Being Female

March 6, 2011 | by | 3

Editor’s Note

You may have already read Eileen Myles’ essay “Being Female,” and so wonder why VIDA chose to reprint this piece in our first site update since releasing The Count 2010 pie charts. From the moment “Being Female” debuted this past Valentine’s Day in The Awl—one of many responses, in print and online, to VIDA’s count—links to Myles’ essay have shown up in all manner of blogs and social networking sites, and comment streams contain everything from effusive appreciation to scathing misogyny. In other words, this essay hit a nerve, the same nerve exposed by VIDA’s count.

When I read Myles’ essay the first time, I cried. (Cried like a girl you might be thinking? Yes—like an angry, starved, revolutionary literary girl, relieved and grateful someone finally wrote down what it feels like to be inside her skin.) We reprint Myles’ essay here because the whole point of counting was to start a conversation about women’s writing, gender politics, and the literary terrain within which we are all attempting to work. Whether or not you agree with Myles’ take on our numbers, this essay is a good fit for the VIDA site because her words begin to get at what the counting means, as well as what – in the discussion, in literature, in culture—is really at stake.

If you’re new to these words, then we are pleased to share this work with you now. If you’ve read “Being Female” before, then we invite you to read, and share, the essay again, and then let’s talk.

Barrie Jean Borich—VIDA Editorial Committee Chair

BEING FEMALE

by Eileen Myles

When I think about being female, I think about being loved. What I mean is that I have a little exercise I do when I present my work or speak publicly or even write (like this.) In order to build up my courage, I try to imagine myself deeply loved. Because there are men whose lives I’ve avidly followed—out of admiration for their work or their “way.” Paolo Pasolini always comes to mind. I love his work, his films, his poetry, his writings on film and literature, his life, all of it, even his death. How did he do it—make such amazing work and stand up so boldly as a queer and a Marxist in a Catholic country in the face of so much (as his violent death proved) hate. I have one clear answer. He was loved. Pasolini’s mother was wild about him. We joke about this syndrome—Oh she was an Italian mother, but she could just have well been a Jewish mother, an Irish mother, an African American one. A mother loves her son. And so does a country. And that is much to count on. So I try to conjure that for myself, particularly when I’m writing or saying something that seems both vulnerable and important, so I don’t have to be defending myself so hard. I try and act like it’s mine. The culture. That I’m its beloved son. It’s not an impossible conceit. But it’s hard. Because a woman, reflexively, often feels unloved.

When I saw the recent VIDA pie charts that showed how low the numbers are of female writers getting reviewed in the mainstream press, I just wasn’t surprised at all, though I did cringe. When you see your oldest fears reflected back at you in the hard, bright light of day it doesn’t feel good. Because a woman is someone who grew up observing that everyone was imagining a whole lot more for her brother and the boys around her in school.   If she’s a talented artist, she’s told that she could probably teach art to children when she grows up, and then she hears the boy who’s good in art get told by the same teacher that one day he can grow up to be a commercial artist. The adult doing the talking in these kinds of exchanges is most often female. And the woman who is still a child begins to wonder if her childhood is already gone because she has been already replaced in the future by a woman who will be teaching children like herself. And will she tell them that they too will not so much fail but vanish before their lives can even begin. These pie charts don’t surprise me. They just demonstrate that a lot of us can easily become just a few, or even just one, of us. I am mildly curious about whether the situation in book reviewing (or even publishing) was actually better for a while during and right after the 70s, the heyday of feminism, but you know I’m not that curious. That thrilling rise then dogged fall would only underline the sad fact that the increased interest in women’s writings for a decade or so was a kind of fleeting impulse, like the interest-in-incest moment, just “a thing,” not a deep cultural shift like the comprehension that slavery or human sacrifice is wrong and we just won’t ever go there again. But to have such a deep sea change in a culture and keep it, you have put the reins of its institutions permanently in other hands, and let them stay there.  “They” would have to have become “you.” And you (whether you were male or female) would have long concluded that women’s writing is either just writing or no different than men’s or equally interesting, or even better.  And that perspective would by now be so embedded in our cultural sense of self that the Times or Harpers or The New York Review of Books would no more likely be short changing women’s books today anymore than they would be pulling quietly away from reviewing books written in English in order to uphold a belief that the only good work being written today is by African, South American or Icelandic authors. And think, nobody would notice. Reasonable people of course would smile and insist that the NYRB be renamed The New York Review of African Books or South American Books or Icelandic. It would have to happen, the NYRB would have to own their bias eventually, what they were doing, the editor would have to issue a statement or else the publication would become a total joke. But to publish a review today that purportedly reviews “all” books, yet in fact is dedicated to the project of mainly reviewing men’s without acknowledging that kind of bias sort of begs the question; the operating presumption must be that “we” “all know” that men’s writing is in fact better or more important than women’s—is the real deal and the only thing disputing this is feminism and since that’s “over” (phew) we are back to business as usual. When I say business I mean that there’s just a whole lot of money talking. That’s what’s going on. The more culturally generous moment we’re all missing (whether it ever truly happened or not) was tied to a booming economy. Men weren’t actually sharing space in the 70s and 80s—the doors just got a little wider for a while. And now that there’s less money to go around in book publishing and the surrounding media, it seems like what’s getting shoved out is women. That’s what I believe is happening, don’t you. I think we can do this, right? The editor might ask his staff holding up the cover of the next great all-male issue that dare not speak its name—and his staff probably includes a few females and queers who want to be in on “the conversation.” Who could blame them for that? Well I can. Can’t you? I mean what are we doing here after all.

