How to Feminist Your Writing
Most people want to be feminist in their writing. Maybe not in a rabid way, but enough to show that they believe that humans should not be discriminated against based on gender stereotypes. That’s reasonable enough. You would think this stance would be easy enough to convey in written form.
The thing is, it’s really not.
When I’m reading an article that brings up gender issues in some way, I never know if I’m going to get an article that actually addresses issues in a thoughtful way, or one that merely throws around the word feminism while simultaneously engaging in some seriously lazy anti-women (or occasionally, anti-men) rhetoric.
I don’t mean that the author is woman/man bashing out of malice. Just the opposite. I think sexist language is so engrained, that it takes a real effort NOT to use it.
Or you could just be born a woman. But anyway…
So if you’re trying your best to support gender equality, but something just seems off about the tone of your articles, this guide is for you. I’m not going to go into any actual feminist theory—everybody knows that already. These are just some quick, dirty tips to automatically make your writing sound more feminist.
Tip #1 Gender Neutral Language Is Your Friend
I can hear the anguished cries. “The IS no language without gender! I can no more give up gendered language than I can myself stop being my own gender! You maniac!”
Okay, okay. I get that side too. No one will be asked to give up his or her own gender, or to eschew gendered words forever.
But I think gender neutral words get a bad rap. There are so many perfectly good ones. And they can be plenty descriptive.
I’m sure you can think of loads more. Great! The obvious advantage is that any of these words can be applied to either a male or a female. But how exactly does this make your writing more feminist?
Actually, I’m not sure. But since this essay is about technique, not philosophy, I’m not going to spend a lot of time worrying about why it works. It just does. I think when you avoid gendered language, you force your audience to consider the situation in universal human terms. Okay, that’s ended up being a philosophical explanation anyway.
The Nostalgia Critic is a good example how to use non-gendered language. Sure, he uses plenty of gendered terms as well. But watch his videos and you’ll see how often he calls characters out for being unprofessional at their jobs, unbelievably stupid, or just total jerks. The analysis just wouldn’t be as entertaining if he just said “Dumb bitch” instead of, for example, “She’s just going to leave two helpless children home alone in the middle of a typhoon? Worst parent of the year!”
To take another example, I’ll always remember from the Nostalgia Critic’s The Top 11 Batman Episodes review, how he said that Mr. Freeze is a layered character because the image of a “frozen loved one” is so compelling. Why did the Critic say “loved one?” Why not “woman” or “wife” or “girl”? Maybe the word choice wasn’t even intentional. But I certainly noticed it. I noticed because the phrasing made me sit up and pay closer attention. Because I’m not a man in love with a woman. But I have loved ones. Everyone does. If the Critic had used any other word, I wouldn’t have identified at all with the character he was describing. But since he used a slightly more unusual phrase I was really moved by the story. So my advice is to just try using more human condition words. You might be surprised at how poetic your writing sounds.
Enough explanation! Let’s do some practice:
Finding Nemo is a story about the immortal bond between father and son.
Finding Nemo explores the bond between parents and children: how even the best-meaning parents need to learn to let go.
I hear he got in a bit of trouble after seducing a girl at the office.
I hear a coworker reported him for sexual harassment.
Hey, no one calls my mother a slut!
Wow. That was incredibly inappropriate. What alternate universe do you come from where broad personal attacks against another person’s family members do anything but damage your own credibility?
Extra credit: Go back after reading to the end and find other examples of feminist and non-feminist sentence structures.
Now for point two.
Tip #2 “You” and “People” include more than one gender
Now, most people get this on a theoretical level. We all know that our readers probably represent a range of ages, races, and genders. That’s why it jolts you to be reading along in a paragraph where the author is describing “your” possible feelings or reactions and realize, “No. That’s not a thing that could in a million years happen to me because it’s not biologically possible.”
For example, in a hypothetical article about self improvement, aimed at a general audience.
When you go to ask out a pretty girl, you’re likely to feel nervous…
Um…No. Because not lesbian?
Now, this article is about a lot more than trying to snag that perfect girlfriend.
Good. Because still not lesbian.
Most guys will feel like…
And most girls? What will we feel like? TELL ME!
I’m not talking about articles specifically aimed at men or at women. In that case, of course I assume the advice is slanted a particular way. I’m talking about supposedly general interest articles where somehow whenever the author addresses the audience, he assumes it’s white and male (like himself).
