The thought receptacle

Stephen's mental dustbin

Sat, 04 Sep 2010

Ghetto blasting

Lionel Shriver's comment piece in yesterday's Guardian is a very neat microcosm of a circular trap (I almost said “paradox”) that seems recurrent in social attitudes held by and concerning women. The author is, I should mention, a woman. Go on, read it.

On the one hand, there are undoubtedly certain institutionalised prejudices which make it more difficult for women to gain recognition in various ways---in Shriver's example, for their cultural or intellectual achievements as authors. On another, publishers persist in pursuing a series of patronising and stereotype-derived tactics in the hope of capturing the female market. This is particularly significant because publishers and the media generally have a curious role as a reflector, in this case reflecting patronising views about women back into society. Arguably, in so doing they amplify them; at the very least, the media are guilty of not damping them as much as Shriver and many others would like (myself included, for what that's worth), and can therefore be blamed for their part in the “ghettoisation” Shriver talks about.

There is, unsurprisingly, a third side to this triangle, and it's the thorniest one. Are the publishers wrong? Undoubtedly, some women would be put off by a cover depicting elephant carcasses, just as her publishers feared. To what extent can we blame publishers for building this ghetto, versus observing that women seem inclined towards buying into the ghetto that is built for them? Among the demographic of intelligent and successful women who are my peers, I would venture that certain conservative qualities are, for better or worse, significantly more prevalent among the female than the male half of that demographic: risk-aversion, a capacity to be wary (I nearly said “dismissive”) of cultural artifacts which they identify as “not for them”, and a preference for conciliatory bending to established social conventions and roles rather than defiance and self-definition.

Before you explode in an outrage at my sexism (and remember that I consider myself a feminist), let me emphasise I'm talking about prevalence rather than universality... and in any case these are not “bad” qualities (although I invariably find myself admiring women who don't conform to these generalisations). Risk-taking and social norm-challenging are stereotypically male inclinations, and one can see plausible genetic explanations for this. Besides which, it's well-known that the variance in many psychological characteristics is greater among the male half of the population (there are more male outliers). In other words, the uneven distribution of these qualities between the sexes may not owe simply to “outdated” artifacts of cultural antiquity as Shriver suggests, but to less transient effects. That is not to deny that human universals are always subject to a cultural adjustment, and in deciding that adjustment, attitude-shaping debate such as Shriver's article plays a worthwhile part. I should also concede that while overt defiance is less commonly the way of women, there are other and subtler methods of dissent and change that I am not accounting for. In any case, like all forms of media, publishers probably have a moral duty to damp rather than reinforce stereotypes, and to seed questioning attitudes in the best tradition of the creative arts and of progress generally... but sadly morality is often not compatible with staying afloat in business, particularly in a sector like publishing that is currently being squeezed hard.

The triangle, in fairness, has a fourth side. I'm thinking about Shriver's man on the Strassenbahn here. Surely he is also culpable in preferring not to be seen holding the stricken-woman cover image, just as much as the women who might be discouraged if the cover was otherwise? Asking myself what I might do, when faced with such a book that I wanted to read, the likely answer is that I'd grit my teeth and put up with cover-embarrassment. But this still acknowledges that there is something to be self-conscious about. While I'd like to think I'm atypically unbothered by such things (indeed, some attest that I even look like a woman from behind), there'se still something there.

The article deteriorates a little. Shriver goes too far in her unsupported claim that “women, unlike men, buy books by and about both sexes”. Who's stereotyping now? Perhaps this one is an accurate stereotype---and if we were in the business of wagering, I do find it broadly plausible (in the same way that “men love football” is plausible)---but claims like that require data. Soon afterwards she claims that if the careers of “smart female authors” depended only on appealing to women, they would “narrow their subject matter”. But hang on---wasn't the earlier point that the subject matter isn't the issue, because contrary to stereotypes, women are broad-minded and will read a wide range of material? And would these “narrowing” authors really be “smart”? I think “patronising” would be more appropriate here, since surely those authors are basing their narrowing on stereotypes. The alternative interpretation is that female authors would much rather be narrow for their own art's sake, irrespective of audience, and currently force themselves to broaden their oeuvre purely for the sake of that pesky patriarchal establishment. I don't think that's Shriver's intended interpretation, which is just as well because I don't believe it for a moment.

As usual, my grumbles can be summarised as Not Enough Logic and Not Enough Science. Data could probably undo Shriver's central effort too. Her protest that “girliness and goo isn't the way to every woman's heart” is certainly true, but nobody ever said otherwise. The publishers are only acting on the basis that this holds in enough cases to make their strategy commercially reasonable. In other words, while Shriver places the blame squarely with the establishment---and I'd agree that it has a lot to answer for---a significant chunk of the “problem” lies in a much more diffuse set of memes (and possibly a few genes) that can't really be blamed on anyone. That's no disrespect to her sentiment, because I would love it not to be so. Nothing makes a man (er, meaning me) feel alien from his sisters than observing the influence of media-driven girlification--- a far stronger force than laddification or blokification has ever been, although perhaps explicably---whose sway certainly acts against creative merit in a large proportion of cases. But getting rid of the ghetto, if it's ever to happen, means taking on more than just the establishment: taking on people as a whole.

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