Hoax #10: Embodiments

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I am honored to have been chosen as a contributor to Hoax #10: Embodiments. Hoax is a feminist zine that gathers a variety of voices on particular theme for each issue. Like the best zines, Hoax is brimming with candor, with truth and with the kind of personal specificities that make reading through it feel like a conversation more than anything else. The contributors of this issue interpret the theme—embodiment—through a wide range of lenses. There are discussions on transnational identities, gender identities, gender identities contextualized by transnational identities and different kinds of disabilities; there is poetry, there is a short story about a mermaid and sirens, and there is even a good recipe for vegan strawberry muffins. I’m posting my own contribution here, but with the caveat that mine may actually be the least interesting essay in the bunch. All of that is to say that you should definitely check out the zine.

The Whole, Not the Parts: Performing A Nonbinary Gender

I am a nonbinary genderqueer person. I identify as trans*. My gender is a work in progress, something that is continually evolving. I dislike thinking of myself in terms of masculinity and femininity; both concepts are too loaded, too limiting and too restrictive for me. I describe myself as nonbinary and genderqueer because I understand myself through my embodied lived experience, the breadth and reach of which cannot be so neatly mapped to the either/or nature of societally sanctioned binaristic gender categories.

The concept of embodiment is foundational to my genderqueer identity. For me, my experience of my gender and understanding of it is deeply wedded to my literal physical body. The popular rhetoric of “the mind is gender, the body is sex” doesn’t work for me. I distrust the underpinnings of mind-body dualism in that statement since that line of thought is so often used to disregard my gender as a ‘real biological thing’. If my mind and experiences are genderqueer, then the vehicle through which I have those experiences and have those thoughts itself must be genderqueer, too. This is reflected with my relationship to my body: sometimes I have a dick and sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I revel in my breasts, and sometimes I hide them. The way I use my body is as flexible and fluid as my understanding of my gender, which I believe makes my physical body as genderqueer as everything else about me. I want my gender grounded in something tangible and literal; I want my gender to be something beyond just an abstraction.

Outside my chosen family and close friends, no one else sees my body the way I do. I am not physically androgynous: I am not one of those waifish elfin-faced creatures who make people wonder what I gender I was assigned when I was born like Tilda Swinton or B. Scott or Casey Legler. Androgyny is socially constructed such that those of us with unambiguous secondary sex characteristics (the presence/absence of breasts, the width of hips, the breadth of shoulders) cannot inhabit that word. Androgyny is not understood as a body that questions the binary but instead as one that is questioned because of the binary. The whole wide world out there sees B. Scott and wants to know how they were born, what’s underneath their clothes, and that’s what makes them androgynous. The whole wide world sees my body—42DD breasts, hips wide enough to have birthed a child—and presumes it knows what and who I am regardless of my decidedly androgynous internal reckoning of myself. When I leave my house, I get “she” and “ma’am”. But even if I got a “sir” or a “he” it still wouldn’t be accurate. I wouldn’t be passing as me—I am masculine but not a man. It’s alright to refer to hypothetical people as “they”, but a person standing right in front of you? In the (presumably) identifiable flesh? Then people feel compelled to categorize you, to place you in one of two boxes. So I get read as variants of woman because of the shape and quality of my physical body. The precise breed of woman I am read as varies depending on the day’s gender expression: butch woman, lesbian, hard femme woman, just plain femme woman.

This constant stream of misgendering wear on a soul. The disconnect between what I truly embody and what the world around me sees has become a persistent chip on my shoulder. I can trace some of my introversion and social anxiety right to it. One reason I avoid going to parties because I become so hyper-aware of how the party-goers are reading my body, especially the ones I don’t know. Did the host brief them on my preferred pronouns? Probably not. Is it even reasonable to think they would have done so? I don’t know. And dating. I am poly, and all of my partners date all the time. They are some real Casanovas. But me? I’ve been on a total of maybe four dates the entire time I’ve been poly, and that’s largely because I really don’t want to have to take time out of my life to meet someone new who may or may not have the decency to “get” my gender. I was on a date with a woman, and I was talking about preferred pronouns and my genderqueer identity when she interrupted me to say it sounded to her like I was just a butch feminist. Which…I am butch (sometimes) and I consider myself a feminist, but she’d missed the point by about a mile. Who wants to deal with that? So I avoid parties and dating, and really the people I end up with are those who know me first as a friend and who have respected and validated my gender identity long before things turn more than platonic.

