First, some back story:
As some of you might be aware, I record a monthly podcast called The Writer and the Critic with my dear friend, Ian Mond. We talk about books and the speculative fiction scene and, occasionally, Other Things. A couple of months ago, inspired by some thought-provoking listener feedback regarding the differences in the way boys and girls read, and the effects this might have on their adult selves, Ian and I wandered into a discussion about the “default male” worldview that permeates our culture. As an off-the-cuff illustration, I observed that our cultural semiotic language employs the same basic stick figure to signify both “human” and “male” and that this stick figure actually needs to be altered in order to signify “female”. But that it is used all the time to include female, effectively, as a subset of male. Even though — and this is the important part — the stick figure itself has absolutely no markers of gender one way or another. It’s a basic symbol for “human being”. That’s it. But we don’t have a separate, slightly altered stick figure which means “male”. One serves for both. Male is the default. Female is the other, the altered, the subset. This is the dominant mindset that boys and girls grow up navigating: boys see a symbol for human as being synonymous with themselves; girls are forced to “insert self here” whenever they see the human/male symbol. Language is powerful. Semiotics possibly even more so. The small illustration of the stick figures serves to illuminate a whole lot more about gender politics in the wider culture.
We talked for twenty minutes or so about this stuff. I drew stick figures which, while not lending themselves well to an audio production, did freak Ian out quite a bit. And that I think you can hear. If you want to listen to the whole conversation, it’s at the start of this episode. Obviously, it’s all off the cuff and if I was writing an essay, I’d be a lot more thoughtful and less general in some of things I said. (The implication that there is a gender binary, for instance. Not good.) But it is one of the more interesting and important non-book conversations we’ve had, and I thought about it a lot over the days that followed.
As did some of our listeners, apparently, one of whom put me onto the idea of distilling the conversation down into a logo of sorts. Which I did. I also may have spent just a leeeeetle too much time setting up a Zazzle webstore for the podcast. Actually, I originally just wanted my own t-shirt (and mug and magnet) as well as some stickers and badges to give away at our upcoming live recording at Continuum 8, but Ian and I thought it was a good idea to make the store public so other people could buy merch as well if they wanted to. Hell, we might even make enough from our minuscule margins to pay for our Podbean hosting. We can but dream.
Anyway, we announced the opening of the store on last month’s episode of The Writer and the Critic and I wrote something about it in the shownotes and included the badge image. I like it, if I do say so myself. It’s simple and direct and, hopefully, conversation-starting. As I said in the shownotes, “Why is the stick figure female? The more important question is, why is it male?” (And no, I don’t have any real idea as to what a male-specific stick figure would be. Stop asking to see the drawings.)
So that’s the back story.
Yesterday, a lengthy comment was left on the page for last month’s episode by someone with whom I’ve been friends since my early twenties. (I’m 38 now. We’re talking pre-internet time, kids.) Her feedback was essentially a primer about the purpose and function of language and symbols, which ended with the following:
On an Exit Sign the stick figure represents all humans; it is not an exit for men only. On a toilet block, the stick figure is male. It is universally understood to be male without being vulgar. We don’t want any confusion when it comes to public toilets, do we?
Why is the stick figure male? The simple answer is, “Why not?”
By the way, I noticed you used traditional symbolic colouring for your “female stick figure” – red or pink for female.
Her comment felt a little condescending in assuming that Ian and I didn’t actually know how symbols worked but, as I said, I’ve known her for a long time and she is a very blunt person, so I let that go. It didn’t seem like she had actually listened to the previous month’s episode (or maybe even this one) as she was reiterating some of the points we had in fact made about language and semiotics, and was possibly commenting solely on what was in the shownotes. Fair enough. I replied in what I thought was a friendly manner, pointing out that pink was actually a colour traditionally linked to boys until the early 20th Century (being a diluted form of the “masculine” red), and stating that, while I understood how language/symbols worked, the thrust of the conversation I’d had with Ian went deeper than that: “What I find interesting is the dissection of language, and of its subtext, meaning and evolution.”
Her follow-up began with:
I do not believe every one who creates a symbol has a gender agenda. Symbols are graphic designs created to convey information in the most immediate and easily recognizable way possible. I don’t believe there is a worldwide conspiracy to disenfranchise women through the use of graphic art.
She again offered an explanation of how symbols worked, stated that she comes from “a visual arts background and [doesn't] view the world in terms of gender politics as you appear to now do,” and concluded with a P.S. in the form of a joke she thought I “might enjoy”:
Q: Why can’t men get mad cow disease?
A: Because men are pigs.
