Some Words on Women and Writing

female writers2

“Where does gender lie within the written word?”

If you would have asked me two weeks ago, I would have told you that I could not wait to get my hands on a copy of VICE’s Fiction Issue. Although they regularly feature some of my favorite female writers—Kate Carraaway, Sarah Nicole Prickett, Kat George—VICE Magazine suffers from a boys-club reputation. So, I was naturally surprised to see VICE exclusively feature female writers, photographers, and illustrators for their annual Fiction Issue. With contributors like Joyce Carol Oates and Nan Goldin, this promised to be a good read.

Then came the backlash. In between the female-authored prose and art, VICE featured a “fashion shoot” that caused uproar. The photospread, entitled “Last Words,” featured images of models posing as notable female authors—notable for attempting, and sadly in certain instances committing, suicide. The subject matter is in itself already sensitive for reasons beyond the treatment of the images or the questions of gender. Some family members of the deceased authors are still alive. Yet in a move to be “controversial,” “different,” or just get a lot of page hits, VICE decided to depict these women’s untimely deaths. Was VICE trying to make suicide trendy? Is there no other merit to a female author than her supposed propensity to end her life? Is there not one sensible editor at VICE with an ounce of common sense?

In the spread we see Virginia Woolf getting her designer dress wet as she prepares to drown herself. The Taiwanese author Sanmao is depicted hanging herself with a pair of stockings, their price also listed. Perhaps most disappointingly, VICE does not list a single work these women’s lives are recognized for. Sylvia Plath turns from one of the most important authors on mental illness in the twentieth century to a woman who dressed well before sticking her head in an oven.

Jillian Steinhauer for Hyperallergic adeptly notes how this spread leans on some of the most tired and used forms of misogyny in the book:

But that last idea is what gets me the most. It is 2013, and we are still, still having to deal with this broadly accepted notion that women create art from life, that their life and work are inextricably bound, that who they are inevitably frames what they produce. I daresay a magazine, even Vice, would never do the same photo shoot based on male writers. Male writers struggle with depression and suicide, but we give them the benefit of not pinning their entire identities and careers on it. For female writers, it’s a milestone — and it works as a fashion statement!

The photos are less a glorification of the act of suicide than they are a glorification of these women as suicides, which is one of the oldest forms of sexism in the book. It’s more than a little ironic that taking one’s own life, the ultimate act of agency, has become such a neat vehicle for women’s objectification.

I was harrowed by the images. I held the Fiction Issue in my hand and had to put it away, refusing to buy a copy of something that I had hoped I would commend and cherish.

If a magazine attempting to feature female writers ends up ranking them by cause of death, how do we measure their writing in life?

Not too far from the spot on the newsstand where the VICE Fiction Issue stood, I saw the other array of publications that regularly feature writing by women. They are your “women’s magazines” — Vogue, Glamour, Elle, Cosmo, Marie Claire. Besides the occasional flip-through of Vogue’s fashion spreads, I never read these magazines. For one, they normalize unrealistic and unhealthy bodies and applaud hypersexuality as the mark of the savvy and modern Young-Girl. Their appeal is almost always aimed at cis, straight, economically and educationally privileged women. I write them off as less-than-worthy reads.

Apparently I am not alone. Port Magazine, an unknown and overall irrelevant British magazine, featured a cover of the “best magazine editors out there.” They were all white, and they were all men. When asked why there was absolutely no variety in his cover, Dan Crowe, editor-in-chief of Port, said that those other women’s magazines with all those other women editors just weren’t “serious” enough (with the exception of Anna Wintour, who declined to be featured in the cover.)

magazine editors port

And Crowe isn’t alone in writing off women’s magazines as mere frivolities. As Jessica Grose (a frequent writer for women’s magazines herself) reported in the New RepublicThe American Society of Magazine Editors (ASME) consistently gives fewer and fewer nods to women’s magazines in its National Magazine Awards (NMA). Surprisingly, even to me, Grose reports that not a single women’s magazine has been nominated for profile writing, reporting, and fiction in more than a decade. On the other hand, GQ and Esquire, “men’s magazines” if you will, get frequent nominations. Even worse, women’s magazines compete in their own category for “service and fashion magazines” while men’s magazines, which often also write about fashion, get included in “general interest.”

The implications of these statements are unsettling. Although at times sandwiched between perfume ads and beauty tips, good long-form feature writing is published in women’s magazines.  It is not the quality and breadth of the writing that is in question, but rather its claim to “seriousness.” That is, seriousness as defined by the men lined up in all their self-importance on the cover of Port. The themes relevant to women’s magazines— namely fashion, beauty, and fitness—are imposed by a capitalist system that perpetuates standards attainable only through consumption. More importantly, they are just as often taken up in men’s magazines as well. It is the feminine aspect of these themes, the feminine appeal of their writing, that is written off as unimportant.

Where does gender lie within the written word? I find it hard to convincingly say that women write differently than men. If anything, the distinction lies in writing about lived experience. A trans woman’s “writing style” may be affected by her experience of cissexism and trans-misogyny. A journalist responding to pervasive lookism may write a feature on plastic surgery for Cosmo. Just like any argument that attempts to pin down a somewhat black-and-white biological distinction between genders—categories that are in themselves undefinable and fluid—distinguishing a gendered writing style seems ambiguous at best.

It is the perceptions of the relevance and quality of women’s writing that need to shift. The hate on women’s magazines and VICE’s Fiction Issue illuminate the continuing discriminations we carry with us as we read. We must read more voices, be them female, transgender, queer, of color or otherwise. We need to distinguish and validate those voices for the experiences they represent. We need to acknowledge that relevance can no longer be defined by a white-straight-male norm. And as we need to support alternative media outlets that are conscious of their representations of writers. Excluding the shameful photo spread, VICE‘s Fiction Issue is a questionable but at least still conscious appeal towards that. The day they no longer need to make a special issue for women writers is the day I will buy their magazine again.

By: Ana Cecilia Alvarez, Managing Blog Editor

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