Some stuff happened in the world of YA last week involving a critically acclaimed cis male author and an interview answer that many found to be sexist in nature—or more specifically, found to illustrate the pervasive nature of sexism in our society.
I’m not going to directly speak on that, because I’m not really qualified to do that. And there’s also the fact that many book bloggers, critics, and writers have already done it, and quite well. If you’d like to read more about it, check out Stacked Books’ recent post “Thoughts on Sexism, Feminism, YA, Reading, and the Publishing Industry,” and be sure to follow the links provided at the bottom.
Catching up on all the tweets, I had some thoughts.
I thought about how scary social media can be, especially Twitter. I’m not on there that much, but I’ve learned that having real discussions often leads to harassment and bullying at worse, and to generally being made to feel stupid at best. One has to be very careful if one is going to make a statement, because people are ready to pick them apart. And fair enough, it’s a lesson to not talk out of one’s butt, and to be open to criticism. But if one is a man getting social media backlash, one will get harsh words; if one is a woman, one risks getting rape and death threats. I find for my fragile little soul (and ego), it’s best for me to stick to the benign stuff (what video game I’m playing, what’s happening at the laundromat, what book I’m reading, what I’m watching).
After those surface thoughts, I started thinking about these other discussions I’ve seen go down on my private Facebook feed. Sexism has been a hot topic these last few days. Here’s what I came up with, reading people’s comments, thinking about my own thoughts:
Language is a problematic dink. The English language is so full of words, and we can say so many things with just the perfect words arranged a certain way. But man, does it get us in trouble. It’s a privilege to possess the right words to express oneself.
Whenever something that’s said or done is qualified as sexist/ableist/homophobic/misogynistic/homophobic/transphobic/racist, there’s this immediate understanding that the person who said or did the thing is a sexist/ableist/misogynist/homophobe/transphobe/racist. Along the way, these adjectives took on the connotation that they’re great, big slurs meant to brand the person they’re attached to as ignorant douches.
On my Facebook feed, there was a discussion surrounding the act of men opening doors for women and how that action is sexist (when the man only opens doors for women, as opposed to politely opening doors for all, even other men). The men who opened doors for women, it seemed to me, felt as though they were being accused of being sexists (I can’t be sure that’s what was happening, but the tone indicated that, at least).
The thing is, calling out a statement or action as sexist et al is only characterizing that particular statement or action—not the person who did/said the thing. It’s as though people believe a person can’t say something that’s sexist without being a sexist pig, that a person can’t say something completely transphobic without it automatically meaning that person’s a transphobe. I can’t even count the number of sexist et al things that come out of my mouth or sprout in my mind in a single day. I would never suggest these words would characterize me as a person, the same way I might say several stupid things in a day, but I don’t consider myself a stupid person.
When we call a statement or action out as being sexist et al, we’re not automatically saying “the person is a sexist douche, so let’s bully them”—or on the flip side, “let’s gang up on the critic who called them out.” What we’re actually doing is pointing the finger as sexism itself, showing the person and everyone else witnessing the call-out that sexism is pervasive, that it’s a characterization of our culture, that it’s internalized, that we can’t let it go on unchecked anymore. We’re inviting people to think more deeply. It’s a call to the person who said or did the thing to stop and think about what was said or done, to examine what it means. It’s a big call for the person (and all those witnessing the exchange) to examine their privilege, to try and understand what this means to those who don’t benefit from that privilege.
My book isn’t even out, but I know I’ll be called out for things. I try to prepare for this (I’ve written myself my very own “Hostile Q&A” where some fake interviewer tries to rip me and my book apart for a variety of reasons), but I know it’s futile. If we writers could hold our own work up to our unbiased criticism, then we’d all be writing perfect books, and the legion of amazingly thorough, educated, critical readers out there making their living—or doing it for free—assessing and reviewing literature wouldn’t exist.
We’re humans. Not only that, but we’re not all working with the same lived experience, the same level of language, the same experience participating in formal discourse. As writers, we have things we want to say. We have messages we’re trying to share through our stories, and I’d like to think we get better at doing this the more books we write. But we don’t know how the work is received by others—there’s no control there. We might not be aware of things we said (or didn’t say) that need to be called out for closer examination. And I don’t think being called out for one thing invalidates the entire work, just like being called out for a statement or action doesn’t blemish our whole being.
I know I set out to write YA stories from my intersectional feminist perspective, but ultimately, I followed my characters along their journey, and I admit that I don’t always have control over what happens. My writing process has me surprised at every turn because I don’t plan all that much. I revise like a fiend, though. I try to analyze my story and ask myself what I’m saying with this and that, to look deeper than the sequence of events unfolding and the drama and tension that goes with that. I’m sure in trying to make this one thing clear and prominent, I ended up stepping on other things in a way that’s going to reflect badly on me. And when it’s my turn to give interviews, to articulate my thoughts intelligently and honestly, it’s entirely possible that I’ll end up saying some sexist et al things—more than possible, it’s probable.
All I hope is that when I’m being called out publicly for something I missed or didn’t do right (and by that, I mean respectfully called out by a thoughtful, critical voice), I’ll be able to step back and take the criticism and use it to up my game as a writer, and as a person.