Monday, October 30, 2006

It's funny where you find sexism . . .

In English seminar, for instance. This afternoon I listened as people critiqued a work by a female writer, and it wasn't until halfway through the class that I realized the degree to which our comprehension of gender roles inform our understanding of art as well as other intellectual disciplines. For today's class, we had read a novel by a British lesbian author that interwove her own personal narrative with revisionist versions of fairytales and Biblical parables. Some students criticized this foramlly innovative work for being "cutesy" or "too clever;" other students tried to redeem the novel by calling it "tender" or pointing to moments where it showed "heart." These adjectives, while supposedly speaking to the quality of the author's writing, are strikingly similar to negative and positive characterizations of women. Instead of being "smart," women are often called "clever," a more menacing term for a supposedy positive attribute. Women who don't show tenderness are seen as frigid our cruel. It seems that our evaluation of this author's writing depended on the degree to which she exhibited certain characterstically female traits.

The profile of this author that we read during class demonstrated a similarly gendered perspective. The journalist described the criticism this author has received: words like "self-confident" apparently have a negative connotation when describing a woman. The profile detailed the author's self-absorption, dedication to her craft, and narcissim (a rare trait among artists, apparently, or perhaps just rare among female artists), as if all these qualities detracted from her fiction, or, at the very least, indicated flaws in her character. In a desperate attempt to salvage the author's reputation, the reviewer listed compliments from the author's friends, who describe her as "humble," "generous," and "modest." Well, thank goodness, because for a second it looked like this author was threatening to break out of the stereotype of the demure female, refuse to play coy, and conduct herself in an assertive fashion that can only be labeled "bitchy" (a word that was not used but that haunted the written profile and our class discussion).

I am so tired of these confining gender roles, and I am even more tired of strong, assertive women being called "bitches," or of strong, assertive women restraining and modulating themselves so as to avoid that insult. It's funny - or, really, not so funny - that at an academic institution like Yale, a place teeming with smart, strong, confident women, this sterotype persists.

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