What does it mean to write like a girl?

by Rebecca Lehmann on March 20, 2011

Simone de Beauvoir, photo by Gisele Freund, courtesy Willy Brandt Haus

In light of the VIDA count, and the LA Times’ snafu of posting a picture of Jonathan Franzen in an article re: the winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award, Jennifer Egan, under the heading “Egan Beats Franzen in National Book Critics Circle’s fiction prize,” I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it means to write like a girl.

In both of these recent stories, the issue of girlness, or what it means to write “like a girl,” takes center stage. The VIDA count revealed major gender disparity in content published in top literary journals and book reviews, and the LA Times’ heading and article had a not-so-subtle undercurrent of “Jonathan Franzen beat by girl.”

As we can all remember from our days in primary school, for a boy to be beat by a girl is a major upset. It means he not only performed poorly, but so poorly that a girl, a member of the weaker sex, could pummel him. In primary school, to do almost anything “like a girl” means to do it in a subpar or embarrassing mann er. Visit any elementary school playground and you’ll hear little boys ridiculing each other with epithets like, “You throw like a girl,” or “You run like a girl,” or “Stop crying like a girl.” In middle school, high school, college and beyond, the more colorful “like a pussy” is often substituted, but the meaning is the same. The message here is that to be female is to be physically inept and emotionally volatile.

I wonder about this equation of femaleness with ineptitude or emotional chaos, particularly in relation to the VIDA count. What caused the gender disparity revealed by the count? Certainly, in the case of the book reviews, one could speculate that there’s an element of very overt gender discrimination. Editor of X publication has so many books to review per issue, and chooses (consciously or not) to review more men than women. In the case of published books, it’s easy to tell the gender of the author, and easy to pick male authors over female to be reviewed. In the case of literary content (poems and stories published), the issue becomes trickier. It is often possible to tell the gender of the author of a piece of writing on the slush pile by looking at the author’s name, but I wonder if there aren’t other markers identifying female writing.

I wonder what those are, and I wonder why they are so often interpreted as “less than.” Certainly there are some instant tells that can reveal an author as female. For instance, if you can’t guess that Anne Sexton is a woman, her poem “Menstruation at Forty” is a pretty obvious tell. Similarly, women writing about themes like childbirth, infant care, or the bounciness of their breasts while jogging are easily made as women authors.

But are there more subtle tells ? I was out with a good poet friend a couple of weeks ago, who told me that one of the reasons she thinks she’s had a lot of success publishing is because she (self-described) writes like a man. I had to wonder what that means. Is there something essentially male about the writing of Franzen’s Freedom, for instance, that readers find more appealing, or familiar, or less threatening ? If so, what is it? French literary theorist Helene Cixous asserted in her essay “The Laugh of the Medusa” that women should break away from the phallogocentric, linear narrative, and shoot for a more circular, disjunctive, “feminine” writing (l’ecriture feminine). Luce Irigaray in “The Sex Which is Not One” makes similar claims, again relating writing styles to genitalia (vulva = circular, multiple, non-linear writing, penis = linear, penetrative writing). Cixous writes of the woman who ascribes to masculine styles of phallogocentric writing that she “cuts herself out a paper penis.”

I’m hesistant to accept these analyses though, because I think they reinscribe notions of women as fractured, emotionally driven (“Stop crying like a girl”) beings incapable of operating in a linear fashion (“You throw like a girl”), and consigned instead to the realm of the disparate, the disjunctive, the associative, the intuitive (“Mrs. Dalloway, you run like a girl.”).

As a poet I think about this a lot because poetry is particularly open to the sort of circular, “feminine” writing Cixous describes. Furthermore, my writing is often disjunctive (but then so is Paul Celan’s, and so is Charles Berstein’s, and so is Nathanial Mackey’s). Which leaves me really hating the way that styles of doing anything, but particularly of writing, are gendered. Am I revealing myself as a non-essentialist, Judith Butler toting, feminist theorist? Maybe. Am I cribbing from my dissertation prospectus ? Definitely. But my point: maybe if we stopped trying to assign gender to all sorts of activities and ways of doing things, if we allowed people and their works (their writings, their athletic achievements, their ways of showing emotions) to just be, instead of being “like a man/boy” or “like a woman/girl,” we’d be closer to root of gender disparity, the insistent splitting of humanity into discrete genders, and we’d be helping to begin to eradicate gender discrimination.

Jerry Brunoe March 20, 2011 at 7:01 pm

Rebecca,

Please refrain from whining like a girl, but continue writing like one. To encourage your writings, which I adored after my google attempts leading me to the Iowa Review and a couple other pit stops, circular fashion is often the most rewarding poems. “For instance, writing, one places words in sequential order and the poem in moves in time. But linear time is not what one is after.” wrote Charles Simic. He went on to mention that a poem is trying create time, destroy time, and transcend time all within the same poem—that the best poems immediately collapse a readers mind and make it return to the beginning of poem at the ending each reading.

