A bit of a poem by Adrienne Rich

I’ve been looking in my books for a particular poem that I remembered copying into a notebook about 20 years ago, and found it finally tonight:

The world tells me I am its creature
I am raked by eyes    brushed by hands
I want to crawl into her for refuge    lay my head
in the space    between her breast and shoulder
abnegating power for love
as women have done    or hiding
from power in her love    like a man
I refuse these givens    the splitting
between love and action    I am choosing
not to suffer uselessly and not to use her
I choose to love    this time    for once
with all my intelligence

It’s from “Splittings” by Adrienne Rich – from The Dream of a Common Language. I love the way that “choosing not to suffer uselessly” is repeated throughout – and the way the lines are split – caesura – and the two lines that are not split, “abnegating power for love” and “with all my intelligence”. It would have been cheap and easy and wrong to split the first, and it obviously makes sense for the last line to come together rhythmically, in a rush, for the sake of wholeness & synthesis.

Poetry is often useful to talk about things that it’s impossible to talk about otherwise. I love how this poem throws gender and queerness right in to the list of impossible things – things that impossiblify love.
Pushed even further in “Cartographies of Silence”, so beautifully at the end.

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Misogynist stereotypes on Valleywag

I don’t care what Sandy Montenegro Littlefield is actually like; I don’t know her, and I’ve never met her. Also, I am not intrinsically fond of superwealthy society people. Who knew that “Gentry” magazine even existed! Not me! Gentry. Wow. Weird. Lifestyles of upper class philanthropists; really beyond my comprehension – they’re like aliens.

Anyway. Gossip is fun and I love to hear it. Dirty gossip is great. I would love to see Dirty Friendster with all the possible totally sophomoric sex gossip charts of who slept with whom and who just made out in the conference room.

That said, I think that Valleywag’s post on Littlefield deserves to be called out on its misogynist rhetoric about Ms. Littlefield. The article says she “used to go to tech conferences in search of husband material” and, worse:

She’d arrive on her own and return on someone’s private jet. She is absolutely gorgeous in person, but I don’t think it took people too long to figure out she was a gold-digger.

I’d like to look at what stereotypes this gossip plays into and what reactions it can possibly evoke.

Here, who a woman sleeps with or marries is used to throw her competence as a tech executive into question. It is strongly implied that she is not a real geek, or maybe has no “real” skills at all other than her looks. When an article like this gets written, it also by association casts aspersions on all women in tech. Would this article be written about a man, a senior executive? Would there be any equivalent way to devalue and slander and ridicule a man?

It’s very strange because while men are always whining about reverse sexism, and how everything should be genderblind and we should all just be human and be judged on our skills and not our gender… Then they whip out this sort of rhetoric and use it against women. The stereotypes are built in and waiting, ready to be used against any woman, from the most successful and visible to the least important. As women, none of us are immune to being objectified by exactly the sort of rhetoric used against Ms. Littlefield.

Notice the way that the quote above suggests that Ms. Littlefield habitually went to tech conferences alone and then left with different rich guys – and that she went to the conferences solely for the reason of wanting to pick up rich geek guys. And also implying that’s how she got her jobs – by being a jet-set slut.

Again, I’m no expert on the upper class. But don’t quite a lot of rich people work off their personal networks and backgrounds and friendships? The woman has an MBA from Harvard and she speaks five languages. What’s so odd about her getting a good executive job? Didn’t like 5 gazillion MBAs descend on Silicon Valley during the boom? Why shouldn’t one of them be a multilingual cosmopolitan Guatemalan beauty queen from Harvard?

But no… instead Valleywag points to Montenegro’s past achievements as a beauty pageant winner and the fact that she’s from Guatemala as something further to objectify and sexualize her. Then they make fun of a newspaper article quoted on her homepage that calls her a “Latina who defies stereotype.” (See Common stereotypes of Latinas for more explanation.) Hey, if you are a Latina who defies stereotype, and you’re a successful senior executive in high tech, and a VC person and a bigshot international philanthropist, why not be proud of it? Valleywag evokes a stereotype in response, and stuffs her right back into it.

Waaah! Women in tech are toooooo sexay! That sucks! It ruins our whole homosocial male bonding geek guy thing! Get them out! Or, quick, give Sandy a reverse makeover, a pair of glasses with electrical tape on the nosepiece, and some penny loafers!

Everyone needs to keep in mind that when women, sluts or not, sleep with geek guys, it might just be because they like geek guys a lot. Sleeping with geek guys doesn’t invalidate one’s geek credentials. It’s not like they have to be *rich* geek guys and the women have to be brainless bimbos going after their money. Trust me, geek guys, you are often super cute all on your own. It’s the devastatingly sexy unhealthiness caused by hours of late night hacking, and how you get all passionate about open source, and the way that you probably got pushed around by those jock dudes in the locker room long ago. We love it. It gives you a mysterious aura, like consumptive bohemian poets from 1890 who smoked too much opium and thought they were in touch with the Divine. Heterosexual nerd chicks go for that kind of thing. It’s completely natural.

