How We Apologize for the Mistakes of Others: Gender, Race, Marriage, Privilege, TV, SSDD

Wednesday, I got a new issue of a major literary journal, with an all male Table of Contents for the main section of the magazine.  In that moment, as I browsed the TOC, I got so frustrated, I threw the issue across the room. This is a great magazine that is, in its way, fairly diverse so there’s no point in naming it. The name of the magazine isn’t the point, you know? This isn’t about calling out. This magazine could be and has often been any number

of magazines. The point is that this happened, in 2012, after two years of the VIDA count, fourteen years after Prose’s “Scent of a Woman’s Ink,” and on and on.

These things happen. Or, that’s how we apologize for the mistakes of others. We pretend these incidents are isolated so we don’t have to consider the sum of our fears.

I don’t read Tables of Contents looking for gender. This truly is not a hobby of mine. I don’t make tick marks to ensure quotas are met. I am fairly observant, though. I notice things even when I do not want to. I happened to open the magazine to the TOC and as I scanned the names, I was surprised because the names were largely uniform in more ways than one, if you know what I mean. The imbalance stood out.

This thing has stuck in my craw for hours. It’s a small thing but it’s also a very big thing. There is a straw that breaks the camel’s back and then the broken back heals, but the next time a straw falls, the camel’s back breaks all over again, multiple fractures, arthritis sets in.

I don’t even know why I care so much. I shouldn’t care. Same shit, different decade. This is the way of the world, even

when we’re dealing with the good guys who are probably considered the good guys because the bar for ethics and equity just isn’t that high.

These sort of things happen and we grit our teeth and deal with it. I’ve written the polemics, you know? There’s nothing more I can say that I have not already said about gender and publishing and here I am, still stewing even though I have better things to do–essays in progress, new novel, novel revisions on the first novel, a couple short stories in various states of undress. I have books to read and reviews to write and a suitcase to pack. I have cable. Of course I have better things to do.

And yet.

Year after year after year, it’s the same goddamned thing. I would love something new to rage against. Give me some goddamned variety, universe.

I suppose this is on my mind because I wrote about privilege for The Rumpus, just some thoughts. I’ll have more to say on the topic but I wanted to start somewhere. Everyone has privilege and I have a lot of privilege and with privilege comes responsibility. I try to bring attention to the issues that matter most to me to fulfill that responsibility in some very small way. I try to make a difference. I want to make a difference. I want to be different. I want to be a better human. I have a long way to go.

I am starting to wonder, though, if meaningful change is possible. That sounds cynical. This will pass, it will.

Of course change is possible. Look at what Obama did. He made a statement about gay marriage he should have made years ago. It’s actually maddening that his opinion matters but he is the sitting president. Everything he does matters.

It is maddening that Obama has only made a gesture and that it will take so much more for marriage to be legally available to everyone. As an aside, doesn’t the phrase “gay marriage” make you crazy? It drives me crazy. You mean marriage, right?

It is maddening that to be queer and to want to marry the person you love enough to commit for a lifetime(ish), is something other people get to have opinions about.

Again, the bar is so low as to be practically underground so yes, it’s amazing that Obama has stated he supports gay marriage. He has created a small change that will hopefully grow into the massive change this country needs on the subject of marriage. I was thrilled by his announcement. I was thrilled but a small part of me was also devastated because this is how things are—we are still fighting for civil rights. Things are so imbalanced when it comes to marriage that a queer person cannot say, “I do not give a damn about your support or lack thereof,” in the way I can say, for example, “I do not give a fraction of a fuck if you support interracial marriage or not.” Did you know Manny Pacquiao has an opinion about marriage equality? He does and it is negative. His opinion is the kind that makes me think, “SHUT YOUR FACE, Manny, no one cares,” but clearly someone cares because a question about (gay) marriage was asked and answered with ignorant aplomb.

Real freedom is not needing to care about the support or opinion of others. Some people in this country are very, very free and others are not. That’s the thing about privilege. Everyone has privilege but some people get their privilege protected by law and others have to hold onto what tenuous privilege they have with all their might because they know it can get taken away. Privilege is so much more complicated than most discussions about privilege allow for but at least, perhaps, we are coming to that realization.

So there’s this magazine–gorgeous, impeccably produced, widely respected and it gets away with reinforcing male privilege. It’s just one issue. I’m far too nervous to investigate further. I don’t want to know if this is an ongoing thing, though it hasn’t felt like a problem in recent memory so I’m going to give the magazine the benefit of the doubt. I’m going to look at the excellent content and some really smart, timely, necessary features and pretend that it’s enough.

And still, I am wondering, will there ever come a time when an editor looks at an all male TOC and thinks, “I am not sending this magazine to print in such a state”? Do editors even notice when this happens?