These are illustrations of how difficult I find it to embody and communicate my genderqueerness to the outside world. These are also illustrations of how much I want to be able to do that. But the gender binary is so culturally entrenched that I have not yet found a way to do this. Even dominant narratives about trans* identities are binaristic—MTF, FTM, I was raised Y but I always knew I was X. My own gender is so fluid, so very much a living document that it is not captured by common modern American cultural gender narratives. How do you embody something that has no name?

The deceptively simple answer is that you embody it the same way men embody manhood and women embody womanhood—through manners of speech, body language, how much space you do or don’t take up, which spaces you find yourself in in the first place, and through choices in dress and grooming. Gender is performative, right? We are taught, from an excruciatingly young age, to gender the people around us. We are literally taught to look at one another’s bodies, take stock of them, and plunk them into one of two categories. People look at my body, see what the doctor who delivered me saw, and assign me as female, too. My gender is as performative as anyone else’s (and cis peoples’ gender is as performative of trans* peoples’ even if those cis people don’t see it as such). The problem is that with no name, no category, the message of my performance is so often lost on the audience.

My gender performance includes all of the standard visible and nonvisible tools. It’s about my foul mouth paired with my empathetic assurances that I’m still listening to you. It’s about the way I use my short, smallish body to carelessly take up more space than expected. And it’s also about how I get dressed in the morning. My wardrobe is typically a game of mix-and-match between traditionally masculine and traditionally feminine elements. Suspenders and pencil skirts. A carved-up men’s suit vest over a vintage dress. Button down shirt and trousers, but the trousers are bright pink, that sort of thing. I am all fauxhawked haircuts and bright red lipstick. I telegraph as queer, and I always have, largely due to what has been described to me as a “masculine presence in a feminine body” which is a combination we culturally ascribe to gay women. I feel validated, in part, that it’s so easy to read me as queer regarding my sexuality. I am visible in that sense, and living as a middle-class white person in Denver, CO means that’s not something likely to bring about physical violence. There’s a theoretical proximity of my sexual queerness to my gender queerness that makes me think that someone will eventually “get” me if they’re able to “get” that I’m pansexual. In reality, I think this is an example of the way we, as a society, increasingly conceive of sexuality as something that comes in many variations and flavors but that we conflate gender and sex and see both as fixed and categorical.

All of this is running through my head when I leave my protective bubble at home. I perform my gender quite consciously, trying to guess at what the strangers on how the street are going to perceive me. Usually I’m able to say fuck it and wear whatever feels authentic that day. But, sometimes when I’m getting dressed in the morning I’ll put on a dress. And I’ll love that dress, and I’ll look awesome in it, but I’ll sigh and pull it off again. I’ll pull on a collared shirt and a tie and skinny hipster pants instead. If I wear that dress, I find myself thinking I won’t read as queer at all. Both my gender and sexuality will be washed away. It took me some time, after I came out to my partners as genderqueer, before I started wearing skirts and dresses again.

That internal back-and-forth as made manifest in putting on and taking off that dress is a curious thing. I think about how my privileges play out in this: as a white and no longer poor FAAB nonbinary person, masculinizing my feminine form is less transgressive (and therefore less dangerous) than the same kind of act made by a MAAB trans* person of color. It’s a privilege to want my sexuality and gender understood and validated. It’s a privilege to be able to express even part of that without fear of getting the shit beat out of me. Sometimes I struggle with how to own my privilege and still feel my marginalization at the crux of my gender.

Gender can be both constricting and freeing at the same time; it has the potential to be both oppressive and revolutionary. The only way I’ve ever found to be comfortable in my own skin is by rejecting the gender binary. I see that as an inherently revolutionary act in itself. It’s all so clear to me what and who I am, but something vital always gets lost in transmission. To the cashier at the store I’m still just a muddle, a motley assortment of ‘male’ and ‘female’ that somehow do not make a whole. But it’s also true that it would mean so fucking much to me to be gendered correctly on the first try by a stranger. I think if a coworker referred to as a “they” instead of a “she” or if a cashier at the grocery store called me “mixter” instead of “miss” I would start ugly-sobbing right there. I would feel acknowledged. I would feel dignified. I would feel like I counted. I would, in a word, feel like my gender was real. My gender is real—of course it is, I live it. It’s me. But a thing can be real without it being recognized as such.

