Breaking through the prison of our skin [transcript of speech]

6 Dec

I was invited to attend the VATE conference and speak to the topic of “To what extent are all writers confined to what Violette Leduc called ‘the prison of [our] skin?”.

Here’s a transcript. Apologies in advance for a speech that was written very quickly at short notice:

Just the other day my timeline on Facebook was overrun with people sharing an article from the Onion. Perhaps you shared it as well.

Titled “Deformed Freak Born Without Penis”, the satirical article went on to list the terrible future set to await this scorned and blighted child. “According to reports, the sadly disfigured 26-year-old’s quality of life has been greatly diminished due to such a condition. Sources said the abnormal, visibly blemished creature has been repeatedly passed over for employment opportunities, frequently gawked at and harassed on the street by total strangers, and has faced near constant discrimination for over two decades, all due to the horrific and debilitating birth defect.”

Yup, as with most things in the Onion, the humour is at its best when it uses savage humour to throw a social truth at its readership.

This is one of the many prisons of our skin that locks women away from the same opportunities and benefits men enjoy.

There are a few mechanisms to dismantle these prisons because – from an academic perspective at least – we understand the need to create an equal society.

We pass laws to take apart what we call structural sexism – these are the institutional expressions of sexism that either prevent woman from participating in society or place her as its victim. Sexual harassment, bodily autonomy, discrimination, workplace equality – these are the things that are covered.

There’s a temptation to think “well, these laws have passed so everything is ok…now it’s all on MERIT. THE BEST WILL NOW RISE TO THE TOP IN EVERY SPHERE AND INDUSTRY.”

But merit is an interesting argument because merit assumes there is no prison. There is – the bars are just set a fraction wider. Firstly because when it comes to ending sexism you have to campaign hard to get the basic laws passed and keep them safe (because apparently some rights and protection are always up for negotiation) but also because any attempt to fully redress some laws and press further incites criticism of women taking it too far, of seeking more power than men not realizing their perception that society won’t share the full meal with an equal serve for all, but rather give table scraps.

Women are still prevented from fully participating in society but told this is their fault for not rising to the challenge or presenting a better choice. This is where we have political parties talk about d “merit” to explain the lack of women in their cabinet rather than address the sexism inherent in their existing structures.

The merit argument also assumes that once one barrier is removed that suddenly the field is not only open but equal with everyone enjoying the same benefits.

Defenses such as these ignore the central issue: if they believe women are just as able as men, why don’t we greater representation? If the steps to the front stage are unlocked, why aren’t more women up there? Let’s press that logic further – if there are still fewer women than men, is it because we’re choosing men over women? Why? Do we honestly believe that men are more able than women? Is there are a part of us that refuses to recognize that our part in perpetuating sexism and disadvantage?

Though there are coordinated campaigns to address the imbalance expressed through structural sexism, the challenge lies in dismantling the social conditioning that buttresses, nurtures and possibly even surpasses it – in essence, a whole ecosystem that still carries on as if the original structure exists.

Think of it another way. Think of a building overgrown with ivy. Both the building and the ivy have been there a long time. It crawls up and covers every brick, wends around every door and window and its vines grow thick and woody. Now take away the bricks,  floors, panes of glass and every pipe and vent. The ivy still stands, still retains the shape of a building, still offers a view of windows and doors. There is still a structure even though the building materials have been removed – the ivy will continue to grow, continue to strengthen, continue to look as it did before.

This is the ecosystem that persists despite the lack of the original structure.

Let’s think of this in terms of publishing – in an equal society there should be close to if not equal representation because as we all technically agree men and women are born with the same intellectual and creative ability and  have the same access to education and employment. We destroyed that building long ago, right?

Yet, if you’re a female writer in publishing you are less likely to submit a manuscript, less likely to get published. When you do get through that ceiling, you’re less likely to get reviewed. Your work is often relegated to gendered genres for which there is no male equivalent (romance, chick lit). When you’re not reviewed or shunted into a gendered genre that immediately confers suburban rather than artistic appeal, people are less likely to buy your book. You’re definitely less likely to win an award for your work. And then the structure loops around and thickens its vines, with publishers reluctant thinking “books by female writers are less likely to sell”.

You may want some stats to wash all that down and bear with me. It’s still difficult to get statistics on this.

Submitting: according to TOR UK’s Julie Crisp, the submission rate is 70/30 in favour of men. This varies quite a bit by genre.

