re a woman, entirely familiar) statistics: “Across 248 reviews from 28 companies, managers, whether male or female, gave female employees more negative feedback than they gave male employees. Second, 76 percent of the negative feedback given to women included some kind of personality criticism, such as comments that the woman was “abrasive,” “judgmental” or “strident.” Only 2 percent of men’s critical reviews included negative personality comments.

Yet in the next paragraph, after admitting that women in the workplace walk an “impossible tightrope” in trying to balance competence and niceness, the best advice she can come up with for women in this situation is little better than “learn to deal.” And while I get that none of us are likely to see a monumental change in how women are treated in our lifetime (though god knows I pray for a bloodless feminist coup every night before I go to sleep), it’s still frustrating and angering to be told that, instead of trying to affect any kind of change, women should just suck it up and learn how to better live in a man’s world. I don’t want to be better at playing by men’s rules; I want to change the rules so that they’re fair for everyone.

Women, apparently, just need to learn to be less sensitive, even when the criticism that they receive is personal and heavily gendered. Mohr writes that, “Many women are aware of this problem. “I know I need a thicker skin, but I have no idea how to get it,” one woman, a consultant to small businesses, said to me.

I’ve been told that I need to “grow a thicker skin” so many times that I’ve lost count; I’m willing to bet that the same is true for many other women. It’s the same stuff we tell little kids who are being teased or made fun of – “just ignore them, and they’ll leave you alone.” Stop getting upset. Stop reacting. Stop being an easy target. It’s the kind of pat advice that sounds helpful in theory, but doesn’t really work in practice. Once anyone – another kid, a coworker, a boss – knows how to push your buttons, they know how to push your buttons and that’s that. Even if you stop reacting to one thing, they’ll figure out another way to get your goat. At least, that’s been my experience.

Not only that, but, after thinking about this pretty long and hard, I’ve realize that I don’t want a thicker skin. It’s not my skin that’s the problem. It’s never been my skin that’s the problem. I don’t want to thicken, solidify or otherwise change my skin.

Instead, I want to figure how to rely on myself, how to rely on my instincts, and how to trust in the fact that I am a smart, capable person who is worthy of respect.

It might sound as if I’m splitting hairs, but I can’t help that “thick skin” and self-esteem are two very different things. The former is all about ignoring or disregarding the negative stuff that people say about you; the latter is feeling solid enough in yourself and your abilities that you don’t need to rely on other people’s feedback, be it positive or negative, in order to figure out how to navigate your life. And maybe I want to have thin skin, if that means an ability to feel things more deeply. Maybe having thin skin has its positive sides, like a heightened ability for compassion and a greater awareness of the impact that I might have on other people. Maybe empathy is one of the results of never having developed a thicker skin.

And you know what? I don’t want to learn to love criticism. If the criticism is valid – if, say, someone is calling me out for doing something hurtful or problematic –  then that criticism should feel uncomfortable. If, on the other hand, the criticism is some kind of personal attack or comes from someone who doesn’t have the same values or beliefs that I do, then why on earth should I love it? I want sound criticism to make me feel bad, and I want to use that bad feeling to force myself to continue to grow and learn. I don’t ever want to be stuck in an unbending, call-out proof shell of haters gonna hate. Because sometimes the haters are right, as much as we might not want to admit it.

I also don’t particularly want to learn how to keep a heartless poker face when dealing with people saying shit that’s cleverly designed to find every chink in my armour. First of all because that’s fucking exhausting and sad-making and doesn’t seem to be very sustainable. Second of all because I’m tired of teaching angry little boys on the internet that the more they throw shit at women, the quieter and more patient those women will become. Silence and acquiescence is what those trolls want – it’s exactly what they’re trying to frighten women into doing. And I’m tired of giving them what they want, even if that does temporarily make my life easier.

At the end of the day, it’s all very well and good to give women tips on how to function within the current framework of society; it’s another thing altogether to assume that this framework will never change. It’s never going to stop being a man’s game if women keep playing by men’s rules, and if our only form of resistance is to learn to live with how things are, well, this revolution isn’t going to get very far.

1940s vintage female telephone operator BELL SYSTEMS advertisement illustration by John Falter

A Dudely Challenge: Read More Books By Women

28 Sep

The Canadian Women in the Literary Arts (CWILA), a national organization devoted to promoting “strong and active female perspectives and presences within the Canadian literary landscape” recently released a report looking at gender representation in Canadian book reviews. You can find the full set of numbers here, and an infographic explaining those numbers here.