On Not “Leaning In”

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I confess I did not come to Sheryl Sandberg’s LEAN IN with the best intentions. I did not come to it in good faith. I had, in fact, been actively avoiding it since it came out a little over a year ago. When my best friend invited me (remotely) to participate in her “lean in” group, I declined. Because of all this, I don’t think it’s really fair for me to review it per se. So, this isn’t really a book review. This is more a manifesto in response to Sandberg’s manifesto.

I read LEAN IN as part of my intentional efforts to live the anti-oppressive beliefs I espouse. I am white, and I try to name and own that privilege as part of making spaces safe and comfortable for the people of color I interact with. And so it happened that in a rare Denver tornado warning I found myself in the basement of my building with a friend and colleague. She is black, and we were meeting specifically about anti-racist work we were doing in-house when the sirens blared. In the basement, we found ourselves cornered by a pair of white women co-workers. Conversation turned to LEAN IN, which the three of them had agreed to read together. The other two women were farther along in the book than my friend. They started chattering about it—about “tiara syndrome” and about “how women really are holding themselves back”—and I watched my friend’s face become a carefully blank slate. I know her well enough to know what signs to watch for when the unbearable whiteness of our work environment begins to really eat at her.

“I’ll read the book,” I said. The words just slipped out of my mouth. My friend cut me a sly look and smirked at the other two.

“Oh, you will?” asked one of the other two.

“Sure. When are y’all trying to have it read by?”

“June 1st,” said the other.

“No problem.” And it wasn’t. As far as I know, I’m the only one of the four of us to have actually finished it.

The security personnel waved us back upstairs. My friend and I hung back and let the other two women disappear into the crowd. We mounted the nine flights of stairs together. “I don’t really want to read that book,” she said. “And I don’t want to read it with them.”

“Yeah, how’d that happen?”

“I just got roped into it. At least if you’re there I won’t be the only one calling bullshit on it.”

Which is why I read it: to call bullshit on it. And that’s what this not-review-sort-of-manifesto-thing is.

***
1. Nothing Ever Trickles Down
Taking career advice from Sheryl Sandberg is about as useful and relevant to me as taking lifestyle advice from Gwyneth Paltrow. LEAN IN is GOOP for career ladies. Throughout, Sandberg admits that her book really is targeted at a specific group of highly ambitious and well-positioned women. She takes a strange position that by helping them specifically—those women who are, quite frankly, the most privileged sector of women—she will somehow spur a movement that helps all of womankind.

This is the same type of trickle-down activism that turned me away from the Occupy movement and marriage equality campaigns. I am not interested in political activism that leaves behind the worst-off. Focusing on the privileged members of a marginalized class has been historically used to divide and conquer, to bait and switch, and to give marginalized people just enough that the most well-connected and wealthy of them stop complaining. The complaints of the most marginalized members of that group are then easily discounted.

The women Sheryl Sandberg is writing for are women like her: the kind that can mobilize a multitude of privileges to get their foot in the door, period. These are women who are probably white, since having a black-sounding name on your resume is likely to keep you from getting hired in the first place. These are women who likely have no physical or mental disabilities, since they’ve typically excelled in school. These are women who are probably straight and partnered, since Sandberg more than once talks about how important it is for her readers’ husbands to lean in to the home and hearth as they themselves lean in to their careers. And they are probably cisgender since not once in 288 pages does Sandberg even acknowledge that trans* folks exist. More on that later, though.

My point here is that I’ve come to see movements that focus on the better-off segments of a fucked group as a waste of time. And this has been, historically speaking, the great weakness of white feminist work—it is another way whiteness supercedes everything else. It is white women (and middle class women, and able-bodied women, and cisgender women) telling everyone else to be patient, that once they’re in power things will be better. And that has never worked. The homeless, the forgotten, the women trapped in spirals of violence and poverty cannot afford to be patient. In the words of the black poet, Pat Parker:

SISTER!, your foot’s smaller
but it’s still on my neck.

There is an ethical breach there. How can Sandberg not see that?

2. Copying the moves of those in power keeps them in power
Largely Sandberg’s tactics consist of telling women (white, able-bodied, wealthy, cis women) to behave more like their male colleagues. Take up more space. Be more confident. Assert yourself. Negotiate harder.