Why should you stop whining? You haven’t experienced that disparity as a Black woman, a latina, or as a Native American women. Phillip Levine once said, “They (Blacks, Chicanos, Native Americans) endured a school system which conspired, I think consciously, to tell them they could not write and even if they could learn to write they wouldn’t write anything sophisticated or interesting enough to ever please this tremendous audience… In fact, they were told they were illiterate.”

Imagine that hurdle? What would your subjects be limited to then? I have that same problem as a writer. Native American magazines won’t give me a second glance because I failed to mention frybread, salmon, the forgotten genocide, or the holiest of holy–powwows. Many whites will pat my head and say good job Native American Poet, but the subjects love, death, and the holiest of holy–Greco-Roman–subjects are off limits to you. I can plead my case all I want. I can quote any rhetorician from Gorgias and the Sophists, to Cicero and Quintillian, and all the way up through Gloria Anzadula but no one will budge.

So, yes, please quit crying like a girl, but for the love of god, please don’t stop writing like one.

Jerry.

Jerry Brunoe March 20, 2011 at 7:02 pm

*Woman, not women.

Rebecca Lehmann March 20, 2011 at 7:45 pm

Hi Jerry,

Thanks for the response. You bring up several good points. I don’t know what it’s like to be a woman + additional non-hegemonic cultural subset (African American, Native America, Latina, gay, for instance). I can only imagine the additional challenges faced when trying to write good work, plus deal with another set of limiting stereotypes. I think that in the same way that calling certain types of writing (disjunctive, circular writing) “feminine” is reductive, so are expectations that because you are Native American, you will write about salmon, frybread, powwows, etc., and nothing else. How ridiculous!

I’ll also say that as much as I’m philosophically opposed to the idea of “l’ecriture feminine,” the idea that circular or disjointed writing is inherently feminine (which to me reinforces stereotypes of women as overly emotional scatterbrains), I love, love, love disjunctive, circular writing. I just think that we should refrain from slapping gender labels on things (like styles of writing) which aren’t gendered.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go watch Beaches and have a good cry.

Ardee-ann Eichelmann March 23, 2011 at 12:19 pm

Thanks for a GREAT blog post, I really enjoyed it. I write like a girl and I like it. I write about female issues and to me it helps define how I think, feel and act. It is all on paper and that is just fine. I am glad to be me and that means celebrating my “female-ness!”

Cheers,

Ardee-ann

Cynthia March 23, 2011 at 12:42 pm

Mr. Brunoe,

You want to whine that you have it worse, being required to write about powwows and forgotten genecides. You seem to miss the point. Writing styles have nothing to do with gender. Writing topics also have noting to do with genetic code. If a problem is not exposed, the problem can not be solved. The problem of discriminatinating in favor of male writers persists. Even in theater, where folk tend to pride themselves for their open minds and free thinking, only 17 percent of scripts produced are written by women. Are differences in writing style inherent to the different genders, beyond the chick lit-dick lit polarization? If the name calling is stopped and each piece of writing is considered on its own merits, writing styles will be seen for what creates them: schooling, world view, and individual proclivity. “Shut-up and put-up” (that is, “stop whining” and keep your place) is something women are asked to do that never did work, as you have found as you try to write of Cirero and are told to scribble about fried bread.

Cynthia Newberry Martin March 23, 2011 at 2:44 pm

I second this, with a particular nod to If a problem is not exposed, the problem cannot be solved.

Rebecca, great post.

Jerry Brunoe March 23, 2011 at 3:02 pm

A. I never said to “keep your place”, as much as I encouraged her to continue to write in her circular and disjunctive form of poetry. And then, I quoted Simic to say, “Yes, that is the style of writing one should go after.”

B. I then used minority races oppressed by the United States Government and it’s citizens to parallel the disposition of women. Yes, I said it is worse for the women of those races, because frankly, that is the case.

Cynthia March 23, 2011 at 6:49 pm

To understand how your opening statement, “Please refrain from whining like a girl, but continue writing like one,” is very much a version of “Shut up and put up,” let’s play with the phrasing:
Please refrain form whining like a boy, but continue writing like a girl.
Please refrain form whining like a man, but continue writing like a girl.
Please refrain form whining like a boy, but continue writing like one.
Please refrain form whining like a girl, but continue writing like a man.
Please refrain form whining like a man, but continue writing like a woman.
Use of “girl” is pejorative when one is discussing elite prizes being won by women.

While you used the case of women of different races and cultures than those of Rebecca Lehmann’s race and culture suffering worse discrimination than she does, you did implie that you yourself is someone suffering worse discrimination than she. As a side note, though caucasion women in the US suffer less discrimination than women of other races and cultures, Miami is an exception. With at least 80% of the population of Miami being Latin, caucasion, non-Latin women suffer more discrimination than Latin women do.

It’s great you like Ms. Lehmann’s writing, but praising it with pejorative terminology, “whining,” “girl,” when she is trying to explain that she has a preference for a writing style not because she is an emotional, irrational, immature, child but because she likes it, shows you miss the point.

Jerry Brunoe March 23, 2011 at 10:52 pm

No, I didn’t.