And now an example from an article talking about gender issues:
“If you lived in a polygamous society, you’d get to have as many wives at you wanted. Which sounds pretty awesome, right? But then you’d go broke paying for all your wives’ expensive shit, and you’d have to compete with the richer, more confident men for the best women. So it might seem like a sweet deal, but there’s actually a lot of valid reasons why polygamy isn’t the best choice for society.”
Imagine what happens when it becomes:
“If you lived in a polygamous society, and you’re female, you’d probably have an arranged marriage at a young age, and you’d become one of several wives or concubines in the household. You’d be a status symbol for your husband, or at most a high-class servant. Contrawise, because the genders are so unevenly distributed, poor men would have difficulty marrying at all.”
It all depends on whose perspective you take.
It shouldn’t be a brainwave that when you’re already writing about feminist issues, you should consider both male and female perspectives. Except sometimes it is.
If you do want to address a statement to specifically men or specifically women, just add a qualifier before whatever description follows. Instead of “people” or “you,” try, “If you’re in this situation, and you’re a man…” (Or female, as per my example above.) Nothing wrong with wanting to address a single gender. Just be clear about when you’re doing so. Don’t assume that all your readers come from exactly the same point of view as you—and if they don’t, that their perspective doesn’t exist.
The rule applies to all groups, not only your readers. Be careful when referring to any mixed group of people, because it’s so very easy to write as if the members (the important ones) are all male.
Example: In the X society, they allow women a fair amount of sexual freedom.
Sounds great, right? Yay feminism that allows women freedom! But there’s a problem. Not the dangling modifier (the pronoun “they” has nothing to refer back to). Who exactly is “allowing” women freedom? The members of the X society?
But aren’t some members of the X society women themselves? Are we supposed to read the sentence as “In the X society women take power into their own hands to make decisions regarding their sex lives”?
I doubt it.
You read it as, “The men in the X society are lenient and allow their women sexual freedom,” right?
Not so feminist after all.
Even in an article about feminism, in a sentence praising a feminist society, you can still make the underlying assumption that men control women’s lives by default. Not because you’re criticizing the fact that men controlling women is ever a default, but because even when describing the exact opposite situation, you have no language to draw on that does not put women under the rule of men.
Another example: “The thing that disgusts me about Evangelicals is how they treat their women.”
Yes, school me, you enlightened Atheist blogger. Evangelicals are all men. Women are only Evangelical property. I’m sure you’re much more lenient in how you treat your women.
Tip #3 Both Women and Men Are Actors; Women are not Property of Men
Let’s lead with another example.
John took his wife and children and moved across the country to follow his dream.
The children here are minors and have little say in where the family moves and little responsibility in actually arranging the move. But what about the nameless wife? Did John bodily pick her up and throw her in the back of the car? Probably no. Like most couples, John and Nameless Wife likely discussed the move together and each took some responsibility in the preparations. However, the sentence degrades the female partner to another box our hero had to label and stick in the moving van.
Let’s write, The couple and their children moved across the country to follow John’s dream.
We don’t believe in the patriarchal structure of Man as the head of the house anymore, but sometimes it still shows up in writing. So just check yourself. Do you refer to men by name and women by their relationship to men?
John and his girlfriend
John showed up with a girl
John and his wife
John and a girl he had picked up somewhere
John was talking to a girl
John and the girl with him
John and the girl he was currently dating
If you know both people’s names, why not write both people’s names? Especially if both people’s actions are relevant to whatever you’re writing about.
More than any other context, granting agency to all players is vital when writing about domestic violence. Whatever genders are involved, you have to recognize the humanity of all involved in such a fraught situation. Or you could easily end up degrading the victim.
For example, I came across this sentence in an online article:
We all remember what Chris Brown did to Rhianna’s face.
This writer obviously had no tolerance for such violence. To consider another person one’s own possession, so be destroyed or not at will is an absolutely horrible mindset. Yet the writer’s language reinforces this mindset.
How many people are involved in the sentence? One. Chris Brown. He didn’t hurt a person. He just did something unspecified to a face.
Now, we all know the face belonged to a person named Rhianna and she apparently had rights not to be physically assaulted. We can do a little extra analytical work to see the humanity of women, right? That’s not too much to ask of your reader. I mean, the fact that the face belonged to Rhianna is written right there.
So imagine the writer had gone with,
We all remember how Rhianna endured horrible violence at the hands of her then-boyfriend, Chris Brown.
People may read the two sentences and feel no difference whatsoever. But I don’t. It may be just me, but even substituting a gender neutral word (as per tip 1) makes a huge difference. This is the kind of dialog that plays out in my head whenever I read about a violent situation.
