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Writing in Boxes: Oppression in Women’s Literature

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In deciding what to blog about for Blog Against Sexism day, many ideas crossed my mind. There is certainly no dearth of examples in our society, but narrowing the broad subject down to one meaningful topic proved more difficult than I thought. But then I remembered a conversation I had a few weeks ago and this post was more or less able to write itself.

I was born a male and thusly born into certain privileges. One of these privileges is a certain freedom in literature. As a male, and more specifically a white male, I have been afforded the freedom to write about whomever and whatever I please. Most classic works of literature have been penned by white males, and they push boundaries every which way. Given that the white male culture is the dominant mode within society, there is very little need to give voice to ourselves. We have plenty of agency — often more than we even know what to do with — and as it turns out, everything we say or do generally seems to reinforce the existing ideologies of our culture anyway. We certainly have had a checkered past of invisible hegemony.

When a female writer takes up the pen, however, there is far less freedom afforded. Whether explicit or implicit, there is an inordinate amount of pressure to write “women’s issues.” My aforementioned friend remarked that she cannot stand to hear one more female poet writing an ode to her vagina, to her uterus, or to menstrual bleeding. As a marginalized voice within canonical literature, it is certainly important to establish a female presence, but should a women be defined solely by how well she writes about “women’s issues”?

And what are these issues anyway? Are not most “women’s issues” really issues that society at large ought to be dealing with? Menstruation isn’t so much a women’s issue — it’s a natural function of the human body — the issue lies in how society treats menstruation. To be honest, writing an ode to your menstrual blood is hardly going to make many readers of the opposite gender comfortable.

But maybe the goal is discomfort. Maybe one can shock the mainstream into acceptance. But it seems to me that this tactic hardly works.

Literary oppression is silent and hardly recognized. Virginia Woolf was wise to note that a woman needs a regular income and a room of her own in order to be a successful writer. She also noted that one cannot produce true art if one is choked by anger. There is a lot of anger to be felt by women about their marginzalized place in society, but this anger should not always be allowed to hamper one’s true expresion.

An ode to one’s uterus is certainly a shockingly refreshing deviation from the literary norm, yet sadly this is becoming the literary norm for many women’s writers. Not that this is the fault of the writers, as there is a long chain of hegemonic and canononical constructions working against them, but in order for women to achieve an equal footing in the literary world, they need to be able to write freely.

This is not addressed, of course, to the J.K. Rowlings or the Anne Rices. I have little interest in what goes on in the popular literary world. But in the avant-garde, the experimental, the academic – perhaps most commonly in the world of poetry – women are compelled to write within a box. My friend (and this is the last time I shall mention her) was criticized by a fellow female poet in a writing workshop for not dealing specifically with “women’s issues.” Her writing was meeting censure — not from the male literary community — but from a fellow female writer for not meeting some sort of standard for women’s poetry.

Every person ought to be able to write what he or she chooses. If a poet chooses to write an angry ode to her vagina, then she ought to feel free to do so. But it is extraordinarily important that women write about everything and anything they choose, and not feel limited to writing these angry odes. If female writing is confined to this literary ghetto, then liberation in this area has not been a success. There have grown to be certain expectations of what a woman can and should write, and it is time that more writers step up and shatter these expectations. It would be a welcome change to see a serious feminist author step up and write a work of pure literary fiction. Certainly feminist issues need not take a backseat to other more frivolous literary pursuits, but if every work of art is a polemic, then equality will never be met.

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About Warren Patrick

  • Natalie Bennett

    Congratulations Bryan on recognising you enjoy a freedom that others don’t – and for writing about it!

  • Marilyn Barnicke Belleghem M.Ed.

    Unlike so many white males, you Bryan accept and are willing to say right out loud that there are privileges and advantages to being your race and sex. I’d like to meet more men like you. I write on personal growth through travel and while my books are most often seen as women’s interest, I have also had some wonderful comments from men. One man in his 30s said it was the best insight he had into issues that concern women and the way women think. Another reader, a retired government accountant, said he wished that he had had a better glimpse into the way women think earlier in his life. Perhaps if more men would take the time to ask questions and delve into the books, movies and music that women find so appealing they would better understand the women in their lives. Understanding of others is a major part of taking the road to intimacy and peace. Thanks for your comments.

  • vikk

    Since I don’t even view life through a gender lens, I’ve never given any thought to doing so in my writing. If I had to write about those issues, I probably wouldn’t have anything to say. :) It’s a shame others are so boxed in.

  • Anna

    Well thought out and well written essay. While I do appreciate the occasional ode to my vagina (Pussy Manifesto by Bitch is one of the better ones), I seek out women who write about everything I’m interested in. From genre fiction to travel writing to anything else that catches my fancy. My only concern is that the publishing industry isn’t as enlightened as you are, Bryan. Most of the women that are getting attention write chick lit, and those who write about more traditionally masculine topics get pushed to the side. True, the times are changing, but for some of us they’re not changing fast enough, and we have to watch out for the pendulum swinging back that could knock us back to 1850.