When a Woman Does It

There has been a lot of chatter on Twitter lately about the role of gender in YA books. On one hand, women writers and female-centric books dominate the YA market. (An interesting phenomenon given the “general knowledge” that a girl will read a book by or about any gender, but most boys will only read books about–or sometimes by–males.)

On the other, there’s still a lot of sexism. Female characters are held to ridiculous standards (especially by female readers!) and vilified for having faults. In YA fiction, as in adult fiction, male writers are showered with praise and awards while comparable books written by female writers are not. Year after year, critics “best of” lists are all about the men. In that post, critic Lizzy Skurnick writes:

I got a glimmer of an answer last year as I sat in a board room hashing out the winners for one of the awards for which I am a judge. Our short list was pretty much split evenly along gender lines. But as we went through each category, a pattern emerged. Some books, it seemed, were “ambitious.” Others were well-wrought, but somehow . . . “small.” “Domestic.” “Unam –” what’s the word? “– bititous.”

Oh, those damn scribbling women and their little domestic novels!

A few months ago, I visited the Jane Austen exhibit at the Morgan Library in New York City. The exhibit displayed some of Austen’s letters, first editions of her works, things like that. But the exhibit that stuck with me the longest was on on Nabokov. Seems he wasn’t such a fan of Jane (along with Emerson, Twain, and other males):

“I dislike Jane, and I am prejudiced, in fact, against all women writers. They are in another class. Could never see anything in Pride and Prejudice.”

He was called out by Edmund Wilson, a famous literary critic. Great, huh? Well, wait until you see the manner of the calling-out:

“You are mistaken about Jane Austin. I think you ought to read Mansfield Park. Her greatness is due precisely to the fact that her attitude toward her work is like that of a man, that is, of an artist, and quite unlike that of the typical women novelist, who exploits her feminine day dreams . . . She is, in my opinion, one of the half dozen greatest English writers.”

So she’s good, but only because she writes like a man. Astounding, huh? Because no male writer (and certainly not Nabokov), ever made a great work of literature out of exploiting his own daydreams. Right? Anyway, Nabokov revisited Austen, found an appreciation for Mansfield Park, and proceeded to teach it in his lit classes at Cornell. All’s well that ends well, I suppose.

As I said in yesterday’s post, I watched the new PBS version of Emma. I have to say it won me over in the end, but only because I am a sucker for the proposal scene and the way the two characters, who have had such an unequal relationship throughout the entire book come together in a moment of true mutual respect. Yes, it’s due to a big misunderstanding, but it’s quite moving, and it makes you realize that when they are married, he won’t treat her like the child he spent the first half of the book treating her as.

But I digress. My point here is that each episode of the mini-series began with actress Laura Linney addressing the screen and lecturing: “Is Jane Austen too ordinary and narrow for today?” she asks us. Linney’s point turns out to be that Emma Woodhouse is not Harry Potter or Edward Cullen or Wolverine. That she’s just a normal human with normal flaws. (Those magical guys all have “normal flaws” too, though.) However, the use of the word “narrow” is suspect. Ordinary? Fine. But narrow far too closely echoes another famous critic of Austen’s, Ralph Waldo Emerson:

I am at a loss to understand why people hold Miss Austen’s novels at so high a rate, which seems to me vulgar in tone, sterile in artistic invention, imprisoned in their wretched conventions of English society, without genius, wit, or knowledge of the world. Never was life so pinched and narrow. The one problem in the mind of the writer is . . . marriageableness . . . Suicide is more respectable.

Oh, Ralph, tell us how you really feel!

