Feminism & Writing

So the “f-word” is getting a lot of chatter this week, as Emma Watson spoke to the UN on Monday about feminism. Of course some people immediately threatened a nude photo leak (or manufacture, since apparently no one has legit nude photos of Watson) to bully her into being quiet. [see update below]

Way to prove Watson’s point exactly, people.

There are two fundamental problems here, and I can personally contribute to fixing only one of them. But I’ll explain them both. (And yes, this is still about stories!)

The Misunderstanding of Feminism

For years, I refused to call myself a feminist, because I thought feminism was about emphasizing the superiority of women. I was wrong about that. When I became more educated, I realized feminism is about equal opportunity and respect.

Emma Watson summed it up nicely in her UN speech:

The more I have spoken about feminism, the more I have realized that fighting for women’s rights has too often become synonymous [in popular culture] with man-hating. If there is one thing I know for certain, it is that this has to stop. For the record, feminism, by definition, is the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities. It is the theory of the political, economic and social equality of the sexes.


By Rebecca Cohen: http://rebeccacohenart.tumblr.com/post/63109584167

I’ve been guilty in the past of perpetuating this misunderstanding, saying things like, “I’m not a feminist, but I don’t think it’s right to assume a man is automatically better at….” That’s exactly what feminism is — not that a woman is inherently better, and not that a man is inherently better, but that we should look at the individual candidates rather than making an assumption based on gender.

Far from man-hating, feminism calls upon men to use their own intelligence and abilities. Because, if I don’t believe a man is actually capable of good behavior, how can I protest abuse? After all, it’s not his fault if he’s not capable of anything better, right?

I saw one of those “I don’t need feminism” signs which read, “I don’t need feminism because I don’t believe men are inherent rapists and I don’t believe women are perpetual victims.” Um, that’s exactly feminism, chica. Here’s your feminist card.

The problem is that the “feminism” label is so often attached to not just extremists, but outright crazy people. I’ll provide a handy guideline for you: Man-haters are to feminism as Westboro is to Christianity.

If this sounds wrong, consider, where do you get your information on feminism (or anything else)? Does your information come primarily from click-bait headlines, social media memes, or friends making derogatory comments? Or have you actually talked with a firsthand source? Sometimes people filter their reports of a certain group, in order to promote an agenda, or sometimes people are just legitimately ignorant and don’t know what they’re talking about.

As my pastor said once, “I’ve been an evangelical Christian for decades. I’ve known literally thousands of evangelical Christians. And I’ve never heard a single one of them say God hates anybody.” But a couple dozen nutjobs who grab headlines can be more visible than thousands who never make the news because they’re leading normal lives. The same thing is true for most any criticized group, from Muslims (“they’re all ISIS sympathizers!”) to people of color (“they’re all in gangs!”) to men (“they’re all misogynist pigs!”). Real feminists don’t let the hateful actions of a few dude-bros color their perception of all men.

By the way, I’m a feminist, and I still ask my husband to open tight jar lids. He’s a feminist, believing women are fully as intelligent and capable as men, and he still opens them for me. Feminism doesn’t mean denying the biological fact that his thumbs are set at a different angle than mine for better grip strength. It’s a bit bigger than that, people.

John Scalzi in a mint green Regency dress, with a dog on the lawn.

John Scalzi rocks the Regency look and trashes a hater troll.

By the way, if you haven’t read John Scalzi’s brilliant troll-slaying on the topic, you really owe it to yourself to click here.

The Cultural Perpetuation of Bad Behavior

But I can’t do much about misconceptions, other than be honest about my own beliefs. But perpetuation of cultural and media stereotypes is squarely in my corner as a writer.

I’ve written about this before, but creators of media bear a heavy responsibility. We need to present a compelling story, yes, but we also need to be aware that media shapes cultural concepts. I’m a big believer in personal responsibility and self-determination, but I also recognize that if media didn’t influence us, then advertising wouldn’t be a $178 billion industry in the US.

