Lately I’ve been considering admitting defeat. I’m tired of being a woman writer. As Ursula Le Guin says at her acerbic best:
‘A writer knows which side his bread is buttered on.’ That’s me, the writer, him. I am a man. Not maybe a first-rate man. I’m perfectly willing to admit that I may be in fact a kind of second-rate or imitation man, a Pretend-a-Him. As a him, I am to a genuine male him as a microwaved fish stick is to a whole grilled Chinook salmon … I am at best a bad man. An imitation phony second-rate him with a ten-hair beard and semicolons.
All my life, I’ve been a pretend man. I thought I was a person, like the other seven billion people on the planet, and although I’ve always been aware that being a person of a female persuasion is sometimes tricky, I also thought that my sex was irrelevant to my personhood, especially if I wasn’t personally present to affirm it.
Even as a child, I figured that the empty page is an equal opportunity space. Like all those other real men writers, I don’t need to be tall or to possess bulging muscles. I don’t even need a penis in order to collect my thoughts into coherent sentences. I thought I could just imagine stuff and think about my world and write it down, like all the other writers. But I was wrong.
I’ve had to finally admit to myself that real writing is still manly. Women have always written their woman stuff, but it’s still, simply by virtue of being woman stuff written by women, just not as important as stuff that men write.
Yes, being a writer is hard for everybody. Even manly writers have to struggle, as you can confirm by reading their numerous biographies. And yes, these days women are not entirely absent from serious book pages, especially if we’re white. But even with the right Anglo name and skin colour, it’s harder for women to get published and it’s harder to get reviewed.
As the 2014 Stella Count shows, possessing a penis becomes more important as reviews go up in status: in most Australian newspapers, no matter what their gender split, long, serious reviews are more than three times more likely to be of books by men than by women. And this structural bias is considerably worse if you’re a woman writer of colour, as demonstrated by the first VIDA Women of Colour Count.
It’s not just a question of representation. It turns out that writerly authority and writerly status isn’t just overwhelmingly male, it’s overwhelmingly white. Having a female name means you are framed and read differently. If you’re a man, you can write about women and be lauded for your literary imagination: think Emma Bovary, or Anna Karenina. But if you write about women as a woman, no matter how well you do so, you will still be castigated for not writing about men. As a reviewer in the Sydney Morning Herald said of Elena Ferrante’s most recent book only this month: ‘How much better would these books be if Ferrante had paid more than lip-service to the men?’
We’re so used to seeing male names dominating everything – in our newspapers, female journalists account for only 31 per cent of bylines, and the representation of women in movies has barely changed for half a century – that anything not centred on white manliness just seems plain weird. It’s ‘marginal’, ‘special interest’, a ‘minority’ concern. It’s, well, not that important. Yes, yes, yes, we may cast a brief glance. But what does the white man say?
What’s worse, many people can’t even perceive what equality is. The gender representation women are allowed across professions, extending even to Hollywood crowd scenes, is surprisingly consistent: it’s 17 per cent. As Geena Davis points out, ‘If there’s 17 percent women, the men in the group think it’s 50-50. And if there’s 33 percent women, the men perceive that as there being more women in the room than men.’ The merest adjustment towards equity, even if it still remains inequitable, is perceived as feminine dominance.
But here I go again, collating evidence that structural inequality exists. I don’t need any more evidence. I see more evidence every day. Every day I see how people who are female, or poor, or disabled, or differently sexed, or the wrong skin colour, are carefully filtered out of our white, manly, heterosexual culture. And after decades of being a woman, I’m a bit tired of it all. I’m tired of arguing. I give up. From now on, I’m going to be a real man.
Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.
Subscribe | Renew | Donate November 9–16 to support progressive literary culture for another year – and for the chance to win magnificent prizes!