In the interests of full disclosure, I am not a fan of your writing. I am, mostly, not a fan of your writing because you don’t tell the kinds of stories that I enjoy. And that’s fine – my taste is clearly different to yours, and the world is big enough and full of enough stories for both of us to live happily ever after.
Having said that, for some time now I have been concerned that feminists and queer people in particular seem to hold you and your writing up as exceptional and awesome when it comes to the treatment of female and queer characters. To me, this seems more of a reflection on the dire state of the rest of our popular culture than on your genius. But hey, if kids find in your characters role models that they lack elsewhere, who am I to judge? I misspent part of my youth reading Marion Zimmer Bradley, because she wrote the only fiction I could get my hands on that portrayed people like me.
So despite my friends’ accusations, my dislike of you was generally not ideological. Until, that is, you stood up at an Equality Now event earlier this week and declared that you “hate ‘feminist'”. Words, you said, were important (I agree, they are), and the word “feminist”, you said, was the wrong word to use in the current discourse on gender issues.
Forgive me, Joss, if I call bullshit on a straight, cisgender, white, rich, American man with a platform standing up and telling me what words I should use to describe my lived experience.
“Feminist”, you said, implied that believing that all people are people is something that we are not born with, but indoctrinated into. There was no middle ground, you said, between feminism and sexism. “You either believe women are people, or you don’t”, you said. And that, Joss, is how you betrayed your profound ignorance. I would like to break this to you gently, but I don’t think I can, so let me rip off the band-aid. A substantial proportion of human beings alive today – in fact, quite possibly the majority of human beings alive today – do not believe that women are people. Note that I say “human beings”, not men. One of the greatest tragedies of our time is that we are raising girls to believe that they are not people. The dominant narrative in our society today tells us all, constantly, that women are not people.
It starts with pink and blue Kinder Eggs, and Barbie dolls whose entire purpose in life is to be pretty. It starts with the kinds of stories we tell our kids about what boys do and what girls do. You’re a writer, you should know that stories matter. And yet, the vast majority of our current cultural output barely even recognises that women exist, let alone have feelings or agency that extend beyond finding the meaning of their lives in a man.
It ends in a concerted campaign to drive women out of public spaces and public discourse. Ask any woman whether she’s been the target of street harassment, and I am willing to bet she will say yes. Street harassment is just one way for men to make it clear that they own public spaces, and we are there for their viewing (and groping) pleasure and at their sufferance. Ask any woman who has ever dared express and opinion online how many rape threats she has received for her troubles. Because online spaces are public spaces too, and women are there at the sufferance of men. Ask a room full of women if they have experienced sexual assault, rape, stalking or domestic abuse, and in the UK nearly one in two of them will say yes. Ask the two women killed by a current or former partner every week in the UK whether “misogynist” is too strong a word to use for their deaths.
But you, Joss, dare not ask, and you dare not listen to the answers. Instead, you take to your platform and make witty comments about words, as if this discussion is entirely academic and only for your entertainment; as if we are not, quite literally, talking about women’s very lives; as if your considered opinion as a writer trumps the lived experiences of three and a half billion women. I am sorry Joss, but both your words and your actions speak for themselves. And what they tell me is that you, too, in your heart of hearts, do not quite believe that women are people.
I find it hard to blame you for this, Joss. Like me, like every other human being out there, you are the product of a society that does not believe that women are people. You are right in one thing though: words matter, and conversations with people matter. If you truly want to, in your own words, punch the world up a little, as a member of the most privileged group currently living on this earth, here is your job: learn how to be a great ally. Acknowledge your privilege. Listen, understand, ask the questions, have the conversations. Do no harm! And maybe one day, once you’ve done all of those things, once you’ve learned that women live in a different reality to you – one that is more violent, more painful, and more silenced – you can take to your platform again and use the words that women use to describe their lived experience and boost the signal. But until then, kindly shut up.