I definitely bristled. If she had indeed listened to the podcast, then she seemed to be ignoring all the complexities of the conversation in favour of re-framing what we actually said into some kind of hysterical conspiracy theory. (But, again, I suspected she hadn’t listened.) It was cheap and simplistic, and I told her so. In the context of the discussion at hand, her joke felt like it was being offered with the implication that I would like it because, of course, with all my feminist nonsense, I must be anti-male, and I told her that was a cheap shot as well.
Now, in the harsh light of retrospect, I wonder if this was the case — at least with the joke part. I have known and liked this woman for the better part of two decades. As well as being blunt, she’s given to scatty, corny humour and wordplay. It’s possible she really was offering the joke as way of lightening her reply at the end, that she was making fun of the idea of the stereotypical man-hating feminist, rather than suggesting that I was one. I honestly can’t tell. What I do know is, if I wasn’t friends with her, I would not have given a second thought to her intentions. Nor would I care so much. (It’s not so easy to write off the words of friends, as it turns out.)
In any case, I was done. She didn’t reply and I decided to email her directly in the morning to talk properly out of the public sphere. Except this morning there was another comment, beginning:
Kirstyn, it saddens me that you appear to have lost your sense of humour and resort to personal attacks when all I’m trying to do is explain a bit about graphic design. So I’ll let you have the last word.
(Yes, I see the irony.) “Here’s an article I found that you might find interesting,” she continues, following up with an entire cut-and-paste of the text of an old 1400 word article I’d written back in 1996 for a Sydney fanzine called The Mentor which is now archived online. Called “A Matter of Sex(ism!)”, the piece was my response to a really quite awful diatribe about how awful men were by someone called Lyn Elvey that I’d come across in a previous issue. I was twenty-three years old, just out of university and brimming with Important Ideas About The World. Seeing it there in the comments stream this morning, I was initially at a loss for words. Had she posted it in hopes of embarrassing me with something stupid I said sixteen years ago? Or did she want to chide me for losing my way along with my sense of humour? It was admittedly with some trepidation that I began to read those long-forgotten words of my twenty-three year old self. But it was a wonderful experience. It really, really was. Not only was I not embarrassed, I was proud of those words. Oh sure, that twenty-three year old was full of bluff and bravado, and she got a few things out of whack, but she was damn fierce.
Lyn Elvey: Where is the man who’s dream in life is a room wholly dedicated to being a library, who uses a diary for his personal life, and who thinks there is more to life than work? Who is looking to his retirement not with foreboding but as a time to do the multitude of hobbies, interests and travelling he wants to do with the partner of his choice. Where is the man who wants a companion of his own age and experience rather than a dolly bird twenty years younger (who is not after his body, let me tell you). He doesn’t exist.
Kirstyn McDermott (age 23): [I] am in a very happy relationship with (horror of horrors) a man – a man whose dream in life is a room dedicated to a library, who does think there is more to life than work, who is intelligent and can commit himself to plans more than two weeks in advance (yes Lyn, he does exist, oh really and truly he does — I’ve pinched him!).
LE: Am I a feminist, or have I met all the wrong men? I can’t help feeling that women are much more the superior sex. We live longer and manage better single than married (married men live longer!). We are more realistic, practical and let me tell you from daily experience, better drivers. And if you don’t agree with me, why do authors keep writing stories about future societies with women in charge? Because it is the logical conclusion for the superior sex, of course. Rather than being a frightening prospect, it is the golden vista that one can hope and dream for. Do you think women are going to spend multi-millions on armaments rather than food or clothes?
KMcD: It’s because of attitudes like those expressed by Lyn Elvey … that I have voluntarily exiled myself from the contemporary feminist movement. Too many women these days are going overboard, claiming superiority over men instead of demanding equality. Is it any wonder that “Feminist” has become the new “F-word” of the nineties? To purport the myth of female superiority is as equally destructive to society as it would be to assert male dominance. All the (valid) feminist arguments about psychological oppression and self-fulfilling prophecy would be just as applicable to men were they to become the inferior sex.
LE: As a final argument to the “logic” of men, in several Asian countries it is the policy to restrict family sizes. Because they value men, these societies have “disposed” of the baby girls and only keep the sons. So now they have populations of adult males in their twenties, thirties and forties with many less females about. They can find wives because there are not enough to go around. What a brilliant piece of logic!!! Particularly when they want sons to carry on the name, etc. Who did they think were going to have them?
KMcD: I think Lyn’s “final argument” concerning male (il)logic needs to be set in its proper context. The reason girl babies are often secretly disposed of in China and some other Asian countries is more an economic one than anything else. It should be pointed out that this practice does not usually occur in richer families (usually because money has a way of talking itself around the law), but is prevalent amongst the poor. The reason for the preference of sons is not primarily because they will carry on the family name, but because they do not require a large, expensive dowry to be provided upon their marriage, and because a son is expected to look after his parents in their old age. Quite literally, poor families cannot afford a daughter. It is hardly an example of male logic, but of cultural logic.