She discusses why this is difficult, drawing on social psychological literature about power and social penalties women face when they do these things.* Her arguments position other women as the key to change here: if women would stop buying into these biases, if women would band together and cut each other breaks, then real change could happen. And maybe she’s a little right, but I think she’s mostly wrong here, too.

True change is not a simple shift in composition. It’s not a matter of more women in power at any cost and executing that power in any way. True change is a matter of fundamentally altering what we socially construct as power, as valuable, as worthy. What she’s preaching here isn’t change. It’s assimilation.

3. Anti-oppression work is intersectional or it is bullshit
That’s the heart of my objection to LEAN IN. Undergirding both Sandberg’s trickle-down strategies and her emphasis on assimilationist tactics is the idea that there exists a universal experience of womanhood. But the universal experience of womanhood is a myth.

Sandberg is pushing women to assimilate to a white masculinity. Women, generally, face social penalties when co-opting hegemonic masculinity, but women of color especially are at a disadvantage here. The social penalties faced by women of color are, across the board, far steeper than those faced by white women. And these tactics are not accessible to all women—embodying traditional masculinity is an especially fraught idea for trans women.

Adding to that is the fact that the women Sandberg is leaving behind with her book are the very ones who, due to structural and systemic oppression, are less likely to be employed at all much less shooting for the C suite. There was no way to translate Sandberg’s “sort of feminist manifesto” to the lives of single mothers, struggling women of color, trans women facing down daily violence, etc.

4. I exist; I resist
I can’t lean in. Truly, I can’t. At work, I am partially out. Thanks to our intersectional existence, there are many different axis along which a person can be out. It took me two years at my place of employment to out myself as having grown up poor, and that was still a pretty safe self-outing. I’m white, and poor white people are seen differently than poor black people. I’m highly educated—a person with a doctorate who grew up poor has “made good.” I’m upward bound. My class background is now little more of a footnote to my coworkers. Flavor text.

To a few at work I’ve outed myself as someone with anxiety and depression. This has happened mostly in the context of work I’ve done supporting students with disabilities, so there were reasons to disclose this, but still there have been raised eyebrows.

But I’m not out as queer. Or poly. Or, most importantly and most well-guarded, as trans*. For my sexuality and family structure, I’m in the glassest of glass closets. I don’t name it, but I don’t hide it, either. A few people know—when asked directly I give a direct answer. But most people at work don’t know. Still, it’s risky: I live in one of the 29 states where you can be fired for being queer.

But my gender. Oh, my hard-won prickly gender. I know I read as butch. And, oddly, sometimes at work someone will refer to me as ‘he’ with a bewildered look on their face as they stand staring at me in a dress. There is, I think, some way I’m telegraphing my transness. But not on purpose. I’ve resigned myself to getting continually, habitually misgendered at work. There is work me—a woman—and there is real me. Comfortable non-binary me. Protections for trans* people are thin on the ground. I would say that my place of employment is fairly queer-friendly, but being LGB friendly in no way means that the T is acceptable. I work in education. I work in central office administration, not directly with children, but the stigma and fear surrounding transgender people is still strong.

I can’t lean in. I can’t risk hustling and making enemies and quitting if it looks like I’m going nowhere. I’m the breadwinner of my family. And I’m on thin ice—queer, trans*, crazy. I have strikes against me. I’m an upwardly mobile, highly educated, conventionally intelligent and successful white person. And Sandberg’s book is not relevant to me. I’m far more privileged than most people, and Sandberg’s book is not relevant to me. It begs the question who stands to gain from her book. How can she foment revolution when she’s only speaking to a handful of people?

*I am, actually, deeply familiar with this literature. I spent a good amount of my grad school career steeped in these theories and did some research on them myself. To her credit, she gets them mostly right, but the limitations of that work and those theories are ultimately what drove me personally from the academy.

Book Review: HOW TO SUPPRESS WOMEN’S WRITING

I cannot tell you how much I love this cover.

I cannot tell you how much I love this cover.

For reasons both good and bad, How To Suppress Women’s Writing by Joanna Russ reads like it could have been written yesterday. Actually, the book is older than me—published in 1983—but Russ’ smirking, clear-eyed perspective is still relevant.

How To Suppress Women’s Writing investigates historical and social reasons that may have kept whole generations of women from writing in the first place (things like differential rates of literacy, disparate access to education, women’s historical lack of leisure time and position as wife as a second work shift). She also interrogates how it is that when women somehow do manage to write that women’s writing is ignored, slandered or undercut. The book was published by the University of Texas Press, which puts it squarely in the realm of academic works, but the writing is colloquial and accessible throughout. You do not need to be steeped in literary criticism or feminist theory to read and understand Russ’ arguments here, which is a great strength*.

