Men, women and Important Things


So, by now everyone’s seen Niall Harrison’s article about the (mis)representation of women in reviewing. Not everyone might have seen the followups: Juliet McKenna, Kari Sperring (who has started an awesome list of women to read), and Sherwood Smith, who has a great reflexion on which viewpoints are considered the norm (and great comments, too).

One sentence in what Sherwood wrote struck me:
The sense that men write about Important Things and women write about Domestic or Sentimental Things still appears to be pervasive.

And it did make me want to elaborate, on something I’ve been meaning to blog about but haven’t so far. Sherwood touches on it a bit, I think–mostly in the context of literature–but I kind of wanted to take it a step further.

See, the one thing I hate most about gender perceptions? That Important Things cannot be Domestic or Sentimental: the pervasive notion that the things men do are Important; and the things women do are not (I’m using “the things men do” in a sense of traditional gender roles–which, thankfully, have evolved quite a bit since the 19th Century). That somehow, it’s still more Important to talk about war and fighting as a soldier, still more Important to talk about science and inventing things–than it is to talk about taking care of a household, about raising children, all the myriad things that are the traditional prerogative of women. It’s sort of like saying, “as a woman, you cannot have worth until you do the things of men-essentially until you become a male surrogate.” And it saddens me, because it dismisses so-called “feminine” activities as unworthy: it’s just another way of putting men first. [1][2]

Not sure how clear this is? I’m struggling to articulate it into words.

[1]Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s important that women who want to have a career be able to have one; that as a woman, you can be a soldier or a scientist or any occupation that catches your fancy. But I do think that as a man or as a woman, you should be allowed to stay home and take care of the kids, and be a good homecook–and not be ridiculed. That being a feminine boy should have as much worth as being a tomboy–which is so not the case today.
[2]Which is why we need more books that aren’t about traditional male activities such as saving the world and getting the girl; books like Jo Walton’s Lifelode, and Cao Xuequin’s Dream of Red Mansions (which, pretty impressively, was actually written by a man).


  1. I think you’re quite clear! It’s a pervasive problem — now women are allowed to do masculine things, by and large, but the feminine things are still denigrated. Both spheres of stuff — which are rather arbitrarily assigned as masculine and feminine — should be valued and explored in art and life.

  2. Definitely! The arbitrary feminine activities are still as despised as ever, the only difference is that women doing the “masculine” things get valued as men (we could argue they don’t get valued quite like men, either, but that’s a whole other debate…)

  3. Ah, yes. I buy a SF or F novel so I can read about the struggles of daily housework and child-rearing.
    The idea that domestic issues are important misses the point of escapist literature COMPLETELY.
    Housework and child-rearing are the very things I want to escape FROM, not find in my escapist literature.
    I happen to have been a self-employed businessman in construction for the entirety of of my 2 sons’ childhoods and teenage years. I went to the teacher conferences, I went to the school plays, I took them to the doctor and the dentist and the baseball/football practice games, I took them to their friends houses after school and picked them up late in the evening – whenever I was able to, and I made damn sure I was able to most of the time while my wife worked a traditional office job. And yes, I also washed the dishes, cooked the meals, did the laundry – though I don’t do ironing thank science for non-wrinkle cycles in the dryer – my fair share of the time, and occasionally went out and caught supper at the nearby lake too. AND I was still able to earn a comfortable living. Good grief, why on EARTH would I then buy a novel about all that domestic stuff? I never particularly liked doing it, I sure as HE!! wasn’t about to spend what little free time I had burying my nose in some fictional character doing it constantly throughout the novel.
    THAT is the point those who want to make drudgery “important” in novelization just do NOT seem to appreciate – with a resultant sidelining of their work when they attempt it. It’s NOT gender bias of any sort, it’s BORING bias and even my FEMALE wife doesn’t want to read about it – no matter how important it is. A pair of wrinkled dishwater hands is NOT in any shape or form “exciting”. Discovering some new principle of science that changes the world forever IS, fighting aliens and crashing space ships into other space ships IS – and folding laundry or administering cough syrup to a sick child simply is NOT.
    That’s all there is to it. Occam’s razor, people.

