Against Gendered Culture
“Equality is to sexual politics what the classless society is to Marxist theory: The hypothesis that solves the problem,” observed Phyllis Rose in Parallel Lives, her perceptive study of five Victorian marriages. In other words, gender parity was and is an elusive ideal.
How do we achieve that ideal when movies and books are tagged with blue or pink ribbons, like newborns in a 1950s nursery? How do we achieve it when the movies and books with the blue ribbons are greeted as “important” or “literary” and the ones with the pink posters and covers signal “fluff,” even when they are about the same issues?
Meg Wolitzer, the gifted novelist of This is Your Life and The Position, wrestles with these questions in today’s New York Times Book Review. Her piece comes on the heels of the 2012 VIDA Report tracking the lopsided coverage male and female writers in magazines. (The VIDA Report was released a month after the Celluloid Ceiling figures that the percentage of women directors — five percent — had dipped to the lowest level in 13 years.) Wolitzer discusses the semiotics of book covers, how books written by men have bolder typefaces and universal symbols: the wedding ring on the cover of Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot is not attached to a female hand as it might be if it were written by a female author. By telegraphing with images of stiletto heels and pink lipstick that “this is girls’ stuff,” marketing departments bear some of the responsibility for gendered culture. But not all of it.
Is it a paradox that literature and movies by women are devalued at a time when the most profitable franchises in bookstores and at the multiplex are by women? J.K. Rowling created Harry Potter, Stephenie Meyer Twilight and Suzanne Collins The Hunger Games. When it comes to Young Adult fiction and movies, women get taken seriously. (Director Catherine Hardwicke established the Twilight franchise onscreen, the rare female filmmaker entrusted with the job.) Gone With the Wind, the most successful movie in Hollywood history, was based on publishing’s most successful young-adult novel — written by Margaret Mitchell. Something must happen when female authors deal with grownups. Because when it comes to adult commercial fiction and literature, women are marginalized in the pink ghetto.
It’s a popular belief that men won’t read a book or see a movie with a woman at the center because men can’t counteridentify with women and women can counteridentify with men. If this is true, then women have authorial and empathic assets that men lack. Shouldn’t that make them better candidates for the gigs of authors and movie directors?