Writing While Being a Woman

This week we’re writing about women in publishing, and all I can think is “still”? It’s 2016, people. Aren’t we over this whole gender thing yet?

And yet…

VIDA Count for New York Times Review of BooksJust last week The Observer published an article entitled “Why Hasn’t ‘The Late Show’ Invited Any Female Novelists?: The nine fiction writers who have appeared on Colbert’s talker have all been men.” The Jennifer Weiner/Jonathan Franzen feud (as one-sided as it seems to be, given that Franzen won’t “lower” himself to read Weiner’s fiction) is well documented. Just this month the New York Times wrote an article about men’s book clubs, where the rules clearly state. “No books by women about women (our cardinal rule).” The VIDA Count tracks the representation of women in literature today, and while some publications have made great strides, others still are incredibly male dominated.

Back in the dark ages, the (well respected) film school I attended skewed heavily toward the boys. In the dorm rooms, the guys watched porn films to critique the filming techniques. The films to emulate were the action movies. We studied the great directors like Jean Renoir, Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard. Women worked in film, but as editors or in continuity. My role models were few and far between.

I remember in my junior year film class, a (male) classmate made a film in which a group of boys were in individual bathroom stalls, and they were–since this is a family friendly blog, I’ll say–“pleasuring themselves.” Ha ha ha, said the teacher and the boys in the class. How funny and good natured is this.

My film involved a young girl who looked up to an older girl. I thought of this as a buddy film. A female buddy film. Remember, this was a couple of years before Thelma and Louise, and the idea was a novelty. Yes, in retrospect the film wasn’t that well written. It wasn’t the most beautifully shot. It may have been downright sappy (for God’s sake, I called it “Shades of Gray,” as if I couldn’t think up a more cliched title). But it had a solid story to it. Decent character development. Yet here’s the thing: I had an all-female cast. And the mostly male class couldn’t get over this. They kept harping on the psychosexual tension between the characters and the clear lesbian overtones of the film. Now, I couldn’t care less about the sexual orientation of my characters. But it wasn’t on the page. It wasn’t the point of the film. Friendship between two girls was the main focus. The other film had boys jerking off together, but that was in good fun. I had two women on a screen with no romantic interests, so clearly I had made a film about lesbian longing. Because what else could two women do together if no men are involved? (I refer you to the Bechdel test, which I have always tried to keep in mind in my work: To pass the test, two women must be talking in a scene about something other than a man.)

Of course, this was the same film program where cameras were occasionally hard to come by. A fellow student owned a camera, and he said I could use it. But when the time came near, he told me nevermind. He was giving it to a different student, one who was more qualified because, well, he had a penis.

“I don’t understand,” I said. “You said I could borrow it.”

The boy shrugged and said, “What’s the big deal? You don’t need it. You’re a girl. You can always sleep your way to the top.” Only he didn’t say “sleep.” And I didn’t censor the torrent of curses that came flying out of my mouth. (If I learned nothing else from my mother, I learned how to let out a stream of words that would make a sailor turn red.)

Wouldn’t it be nice to say this is a thing of the past? Yet whether it’s filmmaking or writing or playing soccer during lunch (my daughter has had to fight her way into the boy’s only lunchtime games, where she manages to hold her own just fine), women are still struggling.

I write “women’s fiction.” What does that mean? I like to think it means I write the type of fiction that I enjoy reading. But for others, it means I’m ghettoized into a world where men’s only book clubs and Jonathan Franzen and many of the major review publications will never acknowledge me. Luckily, I’ve met many men who have not only read, but enjoyed MODERN GIRLS.

I don’t write for women. I don’t write for men. I write for readers. I write the book that I’d want to read. And some day, I hope that will be enough for the rest of the world.

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Jennifer S. Brown is the author of MODERN GIRLS (NAL/Penguin). The novel, set in 1935 in the Lower East Side of New York, is about a Russian-born Jewish mother and her American-born unmarried daughter. Each discovers that she is expecting, although the pregnancies are unplanned and unwanted, in this story about women’s roles, standards, and choices, set against the backdrop of the impending war. Learn more at www.jennifersbrown.com.

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This article has 3 Comments

  1. I think the extent to which this is still not a thing of the past is shown by how many people (perhaps deliberately) misunderstand the Bechdel Test in order to attempt to discredit it.

    It was never intended to be about any individual movie. A given movie can pass the test and still suck, or still be sexist, or both. That’s not the point. The point is how many movies, what a high percentage of movies (including good ones), fail the test.

    A test which, looked at objectively, should not be that difficult to pass.

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