Anyway, Valleywag tries to preempt any criticism by saying they don’t really care, and they don’t think Montenegro is “evil”. Just mockable. Misogyny is automatically funny. Sexy women are automatically dumb golddiggers. We’re supposed to read that post and laugh and nod knowingly… as if we know the type. Do we really? Or do we know them from the idiotic stereotypes made up by and perpetuated in Hollywood movies?

It’s not uncommon for writers to evoke sexist and racist stereotypes for a cheap laugh. But not all of us are laughing when we read that stuff. Instead, we’re pissed off and alienated. Or we might respond by laughing at the writers for their cluelessness.

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Gender and genre in blogs

In her paper on Gender and genre variation in weblogs Susan Herring and her team hypothesized differences between male- and female-authored blogs. I haven’t read the paper closely enough to get the detail, but the gist of it is they expected women to say “I” more and refer to women more, and men to write more impersonally and refer to “he” and “you”. Instead they found that personal blogs, male or female, show the characteristics that had been predicted for women’s writing, according to, I think, other studies and sources like the Gender Genie, based on grammatical analysis by Argomon & Koppel. (I have to say, when I messed with the Gender Genie I thought it was just annoying…) While filter blogs, meant to give information on a topic, have the characteristics associated by the Gender Genie with men — whether they are written by men or women. Herring et al.’s findings contradict Argomon & Koppel. She suggests that genre itself is gendered.

I agree with this, which matches what I found in reading women’s poetry from 100 years ago and in reading the criticism about that poetry. The gendering of genre appears to me to happen over time as a way of valuing or devaluing the quality of the writing. Entire genres would become (simultaneously) “feminized” in order to devalue them, or as they became devalued they were described as feminine, or as women succeeded in the genre, it was considered less important.

Many factors contribute to this and one of them is that women at times do the less important things or write in the less important genres because there is less backlash for doing so. And when they do enter the male-dominated genres where power is considered to be located then there is a strong backlash and the entire genre is at risk of being devalued.

When women in the 19th century succeeded at Romanticist poetry, for example, they were hailed as being unusual exceptions, virile, oddly masculine, at the same time perhaps kind of slutty or of questionable and abnormal sexuality. And when women began to dominate the genre to the extent that they could not be ignored and tokenized, then the entire genre was disempowered over a period of years – it became girly, uncool, dumb, awkward, not cutting edge, old-fashioned. When it was clear that women had mastered it, it didn’t matter anymore.

In short, there is a pattern of the “pink collar ghetto” in literary genres as in other professions. (I just looked online for something to link to, to explain pink collar ghetto and did not find an adequate explanation. Yes, it refers to jobs with a high concentration of women. But it further refers to a process: as women enter a high status profession, the pay for that job goes down, and there is a tipping point where the profession itself becomes devalued because women have entered it and succeeded. I remember going in around 1991 as a fledgling tech writer to a meeting of the Society for Technical Communication, and hearing a lot of incredibly depressing but realistic talk about the pink collar ghettoization of tech writing.

Anyway, back to literary genres; the same pattern becomes clear as I do further feminist research; If you have read much Dale Spender as well as Joanna Russ then you can see a lot of good evidence.

I point to this as something that bloggers should be aware of & consider.

(I am using the word “genre” here but may be talking about some more vague category, literary movements or styles or subgenres, like “Romanticist Poetry” or “Western novels” or “science fiction” for example. )

In fact – a short digression – consider science fiction and how as women write in the genre, there is a scramble to define the part of the genre that only men do, or mostly only men do, or only men do well. Why is it so important to prove that, for example, “hard sf” or “cyberpunk” is so masculine? (Of course in the face of any evidence to the contrary.) Hmmm! Could it be a backlash to preserve the perceived literary value of a formerly male-dominated genre?

Back to Herring. From about page 15 onwards Herring & co get into the nitty gritty of some excellent questions:

Diary writing has traditionally been associated with females, and politics and external events, the mainstays of filter blogs, have traditionally been masculine topics. Furthermore, previous research shows that females write more diary blogs, and males write a disproportionate number of filter blogs (Herring, Kouper et al. 2004; Kennedy, Robinson and Trammell 2005). But what is the direction of causality, and where does gendered language fit in?