Does this matter?

I don’t want to see these things anymore. Literally, I want to be blinded to all male TOCs and all male mastheads and magazines who haven’t published a writer of color or queer writer in years, if ever, because I am tired of seeing all these pervasive problems involving equity. I have truly seen enough. I get it. You don’t give a damn. Fine. I will give a damn with my friends and we’ll be alright or alright as we can be.

Fine. Fine. Fine.

See? It isn’t about the magazine, at all. It’s about the camel, arthritically limping across the desert in search of water and shade.

I watched the upfront previews this week for the fall TV season. I don’t think I saw a single black woman on any of the previews. I didn’t watch every single upfront video so I’m sure there’s some Sassy Black Friend or maid in the mix. There were a few black men doing their thing as a fireman, a submarine captain, you know, what do I want to be when I grow up? I saw a few “funny Latina/racially indeterminate brown friends.” Always, always sidekicks. Mindy Kaling got her own show which is significant. She’s smart and works her ass off. I couldn’t be happier to see what she does with her own show The rest of the upfronts were a blur of whiteness and stupidity. The roles for women seemed to be mostly the same ridiculous nonsense.

Doesn’t Hollywood ever get bored with itself? How many legal dramas can we possibly watch? How many medical dramas? That twist you think is twisty? It is not. There is, seriously, a show this fall that puts Sherlock Holmes in the present day. He has magical crime solving properties and an English accent and a rebellious streak. This is what I gathered from like two minutes and fifty seconds. His sidekick is Lucy Liu as Watson. I guess we should be grateful for that spot of color but that premise is both depressing and kind of absurd.

Oooh oooh! I know what we should do next. Tess of the d’Urbervilles in West Hollywood. Or Tess of the d’Urbervilles in the Heartland, being all ravished and tragic among the proletariat. Imagine the possibilities!

As an aside, AS AN ASIDE, did you know that Tess of the d’Urbervilles is quoted a couple times in FIfty Shades of Grey in a move clearly designed to create subtext and let us know Anastasia Steele will be ravished by Christian Grey?  That whirring sound you are hearing? That’s Thomas Hardy spinning in his grave with such force and velocity he might throw the planet off its axis.

Do NOT even get me started on Hardy and Tess. That book is a fascinating, hot mess of issues. If you ever wonder why Laura married Luke on General Hospital after he raped her, (or Jack and Jennifer on Days, or you know, all the other fantasy narratives involving a woman marrying or otherwise tied her rapist), you only need to look back to 1891 for the precedent.

(See also: Scarlett***, the sequel to Gone With the Wind.)

Everything is connected.

(Yes, I read the “classics” as much as I read trash and I am very obsessed with Victorian literature. So much of modern entertainment owes its roots to the Victorians who were quite filthy and awesome.)

Anyway, is this what we’re asking for as the viewing public–the same ridiculous nonsense, year after year, that is so damn hard to swallow?

On some level, what the networks develop is about supply and demand. Given what they keep churning out, we must enjoy this bullshit lodged in our throats. Two and a Half Men is still on the air so clearly, there’s a fierce streak of viewing masochism at play among the American people. We love this suffering. We need it bad.

It’s amazing, really, to realize how content the powers that be are with the status quo. I envy that comfort. I’d love to know, if even for a little while, what such comfort feels like.

That’s why we’re talking about Girls, you know. The show is different and good enough to be worth talking about and it is the same and not good enough to be worth talking about.

I never thought I wanted to write for television but now I do even knowing how potentially futile it might be. That’s why I write anything, really. I know how futile it can be to truly create change, especially through words. I absolutely understand how I am a speck of sand in a desert but I’m still willing to try to be the best little speck I can be, the one that gets lodged in someone’s eye so painfully they’ll do anything, like actually change, to get that speck out. This is also my primary dating strategy. It’s working awesomely.

Something’s gotta give, you know? This is why, as I note in my essay, accepting privilege is so hard. If we are lucky, man…. If this is lucky, can you imagine what unlucky looks like?

I think about the state of the world, popular culture, the literary community, all of it, this sort of vast, almost numbing collection of sameness and recalcitrance and realize I am screaming into a canyon and waiting to hear what what echoes. It’s a hell of a thing.

 

***I have a lot of shame around a. owning the miniseries Scarlett, b. continuing to watch it regularly and c. having read the book.

9 comments on “How We Apologize for the Mistakes of Others: Gender, Race, Marriage, Privilege, TV, SSDD

  1. “That whirring sound you are hearing? That’s Thomas Hardy spinning in his grave with such force and velocity he might throw the planet off its axis.”

    I hear the whirring.

    Your closing image and the state of things are a hell of a thing. Despite that, because of that, we’ll keep going.

