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Slushy slushy slush slush
So, the other day, I was reading--what, a blog? I'm really going to have to track it down so I can link it and properly credit it.

Okay, so I was reading this blog. And the writer said something like, one day she was in class and the prof gave an example, some kind of analogy meant to explain whatever it was he was teaching, and the example began something like, "It's like, you say to your girlfriend..."

And her first reaction was, "Wait, I don't have a girlfriend and never will." And her next was something like "This guy's only speaking to straight men or lesbians. Why not use something that will mean something to the whole class? Or, you know, use something not so gender-specific?" And then, her insight--

The prof probably thought he was talking to the whole class. It's just, in his mental map of the class, there's nobody but straight males. Cause, you know, that's the default, that's what everyone is unless otherwise specified, right? Right? And after all, "the masculine embraces the feminine" and we're all used to male-oriented terms being used for everybody, it's not like anyone's being ignored or excluded!


So, yeah. There's this thing I see in slush. And I shit you not, it is an automatic ticket straight to the "reject me" pile when I run across it.* I'm not sure what will happen the day it appears in a sub that's really mind-blowingly good, but I strongly suspect that such a day will not come, for various reasons. It has not, yet.**

So, this is the thing: A female character is introduced, and is immediately described in terms of the shape of her legs, or the milky whiteness of her thighs, or her perfect breasts, with a dash of flowing blonde hair, you know, just for kicks.

Stops. Me. Cold.

That male-gazey thing, it not only doesn't do anything for me, it locks me out of the story. "This story is not for you. It is for men looking at women."

It's not as egregious as the "Women are evil harpies!" stories that pepper every slushpile, that make me go "Huh? But the subber has to know a woman is editing this publication. Why would they think 'you, as a woman, are an evil harpy!' would go over well here?" No, not anywhere near that bad.

But they do the same thing. Those subs assume the reader is a straight male. Whether they're a straight male who likes women (or at any rate barbie dolls they can pose and give lines to) or doesn't. And they don't think twice about sending those stories to female editors, because after all, The Masculine Embraces The Feminine and male is universal and default so what's your problem, huh?

So. Now I don't just immediately reject, I also know exactly what I find intolerable, and why.


*I don't care if anyone thinks it's unfair or intolerant or whatever. I'm the editor, and I get to pick the stories, and I'm not spending my very own money on stories that insult me or piss me off. I'm only spending my money on stories I love, and I definitely don't love that. At all. No point arguing.

**By and large it won't happen if the women in the story are being treated as, you know, human beings. If you're not doing that, there are probably also a number of other problems with your work. This is my theory so far.

***And anyone asking themselves, "Then how am I supposed to describe this female character, huh?" I say to you, try considering that women are not just a conglomeration of Sexy Parts, and might in fact be described without reference to how Sexy their Parts are. Kind of like, you can describe a man without talking about his tight butt or the size of his penis. You can describe women the same way. No, really!

edited to add

****AND ANOTHER THING! For extra credit, see if you can find the racefail! Hint--not all women are white and/or blonde. Not all beautiful or attractive or sexy women are white or blonde. And yet, every single example in my slush is white, with extra emphasis on the whiteness of skin, and ninety percent of them are blonde.

*****Some days my hand is just itching to pick up my board with a nail in it.

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Sing it!

It's the same thing that's been annoying the hell out of me lately (or more than usual lately): ensemble casts with one female character. Her character is, you know, "the woman." Because males get to have various flavors of character: the nerd, the jock, the genius, the bad boy, the opportunist. But females only get to have one flavor: "the woman!"

I think I went off on my tangent on International Women's Day. Really? That's supposed to be progressive? If you're going to play it that way, then International Women's Day should happen 183 times a year!

But I digress. Sorry! See? You wrote a great rant! It incited me to fuming sympathetic rantishness!

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<iensemble casts with one female character. Her character is, you know, "the woman." Because males get to have various flavors of character: the nerd, the jock, the genius, the bad boy, the opportunist. But females only get to have one flavor: "the woman!"</i>

Oh, don't get me started! Especially TV shows--"the woman" is always rail-thin with big breasts and wears six-inch heels on her police/bounty-hunter/computer programmer/Scientist* job.

*Because we all know Scientists do Science, it's all just very sciency. Physics? Biochemistry? Whatever, it's all Science!!!!

With all due respect... I think the example of the girl in class is a little different from the male-gazey thing in stories. The second is a deliberate effort on the part of a writer to depict a female character in a certain way, and I can see it being a botheration.

But the first?

It's just, in his mental map of the class, there's nobody but straight males.

I keep seeing this, everywhere over the past few months in particular. "A group that I belong to was not included in hypothetical/metaphor/story/movie, therefore they don't believe I exist at all."

Who actually believes this? Where is it coming from?

Painting the members of a particular group as shallow sex objects seems massively different from saying, "Say you have a girlfriend." As a thinking human belonging to a culture with lots of girlfriends in it, given that the concept of having a girlfriend is pretty darned inoffensive, I'm more than capable of imagining myself with a girlfriend even if I'm never likely to have one. For the sake of argument? Sure, whatever. I have not been negated for not being specifically included; the majority of things that several billions of people do and say every single day in the world don't include me at all, and I'm still here.

