Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Addressing Misogyny in Workshop

Last night in our fiction workshop, a classmate reacted defensively when he was questioned about misogynist elements in one of his stories. I'm concerned that I may have reacted too angrily to his defensiveness--and yet at the same time, I feel that my anger is deserved. When critiquing male writers' stories, I can suggest that they slash characters, alter dialogue, change whole endings, and all that is fine. They aren't upset by those kinds of edits. But the second I bring up misogyny, it's as if they stop listening altogether. No, not me, I couldn't possibly hate women, let me tell you what I really meant--and the worst response of all: this is integral to my story. 

The problem is that male writers are misinterpreting critiques regarding misogyny. When I say, "there are elements of misogyny in this piece," they hear, "you are a misogynist." And that's not at all what I mean! I don't believe that most of these writers actively hate women. I don't believe that they spend their evenings hunched over their keyboards, twirling their cartoon mustaches and plotting ways to take those meddling females down a peg. I only mean that they are steeped in an inherently misogynist, patriarchal culture the same way that everyone else is, including me. 

Most instances of misogyny in workshop stories are careless, thoughtless--thoughtless precisely because most misogyny is enacted by people adhering to social norms without questioning those norms. That's why misogyny is dangerous and so difficult to dispel; it's insidious, built into the structures of everyday life. I think it's okay for characters in a story to be misogynist. People are misogynist in real life, so it makes perfect sense for fiction to reflect that--as long as the victims of the character's misogyny are not the butt of the joke.* 

Unfortunately, more frequently than not, the victims are the butt of the joke--and that's only because the author hasn't closely examined his work for misogyny. That's why the response that "this is integral to my story" is particularly maddening. It is absolutely not integral to your story. I can't recall a single workshop story where the misogyny has been integral. It always appears as a trope trotted out on the page by someone who hasn't yet questioned that trope. 

This doesn't happen exclusively to men. Women (and people of all genders) are equally steeped in our patriarchal culture. There are often instances where I write a story, and then I have to question whether or not my portrayal of a female character is misogynist. Happens all the time. The difference is that I bother to question it at all. When I bring up misogyny in workshop, I'm merely trying to hold my classmates to the same standard. 

Sometimes workshop critiques can be brutal, but ultimately we're trying to help each other succeed. One day my classmates will submit their stories to editors, and if those editors spot unwarranted misogyny in the work, they may not select it for publication. Those editors may believe my classmates to be thoughtless jerks, when they aren't really thoughtless jerks at all. 

That's why defensiveness is a poor reaction. I am only bringing the misogyny up because I like my classmates, I think they're good writers, and I believe that they deserve success. Please excuse the cliché, but I wish they wouldn't bite the hand that feeds them. 

*The same applies to racism, homophobia, etc.

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