Sexuality, Women, and the Movies

Eve Tushnet promotes her review of some recent film release with a mock headline declaring it  “A terrific date movie!  Unless you’re heterosexual or something.”  I love that “or something.”  I’m not sure whether she includes her non-heterosexual self among those for whom the picture is a less than terrific date movie. 

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Friend of the blog Duncan Mitchel has recently put up two posts (here and here) about something that Tushnet’s line reminded me of.  In a 1985 edition of her strip Dykes to Watch Out For, cartoonist Alison Bechdel lays out a test for movies.  “One, it has to have at least two women in it; who, two, talk to each other about, three, something besides a man.”  Duncan calls this “Liz Warren’s Rule,” because Alison says she got it from her friend Liz Warren.  In his first post, Duncan looks at some published works that predate the DTWOF strip and include precursors of the Rule; in his second, he describes a South Korean movie that surprises him by meeting the requirements of the Rule.  Some of the precursors seem to me a bit harsh; for example, in an essay published in 1975 Samuel R. Delany wrote that “any novel that does not, in this day and age, have a strong, central, positive relation between women can be dismissed as sexist (no matter the sex of the author) from the start.”  A woman who had written a novel which did not have such a relation at its center might be rather surprised to find Mr Delany dismissing her work as sexist, but that’s what the guy said.

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9 Comments

  1. cymast

     /  October 18, 2009

    “any novel that does not, in this day and age, have a strong, central, positive relation between women can be dismissed as sexist (no matter the sex of the author) from the start.”

    Delany must be parodying Dworkinism.

  2. acilius

     /  October 21, 2009

    Delany’d have been really advanced to be parodying Dworkinism in 1975, since Andrea Dworkin’s first nonfiction book, Woman-Hating, had appeared only the year before.

    In any case, I’d recommend Duncan’s posts, in case you haven’t had a chance to look at them. The first one is especially absorbing.

  3. believer1

     /  October 21, 2009

    I remember when Acilius told me about Alison Bechdel’s requirements for a movie. It was interesting then, and it’s interesting now!

  4. cymast

     /  October 22, 2009

    Well maybe Delany was ahead of the times.

    I read the posts, I don’t ponder too much about rigid gender boundaries.

    I love love love George Takei and that video! And I think he did it perfectly for his personality- I found it hysterical! BTW the Shatner-Takei youtube spat videos are a riot. Nice svelte bears video.

  5. About Delany’s harshness, you should read the entire article I quoted from: it’s a denunciation of sexism in sf at the time. On the other hand, I don’t think that particular quotation is so very harsh; to say that a book is sexist isn’t to deny it all value, only to point out that it is sexist. It doesn’t mean that the writer is evil, just lazy (and yes, women writers can be sexist too). Don’t forget that Delany was writing about his efforts to improve his own writing here, not just pointing a finger at other writers.

    I haven’t looked to see if the article is available online, but as I said in the post it’s reprinted in the new edition of Delany’s The Jewel-Hinged Jaw, published by Wesleyan University press this year.

  6. cymast

     /  October 23, 2009

    Thanks for the tips, Duncan. I’ll review my novel-in-progress. One of its themes explores ambiguous gender self-identification. Oy vey!

  7. acilius

     /  October 23, 2009

    Glad you’re back, Duncan!

    Well, Delany does say that any novel that doesn’t satisfy his criterion “can be dismissed as sexist (no matter the sex of the author) from the start.” That certainly isn’t as harsh as saying that the novelist can be dismissed as evil, but I’d have to say it is pretty harsh. And a man would have to be possessed of quite a lot of chutzpah to dismiss a novel written by a woman as sexist “from the start.” To read a novel carefully and suspect it is sexist, to take that suspicion to other readers, at least some of whom are women, and after discussion to conclude that the novel is so rotten with sexism as to be beyond saving, that’s one thing. But for him to dismiss it from the start, that’s quite another thing.

  8. Thanks, Acilius. But I really don’t understand your objection. For example, how could you know whether a novel failed to conform to Delany’s criterion unless you’d read it? It’s not as if he were advocating dismissal of a book without knowing anything about its content – on the basis of the author’s sex, for example. (One of the problems with The Rule is how you find out whether a movie has two women characters who talk to each other etc., so that you can decide whether to see it.)