Folks, the news is not good. I mean, it’s not terrible, but it’s also not great. It’s also pretty indicative a deeper gender imbalance in the literary world in general.

Let’s take a look at some of the numbers provided by CWILA, shall we?

First, the basics:

Out of the 5,613 book reviews studied, 56.9% were reviews of books written by men, 37% were reviews of book written by women, 5.02% were reviews of books co-authored by men and women, 0.14% were reviews of books written by non-binary individuals, and 0.93% percent came from “unknown author(s).” So far so good – I mean men are slightly outpacing women, but it’s not a big deal. 37% of the pie is still a lot of delicious pie (whenever I look at pie charts I always picture a big old steaming dish of apple pie, but your mileage may vary).

It’s when we start to look at who’s reviewing what (and how often) that things start to get a bit .. whacky? Out of all of the reviews written by women, 51% are of books authored by women and 43% are of books authored by men (with the remaining 6% being taken up by reviews of books that were either co-authored by men and women, were written by non-binary individuals or were written by unknown authors). Out of all of the reviews written by men, a staggering 69% were of books authored by men, while a measly 25% were of books authored by women (with, again, 6% of the reviews taken up by the same three groups mentioned above).

On top of that, while some publications (The Vancouver Sun, The Toronto Star, Quill & Quire) employ more slightly more female reviewers than male, reviews written by women still make up only 38% of the top 20 reviewers (those who wrote 50+ reviews last year) in the country.

Let’s just look at some of those numbers one more time:

25% of the books reviewed by men were written by women. 

69% of the books reviewed by men were written by men.

Men review nearly three times as many books by men as they do books by women.

If that’s not a huge indication of the problematic ways we view women writers, then I don’t know what else is. Women review nearly twice as many books written by men as men review books written by women. And it’s not as if there’s a dearth of women authors writing quality books – novels written by women won the Man Booker Prize in 2013, 2012 and 2010. Books by women won both the French and English Governor General’s Literary Awards in 2013; women also won in 2012, 2010, and 2009. Alice Munro won the Nobel Fucking Prize for literature last year. There are so many fantastic, internationally-recognized, award-winning books by women (many of them Canadian – CANLIT, REPRESENT) – so why aren’t men reviewing them?

The answer is, unfortunately, pretty simple: men don’t read books by women.

There are a lot of reasons for why this is true. Some men – like David Gilmour and all of his highbrow dudebro acolytes – just don’t think that women are very good writers. See, they only like the serious, classic stuff – stuff like Chekhov and Tolstoy and Proust. They like the good ole-fashioned, tried-tested-and-true Western literary cannon, which is pretty male-dominated for reasons that I’m sure have nothing to do with the historical oppression of women and everything to do with talent and know-how. Some men have shied away from books by women, worried that being caught reading Pride and Prejudice or Wuthering Heights will somehow bring their masculinity into question. And some men have literally just never thought about it; they grew up with a toxic cultural mix of beliefs that taught them that real, serious books are written by men and only girls read books by girls. Which is tragic, and not just because every kid should should have the chance to read the delight that is Anne of Green Gables.

It’s this last group of guys who, I’m pretty sure, make up the majority of the male readers in this work. They’re guys who, in school, were told to read famous books by famous men as a matter of course. They’re guys who were never handed works of literature written by women because a teacher or a parent or a friend never thought they needed books they could better “identify” with. They’re guys who don’t question the fact that nearly all of the major works of fiction displayed at a bookstore or library are written by men. They’re guys who have never noticed that male writers are the status quo, because if you’re part of the status quo, why would you ever bother questioning it?

Women are, in many ways, treated as a special interest group. And sometimes that treatment is legitimate, like when we’re talking about reproductive rights or street harassment or workplace sexism. But that also means that literature written by women is viewed, often subconsciously, as being especially for women. And while we might praise the technical aspects of a book written by a woman, or laud its excellent storytelling or well-developed characters, we still ultimately view it in the category of other. It’s not regular a book – it’s a lady book. Probably with some kind of lady agenda. But books by men are just books. Serious, literary books.

Men aren’t encouraged to read books by women because on some level we don’t believe that those books were written for men. And yet no one ever questions why women would read books by men. It’s just taken as a given that books by men are the gold standard, and that everyone, no matter what their gender, should read them.

