We Got the Beat: the systematic denigration and devaluation of women artists because they’re women

Via David Salmonson (Western Dave) on Twitter, I found this from Shannon Hale, a Young Adult fiction writer, on a recent experience on a school visit to talk about her books:

This was a small-ish school, and I spoke to the 3-8 grades. It wasn’t until I was partway into my presentation that I realized that the back rows of the older grades were all girls.

Later a teacher told me, “The administration only gave permission to the middle school girls to leave class for your assembly. I have a boy student who is a huge fan of SPIRIT ANIMALS. I got special permission for him to come, but he was too embarrassed.”

“Because the administration had already shown that they believed my presentation would only be for girls?”

“Yes,” she said.

I tried not to explode in front of the children.

Where does the idea that women are inferior creative artists come from?  You’re seeing some of the introduction and enforcement of that position in action.  Hale goes on to explain that she’s mystified by this kind of segregation:

Let’s be clear: I do not talk about “girl” stuff. I do not talk about body parts. I do not do a “Your Menstrual Cycle and You!” presentation. I talk about books and writing, reading, rejections and moving through them, how to come up with story ideas. But because I’m a woman, because some of my books have pictures of girls on the cover, because some of my books have “princess” in the title, I’m stamped as “for girls only.” However, the male writers who have boys on their covers speak to the entire school.

This has happened a few times before. I don’t believe it’s ever happened in an elementary school—just middle school or high school.

I remember one middle school 2-3 years ago that I was going to visit while on tour. I heard in advance that they planned to pull the girls out of class for my assembly but not the boys. I’d dealt with that in the past and didn’t want to be a part of perpetuating the myth that women only have things of interest to say to girls while men’s voices are universally important.  I told the publicist that this was something I wasn’t comfortable with and to please ask them to invite the boys as well as girls. I thought it was taken care of. When I got there, the administration told me with shrugs that they’d heard I didn’t want a segregated audience but that’s just how it was going to be. Should I have refused? Embarrassed the bookstore, let down the girls who had been looking forward to my visit? I did the presentation. But I felt sick to my stomach. Later I asked what other authors had visited. They’d had a male writer. For his assembly, both boys and girls had been invited.

Of course!  Because it’s very, very important for girls and women to read about male subjectivities, and not at all important for boys and men to learn about the thinking and experiences of girls or women.  Hale writes, “To a culture that tells boys and men, it doesn’t matter how the girl feels, what she wants. You don’t have to wonder. She is here to please you. She is here to do what you want. No one expects you to have to empathize with girls and women. As far as you need be concerned, they have no interior life.”  Read the whole thing–it’s not entirely despairing, only mostly.

The world of shame around aesthetic preferences Hale evokes in middle school reminded me of an experience I had more than 30 years ago.  In junior high, I discovered the Go-Gos, an all female pop band that was part of the rising U.S. New Wave.  They weren’t just on MTV, but also on broadcast music programs like Solid Gold and top-40 radio stations.  I loved the Go-Gos!  But later that year when I got to high school, I learned from the boys there that the Go-Gos were stupid and uncool, mostly because they were women I now see in retrospect.

How stupid of me.  The Go-Gos were fun, clever, and very successful.  How much more successful would they have been if tweens and teens like me hadn’t been bullied out of our love for them?  I still remember this Solid Gold performance, and that I had propped up a cassette tape recorder next to our television set to record this song:

14 thoughts on “We Got the Beat: the systematic denigration and devaluation of women artists because they’re women

  1. How HORRIBLE.

    My son reads the spirit animals books.

    My mom, who is totally a feminist, has had a really hard time gifting my son with books with female protagonists unless I have them specifically on my Amazon wishlist (and even then). He still has a lot of them in his bookcases though, because the bookcases are filled with books *I* like to read (in addition to lego ninjago and star wars etc.) and that my sister and I read when we were younger.

    Still, after an early love of Cam Jansen (which I think *all* children go through), he hasn’t tended to pick the ones with just girls on the cover. If girls, it’s always one girl and two boys, or at best, one girl and one boy.

    Though recently he’s been diversifying… the last book he read had a black kid on the cover (something award nominated my mom sent) and the one he’s currently reading has a princess on the cover (Tuesdays at the Castle– it is excellent and he wants to rip through the second even though I’ve warned him it ends with a cliffhanger).

    But, just yesterday I was having a really hard time with which version of the third book in the Castle series to put on my amazon wishlist for my birthday– compare the gender neutral hard cover: http://amzn.to/1N8ZYyf to the pink and princessy paperback. Maybe it’s worth the $4 difference to get the hardcover. Maybe I should switch back.