It must be nice to live in a world where your options are wider than “marriageableness” or not. I feel like Emerson must have read the first line of Pride & Prejudice, took it at face value, and then went for a walk in the woods. The women in Austen are concerned about marriage because marriage was the only “business” they were allowed to conduct. And Austen’s characters do in fact realize the folly of bad marriages. Elizabeth Bennet would rather risk the kind of poverty that ends up befalling the Dashwoods than wed Mr. Collins. Her friend Charlotte decides that the stigma of being an old maid rates higher on the humiliation scale than that of being married to a fool with good prospects. In Austen’s novels, the onset of love goes hand in hand with the onset of respect. They are romantic within the realm of practicality. Talk about a woman’s daydream! Those were high hopes for the 18th century gal. (And if you want to read about how easily it can all go wrong, check out Millenium Hall by Sarah Scott.)

So Austen is narrow. But it doesn’t stop in the 18th century. I recently read a New York Times profile of the writer/director/producer Nancy Meyers. Meyers is famous for her women-focused domestic comedies. She writes about affluent women and their families and their romances. Sounding familiar? Something’s Gotta Give, The Holiday, It’s Complicated — these are hers. The first page of the long article is devoted to talking about how Meyers was asked to move from her table at a tony LA restaurant. Ha, see? Even powerful Hollywood moguls get no respect — you know, if they’re women.

Then the writer goes on to talk about how important and influential and successful Meyers is — never letting go of the fact that gosh, it’s hard since she’s a chick. In response to a complain about the number of takes she likes to do of every scene, her (male) agent is quoted as saying there wouldn’t be a complaint if Nancy was Mike Nichols. And gosh, Jack Nicholson respects her, too! I especially loved this bit:

It would be tempting to attribute Meyers’s uninflated manner to her being female — to having been trained from birth in the art of the soft sell — except for the fact that she is more straightforward than girlish, more clear than coy. “She’s just really smart and doesn’t seem to be impeded by all the weirdness that everyone brings to whichever gender they are,” says Helen Hunt, who starred in “What Women Want.”

In other words, just because she’s powerful, don’t fear that she’s that horrible, aggressive kind of female. Don’t fear that she’s a bitch.

Later, the writer, Daphne Merkin, calls Meyers’s women-centric, romantic films “retro” and “post-feminist” — tags I find rather shocking. Because they are romantic? The women in Meyers’s films are successful and (usually) wealthy from their own accomplishments. Diane Keaton’s character in Something’s Gotta Give is a hit playwright with a tenured professor (in Women’s Studies, yet!) for a sister. Cameron Diaz’s character in Holiday owns her own movie trailer production company (and a mansion in Beverly Hills). Diaz puts it bluntly in that film when she tells Jude Law’s single-dad character that she feels comfortable telling him about her success because she knows he won’t be intimidated, having been raised by a mother who was a high level executive editor at Random House. The romantic elements of the film do not detract from the feminist ones.

And the writer momentarily agrees:

“These women are self-sufficient and notably energetic. They may not have men, at least when we first meet them, but they make do with friends and children and siblings, for whom they whip up tasty dinners and homemade pies and laugh over their own situations. When men do appear on the scene, whether in the form of a babe-chasing player like Jack Nicholson’s Harry or Alec Baldwin’s renewedly impassioned Jake (or Dennis Quaid’s Nick Parker in “The Parent Trap,” for that matter), they awaken dormant desires that nevertheless have to be fit into pre-existing, busy lives.”

But then she spends a few pages obsessing over the filmaker’s focus on set dressings. She criticizes the thread count in the upholstery as being needlessly lush and overindulgent. Let us unpack the following quote:

“Whether her insistence on “softening the message” [Meyer’s quote, which I for one believe was taken out of context] through plush surroundings ultimately weakens the films — renders them more glossy and insular than they need be, even for a genre that is inherently fizzy — is a question I have debated with myself and others.”

So, because women-centric romantic comedies are “inherently fizzy” we should make doubly sure to grit them up in a visual sense? I wonder how many other filmmakers are asked not to put their characters in fancy cars or film in exotic locales in order to, you know, make something real. These damn domestic female stories!