LE: Like most women I am an organised, multi -tasking individual, able to juggle a busy working life with a large range of commitments and a good circle of friends. I do my utmost to do my work as quickly and as efficiently as possible and to keep my “customers” happy. I endeavour to keep in touch with as many of my friends as possible, meeting them for meals or just having a chat. And from my list of commitments above you can see I devote time to a number of other causes. So, I ask you, why can’t men be like that too?
KMcD: In short, Lyn Elvey’s article was sexism, pure and simple, and I refuse to be associated with her caricature of womanhood. Sure, there is lot – and I mean a lot – wrong with our society, but the solution will never lie in inverting the problem. Women better than men? The last time I heard something so ridiculous was when men were running around claiming that they were the superior sex. The answer is really simple, boys and girls. Can anybody say “symbiosis”?
Back on The Writer and the Critic site, I sent my last reply to my friend. I don’t know if she’ll bother to respond — or even if she’s still my friend — but I thanked her for posting that old article of mine and told her that I was happy to stand by those words of my twenty-three year old self. The views Elvey held mirrored a lot of the extreme feminism with which I had been bombarded during university, and I was — and still am — wearied, angered and frustrated by them. I associated them with feminism and then I disassociated feminism from myself. But sixteen years is a long time, and my own views are necessarily less simplistic than they were back then. And thank goodness for that. Sixteen years would be a long time for a person’s mind to remain unaltered. These days, I realise that the feminist movement is made up of many, many different viewpoints, and that none of its extremist proponents represent it as a whole. Base level: feminism simply holds the view that all genders are of equal worth and should be granted equal rights and opportunities. Full stop. If you believe that, you’re a feminist. (And yes, I consider my friend a feminist. I don’t know what she considers herself.)
Ironically, I told her, the attitude I held at age twenty-three was similar to one which seems to be (sadly) prevalent today: if you call yourself a feminist, if you talk about gender politics and inequality between the sexes, if you suggest that (white, straight) male privilege exists and needs to be interrogated and dismantled, then you are obviously one of those humourless, man-hating, female supremacists who are just as bad as the system they would like to overthrow. It’s an attitude I am glad I no longer hold. I’m glad that I’ve changed. I hope that I will continue to change. I would only be embarrassed by what I thought sixteen years ago, if I thought exactly the same way today. The world is changing so damn fast. It’s scary and exciting and breathtaking, and who the hell would I be if I didn’t at least try to change with it? Someday I’m sure I’ll be telling the kids to get off my virtual lawn and talking about how swell it was back in the day before the world all went to hell in a handbasket, but today is not that day.
So, I started thinking about my twenty-three year old self, and about what my seventy-three year old self might think of me as I am now, and I decided that hope I make her laugh fondly, and roll her eyes, and remember what it was like to be thirty-eight. Above all, I hope I make her proud. And then I started to think of the things I would say to my twenty-three year old self — which would probably make her roll her eyes and laugh, though not as fondly — and my reply to my friend stopped being my reply to my friend, and became something I decided to write a blog post about instead. It happens.
For what it’s worth, Kirstyn Maria McDermott, age 23, listen up:
You’re awesome. Really, you are. You’re passionate and you stand up for what you believe in and you don’t like it when people try to tell you what to think, how to act or who you should be based on reductionist reasoning. You’re also smart and you like to come at things on your own terms, after you’ve thought about them a lot. (Sometimes, a little too much. You should work on that.)
But here’s something you don’t want to hear: the world is really, really complicated. I know you think you have a whole lot of stuff worked out right now, but actually you’ve only just started. And you’re never, ever going to finish. That’s what life is like. Just when you think you have a worldview nailed, some pesky fact, experience, opinion or argument is going to come along to skittle things. Not completely, not always — you do get better at this, I promise — but enough to make you realise that issues are rarely black and white, that the world and its inhabitants are complex and nuanced and don’t like to be put in a pigeon hole any more than you do. That’s all right. That’s how it works. The day you sit back and decide that you’re done, that you have all the shit worked out and you never have to learn anything or refine your opinions ever again, that’s the day you know you’re in trouble. Seriously.
That thing in your piece about China, for instance. That’s funny. You’re going to realise just how funny in another sixteen years. I can’t believe you can’t see it now, actually. It’s *right there* in that naiive — but passionate — little paragraph you wrote, how gender is intrinsically entwined with economics, how women have been traditionally valued to market, how what you call “cultural logic” is thoroughly meshed with “economic logic” and “gender logic” and a whole lot more besides. How can you not see it yet? Never mind, I’ll wait. Then I’ll laugh with you. And give you a big hug.
(Also, that guy you’re with? Not going to last, sorry. But don’t fret, there’s the most amazing man in your future. Seriously, A-MAY-ZING. You’ll love him. I do.)