    The way you phrase it — “to dismiss a novel written by a woman as sexist ‘from the start'” makes it sound as if the novel were being dismissed solely because a woman wrote it. Which, of course, is not what Delany was advocating. Myself, I’d be interested to know why anyone, regardless of their sex, would write a novel with women characters who don’t have some sort of autonomous lives in the first place. As the quotation I made from Virginia Woolf indicates, this is quite an old problem.

    I also don’t think that Delany meant that a novel without such women characters “is so rotten with sexism as to be beyond saving.” For one thing, he’s offered one way in which it could be “saved” — by rewriting it to include some human female characters. And it still sounds as if you don’t think that a woman writer can be sexist; Ayn Rand is one notorious example who comes to mind. (Of course, from what little I’ve read of her fiction, it could be argued that she didn’t really discriminate against women, since her male characters were just as undeveloped.)

    Delany was writing as a writer who wanted to write non-sexist sf in the context of a furious male-supremacist reaction against women science fiction writers. I think it’s a safe bet, though, that when he teaches writing (and he has taught many writers over the years), he doesn’t react to a manuscript that doesn’t meet his criteria by sneeringly throwing it in the trash — rather, he would encourage the student to work on it, to improve it, and I daresay that student work would have more problems than just sexism in it. Maybe some people would consider that “Dworkinism”; I don’t. I think we need an analogous term for boys who make gagging noises when they encounter fiction with central female characters who relate to each other in a positive way — there are evidently a lot of them out there.

  9. acilius

     /  October 24, 2009

    Thank you Duncan! It’s very generous of you to take the time to write such a thorough reply.

    I certainly agree that a woman can be sexist, and that a man can call her on it. And of course I would hope that it would become routine for fiction in all genres to feature “strong, central positive relation[s] between women.”

    What I would say is that a man should exercise some kind of due process before he starts judging women for sexism. If sexism becomes just another accusation men can bring against women, what’s the point of feminism?

    Does Delany exercise such due process? In his practice as a writing teacher, maybe. What makes me uncomfortable about the passage you quoted from Delany is his promulgation of a rule that is, at least in the formulation you quote, quite rigid (“any novel,”) and quite alien to the practice of the novel up to that point (are there as many novels that have a “strong, central positive relation between women” as there are that do not have any “strong, central positive relation” between any two characters? are there a tenth as many?) Promulgating this rule, Delany seems to be setting himself up as the High Priest of Anti-Sexism, which is a man mighty strange position for a man to take up.

    “[H]ow could you know whether a novel failed to conform to Delany’s criterion unless you’d read it?” Why, the same way you come to know whether you want to read any book- by reading reviews, hearing about it from others who’ve read it, and listening to the author.

    “I also don’t think that Delany meant that a novel without such women characters “is so rotten with sexism as to be beyond saving.” For one thing, he’s offered one way in which it could be “saved” — by rewriting it to include some human female characters.” I should have been clearer- I meant “so rotten with sexism as to be beyond the reader’s powers of saving.” That’s my interpretation of “dismiss”; we discard the text before us because there’s no interpretative process we can come up with that will give us a text worth reading.

    As you’ve mentioned, dismissing the text doesn’t mean we necessarily dismiss the author. But I’d have to say that demanding a rewrite is in some ways even worse than it would be to dismiss the author. If we dismiss an author, we make no further claims on that author. If we declare that the author might produce a different text, one worthy of our attention, were s/he to follow a set of commands that we have laid down, we are presuming a good deal on our relationship with that author. If the author is a student who has come to us as his or her teachers, or a professional who has come to us as his or her editors, then we can deliver those commands knowing that they are part of a negotiated relationship.

    If on the other hand the author has never heard of us and we approach her or him with our judgment and our commands, s/he will likely ignore us and seek other readers, leaving us to look ridiculous. If we as strangers ambush her or him with these demands and s/he submits to them, that is likelier to show that we have successfully intimidated her or him than it is to show anything else.

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