“Completely Ignorant Of All Things Woman”: On Andrew Smith & The Othering Of Our Gender

5
7215

I cannot speak about Andrew Smith’s books, simply because I have not read them. I cannot speak to his character because I haven’t met him. What I can do is talk about the words he shares in his interviews, particularly a now infamous one with Vice that contained a display of sexism that honestly left me shocked.

Q: On the flip side, it sometimes seems like there isn’t much of a way into your books for female readers. Where are all the women in your work?

A: I was raised in a family with four boys, and I absolutely did not know anything about girls at all. I have a daughter now; she’s 17. When she was born, that was the first girl I ever had in my life. I consider myself completely ignorant to all things woman and female. I’m trying to be better though.

Putting aside the faultiness of his claim (does his wife/partner not count in that equation?), we must focus on the confession of his own ignorance. This is an astounding claim to make and one that exacerbates a lot of pernicious misogynistic attitudes, in the publishing industry and society at large. The clear implication here is that Smith’s work is devoid of women because they are so wildly different from men that Smith cannot conceive of them being something tangible. They cannot be researched, understood or seen as even being human. This is not a new thing. Sadly, one of the oldest tricks in the book of patriarchy is to ‘other’ women; to position them as the opposite of men, as something unreal or unhuman. This tool is also used against LGBTQ people, people of coloured, people with disabilities, people from developing nations, and so on. To Smith, women are so mysterious that it’s better for him to just not write them. Imagining or researching them is too hard.

But writing giant grasshoppers is easy.

Smith is a Printz Honour winning writer of young adult fiction. He is one with the kind of critical acclaim most writers can only dream of. Clearly, he is accomplished at imagining strange new worlds and the people who populate him, and has been rewarded thusly for his efforts. Yet despite all his talent and awards, he sees women as the other. They are the last great frontier he dare not tackle.

Even if this comment was made in a joking manner, there’s something deeply wrong with it being an acceptable answer to give without a second thought. This attitude is so standard in creative fields that we can barely respond with a defeated shrug at times. It’s not a harmless slip-up and it’s not a display of self-awareness that can act as a shield: It’s a pervasive and damaging attitude that leads to the systematic exclusion of people and stories from reaching wider audiences. The cishet middle class able bodied man remains the supposed ‘default mode’ for the creator, crafting universal stories that appeal to everyone yet by and large only feature protagonists exactly like them. Anything deviating from that perceived norm is ‘niche’ or only for ‘specialist audiences’ because according to the stock line trotted out by publishers, executives and the suits in charge, those stories only appeal to the people exactly like them. No boy could possibly relate to Katniss Everdeen. No white child could ever want to read Brown Girl Dreaming. Straight kids would never want to read about a gay couple. We have this conversation so regularly I feel like I’ve memorised it, and yet it’s met with the same hostility and same claims of bullying.

We cannot continue this conversation and discussion of the wider implications without tackling the responses a number of us have received after voicing anger and concern over Smith’s interview. Some bloggers were called bullies, their very real passion dismissed as ‘fauxtrage’, and their discussions over Smith’s sexism positioned as equivalent to or even worse than the sexism itself. Let me make this abundantly clear – there is no comparison to be made here. Talking about sexism, no matter how angrily or supposedly rudely it’s done, is not the same as being sexist. It’s certainly not worse than being sexist. If you want to have a ‘real’ conversation about this subject then the best thing you can do is listen to others and not police their anger.

If you see the anger of those women as a bigger affront than Smith’s comments then you’re the one with the problem. Allyship is not conditional on the perceived politeness of the oppressed. You don’t just relinquish your support of marginalised groups because you felt like they’d been a bit mean to you. If you want cookies then go to a bakery. The increasing toxicity of online discourse, particularly pertaining to issues of misogyny, has made it a veritable minefield to navigate. Many decide not to write about such things at all because they know they’ll be attacked viciously for it (we probably will too). A lot of women will probably be ‘punished’ more for this than Smith will be for making the sexist comments in the first place. It doesn’t take much to earn the ire of misogynists. Existing is all it takes to set them off.

I hope Smith sees the many eloquent thoughts being shared on this subject. I hope he learns from the experiences of others and takes it upon himself to make the necessary changes. If this conversation helps lead to wider attitude changes in the industry regarding sexism and the othering of marginalised groups then we can take some solace in that. In the meantime, a lot of us brace ourselves for the inevitable pushback that comes with having opinions on misogyny on the internet. When that’s seen as a bigger crime than misogyny itself, you know something’s gone terribly wrong somewhere down the line.

5 COMMENTS

  1. I got told off for reTweeting a status that mentioned “giant grasshoppers”. Apparently, I was told it’s supposed to be “giant praying mantises”.

    Of all the things they could’ve chose to focus on, they chose to focus on the mislabelling of insect species. Because othering women is apparently still totally okay in comparison. *headdesk*

  2. It has become so apparent to me that the people who are criticizing Andrew Smith (for an admittedly thoughtless comment) have not read his books. Not one of them.

    READ ONE OF HIS BOOKS.

    There are female characters. Plenty of them. Mothers, friends, lovers. They’re as real and dimensional as his male main characters.

    There ARE women in his work. The problem here is with the QUESTION, not with the ANSWER. The interviewer assumed that there wouldn’t be female interest in Smith’s work because his main characters are male. Sexist, much?

    • As I already said in my piece, I have not read his books and as such cannot review them. That’s not the point of this piece. An extensive knowledge of his back-catalogue is not a requirement for understanding and analysing what he said in an interview. Once again, we have undue focus on people discussing Smith’s words rather than the words themselves. Patronising much?

    • I read one of his books, WINGER. While I enjoyed WINGER, I was put off by the way the female character (notice the singular) was written. While the boys are fully realized, she felt like a caricature, a prop. It didn’t feel at all like he’d even tried to make her real. I decided after reading it that I wasn’t really interested in reading his others.

      I wasn’t surprised at all by his response to this question. I’ve seen it – he really doesn’t know anything about girls/women. He says he’s trying, but his writing doesn’t show that. Instead, it does a disservice to his readers – both his male and female readers – by encouraging sexist norms and making it okay for boys to NOT see girls as people, as humans. Hopefully the feedback on the article will help him to see that, because he IS a good writer, but he CAN be a better one.

  3. Taking a quote out of context from an edited article does not present a person as a whole. The author addresses his female gender blindness outright and states that he is working on building his knowledge base as a husband and father. I assume he doesn’t plan on wallowing in the assumed misogynistic pool forever.

    You encourage Smith to reach out and continue discourse regarding understanding diversity and equality. If prior to writing the column, you did the same with the author to clarify or even discuss your takeaway from reading the interviews, perhaps you could provide content that is not inflammatory or slanted regarding a person you don’t know and who’s work of which you are not familiar. Having VICE as a source really doesn’t add to the article’s integrity as noble at it’s intentions are.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here