Lately, I’ve been reading through elite literary journals, and I have to say I’m disappointed. Thanks to #MeToo, Hollywood had a reckoning, and now viewers and producers alike cringe at male characters pursuing women who have directly asked them to stop (Parks and Rec, The Office, all Star Trek before the exceptional Discovery, The Big Bang Theory, etc.). For perhaps the first time in history, the general public is beginning to look at things from the woman’s point of view, and it is changing media and the way we consume it.
But the literary community?
Not so much.
The Sexist Story That Editors Publish
In my recent tour of top literary journals, I’m still seeing an abundance of profoundly sexist short fiction post-#MeToo movement. It’s invariably written by white men and published by white (usually, but not always, male) editors. If you are a white male fiction writer and want to get accepted in a top-tier journal, it is looking an awful lot like all you have to do is write vivid and symbolic descriptions, use plenty of free indirect discourse, write bombastic prose, and follow this pattern with your plot:
- A frustrated, intelligent woman is attempting to live her best life in a patriarchal society (opening with a woman in a tough spot is, it seems, the extent of what the literary community has learned from #MeToo)
- The frustrated woman meets a man
- This man is a boorish mansplainer who nonetheless desires/lusts/loves her (the author struggles to distinguish between the three)
- She does not desire him and makes this clear (most often in a petty, immature way that reveals more about the author’s former crushes and dates than the reader needs to know)
- The man’s pride is hurt (which is apparently the story’s actual inciting incident), so he gaslights/bosses/insults/stalks her
- Now things really go off the rails. Instead of taking the opportunity to show the dysfunction of this behavior, the author hits pause to remind us that the man truly loves the woman who is not interested in him, so his behavior is excusable (after all, her rejection and her petty, immature behavior drove him to it), and he deserves her kindness (because why walk away when you could coerce someone into giving you what you want, I guess?)
- The woman increasingly resents the man for dismissing her “no” and resorts to cruelty to try to make him listen, which is unfair because he loves her!
- It is after all not the woman who is a victim of patriarchy but the man who is the victim of a woman who doesn’t want him (and if it’s a white woman, then throw in something about racism just to make doubly sure that readers understand the woman is the oppressor and the man is the victim—which always, always shows how invested the white male author is in the status quo because while he can pat himself on the back for being an anti-racist, he doesn’t actually have to change anything in his day-to-day life surrounded by white people if white women are the real enemy)
- The story’s climax eventually takes on the tone of what a tragedy, what a horrible terrible thing he has been forced to endure: he desires to possess/love/fuck her, but she doesn’t want to/isn’t enthusiastic/does something especially awful because he won’t take no for an answer
- It is the woman who is the true oppressor (one story I read last week actually used the word “jailor” to describe a woman forced into a loveless marriage to escape poverty and family censure)
Cue eye roll.
So yes, the most recent short story I read in this sub-genre was published (rather embarrassingly) in 2019 but set around 1820 when women were still the legal property of their husbands (see coverture law). And judging from marital rape laws in the United States, women remain so in several states today. I find it doubtful that the author had ever read Kate Chopin, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Phillis Wheatley, Zora Neale Hurston, or any other female author who had already addressed this subject from a position of authority. This all makes the final twist laughable. But let’s pretend this story was set in the present day.
Of COURSE Male Writers Can—and Should—Write Dysfunctional Female Characters
The real tragedy is that many of these stories could’ve worked.
- People do get their hearts broken every day by those with fewer advantages than themselves.
- Of course women can be petty; all human beings can, especially those from marginalized groups for whom assertiveness, agency, and direct conflict haven’t been safe methods to get what they want.
- Men indeed can be and all too often are abused by women, most often emotionally but physically and sexually as well.
- Of course men can and should write about these experiences; they need to be part of the conversation about patriarchy and gender equality.
I was really, really hoping this was where the story was headed. So she is forced to marry the boor because 1820 society doesn’t allow her to support herself financially. Okay then, maybe she resorts to emotional abuse to feel like she has any agency left after the wedding. Or maybe darker yet: Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado” but with gender inequality at the heart of the main character’s gruesome vengeance. Both characters could be victims but in very different ways. That could be really rich and complicated. Had this person ever read Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily?” There were so many possibilities.
But Many Male Writers (and Editors) Fail Because They Can’t See Past Their Own Feelings
But the writer dodged every single one of them. Instead, it felt more like a hit piece against an ex he hadn’t thought too deeply about, which is fine in life but not in fiction. And this failure sprang from the author’s choice to neatly sidestep four significant factors:
1) Getting your heart broken is not oppression. It is a universal human experience. You are not a prisoner because someone says no to you or is unkind. You’re just an average human being having a typical day.
