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.

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