Rebecca Lehmann March 24, 2011 at 6:55 am

I think that the point Jerry was trying to raise was that gender discrimination becomes more complicated when it is bisected by racial discrimination. While gender discrimination and race discrimination are different, they share some common denominators. One big one is that both of these forms of discrimination stem from derivation from the supposed “mythic norm,” as proposed by self-described “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet” Audre Lorde. The “mythic norm” is the idea that there is this supposed un-marked “normal” American walking around whom we all think of as representing a more American American than others. The “mythic norm” is a white, Anglo-Saxon, straight, wealthy, thin, young, male protestant. Anyone who deviates from this “norm” is marked. Hence demarcations like “woman author,” or “Native American,” or “African American” or “Lesbian African American,” or “Jewish American,” or “Muslim American.” The “mythic” part of the “mythic norm” is that that wealthy, straight, thin, male WASP actually represents a minority of the American population. And yet, on a hegemonic level, those very specific characteristics are still conceptualized as “normal,” and anything deviating from them as “different.” In that way, race discrimination and gender discrimination both stem from the idea of difference, and the stereotypes that accumulate from being different, in one way or another, from the supposed “norm.”

Cynthia, I appreciated your pointing out that “whining like a girl” is another instance of women being told to shut up, or to stop whining, or, to quote the Madmen character Don Draper, “Calm down. Take a pill and go to bed.” It is. Thank you for saying it. However, I assumed that Jerry was being sarcastic/playful in that phrasing. Maybe he was, maybe he wasn’t. I don’t know.

But I do think that rather than arguing over who has it worse, disenfranchised groups of people would do well to band together, to acknowledge ways in which their experiences differ. Do black women, for instance, face more discrimination than white women? Abso-fricking-lutely. Does that mean that women (and men) across races can’t work together for gender parity? Abso-fricking-lutely not. It’s naive to imagine a world that is color-blind, or gender-blind, but it’s not naive to try to raise awareness of issues that create inequality, and try to rectify the causes of those inequalities.

One final note: the VIDA count pointed out very tangible, very marked gender discrimination in the world of publishing. As in, women are published and reviewed way less often in many major magazines. While the VIDA count did not take into consideration race, I’d be interested to see a similar count that runs those figures. Is there already one out there? Anybody know?

Rebecca Lehmann March 24, 2011 at 6:59 am

And I’ll add, to my second to last paragraph, that women and men across races can, and should, also work together for racial equality.

Kate Barsotti March 24, 2011 at 8:40 am

Hmm. A good story is a good story. Women and men, as a generalization, may focus on different things to write about, but I don’t think gender is a restriction on style or experimentation. If you stripped out author names, and just gave me paragraphs, I would not be able to guess the gender or race of the writer with infallibility. I might be able to guess based on subject, but that’s a kind of stereotype. The gift of writing is being able to be a chameleon.

The attitude of the literary establishment is, however, depressing. Best to do what minorities have nearly always done: ignore the bastards. Go right to your audience and your work.

Cynthia March 24, 2011 at 11:46 am

As you say, Rebecca, it isn’t a competition of who is the most discriminated against although there sadly is a pecking order among those discriminated agaisnt. Speaking up about the deleterious effects of discrimination, comparing notes (as it were), strategizing how to stop it, and taking concrete steps to halt it do need to be a unified effort of all those discriminated against plus the mythic norm guys. There is a terrific article by Katha Pollitt, “The Lack of Female Bylines in Magazines Is Old News” about the VIDA tally of male and female bylines. (URL below) Pollitt writes of the mythic norm guys’ strange problem with quantifying–one third women equals one half women, one half women equals two-thirds women. I have found this failure to grasp quantification by the mythic norm guys in my personal life. An actor and I were discussing why we had stopped pursuing acting. I mentioned how the vast majority of the roles are for men while the vast majority of those auditioning are women, and the women are, generally, vastly more qualified, so many of them having grown up taking dance classes or singing lessons. The mythic norm guys, as a rule, do not grow up taking ballet classes. The actor (a mythic norm guy, except for the riches) said that this had not been his experience. I asked him if he had ever just looked around during a cattle call to see who was in line to audition. Just as there is a discrimination problem in the publishing world against the non-mythic-normers, the disparity of women playwrights to men is vast. Indeed, “To help call attention to the lack of parity in productions between male and female playwrights, nytheatre.com has committed to reviewing as many shows by women as by men this year.” Their count so far is:

Number of shows by men that we’ve listed on nytheatre.com so far in the 2011-2012 season: 1505
Number of shows by women that we’ve listed on nytheatre.com so far in the 2011-2012 season: 490
Number of shows by men that we’ve reviewed on nytheatre.com so far in the 2011-2012 season: 536
Number of shows by women that we’ve reviewed on nytheatre.com so far in the 2011-2012 season: 208

The two web pages to which I refer are:

http://www.slate.com/id/2284680/pagenum/all/
http://www.nytheatre.com/listings.aspx?t=bywomen

PS: Regarding blogging etiquette, it seems the practice is to use first names even for the first address of a stranger? Is this the case?

Jerry Brunoe March 24, 2011 at 5:16 pm

Yes, Rebecca, that was basically what I was going for…

🙂

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