I’ve excerpted this from what a writer friend posted on Facebook this week:

Almost all “action” heroes are brutal, killing blithely when required, view women as objects, and indulge in alcohol, drugs, or meaningless sex as a release from their stressful exploits. As long as women coo at, drool over, and chase the “bad boys” and the alpha males, and are willing to put up with their shenanigans or brutality because of the money and status, they are reinforcing the behavior. The theme in romance novels and movies where the girl is seduced by the bad boy who magically “reforms because of their love” perpetuates an unhealthy lie. Romance stories foment unrealistic expectations of what love really is and what a healthy relationship looks like. Yes, there needs to be conflict for a story. But do all the characters have to be tragically, even criminally, broken? There are more subtle, psychological conflicts to work with dramatically. Storytellers (books, TV, movies) need to consider the ways in which these subliminal stereotypes and messages are perpetuated in their work. A society’s mythology not only reflects but affects its reality. — Diana Hurwitz

Don’t worry, I’m not going to tackle all that’s wrong with the portrayal of gender in popular media. I’m just going to say that we should be thinking about it as we work. Does it mean we always have to subvert the trope? No, of course not. Sometimes it’s perfectly fine for a guy to rescue a girl. And we shouldn’t subvert a trope unless we’re going to do it well (lazy writers of one-dimensional badass warrior women incapable of holding a conversation without punching someone, I’m looking at you). But we should at least think about our choices and, while fiction shouldn’t be moralizing, we should think about the take-away message, especially in children’s and young adult genres.

I don’t follow Anita Sarkeesian of Feminist Frequency particularly closely — okay, I’ve watched just one episode, a month ago — but she had one point which really struck me: Many media creators defend their women-as-victims content (abuse, rape, etc.) as “gritty” and “realistic,” making an invented world more believeable. Sarkeesian points out that many of these games are set in hyper-fictional or fantasy settings, meaning we’re already suspending our disbelief to accept fantasy creatures, super-powers, and more. So what these writers are arguing is, it’s easier to imagine a world with working magic and dragons than to imagine a world without routine rape and physical abuse.

For that and similar observations, Sarkeesian has received rape threats, death threats, and bomb threats. Which, like the threats against Emma Watson for daring to say that men and women should have equal rights, illustrate exactly the problem.

Feminism is about respect for all, and that includes males. Unfair expectations hurt us all:

“Nice guys”, studious, thoughtful, patient, perhaps introverted, peace-loving, dedicated, loyal men are ridiculed, labeled weak, undesirable, and considered failures because they aren’t macho alpha males. Television media coverage, reporting in magazines, newspapers, and blogs, reinforce this daily. — Diana Hurwitz

This underlines what Emma Watson said about unfair gender stereotypes:

I’ve seen young men suffering from mental illness unable to ask for help for fear it would make them look less “macho” — in fact in the U.K., suicide is the biggest killer of men between 20 to 24, eclipsing road accidents, cancer and coronary heart disease. I’ve seen men made fragile and insecure by a distorted sense of what constitutes male success. Men don’t have the benefits of equality either.

We don’t often talk about men being imprisoned by gender stereotypes, but I can see that they are — and that when they are free, things will change for women as a natural consequence.

Not exactly man-haters.

Just think about respect, for men and women and everyone. That’s all. It shouldn’t be hard, and it shouldn’t be divisive.

Your (non-misogynist and non-misandrist) comments are always welcome!


It turns out the threat to release nude pictures of Emma Watson was a hoax. A terribly, terribly funny joke.

It was a believable hoax, however, because revenge porn is such a terribly real thing. And not just revenge from disgruntled exes, but often fabricated photos created purely to ruin someone’s career or reputation. For a truly terrifying look at this, read One Woman’s Dangerous War Against the Most Hated Man on the Internet.

And threats like those against Anita Sarkeesian are disturbingly common. Last year when a UK politician supported putting Jane Austen on the ten-pound note, she got a number of death threats and rape threats — yep, just for wanting to put a picture of a long-dead female on currency. Seriously, what in that is worth violence?

From just one guy: “I’m here again to tell you that I’ll rape you tomorrow at 6pm” and “Best way to rape a witch, try and drown her first, then just as she is gagging for air, that is when you enter.” He had a lot more to say, but I’ll not repeat it here. I’ll just point out that his defense was exercising his free speech “to further debate” on the political discussion.

Yeah, um, no. That’s not political discussion, not even if you squint really hard. That’s why the threat against Watson was believable. That’s why maybe we have a problem.

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  1. In my mind a feminist is anyone, male or female, that believes in and supports the equality of the sexes. period. A corollary would be that they also understand the women have historically been, and still are oppressed by the beliefs and practices of patriarchy.

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