On Wednesday, my twitter feed lit up with links to this op-ed in the New York Times in which author, Amanda Filipacchi discussed a troubling practice occurring on Wikipedia:
It appeared that, gradually, over time, the volunteer editors who create the site had begun moving women, one by one, from the “American Novelists” category to the “American Women Novelists” subcategory.
This meant, of course, that as long as women novelists continued to be shuffled off to their subcategory, the “American Novelists” category was populated increasingly, primarily by men. When I read about this I waited to feel that familiar flash of rage, the one that so reliably flares up within me at each encounter with this sort of literary injustice. But it never came.
Because I’ve hit my wall- as a writer, a reader, and a bookseller, I’ve now seen so many different examples of this brand of sexism in so many different forms that I’ve ceased to be shocked or scandalized by it. All I can really do is recognize it, talk about it, say, “Yup, here it is again.”
That’s not to say I don’t want to change it- as a woman, a writer, and a feminist I would like nothing more than to see stories by and about women treated with the same gravity as those by our male counterparts. The fact that Wikipedia is crowdsourced tells us just how pervasive this attitude really is. The problem is not with people who judge literary prizes or put together “best-of” lists. Although it’s easy to spot the symptomatic imbalances in these places, the problem runs much deeper than that.
This is how we are educated, how we are socialized to see stories: the male experience is the default, the universal, while women’s stories are just that-women’s stories. We’re a special interest group, a subcategory. Is this really so shocking in light of the fact that many students are raised on a curriculum composed of (straight, white, cisgender) male authors and don’t encounter a wealth of writing by women unless they elect to take specialized classes in college?
Yesterday, Filipacchi posted a follow-up to Wednesday’s 0p-ed. And while there have been changes made to Wikipedia’s American Authors category as a result of her piece, she has also experienced vandalism on her own Wikipedia page, assumedly by disgruntled Wikipedia editors who didn’t like what she had to say.
Because of the focus of the op-ed, this discussion has centered around women. But of course, we all know that this is not only a women’s problem. This happens to women authors as well as authors of color, LGBT authors, and especially to authors at the intersections of these identities.
Categories have their benefits. Often, they can make it a lot easier for people in marginalized groups to find stories by and about others like them. But the problem, as evidenced by the Wikipedia situation is that the act of categorization is often also an act of removal- removal from the canon, from the public eye, from the hands of readers (although more often, these stories are never even afforded access to these places at all.) By shuffling authors off to subcategories, by implying again and again that their writing is not important or universal, we are sending a very powerful, very disturbing message about the value of their stories, the value of their experiences, the value of their voices.
And while it’s vital for readers, especially young people to have access to books about people like them with struggles they directly relate to, it can be just as important to read about people who face struggles they may never personally encounter. Reading can be the road into empathy, the first place where a young person realizes that even those who don’t look or act or live or love exactly like him still share the same basic units of humanity. That’s the true meaning of universality.
When we don’t give kids access to these stories, when we assume that they are relevant only to people in the author’s specific “category” we’re cheating them and helping to maintain a culture where it’s accepted that the only truly important voices are those with the privilege of remaining uncategorized.
2Again, this is sad but not surprising. The internet gets mad when women point out sexism in beloved institutions, as we recently saw with the violent backlash to Anita Sarkeesian’s project examining sexism in video games.