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December 13th, 2013 / 12:24 am
Word Spaces

OPEN LETTER TO HTMLGIANT: THE SEXISM STOPS HERE

zelda

I think everyone has an Internet feud they will never forget. Here’s mine: in January 2010, Jimmy Chen wrote a post for your site (that has since been removed) in which he showed a photograph of Zelda Fitzgerald and “complimented” her cute rolls of back fat. In the comments section, I called out the sexist move of reducing a female writer to the shape of her body, and was immediately dismissed with a “fuck you” and someone asking why I had a sexy picture of myself on my own blog.

And on my blog, Chen told me my life would be easier because my face looks like this.

In an open letter apology (that has also since been taken down), he wrote, in his defense:

“Leah [sic] Stein has a ‘right’ to post a sexy picture of her, and I have a ‘right’ to think her life will be easier because of her beauty than an ugly woman’s which is why she [sub]consciously posted it.”

There is nothing easy about the life of a writer with the face of a woman, especially when men get to tell you what you’re allowed to do with your face. Which brings me to yesterday’s post by Garett Strickland, about how Kate Zambreno humiliated him when she unfriended him on Facebook, taking away his ability “to participate in a conversation I’ve got as much right to as any other human being, regardless of the seemingness of my being white or male.”

Note that both Chen and Strickland are eager to point out their “right” to write whatever hateful, sexist, ignorant thoughts cross their minds, even in the personal spheres that female writers are often forced to create out of necessity for their own safety (Chen was commenting on my blog; Strickland was writing on Kate’s own Facebook page).

In retaliation for his hurt feelings, Strickland goes on to unleash what I can most accurately call a sloppy prose poem about sexual inadequacy, which ultimately turns Zambreno into a doll, “Made by Men,” who arrives in a box. When he pulls the string, she delivers “reactionary polemic” that Strickland can’t understand due to “personal deficiencies.”

Here’s the most significant thing Strickland doesn’t understand, the worst of his personal deficiencies: he doesn’t realize that by objectifying Zambreno and turning her into a doll, he is being aggressively chauvinist. He isn’t participating in a conversation he has a “right” to. Notably, in order to have a conversation, he has had to create a doll who can only spew pre-recorded messages, who can’t actually talk back.

To Chen and Strickland, I would ask: have you ever been reduced to a body and a face? Have you ever felt afraid for your safety because of your body? Has anyone ever trivialized your work because of your gender?

In the summer of 2011, I met with a team of Random House sales reps who would be responsible for bringing my novel and poetry collection to bookstores and libraries around the country. One asked me what kind of cover image I wanted for my novel.

“I only know I don’t want a headless woman on the cover,” I said. “I don’t want my book cover to exclude men from picking it up.”

“Do you really think a man would read your work?”

“Well, a lot of men like my poetry,” I said.

“Only because you’re cute,” I was told. By my editor.

I didn’t know what to say. I like to think that out of the 37 people in the world who read poetry, the men who read mine are finding some merit there, and not just jacking off to my author photo.

Chen has described Zambreno as “a feminist who hosts an irrational hatred of me due to not being able to perceive my misogyny ironically,” but what’s truly ironic in all this is that Zambreno has written an entire book about women who were written off, robbed, and institutionalized for/because of their creative talent, while their husbands and lovers were celebrated. I read Heroines with my jaw hanging open in recognition, especially when I got to page 140. She describes Chen’s Zelda post and the feuding in the comments section:

The snarky dismissal. I answer back with vitriol. It becomes heated, ugly. Personal. Slurs of a sexual nature slung in the comments section, mostly by a chauvinistic supporter of Chen’s. A way to bully, which is to humiliate, to silence, to make a woman smaller whose behavior is seen as outsized. (Won’t she fucking shut up?)

As writers, we know words carry power. I challenge HTMLGIANT contributors to use their power to make this site the weird-ass literary carnival it is at its best, without using discriminatory, sexist, hate speech that objectifies, humiliates, and infuriates their female readership. To quote the Urban Dictionary, please check yourself before you wreck yourself:

Take a step back and examine your actions, because you are in a potentially dangerous or sticky situation that could get bad very easily.

Sincerely,

Leigh Stein

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Leigh Stein is the author of the novel The Fallback Plan and a book of poems, Dispatch from the Future.

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