On Internalized Sexism and Writing

…Odeth, the only woman person I’d ever known to smile as infrequently as me, returned it…

~ Revisions, The Blood Mage

#ThingsOnlyWomenWritersHear was trending on Twitter today, and it made me angry–so here’s a blog post.

As I scrolled through the above hashtag, a few things occurred to me–I’m not alone (bittersweet), and many of these things have not only been said to me, but have been said by me. To/about other women writers and to myself.

Internalized sexism is a thing, y’all.

Just last week, I was having a conversation with another writer about friends of his who write romance but are working on something different. My immediate, knee jerk reaction, was to say, “They plan to publish under a different name, I hope.”

Yeah, I’m an asshole. That is sexist AF. Women can be sexist. I have a lot of sexist tendencies. They show up in my work (see the above). That revision didn’t come until my seventh draft of The Blood Mage. It took me SEVEN revisions to realize I’d quietly pinned the expectation of smiling onto female characters only.

Why is that? Short answer: society.

I was fortunate unfortunate enough to somehow be part of a conversation between two nineteen year old boys last night as they tried to convince me, “It used to be a man’s world.”

No. It is still a man’s world. And though we try to fight it, we must still live in it, so women have learned to adapt. We have bills to pay and families to support and dreams to nurture. So we learn to survive in a world that isn’t for us. In small ways and large. We smile and bat our eyes and try to change things, but some of the “way things are” trickles in. We internalize the words fed to us by our oppressors.

Smile. Be grateful. Be humble. Don’t be so negative. God, that’s dark. Your female characters are too weak, too emotional, write more like a man. Too autobiographical. Oversharing. It’s a good thing your boyfriend doesn’t read. Your character is unlikable. She’s too soft, now too hard. How can she have never thought about marriage? Maybe women just aren’t good writers. A sexually aggressive female lead? Disgusting. Don’t cry. Why don’t you ever cry?

These and a million others are constantly circling in my head, and at the end of the day, we write what we know. When what we know includes all this garbage, it’s no surprise we find internalized sexism in our work and in our lives. It’s no surprise I turn my nose down at romance writers or find myself debating the likability of female characters with my female friends. It’s no surprise I don’t balk at Chekhov’s description of female characters as “young and silly” but wonder if I should publish a short story describing men as lovers of things beautiful and broken.

Just because it isn’t surprising, however, doesn’t make it right. As writers, it’s our responsibility to ask hard questions, not only of those around us, but of ourselves as well. We need to read from the perspective of craft, and ask ourselves why we’re feeling some kind of way about that leading lady. Is she poorly written or has society made us feel that women like her are off-putting? Do we not like that romance novel because it falls into a problematic trope or because our own sexuality makes us uncomfortable?

And, above all, we need to educate. Ourselves and those around us, especially girls. Tune out society. Do you. Be fearless. Be brave. Be strong. Fuck, be weak. Be kind. Be smart. Be you. Don’t let anyone tell you who to be. We need to tell our girls that their bodies are theirs and their voices are theirs and their stories are theirs. We need to stop policing how women “should be” and just let them be.

And to all the men who thought that we of course needed a counter-hashtag #ThingsOnlyMaleWritersHear, go ahead and take a seat for a minute, we’re having a serious conversation.


3 thoughts on “On Internalized Sexism and Writing

  1. Interesting post. It’s funny how prejudices can sneak in to your writing without you having even meant to put anyone down. I definitely always write weak female characters, possibly because that is how I see myself and the mantra ‘write what you know’ gets bandied about a lot.

    I wondered why would assuming your writer-friend friends writing under a penname would be sexist? Do writers not do this when they experiment with a new genre?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. “Weak” female characters are always so interesting to me, to be honest. Mainly because I think this is such a loaded term. Especially in YA, I feel like there’s a trend where female characters have to be warrior-like, and I think that’s in response to a lack of female warriors. Now, while I think those stories have been and continue to be important, I’m really interested in seeing different kinds of strength explored (including the strength that comes with being emotionally vulnerable, which can sometimes be misconstrued as ‘weakness’). There’s honestly a lot to be written on this one single sentence.

      As to why I assume that to be a sexist statement that I made, it’s because of what I consider internalized sexism in regards to romance writing in particular. I think there’s this idea that romance is “silly” or “not serious” and that might be linked to the fact that it’s highly female-dominated. So my gut reaction when I hear someone is trying to move out of romance is, “Oh God, don’t let them know you wrote romance, they won’t take you seriously” and I think this has a lot to do with the implications of romance writers are typically women and women’s stories aren’t serious. I hope that makes sense 😛

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes it makes total sense. Romance is definitely female dominated and you can tell simply by the covers that go on the books with the pastel colours and brush script. I hadn’t realised that a writer would be judged negatively by having written in a specific genre previously, personally I would just be impressed that they had finished something and that is why I work in admin and not publishing!

        I had noticed the warrior trend with female characters, particularly in Hunger Games, and I understand now your concern of internalised sexism. Women shouldn’t have to be physically strong to be classed as strong just because that is how men judge each other. On the same token men shouldn’t be judged as weak for the same reason.

        (Sometimes getting out of bed and putting on matching socks is a victory as poignant to the person as finishing a marathon. I get it.)


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