  2. In one of those peculiar coincidences, for me this week’s theme was “easy mode” even before John Scalzi’s essay came out. So, thank you for this, and all that came before it in the last couple of days.

    (Slightly related: It’s my now not-so-secret hope that Hardy’s other engrossing hot mess, Jude the Obscure, catches on for pop culture re-appropriation.)

  3. I’m the editor of a digital mag (dailybrink.com) that doesn’t take submissions. Another editor and I are responsible for finding the people we feature; we comb the internet for people who fit our requirements. I’m a woman, and my co-editor is a gay man. And who are the people we find to feature, over and over? Straight white men. Or more generally, at least male.

    This has bothered me for a long time. I thought that, perhaps, I was unknowingly biased. Or that maybe men were just, on average, more successful than women in the categories we were searching. But if you break it down and look at my process… I search out projects, not people. I say, “this is a cool startup,” or “they’ve just won an award,” or “what an innovative idea!”

    So what’s happening? Maybe you can enlighten me. Would it be ignorant to claim that the fault lies in OTHER publications? That the reason I’m finding fewer women is that recognition and media attention (which is where I find MY information) is biased towards male-dominated projects? If I’M not being biased, then THEY are? Aren’t they, by and large, doing the same thing I am?

    And would it be even more ignorant of me to claim that women aren’t yet creating at the same caliber of men, or at least at the same frequency of equal caliber? (My instinctual response is OF COURSE this is ignorant.)

    Why is it harder for me to find female creatives, innovators, artists, game-changers? HOW do Table of Contents end up all-male? Why is this still happening?

    The answer is probably entangled with the larger issue of the disenfranchisement of women socially. This is probably a much larger problem than I want to believe it is. It’s just incredibly difficult to realize that I’m contributing to the problem, but I haven’t figured out how to fix it — other than to search out women, specifically, more actively than I search out men. What else can I do?

    1. This is, indeed, a much larger problem than you want to believe it is.

      I say what follows with all due respect but what do you consider innovative and game changing? Because if you are having a hard time finding women who meet that definition, I suspect you need to own some of the blame. The world abounds with such women. Maybe they are not as visible, but my god, they are everywhere. Where are you looking? That’s got to be part of the issue. I am not familiar with your publication but… you need to perhaps widen your search parameters and also rethink what you consider innovative, not to compromise standards, but rather, to broaden them. I can think of like 20 game changing women off the top of my head and if I really sat down and put some thought in it, there would be more. This is not because I’m special or because I’m a woman. I read widely–across all kinds of literary and pop culture websites and publications. It’s humbling, to be honest, how many bad ass women (and men for that matter), are out there.

      This is still happening, these all male TOCs, because too many people want to believe the blame lies elsewhere. Is it a pain in the ass to have to go out and find women who meet your criteria? Sure, but sometimes, a lot of the time, creating change is a pain in the ass.

      All that said, I really appreciate your comment and your obvious willingness to think about this problem.

    2. I will also add that the reason it is so easy to find men, and in particular white men, is because historically, they are the ones who get the “leg up” and earn visibility far more easily. That’s why this problem is so frustrating. It’s historical and until we solve the systemic issues facing marginalized groups, it’s always going to be a tough slog in bringing people from the margins toward the center.

  4. Interesting and astute as always, Roxane. I appreciate the way you do justice to the complexity of the issue while also capturing the frustration of having to deal with the same damn issues year after year, decade after decade. And it IS complex. I’m reminded, oddly, of the way people used to view standardized tests, believing that they were clearly an objective of intelligence, and thus suggesting that if certain groups did poorly on these tests, well, obviously they weren’t as smart. They failed to question exactly what those supposedly “objective” questions were really testing. Likewise (sort of), editors may make the reasonable defense that they do not look at an author’s name and say, “Hey, it’s a guy! And his name looks like a white name! I bet this is gonna be good!” They may say that they are judging the work for its own merit. But where are they deriving their standards of what “merit” is?

  5. Interesting and astute as always, Roxane. I appreciate the way you do justice to the complexity of the issue while also capturing the frustration of having to deal with the same damn issues year after year, decade after decade. And it IS complex. I’m reminded, somewhat oddly, of the way people used to view standardized tests, believing that they were clearly an objective of intelligence, and thus suggesting that if certain groups did poorly on these tests, well, obviously they weren’t as smart. They failed to question exactly what those supposedly “objective” questions were really testing. Likewise (sort of), editors may make the reasonable defense that they do not look at an author’s name and say, “Hey, it’s a guy! And his name looks like a white name! I bet this is gonna be good!” They may say that they are judging the work for its own merit. But where are they deriving their standards of what “merit” is?

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