She argues that what is considered “good” or “worthy” literature (and by extension, that which is taught and thus survives across generations) is designated as such by privileged groups who have a vested interest in keeping themselves privileged. The ways in which they limit entrance or access to literature are by mental acrobatics such as assuming women writers didn’t really write their works, or that it doesn’t matter if they wrote it because it’s the wrong kind of work, or that maybe they wrote it and maybe it’s good but it’s the only good thing she ever wrote. Some of this is deliberate, but just as much is unconscious bias. Each chapter is broken into one tactic that has been used to suppress women’s writing, and Russ packs her chapters full of anecdotes, survey results, and historical examples to support her claims. And, somehow, she does it with a wry and witty voice that makes the writing lively.

Still, the book is not a perfect one. It’s centered very squarely on white middle class women’s experiences. Russ occasionally throws in an anecdote about her friend and colleague, Samuel Delany, a Black scifi writer, but he himself is tokenized in the doing. Clearly throughout the text she attempts to draw parallels between gendered exclusions in literary circles and race-based exclusions, but Delany pops up over and over again as if he is the only Black writer she knows (and as if Black writers are the only voices who can counterpart the voices of white writers). White lesbian authors pop up far more frequently than writers of color, and women writers of color are virtually never mentioned in the main body of the text. This lack of intersectional focus irked me while I read it—it’s such a good book, and also such a clear example of the failings of second wave feminism. Russ uses the Afterword to acknowledge her failing here, directly addressing her unfamiliarity with and inability to capture the struggles of women writers of color. She talks about stumbling across a beautiful, rich treasure trove of writing by women of color—a parallel canon, as it were—which unintentional struck me as fetishizing and exoticizing of women of color’s experiences.

That said, her idea of a parallel literary tradition is what resonated with me most. The book is predicated on the idea that the established canon should include more women, which yes, it should. But underlying that idea is an assumption that women writers should want to be part of that canon, which I’m not entirely sure is the case for all women writers, or all marginalized writers more broadly. This, again, strikes me as a distinctly white middle class second-wave feminist reaction: when barred entry break through the bars. Personally, when I am turned away from something I return to my community and make a safe space there (be that along class lines, lines of gender or lines of sexuality). I am more interested in creating and participating in alternative literary traditions, exploring what the limits of queer or working class or trans* writing can be, than gaining approval of wealthy cis straight white men. I’m pretty much done trying to impress wealthy cis straight white men.

But (always there’s a but) not everyone has that option. I am not trying to make a living from my writing, but other marginalized people are. And, frankly, to make a living off your writing you still have to impress wealthy cis straight white men to do it because they hold the keys to the kingdom. A quick google search shows that women’s writing is still suppressed a full thirty years after Russ wrote her book:

Unfortunately, the following passage is just as true today as it was when she first published this book:

Women’s lives are the buried truth about men’s lives.

 

The lives of people of color are the buried truth about white lives.

 

The buried truth about the rich is who they take their money from and how.

 

The buried truth about “normal” sexuality is how one kind of sexual expression has been made privileged, and what kinds of unearned virtues and terrors this distinction serves.

 

4/5 stars

*Russ points out in the book that “women always write in the vernacular” and that this difference in language is one way that women’s writing has been historically devalued. The same can be said of the less-educated and working class—a consistent criticism I have and have heard about academia is that it uses language as a barrier to entry and as a membership check. That is, academia trains you to use words like reify and polemic and semiotic and in the doing makes your work utterly unintelligible to people without higher degrees. As someone whose work in graduate school was explicitly focused on class identity, this was a tension I ran into over and over again: how to communicate with the groups I want to communicate with given the resources I suddenly received without speaking “too low” to my adviser and “too school” for my friends and family.

Why A Woman Writing As a Man is Different Than A Man Writing As A Woman

A few weeks ago, Writer’s Digest published an article by James Ziskin titled “Writing Across Gender: How I Learned to Write From a Female POV”. I let this article simmer in my saved folder in Feedly for awhile. I knew I wanted to read it, but I also knew I would Have Words To Say after I’d read it, and I wanted to be in the right headspace to clearly articulate said Words.