Publishing:  According to Laura Miller at Salon in a piece – Over at the Atlantic, “Franklin and her colleagues Eliza Gray and Laura Stampler examined the fall 2010 catalogs from an assortment of book publishers, large and small. They eliminated genres not likely to be reviewed by such publications as the New York Times or the New Yorker in the first place (that is, self-help, cookbooks, art, etc.) and found that one publishing house (Riverhead) could boast that women authors were responsible for 45 percent of its fall list. For most of the rest, women accounted for around 30 percent of the list, with small independent presses turning out to be even more male-heavy than a behemoth like Random House.” A piece on sexism in literature published by the SMH states it’s closer to half but cited no sources.

Reviewing: The US-based Vida suggest that a rough average of 25% books by female writers are reviewed. In addition to this, most reviewers are male. In Australia, the Stella Prize (a literary award for female writers) viewed this from a local lens and determined the review rates vary from a national 59-80% in favour of men. Interestingly, state-based titles are better able to claim near-parity with 58-62% in favour of men.

Purchasing and reading: It’s damn hard to find access to statistics based on this. According to Laura Miller at Salon in a piece – “A couple of researchers at Queen Mary College in London did something along these lines in 2005. They asked “100 academics, critics and writers” to discuss the books they’d read most recently. According to the Guardian, “four out of five men said the last novel they read was by a man, whereas women were almost as likely to have read a book by a male author as a female. When asked what novel by a woman they had read most recently, a majority of men found it hard to recall or could not answer.” When it comes to gender, women do seem to read more omnivorously than men. Publishers can assume that a book written by a man will sell to both men and women, but a book by a woman is a less reliable bet.”

Let’s just take a moment to think about the last five books we read. Hands up if that list contains one woman. Keep it up if it’s two. What about three? Now four. How about five? No?

Awards:  women are traditionally underrepresented with literary awards though I will automatically concede the past year has brought some wonderful acclaim for worthy writers. The Miles Franklin, has been awarded to a woman 13 times out of 50 and the Man Booker Prize has been won by 16 women since beginning in in 1969.

As playright and novelist Alison Croggan says “The woman who begins with talent but who finds herself struggling to gain notice simply because she is a woman, can find her ambitions dwindling, her possibilities shrunken, in a continually amplifying feedback loop. Just as success breeds confidence, so the lack of it breeds uncertainty. If millions of reinforcing signals say a woman’s work is less significant, something will eventually begin to stick. This kind of intensifying feedback, which begins at birth, is very difficult to track and even more difficult to combat.”

And then, we come back to this notion of the level playing field – women just have to submit more, write more, review more…and yet when we tell women to do more, to show more merit, we get upset women would create their own literary prizes, claiming it takes away from men unaware of ever having to share in the past, always confident in opportunity and deference by both men and women.

Back to Alison’s point – we assume everyone is just waiting to be a fully able, fully participating person on the field without seeing the prisons that hold them back. Without seeing the conditioning that prevents them from taking action or the conditioning that actively seeks to hold them back.

If we are to remove the prisons of our skin, it requires a rethink and challenge to all.

Education plays a huge part in this.

Often it is said that girls will read about boys and girls but boys will only want to read about boys. In fact, even more we’re told “boys don’t read”.

I’m really tempted here to just direct you to a wonderful article by teacher Craig Hildenbrand-Burke on the topic. He notes the curious assumption on display that girls are readers but boys become writers. That somehow gender determines the content producer and content consumer and reinforces the ecosystem referred to earlier.

I’ve been asked how we should get men and women to write as people and not gendered voices and I’m not particularly interested in doing that. A voice is a voice and should be presented as untarnished and unfiltered as possible – voices are built by experience, by error, by happiness, by frustration and exaltation. Note that this is different from pandering to gender – where we assume boys will need more action and less women in order to read and girls will just be happy with whatever we give them.

In addition to that, it feels dishonest to remove gender as a “voice” because it avoids the fact that gender needs a voice because gender is still a huge issue in society.

Of greater concern to me that voices get published, get supported and get recognized without being stripped and constrained by the ecosystem surrounding them.

One Response to “Breaking through the prison of our skin [transcript of speech]”


  1. Proudly presenting the 68th Down Under Feminists Carnival! | Ideologically Impure - January 5, 2014

    […] Gray at Pesky Feminist has put together a transcript of a speech she gave on Breaking through the prison of our skin – a look at the institutional factors that still discriminate against women, specifically in […]

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