Writing Right with Dmitri: Writing Without Sexism

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Writing Right with Dmitri: Writing Without Sexism

Editor at work.

You know, I learn a lot from our h2g2 forum called Ask. Every once in a while, I lurk over there, listening in to the opinions. Recently, there was a thread called 'Is the UK the most sexist country in the world?' Which set me thinking. How does the idea of sexism affect our writing?

First off, let me say that I have no idea whether the UK is the most sexist country in the world. I only ever spent about three weeks in the place, total. From my experience of British culture, which comes from literature, film, news, and personal discussions on h2g2, I'd say that, while it's not the most sexist country in the world, England's got an amazing problem with sexism. I say England, because I don't get that impression from, say, Northern Ireland. But as I said, that's what they're projecting – not necessarily what is. I don't know what is: I don't live there. But from what I see on TV, English men and women don't like each other very much. (I think they stay together for the sake of the kids.)

The discussion online revolved around institutions, and pointed out that Britain has very good anti-discrimination laws. That's true. But a very long time ago, Americans were forced to learn a hard lesson in regard to racism and ethnic prejudice: there's a big difference between institutional prejudice and personal prejudice. You can pass all the laws you like, but learning to get rid of personal prejudice takes work. A lot of it. And time, patience, and the willingness to learn. And that's where writers come in.

People have the right to expect writers to be at the forefront of this kind of social challenge, rather than lagging behind. If you're writing commercially, of course, that's hard. Just recently, I had to query my client about an instructional question I was poised to ask. The question was about regional prejudice, and fit the theme of my history lesson. But I was aware of the 'sensitivity issues' involved in writing for a mass audience. I posed the question. My client and I talked it over. My client decided to back off, so I did. He's the one who's going to get the emails.

But in our fiction? Our blogs? Our personal work? We should push for all we're worth to ask the right questions, get people to query, learn, deconstruct, reconstruct, and, darn it, join the Century of the Fruit Bat. So how do we deal with personal sexism?

In the first place, we need to be open to learning what sexism is. You don't think you've got it: I mean, if it's bad, we don't do that, right? We were brought up better than that. O-kayyy…. Try these questions.

Are You a Sexist Writer?

Answer true or false.

  1. My hero really needs to be taller than my heroine.
  2. I would never let my heroine be a better shot with a rifle than my hero.
  3. I would never let my hero bake a better pie than my heroine.
  4. My hero should be physically strong, so that he can rescue the heroine.
  5. If my heroine is in trouble, she should be rescued by the hero, rather than getting out of the mess herself.
  6. What the heroine is wearing is very important to me.
  7. My heroine can't rely on men, because men are untrustworthy.
  8. My hero can't rely on women, because women always try to manipulate him.
  9. My Heroes and heroines can't really talk to each other. I'd prefer to have the fight or kiss, because frankly, if they talk, they just fuss.

Go on and laugh. You probably realise that if you said 'yes' to any of that, you're writing sexist. But I was astonished just now: I tried this test, called The Ambivalent Sexism Inventory. And I laughed. I thought, 'Now, who doesn't know what's wrong with all of that?' And then I got my results. Predictably, I score less that 1% for both 'hostile' and 'benevolent' sexism. But on the national profile…my little bit of atavism was a tiny sliver. The average was WAY up there. Okay, now I'm bummed, as we used to say back in the hippie days.

Don't be sexist. Rethink your gender attitudes. Your audience will get better, and your spouse might start talking to you again.

What We Learn From

After watching most of The X-Files, I've come to a conclusion about why I like this show so much. No, it isn't the slimy monsters, trust me. Nor is it the 'heart-stopping action'. I yawn through car chases, and I giggle at UFOs. No, it's the gender balance. So perfect. Mulder, the male partner, is sensitive, tolerant, and intuitive. As he says, he'll believe almost anything. His hard-headed female partner, on the other hand, wants proof. And she shoots better than he does. She may be only five-foot-one, but brother, she kicks bad-guy tail.

Years ago, there was a film called Agatha, a fictional tale involving Agatha Christie. Do you know what I remember? Dustin Hoffman kissing Vanessa Redgrave. Without standing on a chair, thank you. Without a joke about it. This was as big a gender-relations breakthrough moment as the first time two people kissed onscreen while wearing glasses.

Let’s get there, people. Let's start liking each other. Respecting each other. Getting away from the bad role models. Let's shake up the readers, and ourselves. Let's get sexism out of our writing.

Try This at Home

Here's an exercise. No, don't try to write 'from the point of view of the opposite gender'. In the first place, whaddya mean, opposite? In the second place, that was a lousy idea when the Stretcher tried it.

Instead, go subtle. Make up a list of characteristics you usually attribute to one gender. Then make up a list of the same for the other gender.

Now, swap. If you're a sci-fi writer, distribute them among your characters, if desired. If you're ready for it, distribute the qualities among your heterosexual male and female, gay characters, and possibly another option. Anyway, go for it.

Ask yourself:

Stretch those imagination muscles. And remember: other genders don't have cooties. Leave that kind of thinking on the playground.

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