I don’t read books written by men. (I do have a few exceptions.)
I don’t watch male comedians. (Unless they are really, really funny.)
I try not to watch films or shows unless they are in some way women-led, either written, produced, or directed.
“Gasp! She’s sexist!”
Is it because I am sexist? Or perhaps because I hate men? Neither.
This is a very intentional decision of mine that has nothing to do (in theory) with prejudice or bias against the male capacity for artistic creation, or even whether or not I like their work (with the few exceptions whose work I adore).
I do read books and watch comedy by queer men, nonbinary and gender nonconforming people, BIPOC, Indigenous, and anyone from outside of Europe or North America, though I prioritize women writers.
My choices are less about who I exclude and more about who I support and why. Okay, let’s be honest. They are a little bit about not supporting white men–but that’s because white men have had the power of reality construction and knowledge production for literally thousands of years. Enough, already.
We create our reality with our words and our thoughts, individually and collectively. The relationship between the individual and the collective is dynamic, continually relating to one another. As a collective, we make unspoken agreements to what is “reality” and most of this is created through media–literature, television, news, movies, and even comedy. We are literally in a constant process of collectively creating, defining, and agreeing to what is reality.
Various studies have shown that while women are likely to read both female and male authors, men tend to choose male writers. Historically, works created by women are considered to be for women, and works created by men have been considered to be for all people. Men write, create, reflect all of reality while women only reflect women’s reality. Or so we have been led to believe.
So many female characters are unlikeable. Why? Who has historically written these unlikeable female characters? I trust you have a guess. Most, not all of course, but many, books by men don’t offer much about the experience of women. Women are diminished to tired tropes or sexual objects. Female characters have little to offer in the way of intellect or depth. Movie tropes are even worse.
And what is the result of all these unlikeable female characters? Men don’t like us. What else? We don’t like each other. We don’t like female celebrities, judge them for the smallest imperfections while male celebrities get away with all kinds of assaults and abuses and gray hairs and wrinkles. We don’t like female politicians. We literally don’t like women because we have created imaginary worlds full of unlikeable women. Who created it? Okay, in case you didn’t guess. Men.
Then we squeeze ourselves into these little tiny tropes that have been created for us. Make ourselves small and uncomfortable so that the patriarchy can continue to manspread all over us.
All Humans Are Complex & Valuable Beings
I have had many moments when I can feel a man simplifying my being. Or witnessed their moments of surprise when I display even the slightest human complexity or intellect. Many times I have had men strike up conversations with me, talk at me for some length of time, and then say, “wow, you are so interesting.”
Funny, I remember thinking, I have not said one interesting thing. Does he find me interesting because I listened to him talk about himself?
Yes. He did.
I have perceived many moments when a man shifts from seeing me as little more than an object to a human. It’s a little flash across the eyes, the moment a man registers that I have a brain as well as a body. This isn’t just about me because I am smart. (I am smart. And interesting.) This is true of any woman. We are all equally complex humans in our different and similar ways. Just like men, incidentally.
It’s just that men often don’t see us this way. And they don’t write us this way into books or movies, so our society then doesn’t see us this way. And our culture doesn’t let us behave this way. We haven’t been allowed to see ourselves this way. Our needs make us “difficult.” Our thoughts are labeled as “over-thinking.” Our requests for accountability make us “hysterical.” Our desires make us “crazy.” Our opinions make us “too much.” Our conversations are filed under “gossip.”
Is this an oversimplification? Culture is so dynamic. We create media and art from what we are and we become what we consume. We are influenced by everything. But who holds the power to create the influence?
Women in Publishing
In 2016, Rachel McCarthy James studied the books reviewed by The New York Times, from 100 years earlier. There were 1,392 books reviewed in 1916 and of these, 1,085 were written by men and 304 by women. Only 7 of these were people of color and none of them were black. All 304 were white women. This does not mean that people of color weren’t writing, but they definitely weren’t deemed worthy of review by the New York Times.
And 100 years later? Many literary organizations aren’t reviewing much more women’s writing than before. Why?
In 2019, according to the VIDA Count, nearly every major literary journal or publisher was still dominated by male voices, with the exception of The Tin House and the New York Times Book Review. Some of the smaller publishers showed better results. Very few published works by nonbinary writers.
Catherine Nichols’ experiment from 2015 best illustrates discrimination against female writers. Nichols sent out her manuscript to 50 agents and got two positive responses. Then she repeated the action using a male pseudonym and this time 17 agents expressed their enthusiasm. Not only did her male version of self turn out to be an eight and a half times better writer, but he apparently also received kinder rejections.
An analysis of 3.5 million English-language books published between 1900 and 2008 spotlights a deep gender bias in the literature. It concluded that women are twice as likely as men to be described by their physical attributes — “beautiful” and “sexy” being the top two adjectives used for women. Men, on the other hand, are most commonly described by their actions and attitudes. Some of the most common male descriptors are “righteous,” “rational,” and “brave.” The researchers, from the University of Copenhagen as well as U.S. institutions, used machine-learning algorithms to comb through 11 billion words across the collection of books, which included both fiction and non-fiction texts.
A study published in 2018 found that book prices for genres with more female authors are cheaper than book prices for genres with more male authors. “Overall, books that are identified as having a female-named author cost 45% less on average than male-named. Even after the researchers accounted for price disparities between genres, female-authored books were on average still 9% less expensive.”