  2. Tuesdays at the Castle was excellent. Wednesdays at the Tower not so much. My oldest boy was a big Junie B. Jones fan back in the day. Now he’s into Percy Jackson, which is kind of awful from my perspective but at least he’s reading something other than the I Survived series. The younger boy is now into Junie B. He’d totally be a color fairy kid but I think we lost all of the girls’. She’s reading so much these days, I can’t keep up.


  3. p.s. One thing I’ve been wondering about… my son LOVED a series of books by Jim Benton about a mad scientist called Franny K. Stein. Who is, yes, a girl, but it’s also not at all a feminine kind of series. There are usually monsters on the cover along with Franny.

    He has another series of books (that I bought the entire set of from Scholastic because it was cheap and DC1 loved the author) called, “Dear Dumb Diary” http://www.jimbenton.com/page1/page2/page2.html . I probably shouldn’t have been surprised to discover that the covers are mostly pink, but I was.

    But the author is male. And we already know he’s hilarious.

    I’ve been waiting for DC1 to discover them (the Bs were too high to reach before, but we’ve recently done a re-org of his bookcases) to see what he ends up doing with them.

    I wonder if, when Jim Benton gives book talks, if they only allow girls to come.


  4. @WD DC1 just finished Percy Jackson. I wasn’t crazy about them either but he devoured them, so what can you do (well, I didn’t buy any Junie B. Jones and I mildly discouraged getting any from the library, but I no longer have that kind of control). We have the I survived series, but I don’t think he’s read any of them.

    He’s eagerly looking forward to finding out what’s up with the Griffin Egg. (I’m like, you should totally read the Dark Lord of Derkholm instead if you want griffins because it’s so good, but no, he wants Wednesdays at the Castle. Hopefully I’ll get the Thursdays book for my birthday which is getting better reviews than Wednesdays did.)


  5. Amazing to see it plainly laid out like that, for a change. Point 3 is usually the only visible one.

    1) Tell boys at an early age they don’t need to listen to women.

    2) Don’t mention you did that. Or the ten thousand other things that say the same thing.

    3) Wonder why women are ignored. Because they’re no good at saying anything interesting, right?


  6. Right. I wonder: if a white author comes by to talk about books, do they excuse the nonwhite students? Or a Latin@ author–does he or she address only Latin@ students?

    Why is the function of selective, occasional sex segregation in a coeducational school? There are times (like the locker rooms) when sex segregation makes sense, or perhaps in a sex ed class so that students can ask questions in a somewhat less intimidating environment. But an author visit?

    When I was in junior high and H.S., I remember being subjected to a hell of a lot of assemblies that were nominally anti-drug but in fact were advertisements for some kind of religious revival in town. Did it kill me to listen to some of these pastors/motivational speakers? No. But that’s a hell of a lot dodgier than asking students to listen to a popular author talk about writing.


  7. Jeezus fucke, that is fucken horrible!

    I will say that the New Wave/Punk tastes in my high school were pretty gender balanced. This was always popular on the bus:


  8. Oh no, it’s not that women artists are inferior! It’s just that males are the standard humans, so everyone can empathize and care, and women are sort of a special interest group.


  9. This kind of behaviour gets me so angry and yet, should we be surprised when women’s history is categorized as special interest while history that’s all about men is so mainstream nobody blinks?

    I got angry enough about the devaluing of women writers and books “for females” a few years ago to vote with my pocketbook. When it comes to fiction, I will buy ten books by women before I’ll consider one book by a male author. It’s not a difficult rule for me: I just bought my first male-authored fiction book in, erm, ten months.


  10. I love that idea, Janice: buy only women’s books. I’ve been on a big book diet for the past several years, but your rule seems like it’s more than worthy of my consideration.

    I certainly will put that into practice when buying books as gifts for others & for the young people in my family. It sounds like I’ve got at least one nephew who might like Hale’s books.


  11. This hits me in a weird and visceral way, because I am a HUGE fan of Bananarama, who don’t get anything like the credit they deserve. They’ve been continuously active since 1979, and they have eleven US hit singles, including one #1 and two in the top ten. They hold the record for all-female group with the most hits. But they don’t get nearly the attention of all-male groups. “Venus” isn’t Mozart’s Requiem, but is it really more inane than “Hey Jude”?


  12. Way too young to have been a fan when they were at their peak- I was born in 1982- but I appreciate a solid dance beat, no matter the era.


  13. Pingback: Linky-loo | Grumpy Rumblings (of the formerly untenured)

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