By Amorak Huey
It’s tempting to start this piece by repeating the obvious, only speaking slowly: Don’t. Write. Literature. That. Is. Misogynist.
Because, seriously. It’s not that hard.
Except, apparently, it is for a lot of writers. Dudes, I mean. Of course. So, fellas, here’s a little Jeff Foxworthy-esque checklist to see if your writing is misogynist:
- If the women characters in your writing exist largely to illustrate the state of mind of the men characters … your writing might be misogynist.
- If there are no women in your writing, like, ever … your writing might be misogynist.
- If your writing describes violence happening to women, and it’s graphic, or titillating, or sexy, or supposed to be excused because you’re doing the oh-so-original work of exploring the psyche of the violent or lonely male mind … your writing is definitely for sure misogynist.
- If those #GamerGate yahoos would appreciate your writing … well, yeah. Come on.
Look, if you’re a dude and you want to write about violence happening to women in order to reveal the inner workings of male mind, don’t. Just don’t.
If you read that last paragraph and you still want to write about violence happening to women, then you need to ask yourself why. Do you find violence against women arousing? Do you feel like it’s your chance to get revenge against some woman who broke up with you, who was cold to you at a party, un-supportive of your genius in some way, who wouldn’t talk to you in high school? If it’s any of those things, get help. Talk to a counselor about your anger towards women.
The rule of thumb in comedy is that the best stuff punches up. Takes aim at the dominant class; tweaks the oppressors, not the oppressed. Similarly, the best journalists take seriously the duty to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.
There’s nothing easier than making art that re-victimizes victims. That enforces the status quo. That points out and belittles the otherness of the other. There’s also nothing less interesting, less meaningful, less productive.
In the end, not producing misogynist literature starts with awareness. Be aware that your piece of work does not exist in a vacuum; as soon as you publish it, it becomes part of a long history of literature. Be aware that this history is overwhelmingly male-dominated. Be aware that continuing this history without critique is the most facile thing you can do as a writer. Be aware that you’re not the first guy who had a hard time finding a date to the prom, or grew up without money, or otherwise has felt un-privileged at some point in his life; be aware that despite this feeling, you have benefited and continue to benefit in ways large and small, felt and unfelt, from the patriarchal status quo. Be aware that almost everything that has been hard for you in life would have been harder if you were a woman. Be aware that you do not need the last word in every conversation.
If you’re a dude and you consider yourself an ally to women, and you write something that people suggest is misogynist, don’t get defensive about it. Don’t shush the women who are criticizing you. Don’t patronizingly explain literary tropes. Don’t explain that change takes time (the favorite last line of status quo defenders in every era). Don’t start hashtag campaigns like #notallmen or #alllivesmatter where the purpose is blatantly to downplay the suffering of people who are not you. Don’t complain that anyone who questions you is silencing or censoring your art. Don’t poke and prod and protest, and then cry foul as soon as your prodding makes someone angry, as if your perfectly reasonable response could never have provoked anyone to anger. Don’t talk about how you were just trying to start a conversation, as if no one would have thought of these issues without you. Don’t explain that the purity of art is more important than anyone’s silly politics. Don’t claim the artist’s right to provoke as a rationale for being insensitive, as if being an artist makes one immune to criticism.
And for god’s sake, don’t whine about your intent. Intent is irrelevant. I tell my students all the time that we don’t get to walk around behind our writing and explain what we meant. When an art professor builds a larger-than-life statute of a KKK member and erects it anonymously one night at the University of Iowa, his alleged intent (he said later he was trying to critique America’s racist history) does not magically transform a racist symbol into an important piece of art. Replicating the symbols and tropes of a racist or sexist ideology is not, by itself, a critique, no matter how well-intentioned you claim to be. Paula Deen protested that if we could only see into her heart, we would know she is not racist. But we don’t get to see inside anyone else’s heart, just as we don’t walk around with our artwork, our poems, our novels and explain the nobility of our intentions.
The best writing grows out of empathy. Empathy grows out of listening. And listening? That’s the heart of it. Sometimes, dudes, we need simply to shut up and listen.
Amorak Huey, a former newspaper editor and reporter, teaches writing at Grand Valley State University in Michigan. His chapbook, The Insomniac Circus, is forthcoming from Hyacinth Girl Press. His poems appear in the anthologies The Best American Poetry 2012, The Poetry of Sex, and Poetry in Michigan/Michigan in Poetry, as well as journals such as Rattle, The Collagist, The Southern Review, Poet Lore, Menacing Hedge, and others.