So here’s a challenge for all the men out there (including, but not limited to, the men who write book reviews): read books by women. Pick out a specific chunk of time – maybe a month, three months, or, if you’re feeling especially brave, a whole year – and during that period only seek out books by women. This challenge, by the way, doesn’t have to be isolated to literature – you could also have a month where you only listen to music by women, or look at paintings by women, or watch movies written and directed by women. If you’re struggling to find enough media to fill a whole month, then ask for recommendations; ask you’re girlfriend what she’s reading, or ask your little sister what she’s listening to these days. Ask your mom. Ask the woman who sits next to you at work. Ask that aggressively eye-linered punk chick who almost always ends up on the same bus as you in the morning. I mean, don’t be pushy or gross about it, and if they’re not interested in talking then back the fuck off, but still. Just try asking. I’m willing to bet that most women would be delighted to have a man ask them what they’re reading these days.

I have a friend who was recently explaining to me why she’d decided to end a blooming relationship with a nice, smart, funny man. There were lots of reasons why things just weren’t working out between them, but one red flag for her was this: he wasn’t reading any of the books she loaned him. See, book-talk was a big part of the attraction between them, and he was lending her plenty of books (which he expected her to read and which, diligently, she read), but apparently it wasn’t a two-way street. The books he gave her were, in his mind, important; the books he received were not. And before you jump in and tell me that not all men, let me say that I’ve seen this same dynamic play out in so many relationships. Men take it as a given that the women in their lives will read the books they recommend; unfortunately, they do not extend those women the same courtesy.

Guys, don’t be that guy. Read (and review, if that’s your bag!) books by women. If you consider yourself to be in any way an advocate for gender equality, then let that equality extend to the media you consume. Because women’s voices won’t get any louder if men aren’t helping to amplify them.

Not only that, but if you’re only reading books by men, then you are seriously missing out on some really fucking good books.

Photograph by Edward Steichen

Photograph by Edward Steichen

Feminism Killed All The Grownups

19 Sep

The patriarchy is dead, adulthood is in steep decline and A.O. Scott feels Some Type Of Way.

At least, that’s my takeaway from Scott’s rambling 4,500 word essay in this week’s New York Times Magazine. Of course the piece has its supporters (since, after all, Scott is a well-known film critic and noted Man of Words), and some of the folks tweeting about this essay in earnest adulation are people that I typically agree with. But I’ve read Scott’s piece in its entirety three times now, and I can’t seem to get anything out of it other than one lone white dude raging (and raging, and raging) against the dying of the light.

Scott starts out by using the upcoming second half of the final season of Mad Men as proof of the death of the patriarchy. The speculated death Don Draper, he argues, as well as the deaths of Tony Soprano and Walter White, mark a sort of “end stage reckoning” of a certain type of television masculinity. This masculinity is, according to Scott, pretty complicated – after all these men aren’t exactly nice or good (in fact, Scott at one point refers to them as “monstrous”) – but they’re undeniably charismatic and quite often sympathetic. Are we supposed to cheer for them or hate them or just feel sorry for them? The answer, for most viewers, seems to be a strange combination of all three, and their deaths apparently mark a watershed moment in our culture. Scott writes that “Tony, Walter and Don are the last of the patriarchs.”

He then hastens to point out that, although he believes the patriarchy to be dead, that doesn’t mean that he’s denying the existence of sexism or misogyny. No, not at all. In fact, he believes that “in the world of politics, work and family, misogyny is a stubborn fact of life.” But, he adds, “… in the universe of thoughts and words, there is more conviction and intelligence in the critique of male privilege than in its defense, which tends to be panicky and halfhearted when it is not obtuse and obnoxious. The supremacy of men can no longer be taken as a reflection of natural order or settled custom.”

I’m not even going to get into the ludicrousness of a middle-aged white dude announcing that the patriarchy is dead – I trust my readers enough to believe that they can figure out the many ways in which that statement is wrong without me offering them a long-winded explanation. But I do take issue with Scott’s assertion that criticism of male privilege is the uncontested norm in the “universe of thoughts and ideas.” First off, my main concern when it comes to discussions about male privilege isn’t so much that people will “defend” it, but rather that people will ignore it, downplay its cultural effects or flat-out deny that it exists. Those speaking up in “defense” of male privilege are easily discounted; those who don’t even acknowledge it are much more slippery and harder to fight.