In conclusion Herring points out that the gender differences are in which genre a male or female author writes in, much more than any essential difference in grammar or writing style, and that:

Social and political consequences also follow from this
distribution: Men’s blogs are more likely to appear on ‘A-lists’ of most popular weblogs (Kennedy, Robinson and Trammell 2005), and to be reported in the mainstream media, in part because filters are considered more informative and newsworthy than personal journals (Herring, Kouper et al. 2004). This recalls the traditional stigma associated with ‘gossip’ and women’s writing (Spender 1989), and reminds us that genres are socially constructed, in part through association with the gender of their producers.

Oh look, she just referenced Spender. Right on… No wonder I like this paper.

Anyway it’s a good paper – go read it. I’ll read Herring’s other papers and I look forward to printing it out and giving it an hour or two of more close and serious reading and note-taking & reaction. Oh – and in good blogging and gossiping tradition I should mention that I came across this paper after reading Managing ‘Trolling’ in an Online Forum, which is amazing and excellent; I got to that from Wikichix, which I found because I was bitching about the lack of good feminist content on Wikipedia and a few weeks ago, some dude commented and told me to check out their talk page on Systemic Gender Bias. Since I am involved with some feminist wikis and ticked off whenever I try to engage with Wikipedia, Wikichix sounded great. If you are a wiki editing woman or would like to be, then sign up with Wikichix and add to the discussions there. There’s a mailing list and an irc channel as well as the wiki pages. & on alternet recently there was a brief article that talks about the Wikichix, Wikipedia vs. Women? with an interesting comments thread.

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Writers With Drinks report, Saturday Dec. 9

Writers With Drinks, at the Makeout Room in San Francisco, was fabulous again. Indigo Moor, a poet from Sacramento, read first. He was a dynamic and clear speaker, funny, warm, with a lot of stage presence, and I enjoyed his poetry; he read a poem about the violent territorial nature of hummingbirds (“hollow bones… strung together by frayed nerves”), “Trigger”, “Pull”, a poem about a hunting trip (“…the way everyone… is trapped in love”), and “Apotheosis”. I especially liked the hunting poem.

Laura Moriarty read two chapters from her experimental poetic bizarro science fiction novel Ultravioleta. I just heard her read from it for the anthology Paraspheres and am in the middle of the book. Wyatt, one of the human characters, gets all mixed up with Wyatt Earp and there are some good romantic slashy bits about him and Doc Holiday. There’s some aliens call “the I”. Gender and love and reality all screwed up and weird. It was hard to follow the thread of the reading; while I liked it, I think it would benefit hugely from being read aloud in a livelier way. It just occurred to me that while I just bitchily wrote “It’s not like postmodernism is a language from Mars” in another context (on a Wikipedia talk page on an article on Donna Haraway, the author of The Cyborg Manifesto) actually Moriarty’s book is kind of about postmodernist language from Mars.

Kevin Monroe, the stand up comedian in WWD’s genre mixup, was hilarious, with routines about prayer, god, and spam; Jesus’ capacity for protecting people when he wasn’t too hot on self-defense; the missing bastards of the Iraq war as compared to the Korean and Vietnam wars (the bit of race-based that made the audience the most uncomfortable, for sure), and back-alley assisted suicide. He made fun of the idea that God cares about prayers, for a minute being God, “Increase the size of your penis? What the fuck? That’s the 12th prayer on that I’ve gotten today…” leading to something that cracked me up by its outrageousness, “Fuck Nigeria. Their main export is fraud.” And then “You can’t hide an afro under a burqua.” “Malt liquor – the gatorade of street combat” and the funny bit about assisted suicide. “What? You only got 50 bucks? I hope you live, motherfucker!”

Charlie had a particularly hilarious interlude about how we were going to have a new thing at Writers With Drinks: 2 minute dates in which we all pair up and establish who’s dominant and who’s submissive, then rotate. When we’ve figured out who ranks where, the most dominant will cook and eat the most submissive while everyone else masturbates, as is customary at a literary event. There was something in here about the vanishing middle class, but I’ve forgotten… it was funny, anyway, as I contemplated literary feuds and how so many people behave like annoying divas. As usual Charlie’s humor exposes something true and interesting in a way that isn’t mean or bitter (which is so rare in humor, especially standup comedy).

After the break, Stephen Elliott read an excerpt from his novel Happy Baby – a guy sees a former guard or employee from juvenile hall who used to rape him and abuse him and “protect him” and follows him home on the bus while thinking of then and now and his current girlfriend. It was really good! I had a nice time talking with Stephen – had never met him before but I have a short story coming out in his upcoming anthology about sex in America.

At some point I met a dude named Yoz who was very bouncy and fun …

At dinner afterwards at Esperpento… (to be finished later… oops must go upstairs for jury duty)

As usual, Writers With Drinks was well attended — crowded — despite the heavy rain that prevented two of the readers from coming. (One, Grace Davis, on the wrong side of the mountains and reluctant to come over Highway 17, and the other, Lally Winston, stuck in traffic for two hours in blinding driving rain.)