“At worst, her films can give off an air of tidy unreality — and it is this unexamined aspect, I think, this failure to even hint at darkness, that most fuels critical ire. Richard Schickel condemns Meyers with faint praise, hinting that she and the studios have struck a devil’s pact of sorts. “Clearly there is an audience for sweet little middle-class romances of the kind she makes, and it pleases the studios to indulge a woman, whom they would not trust with more vigorous projects. It’s as if they’re trying to say: ‘Hey, we’re not sexists. We make Nancy Meyers movies.’ ””

“Sweet little middle class romances.” (First of all, anyone who lives in a house like the Hamptons mansion in Something’s Gotta Give is NOT middle class, fwiw.) But can’t you just hear Emerson’s or Nabokov’s dismissal of Austen in those words? Can’t you hear the dismissal of that roomful of critics deciding on literary awards? Why is domestic a dirty word? Why is a character driven movie about a successful person dealing with their personal lives a Best Picture nominee if it stars George Clooney, but not if it stars Meryl Streep? I think I’m inclined to agree with Meyer’s agent. An article like this would never be written if Nancy was Ned.

I leave you with this (there’s a little bit of language at the end):

Posted in Austen, biz, feminism, movies, other writers

24 Responses to When a Woman Does It

  1. JJ says:

    Great post, Diana.

    I am sick and tired of having to defend my love of Jane Austen. I hate that I even have to. Whenever I list her as one of my favourite authors, a lot of my more snobbish literary friends always look disdainfully down their noses and say dismissively, “She’s just a 19th century chick lit writer.” And then they look at me strangely and go, “But you’re so not a chick lit type of person.”

    Excuse me while I have a rage fit.

    Can we not discuss how Jane Austen is the premier writer in English literature to have refined the use of free indirect discourse? The technique employed by James Joyce in his most perfect short story “The Dead”? Can we also discuss her wit, her use of irony, and her incredibly satirical eye for the more ridiculous characters in society? When men write satires of society, they’re called “novels of manners” but when women do it? Pfah.

    No, because she wrote about women and marriage, she’s immediately labeled a “19th century chick lit writer.” Ugh. %#$@$^&!!!!!1one I have no words for my rage. THESE FRIENDS SHOULD KNOW BETTER. THEY ALL TOOK THE SAME LITERATURE COURSES AS ME, DIDN’T THEY? Can we also talk about Samuel Richardson? Clarissa, anyone? As sentimental and maudlin as anything I’ve ever read, but no one trivializes HIM.

    Granted, I’m not a reader of commercial women’s fiction; I prefer fantasy/scifi, gothic fiction, and magical realism, but what is a “type of girl who reads chick lit” anyway? Can someone please define that for me?

    Okay, I will hereby end my rant before I take over your comments page. 🙂

  2. Teri Brown says:

    Well written, smart and funny. All the things you are.


  3. Mary Pearson says:

    Brilliant and spot on. Thank you.

  4. Phoebe says:

    This is terrific–thank you!

  5. Pam says:

    Ha! It seems appropriate that the word verification I get here is Cloisters…anyhoo

    I blog about YA, and I am giving a go at writing my first YA. I have been told by many writers to put my work through a gender translator. It was kinda funny when I put my prologue to the book I am writing in, it can’t decide if I am male or female. When I put a review in, I am way up in that little pink womany symbol.

    I don’t like a lot of the attitudes that surround YA.I mean Bella had to enjoy the benefits of motherhood before she could become a vampire? One that freaking sparkles even..

    Laurie Halse Anderson is forever fighting banning from schools and libraries. When her books are the ones teens should be reading.

    Btw I just got your book 😉

  6. Thank you for this history of modern literary misogyny, savvily winding up with–yes, that infuriating article about Nancy Meyers. The coverage of “It’s Complicated” so frustrated me, because I felt like any aspect of Meyers’s film or life could have been flipped–rich to poor, or passive to ssertive–and critics would still have slammed it into some corner of stereotyping. I agree that we should celebrate the accomplishments of female artists, but the mainstream coverage can be so reductive that at times I wish for gender-neutral names for all of us.