Ask me to see a woman as nothing more than a pair of legs and tits and I may also be able to do it, but it'll get old really fast unless there's a very good reason the character is so shallow... so it's easy to understand why it's an immediate toss for you.

I keep seeing this, everywhere over the past few months in particular. "A group that I belong to was not included in hypothetical/metaphor/story/movie, therefore they don't believe I exist at all."

I think you're mischaracterizing the statement. In the situation described, the professor is trying to make his lesson more relatable for the entire class, but does so in a way that really only makes it relatable for the straight males in the class. It's very different from "someone said something that didn't include my group," without that extra information.

Who actually believes this? Where is it coming from?Who actually believes this? Where is it coming from?

It's coming from ingrained assumptions about who the default Person is. About what's "universal." The blogger didn't accuse the prof of deliberately excluding women or gay men from the class, she pointed out that the only other way the example could have come out the way it did was if he just didn't see that the example was, in fact, not applicable to at least half the class.

The similarity is in the subbers not seeing why they might think twice before sending me something like that. Why would they do that? Because the male POV is default, and they've never had to consider otherwise. It's less egregious in the professor's case--but the mechanism is the same, IMO

(Deleted comment)
I would say that there is a way to present a simile by using the personal as an example of something universal. In the case you describe it doesn't necessarily apply due to the language ("YOU say to YOUR girlfriend"), but I daresay that the intent was probably to universalize the personal.

An example would be using your own person as a way to illustrate a broader message... "It's like when I say to my girlfriend." Now the straight women and gay men won't have that specific experience, but the conceptual idea of talking to a significant other is rather universal. I daresay that art itself is a way of finding universal truths and lessons from smaller, more personal, stories.

Totally agree with your point about describing women. You delightfully convey the problem--"The male-gazey thing." There are times it makes sense, but those are few and far between. I would think, for example, an adolescent male point-of-view narrative wouldn't be too far off on the male-gazey thing.

I linked to this on Twitter, but now that I think about it I'm suddenly very glad I managed to sell a story that's largely about females to you. Apparently I avoided this trap at least once, which makes me happy.

...or, upon further consideration, at least had better story elements that superceded it. I'm actually gonna have to go back and look and see what I did there.

But doesn't it depend on POV? A mercenary rogue would look at a woman's sexy bits first, and have to be convinced her brain had something to offer.

Maybe. Maybe not. It depends. There are a lot of assumptions there.

But, sure, if POV justifies it, I have a very different reaction. Thing is? It generally doesn't. In fact, I've never known it to. In theory it could, but by and large the language used would be very different from the sort of thing I'm talking about--less cliche for one thing, and probably with some indication elsewhere in the text that this is part of the character's problem, and not a chunk of stereotyped Sexy the author has just regurgitated.

I am still not sure where you stand on fairy sex. Just sayin'.

(Deleted comment)
Oh Sweet Mithras, yes. How could I have forgotten that one????

I know. None of today's examples fit that--but dang, I get those too.

I call it the 1950's feel. If ever someone gets a rejection with THIS iS NOT THE 1950'S all over it, then it was me, and this is why it was rejected.

Hear hear! OK to link to this?

And to echo coraa ... yeah. It's even worse when the female characters are thinking of themselves that way.

(And now I'm remembering some story, read years and years ago, where there was a young woman who thought she was the only person left alive in the world, and for some reason her reaction to this tragic situation was to be running around topless, because of course there was no one to see her ... and there in the her supposedly one-and-only viewpoint was descriptive, very male commentary on her boobs. I cannot for the life of me remember who wrote it, and I wish I had not remembered it.)

Edited at 2011-03-18 12:54 am (UTC)

Yes, absolutely okay to link!

Considering how many women are becoming editors (every editor who bought one of my stories was a woman, almost every editor who has helped me along in my career was a woman) I think unless a male writer is writing male/action/adventure stuff he should keep this issue in mind.

Teaching ESL in China, about 4/5 of my undergraduate students are women. It throws me off. I'll say, "You ladies in the front row" and then notice there's a guy there, too, or "Hi ladies, oh, and gentleman, too." At least once a week I have a collective pronoun stumble, which I then play up a little (roll my eyes or whatever) and everyone has a good laugh about it and we move on.

User chomiji referenced to your post from That Male-Gazey Thing saying: [...] me out of the story ... ."           Read more: Slushy slushy slush slush [...]

One does this sometimes from a character's pov, of course, but I think your point still holds.

The Periodic Table of Storytelling and Cultural Gender Bias

User fearofemeralds referenced to your post from The Periodic Table of Storytelling and Cultural Gender Bias saying: [...] ; Possibly because I read this post about clichéd gender stereotypes in fiction [...]

The Writer and the Critic: Episode 6

User fearofemeralds referenced to your post from The Writer and the Critic: Episode 6 saying: [...] to mention gender bias on Ian’s hoodie! — as well as a related blog post by Ann Leckie [...]

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