I’ve been thinking a lot lately about unintentional sexism. For those who haven’t read any of my books, the Carrie Mae Mysteries, feature a group of women who work for Carrie Mae Cosmetics Corporation, which just happens to also be running an all female spy organization that focuses on women’s issues through-out the world. Because women can multi-task, that’s why. It’s a light-hearted premise that allows me to talk about women’s issues, which can be kind of a downer, in a light-hearted way.
I knew I was writing from a feminist perspective, but I’d always thought of sexism as the way in which society/men would intentionally attempt to hold power and subjugate women. But when the first book, Bulletproof Mascara, came out I was unprepared for how many people couldn’t seem to wrap their head around the concept. “It’s girls… who are spies, and they do the fighting?” You could practically see, “does not compute” written on their foreheads. One over seventy gentleman actually asked, “But if you like that kind of James Bond story, why did you write it about girls?” He wasn’t being mean; he just honestly didn’t understand why I wouldn’t write about a man. After a moment of floundering, I responded that we all wanted characters that we could pretend to be and this was my attempt to give girls someone to look up to. After some discussion he seemed to be nodding a long. I hope that I broadened his horizons, but I also know he didn’t buy the book. Another man who’d been forced to read the book by his reading group commented that he had been worried that he wouldn’t like it, but ended up enjoying it because “they were just people learning new skills!” That’s right – women are people too. It’s a shocking concept, but I’m pretty sure you can adjust.
But I can’t say that other people (aka men) have the exclusive on this locked down paradigm of what girls can do. As I sat down to work on a Carrie Mae short story featuring my sniper Ellen and a Cambodian drug dealer in Canada I kept thinking that I should throw in a man. Maybe the security guard should be a man? What about the plane pilot? He should be a man, right? The driver? And then I thought – it’s an organization entirely staffed by women, why am I trying to shoe-horn in a dude?
As I was pondering my own desire to shove a man into a narrative that clearly didn’t need one, I got an email from a friend who has been renewing her fitness goals and has decided to go back to the gym and start lifting weights with the goal of doing a pull-up. As she has announced her plans to various friends and colleagues, their responses have all started with, “But…” One college educated friend actually said, “But girls can’t do pull-ups because we’re built differently.” To that I say – look, here’s a video of girl doing pull-ups. But why is that we always think about women in terms of things they can’t do? Why are we so quick to make sure other women know they can’t do that? What does it take to make the paradigm shift? When do women get to be people?