  7. You’re my heroine now. Thanks for a great post.

  8. Tiana Lei says:

    You make such an excellent point, and you articulated it perfectly. I feel the exact same way about women in literature, and hate that society has such a double standard. Thank you for posting this.

  9. Thank you so much for this post! I’ve been struggling with this lately, because I realized my manuscript is actually YA when I thought it was adult fantasy. It got me thinking about the stigma attached to YA, calling it “girly” or somehow “unimportant.”

    Why should that be? Some of the most thought-provoking, intense, darkest novels I’ve read this year have been from female YA authors, yet you’re right–they are hardly ever up for the major awards or Top 10 lists of the year, and they’re certainly not praised in the same league as their male counterparts.

    I will link to this in my blog today :). Thank you! (Also, I’m a big fan of RAMPANT–you rock!)

  10. Lell says:

    Double-standards seem to be the theme of the week for me. This issue came up on the forums for a show I watch –actually, it crops up like clockwork, and it’s really reinforcing sexism in the media. I think I’ll link to this next time it happens. Thanks for such a thought-provoking post–really brightened up my day and gave me lots to ponder.

  11. Diana, I loved this. Very well researched, thought out, and said. I linked to it today on my blog post. My only contribution was yelling, “BOO!” and sticking out my tongue.

  12. Abby Stevens says:

    Hmm, my verification word was cloisters, too.

    Another example of this in Hollywood is Katherine Bigalow. When THE HURT LOCKER came out, the media wasted segment after segment, page after page, trying to determine if a woman could create a proper war film, all before they had even seen the movie.

    Will it show the true realities of war? Will it be too soft? Will it be gritty enough? If you’ve seen THE HURT LOCKER, or have noticed the fanfare this awards season, you will know that Bigalow’s film is quickly becoming a ‘modern war classic’ and is hailed hands-down as the best Iraq War movie yet.

    At the same time, by letting this worry us (and I know no one is losing sleep about this, but you know what I mean), ‘they’ are winning. As PEOPLE (not as our gender or our color or anything else) we must simply write what we feel passionate about. Stephenie Meyer and her readers have as much right to enjoy Bella’s domesticity as Suzanne Collins and her readers have to butt-kicking, stereotype-breaking strong female characters. We have to remember that freedom to choose our own paths as women means freedom to choose the ‘less progressive path’ as well. The important thing is that we all encourage one another in our chosen pursuits.


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  14. Thanks for the linkage, Diana, but most of all for the extremely excellent post!

  15. Annie says:

    Jennifer Weiner often complains about this in her blog and I enjoy her funny rants though think it’s complete BS that female writers get such bad raps. I’m so glad I’m not someone who tries to impress others with the books I read, nor do I look for critics to give me advice on what I should read.

  16. Wow. Just wow. So well written Diana. Thank you for this.

  17. JulieLeto says:

    Seriously brilliant post.

  18. Kick. Ass. Especially love the video. Genius.

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  20. Em says:

    I must say that this is something that I have endless trouble explaining to people. Most refuse to acknowledge that sexism and descrimination still exist. And when I talk about examples such as this, they ask if I would rather a woman win an award simply because she was a woman instead of by the merit of her acheivments. It makes me very angry that they are not open minded enough. Of course whenever I bring this up in public my sister begs me to stop embarrassing her… so maybe I’m missing something?

  21. Lauren M says:

    Well said. It irks me too that men get all the awards and that women’s subjects are derided as small and insignificant. But let’s not forget that women sell a lot of books and a lot of movies. At the end of the day, Nancy Meyers and Jane Austen win the eyeballs and attention-spans of millions.

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  23. arley says:

    I think those questioning the need or relevance of the article only need to read some of the above responses to realise this is a battle that needs to be fought.

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