Recently Kate Messner wrote a moving and thoughtful post on gender, language, and responsibility in the Kid Lit World. As you know if you read the post, I witnessed the same events that she did, and have my own complicated reactions to them, which I will try to summarize below.
This is not the equality I was looking for.
Kate recounts a moment before the panel began when a librarian approached the group of panelists. She went around the circle telling each of us in gushing detail specific things she liked about our books. I was feeling pretty good. Then she got to Nate Ball and said, “You are hot. I heard you were hot.” And we all shifted uncomfortably.
I have a two year-old daughter and people often stop to tell her how cute/pretty/beautiful/sweet she is. I have taken to replying with things like, “Yes, and she’s also very smart.” Or, “Actually, she can be quite the devil” (because she can). I do this because I don’t want her to grow up thinking that the qualities that define girlhood are prettiness and sweetness. I wish I had said something similar in this instance, some joke or quip that would let Nate know that I valued his writing and his smarts more than his looks. Something that might let this librarian know that what she had said — albeit in a moment of giddy joy — was wildly inappropriate.
It felt a bit like a world turned upside down. How many times have women in the workplace complained that men are praised for their accomplishments while women must deal with remarks on their looks? As we bemoaned this, what we were looking for was not for men to experience this same discrimination, but rather that women would be valued for their work. As I thought about this more, I imagined the situation reversed in which an older man approached a young female writer and commented on how attractive she was. We would all recognize this as harrassment, wouldn’t we? What happened to Nate was not fair, and I am truly sorry that I did not intervene.
The ocean and the atmosphere
Now in regards to the more general attitiude post-panel, I need to say that I did not feel particularly overlooked. I got to talk about lobster rolls with a lovely Texas librarian, and I missed a lot of the ooh-ing and ah-ing. I head some of it, though. Morevover, the panel was aweseome. Shirley Duke was a terrific moderator. In addition to Kate and Nate we were joined by Wendy Mass, Suzanne Selfors, and Matt Kirby. Hearing how each of them approached their writing and research was a master class in writing. I want to make it clear that for me — as it was for Kate — this was an overwhelmingly positive experience.
Kate’s post pointed to a larger problem. When librarians gush over a male speaker,
It sends a strong message to the people who put together panels for teachers and librarians: Teachers and librarians like panels with men. Cute young men are good. Bonus points if they are also funny and charming. And while many cute, young, charming, funny men are also darn good writers, the end result of filling panels with these men is that publishers are leaving out women who might be just as talented, funny, and smart. Words matter. When we gush over writers because they are men, when we say, “He’s just adorable!” what publishers hear is “Send us your men. We will buy their books.” And publishing is a business. So that is what happens. It is happening more and more often.
This is true. There are some egregious examples: Mega-Awesome Adventures led only by men, or a BookCon Blockbuster Kids Panel that includes, you guessed it, four men.
The problem is the more subtle cases. We are swimming in a sea of bias. When someone pulls out a fish to use as an example, as Kate has done, it is easy to explain away the problem in that particular case. After all, this was a science panel that included four female authors with two men, a ratio that more closely resembles the gender distribution in kid lit. And on this panel there was no talk of how these science books were so important because of the boys who would like to read them. Rather, both Kate and Nate talked about the importance of women in STEM fields. Finally, Nate, in addition to being a terrific writer, is an engaging speaker who was supremely gracious to his fellow panelists. So how can we blame the audience for focusing on him? What’s the real problem?
Similarly, Kelly Jensen has been pointing out problems with the New York Times bestseller lists, and how it has been dominated by one white man (John Green). John Green writes terrific books and engages with his readership online. There are reasons other than his gender that he is a bestseller. So what’s the problem?
The problem is not John Green. It is not Nate Ball. Male writers are our friends and our colleagues, and I have not met one who acts superior, sexist, or entitled. The problem is the ocean. The atmosphere. The pattern of consistently favoring male writers over female ones. So yes, when you pull one instance out of the pattern — when you’re holding that flopping fish in your hand — it can seem innocuous enough, and the person doing the pointing-out can face some push-back. But we have to keep drawing attention to these issues. We have to keep pulling out the fish and saying, “Here, here, look at this!” Librarians, teachers, writers, and publishers, we all need to take a step back and examine our choices, to ask ourselves if there’s a way to balance our world. We need to admit our own biases, and delve into their roots. Most importantly, we need to speak up, whether it is to defend a colleague or to demand equal representation.
The theme of this year’s Texas Library Association Conference was Lead Out Loud. Fitting, isn’t it? So I want to thank Kate Messner, Kelly Jensen, Laurel Snyder, Anne Ursu, and all the rest of the people in this community who are raising their voices and advocating for change.