Rant: Gender and Writing

Last night, one of my housemates, who is also a writer, mentioned “The Gender Genie” to me. It’s a project that supposedly focuses on the less-obvious tics in a writer’s diction that give the writing gender. Technical names for things like tools or car parts aren’t factored in, nor are words surrounding childbearing, homemaking, or any other stereo-typically feminine enterprise. According to a New York Times Article, is “like identifying Tom Wolfe by ignoring his suits and his spats and concentrating instead on his socks.”

I immediately (I left the room and ran to my computer to do so) put some of my fiction into the text box on the website for Gender Genie. I was really curious to see, mainly, whether or not I could write a man’s voice in first-person fiction. Turns out, according to the Gender Genie, that I not only could, but four out of five times, the Genie thought that a man was writing my third-person prose as well. Interesting.

I went from being really interested in the process to kind of annoyed by it. Of course, as in most main-stream endeavors, from the gender box on the papers you fill out in most doctor’s offices to the US Census, there was no place for the gender non-conforming. Neither the Genie itself of the accompanying New York Times article talk at all about variance beyond the faulty male-female binary. Beyond that (huge) point, I was also a bit upset that the Gender Genie consistently thought my work was written by a man. The Genie claims 80% accuracy. Sure, that means it stood to reason that it would think my work was male-created at least once, but four out of five? That’s a big margin of error. I know I’m not exactly the picture of femininity (nor do I want to be, as that is also something socially constructed in a way I don’t entirely approve of), but I really don’t like the implications maleness in writing brings with it. Women, the article says, are more interested in talking about relationships while men are more interested in the how, when, why and where of things. Writing about “things” is not exactly my thing.

It wouldn’t always have bothered me that my voice kept consistently coming up as male. I remember, years ago, explicitly saying that I preferred male writers to female ones. The why of that wasn’t exactly clear to me. But I knew that most wonderful books I had read were written by men. And that said something.

Of course, I didn’t realize then that women are as marginalized in the writing world as anywhere else.  Several studies have shown how men are more consistently published than women, even though it stands to reason that women do as much writing, and of as good a quality. This study shows in plain red and blue pie charts how most magazine’s subjects and contributors of writing are male. Male contributors overwhelm female in most cases (yes, there’s still a lack of nuance in these gender categories, and don’t think I haven’t noticed).  The me of years ago who prefers male writers shudders to realize that that’s because  they’re the only choice she’s been given. 

I guess maybe this thought didn’t come up just because of Gender Genie. When I started school for writing, I found that most of my talented classmates were female. If there were so many good women writers around me (and lots of the male writers came up with pretty boring work), where was the representation in the books I was reading?

About a week ago, a friend lent me a post cyber punk collection. By the time I finished the first story, I was kind of angry. Not only, you could see by a quick scan of the contents page, were there no more than two women writers represented, but the depictions of women in the stories were atrocious. It was like the people writing these stories were not only men, but had little idea of what women even were. My friend’s response, when I told him, was, “They’re a bunch of nerdy sci-fi guys. What do you expect?”

Well, I was reading the book. I was interested in. And I wasn’t a nerdy sci-fi guy. So what does that tell you?

There’s things that make me less angry, too. Like the A Room Of Her Own Foundation, which sponsors the bi-annual Gift of Freedom Award to women writers. Part of the prerequisite for winning this $50,000 grant is that the woman who gets the prize be willing to foster the literary endeavors of women writers around her. The process is a long and complicated one, but I think I am going to apply for 2012 contest.

But for all the cool little foundations and prizes to be found, there is still a distinct problem here. It goes beyond the Gender Genie, and it goes beyond what’s “womanly” and “manly” in prose. Women are writing, and they’re doing it well. And no matter how many magazines tell you that women just don’t send writing up to their standards, or women don’t submit, I know for a fact there are amazing women writers out there. They have strong, beautiful voices. And these voices are underrepresented. They are going unheard.

The magazine Her Cricle published an article last year about how to publish women writers. How they are a marginalized group, and how seeking them out is necessary. How editors need to ask themselves as they respond to women’s writing, “Am I responding to this piece or a gendered stereotypes?” It is an excellent article, and I wish more people in the publishing industry would read work like this.

Does being a woman (despite what Gender Genie thinks I am) make me less of a writer? More of a writer?  I guess that depends on what your definition of good writing is. Just be careful to notice how much of that definition is made up of the choices you’re being given, and how much of it is based on what you think writing should be.


About thebaffledkingcomposing

Pamela DiFrancesco is a writer with a community college degree in journalism, a fancy art school degree in fiction and a penchant for community organizing. A native of Pennsylvania coal country, Pamela lives in Astoria, Queens, writes, and does whatever else it takes to pay the bills. In the past, Pamela has worked for newspapers and taught children journalism in an after-school program. Pamela's fiction can be found on the web at Cezanne's Carrot and Monkeybicycle, in print in The Carolina Quarterly (who nominated "The Chuck Berry Tape Massacre" for the Best American Mystery Writing anthology) and forthcoming in The New Ohio Review. When not writing, Pamela practices acts of love and kindness in hopes of a radically different world, and is preparing for the Zombie Apocalypse through acts of badassery.
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2 Responses to Rant: Gender and Writing

  1. Jen Bresnick says:

    I don’t think the Gender Genie is very accurate. I put in a section of my writing that had to deal with male/female relationships, and of course it told me I was female. Then I put in a battle scene, which had a bunch of guys talking to each other, and it told me I was decidedly male. I’m pretty sure I was still a girl when I wrote the second one.

    But I don’t know how marginalized women writers are these days. I mean, look at the last three mega-hits to come out of books: J.K. Rowling, Stephanie Meyer (regardless of what you think of her) and Suzanne Collins are all women, aren’t they? It’s a fascinating topic to think about, though. Great post.

  2. Thanks for reading and commenting!

    But I do think that women are still marginalized. If you look at the winners of the Nobel Prize in Literature for the last 15 years, three are women, twelve are men. Pulitzer in fiction: five women, ten men. For every one JK Rowling, there’s ten C.S. Lewises and S.E. Hintons. And the women you mention are all writers of Young Adult fiction, which is generally considered low-brow writing, not the “real stuff” that men do. And perhaps the problem isn’t just women getting published less (which, even in academic settings, they do), but the ones who do being taken less than seriously.

    Those red and blue pie charts I link to above really tell a lot. This article about Jodi Picoult’s perception of things is also telling (http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/aug/20/jodi-picoult-white-male-literary-darlings). If a best-selling female author feels this way, there’s probably something to it.

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