Is writing just a job? Writing books, writing poems. If it is, then the message to women is to go elsewhere. But they can go to hell—these messengers, the collective whoever or whatever that is saying it. I don’t believe that this is a job. I think writing is a passion. It’s an urge as deep as life itself. It’s sex. It’s being and becoming. If you write, then writing is how you know. And when someone starts slowly removing women from the public reflection of this fact, they are saying that she doesn’t know. Or I don’t care if she thinks she knows. She is not a safe bet. Interestingly, the poetry world is getting celebrated for its VIDA showing of nearly equal gender parity in reviewing etc. The problem there though is that the majority of the poets writing is female. It’s true. That’s who takes workshops, that’s who gets MFAs, you can easily get some numbers there, and frankly, in the poetry scene, the women are the ones who are generally doing the most exciting work. Why? Because the female reality is still largely unknown. And language is the thrill that holds the unknown in its vague and shifting ways. That’s writing. But despite the fact that there are more females in the poetry world, more females writing their accounts, somehow only a fraction of them are able to bob to the top of the heap. So the poetry world is in effect performing a kind of affirmative action for men by giving their work a big push ahead, celebrating men’s books at a much higher ratio to the amount and quality of work actually being produced. And I’m not entertaining for a moment that this is because male work is better. I’m female, and I don’t so much think female work is better. Female reality is not better. But female reality has consumed male reality abundantly—we have to in order just to survive, so female reality always contains male and female. That seems interesting as hell, so at the very least, I think it’s a lot more interesting than a monotonous male reality. Which seems just sort of staid and old. Tapped out. Female reality (and this goes for all the “other” realities as well—queer, black, trans, everyone else) is more interesting because it is wider, more representative of humanity—it’s definitely more stylistically various because of all it has to carry and show. After all, style is practical. You do different things because you are different. Women are different. Maybe not the women who routinely get invited to take part in the men’s monolith. They are another item. But women as a class are different. That’s how I dispense with the quality question.

But here’s the actual problem. If the poetry world celebrated its female stars at the true level of their productivity and influence, poetry would wind up being a largely female world, and the men would leave. Poetry would not seem to be the job for them. I think that’s the fear. Losing daddy again! Plus women always need to support, I mean actively support, male work in order to dispense with the revolting suggestion that they are feminists. I supported Hillary Clinton with my vote, but did you notice she wasn’t really a feminist until she was losing. Well what does feminism mean? Well I think it means that you don’t do much in your work except complain about injustice and describe the personal sphere and talk in a wide variety of ways about labias. You think I’m kidding. Cause I actually do that in my most recent novel—I thought, well, women in the art world are always celebrating their labias, so maybe I should do that in writing. What a great funny, even masculine idea. To use the pussy as material. So I wrote five pages of pussy wallpaper and gave it to the editors at VICE who did publish it, but confided in me that the money people really had to be convinced that it was not entirely disgusting. With all the dirty and violent and racist things that VICE has done, this was, um, a little troubling. Do we really want to send that kind of message to our readers? What kind of message is that? I guess a wet, hairy, soft female one. I mean a big, giant female hole you might fall into never to be heard from again. I mean and there’s just always a danger if you’re a feminist that you’re also a lesbian (I am.) and the only way to really make it clear that you are not that (or that “it” means nothing) is to firmly vote with the guys, kid with them, and be willing to laugh at other women (to demonstrate that you have “a sense of humor”) and not push too hard to include women in anything. Speaking frankly as a lesbian, I have to say that the salient fact about the danger zone I call home is the persistent experience of witnessing the quick revulsion of people who believe that because I love women I am a bottom feeder. I am desperately running towards what anyone in his or her right mind would be running away from. Which is femaleness, which is failure.

And one does after all want to be read as a man. As a man who is a woman perhaps. Can’t we just all be men and some have these genitals and some have those. I heard that that’s how they saw it in the middle ages. And some died after having thirteen children and some just got another wife. Women finally are all replaceable and that’s the real truth. The more different we get, the less likely we can fit our foot in the tiny shoe. And that’s the gig. Not being female, but being small. But I want to be loved because I am. That’s all.

3 Comments to 'Being Female'

  • Mendy Knott says:

    Thank you for speaking out for women writers everywhere; especially for lesbian poets. I am of that tribe. And so, let us write on.

    Hillpoet from Arkansas
    Mendy Knott

  • Aine Greaney says:

    Thank you for this insightful essay. At a recent event, I found myself defending why there are almost exclusively women authors on my nightstand. I find reading to have a certain intimacy. Most male authors (not all) eschew that writer-reader intimacy for the grandness of the words or the defness of the plot. For me, it’s the difference between attending a small symposium (female author) versus the grand auditorium speech (male author). In the latter, the writer-reader experience is deliberately distant and showy.

    As an author, a London publisher once told me that (psst! it was to be just our li’l secret) the publisher’s hardcover “serious” imprint was for male authors, while the airport-paperback imprint was for their female authors.

  • Daphne Stanford says:

    Wow, what a powerful essay. It is encouraging to me, as a woman & as a writer living in a dark time for humanity and the arts. It’s always a dark time, I suppose, but it seems especially tumultuous, now. At a time when funding for the arts, education, and the humanities are being cut left and right, the need to feel needed, loved, & supported resonate for me more strongly now than ever.

    We writers need to remember that what we do matters. Sometimes we need to be reminded. Thank you for the reminder.

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