  4. Drudgery? Totally. I agree with you.
    For a number of years, day in day out, I used to drag my sorry backside into an office building. We lived in a tropical climate, and while the sun was shining outside, it was freezing inside. I used to sit at a computer typing papers, reading papers, or work in a lab weighing samples, grinding samples, counting seeds. Or we went on field trips for two weeks in a row where from sun-up to sun-down we used to sit on our knees in the grass counting weeeeensie plants, while risking being bitten by spiders or snakes, getting a sunstroke from hellish heat, not to mention the risk of accidents on the road or simply being made to feel ridiculous by your drunk, misbehaving colleagues.
    This daily drudgery was called science. Day after day, we dragged ourselves to work, to unproductive meetings, onto plane trips to headquarters in the city 1500km away, where no one really understood what work in the tropics was like, and demanded ever more ridiculous bureaucracy.
    Drudgery. Wouldn’t want to write about it. Wouldn’t want to read about it. Especially not the annual performance review.
    But every now and then, something would happen that would remind us why we were doing all this stupid shit. A paper published in a major journal, a conference overseas where we’d meet someone new and exhilarating and that one time when you realise: hey, this is why I’ve been doing it.
    The moment were few and far in between.
    A scientific career in fiction would cover those instances, and leave out the mindless drudgery. Seriously, no one would want to read about it (especially the–barf–administration).
    Similarly, any description of family life would leave out 99% of the day-to-day stuff, and deal with the important turning points, the moments that matter, moments that become more poignant when there is external stress placed on a family.

  5. I recently read From Girl to Goddess: The Heroine’s Journey through Myth and Legend. The author examined fairy tales and legends that featured a female as the lead character. Although many of these characters were forced to do the drudge work by their stepmothers (such as Cinderella) this was seen as a way to prepare them for their adult roles. Also, instead of receiving a weapon from a helper figure the way boys often do in quests, girls might receive enchanted domestic tools, like a magic needle or pot. Perhaps women’s work was valued more in the past than we realize.

    I think Hyatt and Patty make a good point: drudgery may occupy our daily lives, but it makes poor fiction.

  6. My feeling is that a good story can do both. It can be about characters doing Important Stuff in the outside world, but the reason they do it can be personal and maybe, yes, Domestic. Because Domestic != babies and drudgery. Nor does it have to mean sentimentality.

    The hero of my fantasy series runs around sticking swords in people for a living – so he can make enough money to look after his sick brother. Neither set of actions would work without the other.

    It’s not an either-or situation – or at least it needn’t be.

  7. Domestic doesn’t have to mean drudgery. Day to day lives can be interesting depending which moments are shown. Babylon 5 had many personal day to day moments like when Doctor Franklin got on three of the characters about their diet. That’s more a domestic type issue. They had personal issues with love and loss or a friend in trouble; there’s sentiment. But those more personal stories helped anchor the broader arcs of Important Things. My favorite stories are a mix of all three. I wouldn’t have cared about the broad arcs without feeling like I knew the characters. But romances and other sorts of relationships feel more real when they aren’t the primary focus. I need heart in my action, and action in my sentiment.

    And the ultimate tool I saw in a story was the Frying Pan of Doom in a Patricia Wrede story, same story with a bake-off as part of the tourney that gave us the Barbarian’s Quick After Battle Triple Chocolate Cake. If that isn’t a great use of domestic skills, I don’t know what is.

  8. Yeah, I really like how a domestic setting is automatically equated with drudgery, here. Thanks for proving Aliette’s point.

    I work in a female-dominated profession and I see this all. The damn. Time. As though the teaching and preservation of the cultural record were not Important. Maybe it’s only Important if men do it?

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