Blog & News

That Big Essay on Pandering and Sexism, and What it Means in My Own Writing Life

A few weeks ago, an essay titled “On Pandering” was published on the Tin House blog by author Clare Vaye Watkins. It’s long, but good. Good in that uncomfortable way of seeing some of my own ugly experiences of sexism reflected back at me, causing me to nod my head Yes, yes, yessss. My horror-filled #FeministFail moments flashed before my eyes: like the time when an old white guy in a business setting mistook me for being just the intern, when I was, in fact, The Boss Lady. Or that time a skeezy accounting dude at a company I once worked for commented on my fuzzy sweater and how it made him want to…honk my boobs. Or when a sales guy at that same office commented to his buddy on the phone that “a hot girl just walked into his office” and he plans to bone her (she being me).

I could seriously go on forever, and I hate it.

It sucks to professionally diminished, infantilized, or sexualized. It’d be fair to say I even have a fair bit of PTSD from those times.

And by that, I mean Post Traumatic Sexism Disorder. I just made that up. It seems like the right way to describe the fear I feel when I might be exposed to yet another diminishing moment. How all the cumulative sexist traumas make me feel like giving up on certain aspects of my professional life. And from countless conversations I’ve had with other professional women, I know they feel the same. Sometimes, owning a vagina is like repetitively running into a brick wall and smashing your face, not because you want to, but because you have no choice. But we keep trying. We keep leaning in, Sheryl Sandberg style, brick wall be damned.

So, yeah, Watkins’ essay spoke to me like a punch in the girl-nuts, but thankfully not for the literary parts, as she has experienced. My inner literary life hasn’t been too affected by sexism the way hers has… yet.

The part of the essay that made the literary world go wild was this: Watkins said she had internalized sexism in the literary world and therefore had shaped her writing to please a certain flavor of white men, the Jonathan Franzens of the world. You know, the ones who write Great American Novels. She was trying to prove herself to that kind of audience and fellow writer. She said:

“Look, I said with my stories: I can write old men, I can write sex, I can write abortion. I can write hard, unflinching, unsentimental.”

 

It sparked discussions all over the webiverse, including Slate, Jezebel, and NPR. In Slate magazine’s response, they pointed out a surprising fact that blows what we think we know about readers out of the water:

“White men don’t constitute the country’s most voracious readers—that’s black women.”

 

The ensuing discussion touched all kinds of issues, those of gender, race, and class. Many writers of color, most notably Marlon James, winner of the Man Booker Prize, admitted that he and many other writers of color felt they had to write for white women, the Jane Austen-loving variety.

Wow. So much to think about, right?

All of this got me thinking about my own writing life. I have one book out and a few short stories. While I tend to write feminist themes, I also love action and horror and science fiction, and I don’t try to write for any one person. I write to please myself. If that pleases men, so be it. I’m the kind of person who can unironically watch The Transporter (Jason Statham, holla!) back to back with Sleepless In Seattle and live to tell about it. But don’t call me a tomboy—I hate that. I prefer the term Well-Rounded Person. Why can’t women write hard-boiled action stories? Why can’t dudes bake pink Unicorn-Poop cookies?

Well, everyone, I have news for you: whether you have man-bits or lady parts, you can do whatever the f••• you want.

I certainly did. And I’m happy to say that while my first book certainly has a girl power theme, it also pleases dudes as much as it pleases women. No pandering involved.

Let’s face facts, though: the genres I tend to write in (horror and sci-fi) are typically owned by white men, and that needs to change. Though lately there is a big push to give women, LGBTQ, and writers of color more visibility in those genres, which tends to come from small presses. I have certainly benefited from that, though not in a huge, life-changing way. But the upper echelons of those genres are absolutely still male dominated, and I haven’t yet attempted to crack that ceiling. Some day though, I will give it a shot. I’m not planning on pandering to white males (though they are certainly welcome to enjoy my work), but to my own beliefs: horror and sci-fi audiences are broader than we give them credit for and are looking for something different, and maybe that something different is me. And if the establishment can’t support me in reaching those audiences, I’ll go my own way. It’s like what Watkins said when she quoted Tina Fey’s own experiences encountering obstacles, whether they be sexism, politics or the flavor-of-the-day annoyance: just “go over, under, through”.

In the meantime, a funny story about a crime/horror story I wrote that was accepted by a small publisher. They mistakenly assumed that because I wrote a good crime story, I must have been a dude. “Dear Mr. Silverman…” the letter said. I thought it was flattering (I’m just one of the guys now!) and hilarious (when do I get my honorary testicles?), but then it made me think: we still have so many stereotypes to crush.

I fully plan on crushing it like a boss lady.