2) Women do not have “power” simply because you desire sex with them. This is a comfortable falsehood that heterosexual men (and some women) tell themselves to avoid facing the actual power imbalances between them. You have power if the people who write laws look like you, share similar life experiences, and ensure you can rape whomever you want, successfully blame your victims, and never serve time. Power means the wealthiest people in the world share your gender and race, as well as your interests, and so do the wealthiest people you know personally. Power means you get paid more, get promoted more often, are listened to with full attention at meetings. You attract mentors because of your talent and work ethic, not because they assume they’ll get to sleep with you. You travel to and from work without fear of stalking or harassment, you leave drinks open on your desk without worrying someone might slip something into it, and you say no to bosses, friends, and loved ones without eliciting abuse. No one would dream of taking anything from you without your express consent, unless they want a fight. And if someone tries and you do fight for what’s yours, your aggression and anger will be condoned as justified rather than as a half-baked overreaction. All because people look at you and see a man.
3) To recognize the extent of your own power and privilege is to acknowledge that people with less power must resort to more desperate, indirect tactics than yours. Disenfranchised people will sometimes recruit you—and your power—for their benefit. For millennia, patriarchy has left women with few choices but to ally themselves with men they think they can use.
4) Women HAVE made strides towards equality, but millennia of socialization cannot be undone overnight. Even my beloved Grandma tried to teach me how to “toy with” men for my own benefit. Assertiveness from a woman is still seen as dangerous or pointless in many families. In my own, it was swiftly and brutally punished. The world only reinforced this lesson. I watched on buses as men sexually harassed women and adolescents, only to threaten physical assault if any of us asked these men to stop. By the time most women have reached adulthood, we have absorbed this lesson down to our bones.
I get that a few men miss these facts of life. But editors? They’re the gatekeepers. This is the stuff they’re supposed to watch for. To think about. I know white male editors ask themselves Is this story racist?
Why aren’t more of them also asking Is this story sexist?
Literary Journals and Straight Male Writers Can Do Better
Before you write or publish another heartbreak/seduction/I-didn’t-get-the-girl/this-isn’t-the-girl-I-asked-for story, examine your motives. Who is this for? What are you trying to say? “I got hurt once” is bland. Nobody cares. It is so much richer to critique a male character who feels entitled to his “dream girl,” experiences rejection as injustice, then resorts to violence.
Also, if you really feel compelled to examine dysfunctional women and believe this story has something valuable to contribute, take a step back and see the big picture. How has her experience of oppression informed the way she tries to protect herself around men? Why has she adopted such backhanded and (let’s be honest) ineffectual ways of getting what she wants? “She’s mean and stupid” can be helpful in the aftermath of a breakup but is certain death for good fiction. Even my abusive parents who tormented me for 25 years before I had to walk away are not “mean and stupid.” Their behavior is unjustified, but it comes out of specific histories and mental conditions. If I can dig deeper, so can you. No excuses.
When it comes to race, gender, orientation, class, nationality, or faith, good writers are skeptical of stereotypes. Be most skeptical where you draw the most knee-jerk conclusions. I have honestly never met a man-hating woman. I have just met a lot of man-fearing women for whom anger has become their shield. Misogyny necessitates a lot of armor.
Finally, have the guts to explore the ways patriarchy has fucked you over, too. If 50% of the population is guarded, distrustful, traumatized, and/or manipulative thanks to the ways patriarchy has treated us, then of course it sucks to be the male half. In what toxic ways do you respond? Tell that story.
And one last thing: as a writer, cultivate friendships with women writers and let them know you truly want—and can hear—the brutal truth about your own sexism. As an editor, ensure that you have women on staff who are well read on feminist theory, history, and literature by women. Make sure you have created a space where they feel safe speaking their minds and sharing their experiences, knowing their input will be heard and valued.
I will always regret my response to a short story draft that I read by a young man in his mid-twenties. He had simply written his own sexual fantasy with little to no self-reflection and then handed it to me saying something like, “If this bothers you, I get that you’re squeamish and just can’t handle men’s (i.e. real) fiction.” So of course I didn’t tell him his story was simplistic, offensive in the most unintentional and uninteresting way, and revealed nothing but his own misogyny and objectification of women. Don’t make his mistake. Tell your female and non-binary readers that you honestly want to know if you’re playing into stereotypes, sexism, or the status quo. The same as you should be doing with writers of color, LGBTQ+, and anyone else who features in your fiction. You will write better work, I promise.