James Ziskin has written a novel which features a young woman as its protagonist. “I write like a girl,” he says. “More precisely, I write as a girl.” I have not read Styx and Stone, so I can’t say one way or another if he succeeded in my eyes.

What I can say pretty definitively is that I have a huge amount of skepticism that he truly succeeded. The thing is that it is inherently harder for a man to successfully and authentically write a woman character than for a woman to write a man. This is a product of living in a socially stratified and hierarchical society. My background and training is as a psychological researcher, and much of my research focus on the exploration of power dynamics. There’s a robust finding in social psychology that social status and interpersonal attention are inversely related; that is, the higher up you are on the totem pole, the less you pay attention to other people. Especially those people lower than you on the totem pole.

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Susan Fiske (1993) looked at this specifically in work contexts: an employee pays a whole lot of attention to their manager, but their manager typically pays little attention to them. We’ve all been there, right? You know how your boss takes their coffee, what it means when they get fidgety. You can predict how that meeting will go simply by the way they walk over to your cubicle. But your manager probably knows little about you—they don’t even know if you drink coffee, period, much less how you take it.

This finding has been extended to look at how the use of social power changes the way people attend to others and whether those using power can take people’s perspective. Guess what? The use of power tends to turn people away from thinking about how those around them feel, or how their actions might affect others (Galinsky et al., 2006).

What does all this have to do with Ziskin’s article? Well, the thing is that power is not only used in the workplace. Power is ubiquitous and nebulous. It’s a chameleon that manifests differently in the various domains in which we live—we experience, submit to and use power in our personal lives, with strangers, in schools, etc. It’s no stretch to map these findings onto society writ large; if we think of social status as markers of privileged identities, then the reasons why I am so skeptical of Ziskin start to get clearer.

I am a Female Assigned At Birth genderqueer person, which means that I was born what the medical establishment considered female and was raised as a girl. I am read by virtually everyone I meet as a woman; I am not physically androgynous though my gender presentation is all over the map. I have an authentic, if atypical, insight into what it is to be a woman in modern American society. I will posit that Ziskin does not.

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A really big part of being a woman is learning to pay lots and lots of attention to the men around you. You learn that very early on—men are more likely than you to have wealth and opportunities and as such are usually the gatekeepers to you yourself getting access to those opportunities. Men are potentially dangerous (if you have not already, please read Schrodinger’s Rapist ). As a woman you have to learn to read men’s moods and be able to predict their actions with a fairly high level of accuracy. It’s not all that different than an underling knowing what kind of coffee their boss likes—in each case, noticing all the little things that can predict the bigger actions is important. Knowing how someone who has power over you is going to use that power is a necessary skill. It can, quite literally, be a matter of survival.

I should say here that I think this framing of social dynamics is an inherent part of the tension between marginalization and privilege. It is, in fact, a mechanism that helps to create and reproduce marginalization and privilege. What I mean to say that I think this dynamic where the marginalized has to know and understand the privileged better than the privileged ever know the marginalized is a common element of oppression. We have a lot of different ways of coding this: code-switching, being stealth, staying in the closet are all examples of marginalized people learning the way the privileged act and mimicking that in order to stay afloat.

But what does this mean for writers? It means that no one writes in a vacuum. It means that all of this happens through socialization and internalization of norms and perceptions that don’t disappear just because you’ve decided to tell a story. It means that no one writes from a place of objectivity; nor should they. It means when Ziskin sits down to write as Ellie Stone he does so having lived as a man in a society that privileges men over women. In essence, he is writing right into his own blind spots. Now, again, I haven’t read his book. But in the article he’s penned, he describes his heroine this way:

Ellie Stone is a self-described “modern girl” in 1960′s New York. In the days before feminism, she plays like a man, but make no mistake: she’s all woman. A Barnard graduate from a cultured family, she’s determined to have a career that doesn’t involve fetching coffee for a boss who pats her rear end when she’s done a good job. Or even when she hasn’t. She’s a realist, though, aware that a woman can go only so far in a man’s world, so she accepts a lowly position as a fledgling reporter for a small upstate daily. Her beat includes Knights of Columbus Ladies’ Auxiliary meetings and high school basketball games. But Ellie’s the smartest person in the room, a quick wit, and one of the fellas when it comes to holding her drink. She’d better be able to hold her drink, or be prepared to defend her honor.

