Are we perpetuating harmful stereotypes and sexist tropes in books that are supposed to celebrate us?
Lesfic (lesbian fiction) or WLW (women who love women) fiction is a hot market, and one of its promises is that it offers works for women, by women, about women. That promise is important, given the uproar that happened a few years ago with the gay romance or MLM (men who love men) romance and erotica genre. While it had long been known that women were avid consumers of gay romantic literature, it shocked many readers to discover that the writers were also women – not gay men. (In the interest of disclosure, I was one of those women writers.)
That promise of books for women, by women, and about women is also important given the way lesbian culture is co-opted for heterosexual male purposes. Think about all the jokes about watching lesbians have sex as the ultimately straight male fantasy that pervade popular culture. Think about how commercial “lesbian porn” is often produced by, directed by, and sold to men and often features women actors who don’t identify as lesbian. Despite a brief period of time in the 1990s when “lesbian chic” was a pop culture phenomenon, lesbians are mostly cultural outsiders. And lesfic offers a respite from that.
That’s why I find it frustrating to observe how much latent misogyny there is within lesfic novels and around the culture of writing and reading lesfic. It’s as if we’ve forgotten that this literature is supposed to be our utopia away from the subjugation, objectification, and rendering invisible that happens to us in mainstream culture and literature. In many of the books I’ve read, the authors refer to adult women characters as “girls.” One book had a character fat-shaming her rival to feel better about herself after a breakup; another had a character worried about becoming fat and losing her love interest as a result. Women characters call each other “bitches.” And among author friends and other industry professionals, I’m frustrated to hear language that isn’t empowering and uplifting of women. Sometimes that can take the form of using male-gendered language as a gender neutral default (“mankind,” instead of “humanity,” for instance), and sometimes it’s referring to adults as “girls,” “chicks,” “bitches,” and other dehumanizing or infantilizing language.
I don’t think I’m the only one who finds this problematic and wants us to do better. We can easily start with these three points:
1. Refer to adult women authors, readers, and characters as “women,” not “girls.”
This one is culturally hard, but it’s something I correct every single time I hear it. For some people, the difference seems inconsequential. For others, “woman” carries an old, crusty, boring connotation while “girls” sounds younger and more vivacious. Actually, the difference is important.
Until the 1960s, married American women couldn’t open their own bank accounts without permission from their husbands. Until 1974, many American women couldn’t get credit cards unless they were married and had their husbands’ signature and approval. These kinds of cultural practices, which required laws to change, participate in treating women as children who need men to make sure they don’t run amok. While 1974 might seem long ago, many girls today are still raised with the social and familial double expectation: to be an adult long before adulthood by doing more chores, participating more in child-rearing younger siblings, and acting more responsibly than boy children in the same family and also to be a child longer after adulthood by being treated as less independent, less capable, and less strong. When we expect a girl to act like an adult, we rob her of her childhood. When we treat an adult like a girl, we deny her maturity, wisdom, strength, and self-sufficiency. We are saying we expect her to need others for her survival.
I will always correct people who call adult women “girls” because I think it’s important to recognize the harm infantilizing women has had on equality. I’d like to see the lesfic community commit itself to avoiding the use of the word “girl” to refer to a woman.
If “woman” doesn’t sound sexy enough to you, my question is: What cultural hang-ups have led you to believe capable adult women aren’t sexy?
2. Stop having characters call each other “bitches.”
Some people want to reclaim the word “bitch” to make it empowering for women. I understand that impetus, though I respectfully disagree with it for the simple reason that “bitch” is still more commonly used as an insult than anything empowering. Don’t like what a woman has to say? She’s a bitch. Don’t want her to speak her mind or express anger? Don’t want her to be unladylike or intelligent or forthright instead of demure, submissive, and stupid? She must be a bitch. It’s gross, right?
Remember in 2008 when Hillary Clinton was called a bitch? Tina Fey did a breakdown on Saturday Night Live of what kind of women tend to get called that name.
The monologue is full of misogynistic humor: ageism, fat-shaming, associating men with femininity to insult them. But Tina Fey’s point about Hillary Clinton was that calling a woman “bitch” is usually code for “capable.” When we fear what women are capable of doing, when we don’t like them or their power, we go for the insult to cut them down.
Until we get that changed, until we hear “bitch” more often as a compliment that empowers us than we do an insult or slur, it can’t be a word we let our characters hurl at each other, especially not in anger or jealousy. We’re just perpetuating a culture of pitting women against each other in misogynistic ways if we do.
3. Practice using gender neutral language.
In my observation, it seems there is a generational shift on this front, but I think we can all do more to avoid using male-gendered language to refer to everyone. There’s been talk of changing “guys” or “you guys” to something else, like “folks.” But there are more subtle, potentially more insidious, ways that language assumes maleness as superior. “Mankind,” for instance, instead of “humanity” – or, better, “people” – implies that the natural state of human existence is manliness, and the rest of us, like Eve to Adam, are just derivatives thereof. When we call an elected official a “Congressperson” instead of “Congressman,” we acknowledge that women and nonbinary people are also people who can be elected to Congress. The same goes for “City Councilperson” and other professional titles that used to end in “-man” (“firefighter,” “postal worker,” “serviceperson,” etc.). These shifts might seem unwieldy or superfluous, but actually they help reframe culture to recognize and value non-men as having credible existences and making contributions to our society.
You’ve heard the riddle about the doctor? In case you need a refresher, here it is:
A father and son have a car accident and are both badly hurt. They are taken to separate hospitals. When the boy is taken in for an operation, the surgeon says, 'I can not do the surgery because this is my son.' How is this possible?
The answer, of course, is that the surgeon is the child’s mother, and the point of the riddle is that many people will struggle to solve it because they assume surgeon = man.
I think – I hope – this is changing with younger generations. I’d like to imagine a world where this riddle makes no sense to people because the assumption that certain professions “belong” to men no longer make sense. Bonus: The riddle also should not make sense because we can’t assume the son has a father and mother. Maybe there are two dads. Maybe the child has three parents. Families can be beautifully complicated!
I pledge to abide by these three rules as I, a queer woman, continue to write romance about queer women. And the benefit is that these changes also help us practice inclusivity toward trans and nonbinary people. I want to know that the work I’m writing, the stuff I’m blogging, the way I’m speaking doesn’t perpetuate harmful stereotypes, and I welcome feedback that helps me improve and cast off the latent misogyny that I – most of us – were raised with in a patriarchal society.