The extra-simplified story: More women read. More women write. Yet, more books are published by men, and more books written by men are reviewed formally. More male authors receive awards, and men (anecdotally) receive sweeter rejections. Male-dominated genres of literature (and subsequently?) male authors are worth more money.
Women in Wikipedia
Not everyone knows this, but anyone can edit Wikipedia. It was created to be a universal open access project, and technically, it is. However, with the goal to democratize the consumption and creation of knowledge, Wikipedia fails on every measure of diversity: geographic, linguistic, racial, sexuality, economic, and of course gender. This comes straight from Wikipedia itself: Gender bias on Wikipedia, also known as the Wikipedia gender gap, refers to the fact that Wikipedia contributors are mostly male, that relatively few biographies on Wikipedia are about women, and that topics of interest to women are less well-covered.
In 2019, Katherine Maher, then CEO of Wikimedia Foundation, said her team’s working assumption was that women make up 15–20% of total contributors. So while in theory, everyone has the same access to editing or creating pages on Wikipedia, what happens from there reflects what happens in almost all public spaces. Men take the power. Wikipedia reflects society as a whole.
For example, many women who contribute to Wikipedia have spoken out about how their entries are often edited by men in malicious ways, using sexist, racist, homophobic and violent language. Wikipedia acknowledges that this forces women to leave as they are treated aggressively by male editors.
Additionally, Wikipedia’s articles about women are less likely to be included, expanded, neutral, and detailed. A 2021 study found that, in April 2017, 41% of biographies nominated for deletion were women despite only 17% of published biographies being about women.
Wikipedia grew out of the open source technology community, which has long been predominantly male, and content on Wikipedia has to be backed up by secondary sources, sources that throughout history have contained a bias toward white men. Sounds to me like Wikipedia is just a giant mansplaining platform.
Clearly, women just aren’t leaning in. Is this our fault? We lack confidence. We aren’t good leaders. Should we step up and lean in and pull up our own seats to the table and exhaust ourselves trying to add information to the pool of public knowledge just to have a bunch of young, privileged heteronormative white boys erase our work, digitally interrupt us, talk over us, take credit, continuously knock us back? Sigh.
What is the solution? If in every public space devoted to the production of knowledge, women are continually silenced, criticized when we speak up, labeled too aggressive for having opinions, and shamed when we remain silent–then what is the solution?
Women in Academia
Surprise, surprise. Gender disparities are rampant in academia as well–from publishing to tenure. For example, men get most of the money for research. More men are editors of academic journals. More men’s works are peer-reviewed and published. And although statistics generally show around 40-45% women faculty at universities in North America and Europe, generally only around 20-25% of tenure track faculty are women.
Sadly, but not surprisingly, the same is true across all media and artistic industries. From movies to television to music to journalism. Any industry that creates public knowledge or art for public consumption has been reflecting the heteronormative white male experience to the world and selling it to us as “reality.”
What about the rest of reality?
I have a male acquaintance who I respect and appreciate a lot, and I know he respects me a lot. We’ve had plenty of stimulating conversations, and I know he has read some of my articles and has asked me for recommendations about feminist literature. He compliments my mind rather than my body, and I know for certain he views me as more than an object. A while back, a friend of mine interviewed me on Instagram Live to speak about the topic of women’s empowerment and how it related to her book. Afterward he messaged me to tell me that he enjoyed the interview and commented about the depth in which we spoke to each other. He meant this as a compliment. He was surprised at our level of depth, and this surprised me from a man who I had shared deep conversations with. He perceives me as intelligent and yet is surprised by my intelligent conversations with women. Does he perceive me as intelligent only when I speak to him? As if my intelligence is a mere reflection of his own?
This made me wonder: how often do men actually just sit down and listen to women talk to each other? How often do they hear us without doing any talking themselves or perhaps perceiving themselves as “leading” the conversation.
How many times do they listen to us speak intelligently without hearing it as their own voice?
My guess is that most men, even the “not-all-men” men, rarely spend time reading, listening to, finding humor or recognizing depth and complexity from artists, creators, or writers that aren’t men.
And this, plus all the statistics above, is why I don’t read books by men.
It’s time for women, particularly non-white women, Indigenous people, queer, nonbinary and trans people, differently-abled people, neurodivergent people, people from everywhere outside of Europe and North American to be heard, to be received in sharing our knowledge and our experiences, to be able to edit Wikipedia safely, to create culture, to bring comedic relief, to add ourselves into society through media influence, to be seen as the complex, interesting, dynamic humans that we are, because all humans are–even if the white men don’t know it yet.
Media, Art, & Literature Are For Everyone
Writing by women is not just for women or about “women’s issues.” Queer writing is not just for queer people. Books by Indigenous writers are not just for Indigenous people.
I encourage you all to notice how many women, LGBTQ, trans, BIPOC, and Indigenous creators you follow or read. And if it’s not many, then I have a short list for you here of people whose work I believe is crucial in creating new, inclusive, loving, healing realities.
A short list of my favorite writers/activists/comedians/creators/inspirers:
- Barbara Kingsolver
- Robin Wall-Kimmerer
- Louise Erdrich
- Octavia Butler
- Ocean Vuong
- Isabelle Allende
- Julia Alvarez
- bell hooks
- Audre Lorde
- Angela Davis
- Margaret Atwood
- Mary Oliver
- Adrienne Rich
- Ann Patchett
- Roxanne Gay
- Sue Monk Kidd
- Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
- Viola Davis
- Jefferey Marsh
- Alok Vaid-Menon
- Joy Sullivan
- Emma Zeck