Second of all, it is absolutely untrue that assertions of male privilege or belief in the inherent superiority of men (especially when it comes to ideas about the superiority of male intelligence) don’t exist in the “universe of thoughts and words.” Look at Richard Dawkins, for example – even in light of his recent comments on false rape accusations, people are still defending him by saying, “well, he’s still a brilliant scientist.” Or, for a broader perspective, look at the short-lists for the more prestigious book and film awards, and count how many books and films are written or directed by women, versus how many are written or directed by men. Or look at the gender imbalance when it comes to tenured staff at a university. There is plenty of evidence that we still take the superiority of men as the “natural order,” even in the world of deep thoughts and bon mots.

Five paragraphs in, Scott finally comes to what you might call the thesis of his essay. “It seems” he writes, “that, in doing away with patriarchal authority, we have also, perhaps unwittingly, killed off all the grown-ups.” So, feminism is to blame for the supposed death of adulthood? Is that what I’m to take away for this? That in exchange for the cultural domination of men, we’ve traded away our ability to grow up? As evidence of this so-called death of adulthood, Scott offers a few brief anecdotes: Nearly a third of young adult fiction is purchased by readers age 30 to 44. Sometimes Scott has seen grown men riding skateboards or wearing shorts and flip-flops. There’s a woman in his office who wears plastic butterfly barrettes in her hair; when Scott sees her, he can’t help but make a disapproving face. That’s just how much of a grownup he is.

“God, listen to me! Or don’t,” he cries, sounding exactly like a modern-day Holden Caulfield. He then goes on to list all of the awful shows, mostly dominated by women (think Girls and Broad City) that have replaced more adult television fare like Mad Men or The Sopranos. Writes Scott, “What all of these shows grasp at, in one way or another, is that nobody knows how to be a grown-up anymore.”

After a lengthy side-step into the apparently childish history of American literature (mostly, according to Scott, “a literature of boys’ adventure and female sentimentality”), and a brief discourse on why the Founding Fathers weren’t really fatherly and should maybe more accurately be called the Founding Bros or something equally un-grown-up, Scott finally swings back around to the cultural force that’s to blame for modern America’s lack of real, bonafide adults: the feminist movement. See, there are lots of young women who self-identify as feminists, most notably Beyoncé (who Scott calls the “most self-contradicting” feminist, which I can only assume is a dig at her overt sexuality and the length of her proverbial hemlines), and they want equality. But these women don’t want the good kind of equality; these women – especially the ones with television shows – want, Scott writes, to be “to be as rebellious, as obnoxious and as childish” as men are allowed to be.

All of which is to say that what Scott refers to as “cultural feminism” (as opposed to, I guess, academic feminism) is ruining being a grownup for everyone. Instead of forcing men to grow up, it’s encouraging women to be just like the man-babies. Instead of fostering a type of equality where everyone has an awesome job and wears a suit, it’s created a slacker equality where we all live in our parents’ basements and make fart jokes. For shame, feminism! What would Susan B. Anthony say? Oh god what hath we millenials wrought?

Finally, in the third to last paragraph, Scott writes what is probably his essay’s most important and most telling sentence: “The elevation of every individual’s inarguable likes and dislikes over formal critical discourse, the unassailable ascendancy of the fan, has made children of us all.” This, you see, is ultimately what Scott believes is holding people back from achieving full adulthood: not wanting to pay attention to critical discourse, a field that, by the way, has long been dominated by white men. And, you see, this is what this whole 4,500 word essay has been about. It’s not about people who read YA fiction or revere Huck Finn or live in their parents’ basement; this whole thing all boils down to the fact that A.O. Scott, and other successful, well-educated white dudes like him feel like they might be losing their audience. This isn’t a brilliant article about the downfall of the patriarchy and who the real grownups are and whether or not Beyoncé is too bootylicious to be a feminist – it’s the sad, dying cry of a white dude who sees all of his unearned privilege slowly slipping away.

It seems worth pointing out that not once in this entire essay does A.O. Scott define what adulthood is; he only tells us what it isn’t. Adulthood isn’t wearing shorts and flip-flops. Adulthood isn’t living in your parents’ basement. Adulthood isn’t liking what you like just because you like it. So from all of these negatives, I guess that we can infer that being a grownup means wearing a suit, living on your own, and only enjoying literature and media that someone else tells you will be challenging and enlightening.

If that’s what adulthood really means, then let me be the first to dance on its grave.

mad-men