How Not To Write Misogynist Literature (A Guide For Dudes And Bros)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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20 thoughts on “How Not To Write Misogynist Literature (A Guide For Dudes And Bros)

  1. andrew bucket says:

    You sound like a fascist. A novel approach would be to let people write whatever they feel and let the marketplace judge for itself. Rather than laying out some stupid ruses arbitrarily decided by some “dude” who feels like he’s an ally of women to the degree that he can tell other men how to think and feel.

    And it’s a silly notion that literature can’t represent violence against women, as if the mere representation somehow aligns itself with misogyny. Last I checked, in the real world, there are still women who have violence committed against them. Rather than write for the myopic who insist that such violence might “trigger” an episode or some such nonsense, why not accept that the world is by and large a very violent place, where the powerless often are the victims of violence. Should literature not portray violence committed against black men as well? Would you rather have a literature of flowers and saccharine bullshit, literature that says absolutley nothing? You are full of it, and you know it.

    • Blue says:

      Well, actually he’s not saying that literature can’t or shouldn’t represent violence against women, he’s very specific about it being cases in which that violence is made to be sexy, glamorous, or simply used to “illustrate… a male mind.” Because that perpetuates the attitudes that oppress and objectify women. So, to answer your question: yes, literature should portray violence against oppressed populations, and no, nobody wants literature that says absolutely nothing. But if one is going to write about violence against an oppressed population, especially when one is not part of that population, one needs to write it in a way that challenges that violence, rather than perpetuating the custom of it. I think this article is absolutely on point.

    • Joe Minarick says:

      Andrew, bless your little heart. I can only assume from your absurd hyperbole and utter ignorance of etiquette, that you have responded to this post in the same way you would when McDonald’s gets your order wrong or your favorite team loses on “Dancing with the Stars”. Your highly emotional response seems to come from a place of deep insecurity and possibly even borderline social retardation. You also apparently missed the lecture on Fascism in your political science class. Were you holding a knit-in that day to benefit poor, set-upon authors who have been victimized by the matriarchy?

      Some advice: If you are going to bloviate in a public forum, at least try to up your game vis-à-vis your reading comprehension, you’ll look like much less of a high school flunky(which you may very well be).

      Cheers!

  2. I don’t like to read mysogists any more or less than I like feminists. The best thing women could do is write their own literature and let everyone else do the same.

    • KK says:

      Equating misogyny (dislike/hatred/prejudice against women, i.e., HALF OF THE HUMAN POPULATION) with feminism (the advocacy of women’s equality) is your first problem.

      I would hope everyone would be willing to read feminist writers, or writers who happen to be female and generally don’t consider themselves lesser than the male half of the population. I would hope everyone would be equally willing to read male writers.

      Going out of one’s way to read misogynistic writers, not merely writers unaware of their own blind spots but any writers who might label themselves misogynists (or racists or with any other hatred/prejudice) just seems bizarre and sad…and anti-literary, even, if one accepts that literature is “the best expression of the best thought reduced to writing.” I fail to see how hatred or prejudice is humanity’s “best thought.”

      Also, yes, women write literature. There is no “their own” about it. All literature is for everyone.

      • *Also, yes, women write literature. There is no “their own” about it. All literature is for everyone.*

        It’s more about “instead of demanding a story you want to hear, write a story you want to tell.”

        Come on now, you know what he was trying to say.

  3. MCA says:

    I do think it’s important to keep in mind the reverse – if you’re writing something (for lack of a better term) more action-y, do all of your women emerge miraculously unscathed from a brutal fight? If so, is it because they’re all somehow “removed” from combat by contibuting only in long-distance or indirect ways (to go all D&D, the stereotypically female archer, mage, theif, or healer)? Are you pedestalizing rather than degrading?

    Plus, let’s be honest, Summer Glau and (XXSpoilerXX) did some serious metal ass-kicking in the tragically-cancelled Terminator series.

  4. joe says:

    Mr Bucket, your suggestions would serve to counteract the very premise of the article. You may have failed to recall the title. It is explicitly a how-not-to guide. Your ideas are the opposite of that premise. Also, you broke several of its articulated rules, which in this context serves to suggest your comment itself is misogynistic. Too bad about that.

  5. wildbilbo says:

    Great stuff. I particularly liked the ‘intent is irrelevant’ – once a piece of work is out there, it stands or falls based on its own content, not your subsequent explanations or after-the-fact detailed manifesto of intent.

  6. tracysusan says:

    This is exactly why women still struggle to be taken seriously, in literature and life. This writer is trying to point out–ONLY– that women characters in literature are still sometimes just place holders or eye candy. They serve no useful purpose other than to serve some male character’s purpose. The same type of post has been written about female characters in movies. That is a form of misogyny, or women hating. A female student pointed out to me recently that the character of Trinity in the Matrix movie series was like this; she seemed strong and independent, but she was really there mainly to forward Neo’s place and role. That is inequality; it’s as simple as that, and we should all be grateful to have it pointed out to us if we don’t see it ourselves.

  7. Daniel Casey says:

    Reblogged this on Misanthrope-ster.

  8. Phil Spectre NottellingyoumyrealnameIwontbeatarget says:

    Thank goodness that Misandry is still OK! And men, don’t you dare go trying to point it out or defend yourself! Goodness no. You’re all getting what you deserve, even if you never oppressed a woman, even if you’re one of those mythical “nice guys,” you know you deserve this!

  9. Deb A says:

    As I read this I felt more and more upset by it, as it felt more and more prescriptive. It was only when I got to the end and discovered that it had been written by a man that I understood what was going on. Whilst I’m sure the aim of this article is laudable, it’s entire approach seems to me to be largely wrong. I feel quite strongly that it’s not appropriate for a man to be judging what is, and what is not, misogynist; this is something that, ultimately, only women can judge. This is, I feel, just another case of “mansplaining”, and here it’s a man attempting to show that he’s a better feminist than the women who might contribute to this blog.

    On a more practical level, I feel that much of the advice given here is too rule-based. The reality is that good writing, whether by a female or a male, relies on nuance and subtlety, and a checkbox-style list of proscriptions is inappropriate. I found this article stifling – and I’m not even in its target readership – and I strongly doubt that it will prove to be a positive input to the broader debate on the roles of women and men in society.

    I’m sorry, but I felt the tone of this article was a little arrogant, and I suspect that it won’t be helpful overall.

    • Phil Spectre NottellingyoumyrealnameIwontbeatarget says:

      YES! Thank you! I had the same reaction. It’s one thing if he’s laying out rules for his class, but this? This is crap. I’m trying to figure out what woman he’s trying to impress and to what end. I’m fairly certain that no woman asked him to do this for her.

  10. […] public service announcement on how not to write misogynist […]

  11. She got very specific to hiding behind artistic licence. This article is really directed at one person in her life. As a blogger, I have took it on board to understand just how easy it is to upset a woman.

  12. Scrap that!! I just found out she is a guy. Wow… Shocked… Lol

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  15. If terrible things happening to women in stories can provoke such an emotional response from characters or even the readers themselves, then it is not misogyny, is it?

    If women had no value, then it would mean nothing to anyone. It wouldn’t affect the reader, it wouldn’t affect the male character, and would have no bearing on the story in any significant way whatsoever.

    It affects the male character and the male audience because the most important people in our lives are women. Mothers, lovers, sisters and daughters. Why on earth would you assume the writer has some thing against women because something awful happened to her to further the plot?

    Come on. Would suggesting it’s the current year help at all?

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