“I hear he beat up a person.”
“OMG why did he go and beat up a random person? He’s a maniac!”
“I mean, he beat up a girl.”
“Oh. Why didn’t you just say so?”
Why is domestic violence in a different box in my mind from all other kinds of violence? Violence is just violence. I don’t care what gender you are or how you’re related to your abuser. You don’t deserve to have something nebulous done to your face.
Tip #3 Slut-shaming and violence against women should not be a default punchline to your jokes
This should be a given. In fact, there are a lot of things that should never be a default punchline. Racism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, ableism, misandry, you name it. Anything that dehumanizes a certain type of person and makes their unjustified suffering the butt of your joke.
So let’s go with an example.
“My uncle Fred was so drunk last night. Maybe he raped ten women on the way back from the bar and totally forgot about it. He was that drunk.”
Whaaaaa? How did we go from a drunk uncle to a serial rapist uncle in two sentences? That’s not funny. In fact, your uncle should be pretty insulted if you accuse him of being a dangerous criminal.
But we don’t have to take these remarks seriously. They’re jokes, right? Yes, except for the total lack of anything even remotely resembling actual humor.
I’m still looking for a good real life example of this kind of joke, but a good place to go is podcasts hosted by white guys, and pay attention when they go off script. If they’re the kind to find violence against women funny, you’ll often hear an exchange like this.
Host: “So, about that cool sciency thing which is the podcast’s topic…”
Co-host: “What? Did you say woman being gang raped?”
Co-host: “Woman being GANG RAPED!”
Host: “What? Women??? No, I said ‘cool sciency thing which is the topic of this podcast.’”
Co-host: “Oh, haha. Cuz it totally sounded like you said women getting gang raped.”
Host: “Women getting gang raped? Co-host, you iz so random…Gang raped…haha. No, that wasn’t what I was saying at all.”
Co-host: “Well, I never know with you.”
Host: “Never know with—haha, cuz I’ve gang raped so many women! I can’t even get laid 90% of the time, man!”
Co-host: “Well, that’s probably why you…”
Host: “Now you’re just insulting my masculinity. You are cruel.”
Co-host: “And you probably leave their bodies in the sewer!”
Host: “Bodies in the sewer. Oh, you are hilarious. So what were we talking about? Besides women’s bodies being left in the sewer, that it.”
Co-host: “Um, that sciency thing?”
And then they finally get back to the sciency thing I actually wanted to hear about for approximately two seconds, before they go off on another one of these tangents. And all the while I’m listening to them banter like this, my inner monologue is going,
Every syllable that’s coming out of your mouths is MAKING YOU STUPIDER! I am ASHAMED. Ashamed for men, and ashamed for the human race that this even passes as conversation. There is no brain activity here. There is just EW. Listening to this podcast I feel like I’m reaching up to my elbow into a backed up toilet because I accidently dropped my phone down there and I need to fish it out. Except I don’t need to listen to your shit to hear about the interesting topic you promised in the description you’d actually be talking about. I’M CLOSING THE WINDOW, SUCKERS.
You really start to wonder about people. When during a podcast, every off-the-cuff joke is something at the expense of women, or in an article where every added-in joke is something about male lust. What is the author’s mind like that this is the topic he always goes back to? (Yes, I’m using male pronouns, but I’ve honestly never seen any dialog like the one above come out of the mouths of women.)
It’s like when you point out a wrinkle in your friend’s rug. But they’re like, “No, it’s totally flat. See?” And they start jumping on it. But whenever they stop crushing it down, the rug goes back to its normal state. It’s just a crooked rug. In the same way, some people can force themselves to sound enlightened, but whenever they lose their focus they go back to being jerks.
I’m torn. I can’t decide if for 90% of people, no matter how feminist terminology they pick up, in their deepest hearts they still ascribe to mindsets that elevate men at the expense of women—or if while people have their hearts in the right place, but their clueless use of language undermines their good intentions. Either way, we’re kind of screwed.
Empathy really is the key to writing, speaking, and living well. When you consider the situation of someone who looks very different from you, you have to remember that inside they are the same. They also have thoughts and opinions. They have the same basic need to be treated fairly. No one considers themselves an inconsequential person inside their own head.
In the same way, I don’t want to imagine writers as if they exist in a haze of white male cluelessness. As if there’s this inner dialog in their heads going, I am so awesome. I have mastered feminism too! Women are so quirky. I will show them that I can speak their language, and they will praise me.
No one really thinks like that. We’re all just trying to communicate with each other.
Sometimes we just need better tools to do it.