If this is at all indicative of how Ziskin writes Ellie Stone in his novel than I would wager that he is not successful in his endeavor to “write as a girl.” This reads as a what a man thinks a woman thinks like. Over and over in this short block of text he asserts patriarchal dominance. He falls into the trap of going out of his way to assert her as beautiful. He mentions in an off-handed way that she deals with sexual harassment and possible sexual assault but the deep-bred visceral fear these interactions bring up in most of us who live as or are read as women is missing. I am also curious as to what he means by “she plays like a man…[but] she’s all woman.” The only way I can understand this is through gendered binaries of what women do and what women are like imposed by men—which are sometimes accurate due to patriarchal restrictions but often are just plain wrong. In short, Ellie Stone may very well end up a cipher; a set-back-then-when-men-were-men-and-women-were-women version of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl .

This isn’t entirely Ziskin’s fault, though I do think it’s an act of eyebrow-raising hubris that he feels so very comfortable writing women that he has proclaimed himself a master at it in a widely-read high-profile blog. The thing is that Ziskin can’t write Ellie Stone authentically because he literally does not know what would make her authentic. He hasn’t lived it. He doesn’t understand male privilege enough to know when to check himself in the writing and when to reassess his own writerly instincts.

I did some thinking after reading Ziskin’s article. I can name, easily, a number of women writers who I think have successfully captured a male voice—Ursula K. Le Guin comes immediately to mind, as does Susannah Clarke. Agatha Christie. J.K. Rowling. Margaret Atwood. Virginia Woolf. Flannery O’Connor. It is much harder for me to think of the reverse. Phillip Pullman does, for the most part, an excellent job with Sally Lockhart. I recently reread Mieville’s Embassytown, and I’m again impressed by his female lead. And that’s all I could think of on my own. I fielded the question to some of my women friends who are voracious readers, and I got Sally Lockhart again and Lyra from His Dark Materials. So, well done, Philip Pullman! Another suggested the lead in John C. Wright’s Orphans of Chaos, which I have not read, but which she says can still be read as problematic. A friend also cited Hopeful Monsters which I have not read and she says is pretty obscure. And that’s all we got. Five of us wracking our brains—brains that hold massive libraries—and that’s all we got. My point is not that it can’t be done, but that for a person with privilege to write a person marginalized along that same axis is extremely difficult. Mr. Pullman might as well be a unicorn.

And I don’t mean to vilify Ziskin. I am, I will admit, irked at the arrogance it takes to declare yourself successful at this, but, again, this isn’t really about him. It’s about how we don’t write anything in a vacuum and how every single word we write and choice we make as writers is informed by the lives we have led. A couple of months ago I had this wonderful idea for a book—the kind of idea that makes you feel high when it comes to you, truly inspired. The kind of idea that comes to you so perfectly and fully formed that it feels like you could write the whole damn novel in one go and you search desperately for the closest keyboard. I was about to launch in on it…

…and I stopped. Because the lead character was a black woman living in Baltimore just after the Civil War. And I just…I had to take a deep breath and put the idea on hold because I cannot speak to that character’s experience authentically. I can’t. I have some understanding of some of the issues facing the Black community in an intellectualized and abstracted academic way but I am in no way a part of that world. I am a well-meaning White person, and I had to check myself because the world does not need another well-meaning White person writing about the Black experience like they know anything about it. If I ever do write that book, it will be after a dissertation’s worth of research and even then it might never see the light of day. I have written about racial oppression before, but only in secondary fantasy contexts where the oppression doesn’t reflect the real histories of people whose voices are already silenced. And even then I get pangs of worry that I’ve overstepped my bounds, that I’ve been disrespectful and appropriative in presuming to know how that might feel to live through.

I guess to wrap up I would say this: not only is it inherently difficult to write about a person who is marginalized by privileges you hold, but I don’t think it’s appropriate, either. We have plenty of male writers writing women’s stories; we could use more women writing women’s stories. We have plenty of White people (like me) writing Black people’s stories; we would do better to shut up and hand the mic over to Black people, to step aside and let them tell their stories instead.

I don’t believe Ziskin can write as a girl. I don’t believe he should.

Cited:
Fiske, S. (1993). Controlling other people: The impact of power on stereotyping, American Psychologist, 48, 621-628.

Galinsky, A., Magee, J., Insei, M., & Gruenfeld, D. (2006). Power and perspectives not taken. Psychological Science, 17, 1068-1074.