Tiptree winner announcement!

Congratulations to Geoff Ryman, who has just won the James Tiptree, Jr. Literary Award for his book Air: or, Have Not Have. It’s an unusual book and a great story.

The award goes each year to a work of speculative fiction that expands and explores gender. I had a great time being on the Tiptree jury this year!

The short listed works are:

Willful Creatures by Aimee Bender (Doubleday 2005)
“Wooden Bride” by Margot Lanagan (in Black Juice, Eos 2005)
Little Faces” by Vonda N. McIntyre, on SciFiction, 02.23.05
A Brother’s Price by Wen Spencer (Roc 2005)
Misfortune by Wesley Stace (Little, Brown 2005)
Remains by Mark Tiedemann (Benbella Books 2005)

The long list and special mentions will be announced in a week or so.

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Gender and genre

As I continue reading Latin American literary criticism from the 20s and 30s onward, I keep noticing that critics often decide that women poets missed the genre bus. A critic will launch into a discussion of modernismo, and then mention at the end of the chapter that some women were writing, but they are really Romanticists who came to the party years too late. That in 1910, no respectable poet would still be writing in a Romanticist tradition; poetry has evolved beyond that. And then later, that in 1930, no respectable poet would still be writing in a modernismo tradition, because now the new thing is different.

As if only one genre could exist at a time, and as if there were a model of evolutionary progress. Literary Darwinism. And as if there weren’t fuzzy boundaries, as if even a single poem didn’t have multiple traditions feeding it – not to mention the entire body of work of a poet who might write in many genres, many styles.

But then, in a strange twist; the same critics lament that there was never a great woman Romanticist poet, never a real one who was Romanticist to the core; never a true poet of modernimso.

I see the same thing in science fiction. Oh, it’s too bad women don’t really fit “the genre” — don’t write “hard sf”. (Despite all the ones who did, and still do.) But then when they do… Well, of course when women start doing it, they’ve missed the bus; they’re out of date, they’re stuck in the past, they’re no longer the cutting edge. We men have already plumbed that genre to its depths and discarded it and we have our Great examples. We’ve gone somewhere else to redefine the center of power, now that you women have come.

And I begin to believe the same is true of the “where are the masterworks” argument. (Which is now happening, heatedly, on the WOMPO list.) Where are the masterworks by women throughout history? Where is our female Dante, Homer, Shakespeare? This question always asked as if there could be no possible answer except pity that the terribly sexist conditions of the past precluded women ever acheiving something great. How inassailably logical! Always, we are on the cusp of Now; because of the recent advances in women’s rights and education, we might, someday, hope to acheive a masterwork; the problem is, this arguement has been around for hundreds of years at least. It’s always almost. It’s always as if the problem were new and the carrot were just out of reach. And … this is a big fat lie. And women, if you buy into that lure of Now Almost Maybe and it might be you who surfs the new thing into the open arms of important history; well you’re actually screwing over the women of the past in order to eliminate some competition, you’re elbowing other women out of the way in a roller derby you aren’t going to win, because that token position is a shaky one. Be careful what you’re buying into.

It is very instructive to look at the ratio (As Beth Miller does in her essay “El sexismo en los antologías”) of women to men in anthologies over a long time period. We need more studies like this, with charts and data analysis… To make the patterns and process more obvious to everyone.

I remain convinced that not only are the masterworks out there (one small example – I’d put the Heptameron up against Boccacio any day) but there is something wrong with you definition of masterwork if you think they aren’t.

And I’m also convinced that one solution is to redefine genres. I like my idea of maenidismo as a genre. It fits so well. Redefine and recreate genres in which women’s work is central, is the core. In science fiction, we have some of that with the push to define a canon for feminist speculative fiction. But I’d like to see more thought and discussion; more genres invented. Perhaps the beginning is to take the work by women, and put it all together, and look for patterns, create groupings, look for movements and feedback loops. Then define the genre. THEN look and see if there’s any work by men that might half-way begin to fit in that genre.

I wonder if anyone else has used this approach? Probably; but it’s a new thought to me and I’ve been developing it for many years. It goes beyond the creation of women’s anthologies and studying work by women only. Create genres and traditions, and then let in men’s work halfway, as tokens. This avoids pure separatism, and the ghettoization that seems to accompany it. Even if this doesn’t “work”, with the ripple effects of power that I’d like to see, well, then it ends up functioning like other gender identity-based efforts and anthologies; as pockets for information and women’s work to be preserved for future rediscovery by people like me, which is maybe the best we can hope for.