No Country for Young Women

I didn’t set out to stop reading fiction written by men, or to stop watching movies and TV with male protagonists, I just got tired.

Sufficiently tired of women as props—as raped and beaten and tortured and murdered bodies meant to motivate the real, male people at the center of the world—that I stopped reading/watching fiction not previously vetted. Then I had a baby, and even less energy for anger or time for nonsense. At the first hint of the poisonous defaults that make women disposable, I dropped novels and movies and series.

But the defaults remain difficult to avoid, particularly on screen, and especially because I prefer tech-and-adrenaline to romantic comedies and srs ppl dramas about srs ppl problems. So as I write this I’m reeling from another startling viciousness, another promising tech series that declined midseason to butchering women as a way of giving its male characters depth. (Defaults.)

It’s not even that my politics quail at something I otherwise enjoy. I’m just stung and sad, and ashamed that I keep falling for the same trick. If a piece of fiction is made by and emotionally centered on men, chances are, it defaults to the belief that women are nothing but fuel. Doesn’t matter if I’m catching every reference and gleefully staying ahead of every jump. It will eventually declare that it’s not meant for me. Sometimes the women are missing, or just vacant; sometimes there’s a string of bloody bodies that look like mine. The point comes across.

The foundation of my frantic desire to get away from this stuff in fiction is that I can’t avoid it anywhere else. Even leaving aside the news, the street, and the internet, if you’re a girl who reads a lot of history, and you grow into a woman who reads a lot more, you spend your entire reading life slicing your toes on nails sticking up through the floor, because as you pick your way through the hostile territory of the past, you’ll do so via the accounts of fêted men who believe half of our species is cunning but stupid, intrinsically trivial, intellectually dead.

And because those (default) beliefs suffuse the accounts of even the most sensitive, thoughtful writers—even some of the women—you will be constantly, stupidly surprised when that rusty point jabs through the sole of your boot.

How did women come to speak? For language extinguishes their soul. Women receive no sounds from it and no salvation. Words waft over women who are sitting together, but the wafting is crude and toneless; they lapse into idle chatter. Yet their silence towers above their talk. Language does not bear women’s souls aloft, because they do not confide in it; their past is never resolved.… The language of women has remained inchoate. Talking women are possessed by a demented language.

That’s Walter Benjamin at twenty-one. Reading it in my late twenties after years of scavenging his books from secondhand bookshops and fervently comparing translations broke my stupid heart.

Of course that’s what he thought, crooned the snake in the brain. And on the bad old days, when the snags were fresh: Not one of your heroes believed you’re a person.

But eventually you remember the snake is a shit. So I clawed through the stacks till I found writers who did cast women as people. Virginia Woolf and Toni Morrison and Anaïs Nin and Nicola Griffith and Elizabeth Hand and Jeanette Winterson and William Gibson and Gertrude Stein. (Meshell Ndegeocello, Martina Topley-Bird, Beth Gibbons, Diamanda Galás, Missy Elliott, Nina Simone.) They even gave me the headroom to appreciate a few of the male writers who dehumanized women in literature or abused them in life without losing my actual mind.

I recently lost easy access to most of my music library, and as I’ve hauled my songs back up, one album at a time, it’s turned out I’m mostly just listening to Robyn and Janelle Monae and Lorde and Neko Case and Rosa Lamoreaux’s spectacular Hildegard von Bingen and yet more Martina—which is instructive, I guess. Thank you subconscious.

So more carefully now, I’m clearing the table of books by and especially for men to make room for more, fiction and otherwise, by women. Film and TV are harder, because the sorts I enjoy are rarely entrusted to filmmakers and showrunners who value women, though I seek out exceptions.

With books, though, it’s an easy decision. Some women authors are as fully immersed in the nightmare as any oblivious dude, but I go in knowing they are at least women, and readers. Which means their feet are bloody, too.