A Little Feminist Check Re Discrimination

I botched it tonight.

Someone asked our panel about writing in a traditionally male-dominated (both as authors and heroes) genre, as a woman. And several women writers were invited to answer, but with the clock ticking on the last moments of our chat time.

I was discombobulated by trying to formulate both a comprehensive and brief answer under the countdown, and even more so by another panelist’s previous assertion that white males were the cause of the downfall of society — a statement I found untrue as well as unfair to the white male panelists sitting on either side of me at the time, not freaking out about being outnumbered on the panel.

So I coughed something out as the organizer waved to end the session, but I don’t feel I was clear, and this is a topic on which I want to be clear. And I think this is worth saying again to a larger room anyway.

Physical traits aren’t the problem.

“White male” is a physical description, no more. It is not a pattern of behavior. Harshing on someone solely for being white and male is no more sensible or fair than harshing on someone for being black and female. If you need to judge people, do it by their behavior, not by their skin color or genitalia.

If you want to criticize an attitude or behavior, do so by referencing the attitude or behavior. Don’t shorthand that by a physical description, which generalizes well beyond the attitude or behavior. Do not criticize someone for something out of their control, such as sex, race, etc.

Feminism isn’t about inverting traditional discrimination.

The woman who said white men were the downfall of society did not actually claim to be feminist. But as I do, I want to be super-clear on this.

Feminist literature doesn’t mean the villains are always male.

Feminism is about eliminating discrimination due to gender. That means no discrimination toward women or men. It means recognizing strengths and attributes in men and women. It is not about replacing one set of gender discrimination with another.

Likewise, racial inclusion and representation does not mean all the villains are white. (As much as I love Hollywood’s stereotypical bad guy with English accent, it is getting a bit monotone.)  I’d much rather see each individual treated as an individual, a real personality rather than a cutout token standing in for millions of people.

"Male author" and "male doctor" are not offensive terms. It's simply a way to differentiate them from normal authors and doctors.

Reversing the offense is still offensive. (And inversion is a good litmus test for how the original reads.) Delightfully sarcastic image from Facebook’s “Man Who Has It All.”

It is unfair to make a single character in a single work bear the weight of representing an entire gender, race, ethnicity, religion, dietary preference, etc. It’s unfair to the author, to the character, and to whatever group is being so artificially represented. All groups have a bell curve; we need to recognize and represent that.

If an author has a pattern of writing women who faint whenever trouble arises while the men always rise to save the day, that’s a troubling pattern. But in real life, there are both men and women who don’t handle stress well, and it’s fine to put both into fiction. We just need to balance a female passenger who begins to cry when the aliens catch up to the spaceship with a female captain who charges up her photon pistol to fight them. Neither woman is supposed to represent all of female-kind; they are personalities, not placeholders.

The problem arises when there’s one woman among four male characters, and she’s the only one to wring her hands helplessly while the four men knuckle down to solve the problem. By having only one female, the author has made her representational, as her actions are the actions of 100% of the women. The answer then is to include more women, to get past that problematic and so-common 20%, and to include more realistic, varied, and nuanced portrayals of women.

Sexism isn’t solved by discrimination, stereotypes, and skewed portrayal to serve an agenda. It’s solved by treating people as individuals, not genders.

These aren’t necessarily new thoughts, and they’re certainly not unique to me, but they are important if we want to, as a society, get over ourselves.

And that is what I think about writing in a traditionally male-dominated field.

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  1. Amen. Well said. True feminism is about real equality – not male bashing.

    • Exactly! So often I find that feminism is actually kinder to men, affording them more respect and more options. We don’t need to bash anyone to make things better.

  2. Thank you for a heartfelt and thought provoking response. My daughter, Emily, and I have been discussing diversity and inclusivity in writing and gaming a lot recently. We really feel this post states the topic so well. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Funny that so many things have been okay for hundreds of years and suddenly it is offensive.

    • Social values do change. And also, a lot of things were awful for hundreds of years, but it was as offensive socially to protest them. Sexism and racism go back a long way. But overcompensation is not the answer; discrimination is not solved with discrimination.

  4. I love this article. So well said!

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