When I posted J. Edgar, Mary Jessup put this comment on the facebook status with the link:
[ ] At least two (named) women in it
[ ] Who talk to each other
[ ] About something besides a man.
Admittedly, without meeting the first criterion, I could not have met the second, and without meeting the second, I could not have met the third, so I actively failed only once, but I still feel like the worst person.
I think of myself as someone who cares about women. I’m opposed to slut shaming, I think the income/political gap is alarming, and I don’t understand why access to contraceptives is something anyone is opposed to, so to discover that I’d accidentally written something that excluded women in a pretty serious way was concerning. Naturally the next thing to do was to rationalize.
The first argument that came to mind was that the events in J. Edgar occur in the 1950s, but Mad Men manages to work in at least two (named) women who talk to each other about something besides a man, so that defense fell apart quickly. I fled briefly to the idea that this was a political group, but if Mad Men can meet the criteria Mary listed in the advertising world even after writing all kinds of overt misogyny into the script, I should be able to do the same with politics. Both of these arguments were rooted in “given the time and place of the action, women weren’t supposed to be there,” which made me ashamed.
The second broad category of defense was “That’s not how I imagined it.” I’m relying on some kind of writing-as-craft interpretation, rather than writing-as-manufacture. That I failed Mary’s three criteria was only a problem in a universe of interpretation in which “parts missing” is something that can apply to writing. I wasn’t assembling a story, my subconscious indignantly countered. And besides, what creative people have ever accomplished anything following a restrictive set of rules? I mean aside from Homer, every poet ever until the moderns, and the entire rap community.
My third response was the most immature. J. Edgar Hoover is obviously queer in this! I wrote in a non-hetero character! Respect and disrespect are of course not compensating.
I had to accept the truth: I am an accidental misogynist.
What’s going on here is what Paul Feyerabend calls covert classification, covert because they are “sensed rather than comprehended — awareness of [them] has an intuitive quality.” The example Feyerabend relies on comes from Benjamin Lee Whorff, who looks like kind of a creepy dude in his Wikipedia picture. Whorff discussed how thousands of given names have maleness or femaleness embedded in them, even though there isn’t anything inherently “male” about Aloysius or “female” about Esther. Still, we are somehow able to tell, generally speaking, by looking at a name, what gender person “should” own it.
While it may be prematurely precise to focus feminist efforts on the linguistic exclusion of women from the category of Aloysiuses, what I’d done was much worse; I’d excluded women from history.
This isn’t my only sneaky prejudice though. I also apparently have a “strong automatic preference for straight people.” There was nothing malicious in the responses I entered; I was moving as quickly as I could to respect the directions given in the test.
I don’t want to make an if-I’m-secretly-regressive-then-you-are-too argument, but I do think (hope — not because I want more regressive people in the world, but because I still feel pretty bad) I am not alone, even among my progressive friends. I feel responsible for each of these prejudices.
As bad as I feel though, I don’t think it makes sense to be ashamed. I know these prejudices aren’t acceptable to act on and I conscientiously avoid acting on them. With enough work, my I may be able to shift “automatic preferences” manually.