Guest Post: Ellen Oh on The Ongoing Problem with Sexism

By Ellen Oh

Recently I have been talking with several other women authors about how hard it is to be a female writer. Many stressed how ironic it was given the fact that there are more women in publishing, more women writers, and more women readers.

But why, many asked, does it feel like women authors are never treated at the same level as male writers?

This unleashed a huge firestorm of discussion where authors brought up numerous examples of sexism that they have encountered not only from men, but from other women. And this is what I want to focus on.

Why are women so hard on each other? Why do we criticize women authors and women characters so much? We can’t be too strong. We can’t be too weak. We can’t be too girly. We can’t be too tomboyish. So much criticism.

I think it is because we all have some level of internalized sexism that doesn’t allow us to look objectively at other females. Before you rail against me that you are a proud feminist, let me explain.

I’m not criticizing you, I’m criticizing our society.
We live in a world that bombards us with images and rhetoric of how women need to constantly improve. Feminist empowerment articles can be found in the pages of our magazines that are covered with photoshopped pictures of beautiful, unrealistically figured women and posts about how to catch and keep your man.

Take a look at this fantastic Pantene commercial:

Yes, I understand the irony of a commercial that uses feminist messages to push a beauty product. But the message of the commercial is so true. We are always labeled by the society we live in. Nothing we do can be as good as what a man does.
But what is internalized sexism?

Cultural Bridges to Justice defines it as the “belief by girls and women that the lies, stereotypes and myths about girls and women that are delivered to everyone in a sexist society are true. Girls and women…hear that women are stupid, weak, passive, manipulative, with no capacity for intellectual pursuits or leadership. …are taught to act out the lies and stereotypes, doubting themselves and other females…).”

What happens when we have internalized sexism is that we are more critical of other women than men. We have accepted the belief that society has pressed upon us that women are not as good, smart, capable, and strong as men, and we vilify those who step out of line.”

Penny Rosenwasser, author and feminist, calls this a type of self-loathing. She says “Internalized oppression is an involuntary reaction to oppression which originates outside one’s group and which results in group members loathing themselves, disliking others in their group, and blaming themselves for their oppression – rather than realizing that these beliefs are constructed in them by oppressive socio-economic political systems.”

I don’t know if I would go that far. After all, “self-loathing” is a strong term. But I think it is time for all women to take a good hard look at ourselves. No matter how feminist you are, you’ve internalized some sexism.

How could you not? It has been brainwashed into our heads since we were children. Our mainstream media consistently produces sexist and stereotypical portrayals of women.

A 2012 study by the Annenberg Public Policy Center “analyzed 855 top 30 box-office films from 1950 to 2006…women have been consistently underrepresented as main characters for at least six decades.” Bleakley, the author of the paper states that “Movie-going youth…repeatedly exposed to portrayals of women as sexual and men as violent, may internalize these portrayals.”

The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media researchers have found that “gender stereotyping is an inherent problem in today’s entertainment landscape, and children are the most vulnerable recipients of depictions that send the message that girls are less valuable and capable than boys. …female characters who are lucky enough to garner speaking roles tend to be highly stereotyped.”

And this leads me back to my original point. Why are women so much harder on other women? Why are we so hard on female characters?

We need to understand that how we portray women in literature and film and television is a reflection of our role in society. The more we provide diversity of characters in these mediums, the more we show a fair view of who we are in the world. Because women come in all shapes, all sizes, all types, all races, all religious backgrounds, and a vast diversity of personalities.

 We must recognize how society has played a part to keep us down. To brainwash us against one another. To find acceptable only one type of women over others.

So I challenge all women to recognize their own inherent sexism and to face it head on and step beyond it. For we can never be truly treated as equals if we don’t take that first step within ourselves.

13 thoughts on “Guest Post: Ellen Oh on The Ongoing Problem with Sexism

  1. Very thought-provoking post, and I would agree that you are largely right–though I think there are a few lucky souls that are less damaged by our culture than others. I was blessed to be raised in a family where my femininity was seen as a strength–where it was okay to be "girly" and smart, where I was expected to be a leader and knew I was beautiful without starving myself or succumbing to every new fashion trend. (It helped that we didn't watch a lot of tv, and did read a lot of books.) I have 4 daughters now, so I hope I can raise them to have as positive a view of themselves as women!
    I wanted to add that the gender stereotypes in writing do extend to males as well. My husband is a writer, and has been told that he couldn't possibly write a female main character "because men aren't empathetic enough" to get into the head of a girl. And despite the long (and unfortunate) cultural bias that men are better writers and artists, the fact that he is a writer and painter now has caused him to be seen as "effeminate". Really?! If our culture ever reaches a day where skill is seen as skill without gender stereotypes interfering, I will consider myself very lucky.

  2. Really interesting post, with some great links to depressing information about sexism. Thank you.

    One thing I wasn't quite sure I understood: when you say "Why are women so much harder on other women? Why are we so hard on female characters?: — I am actually not sure exactly what you're talking about. That's partly because this hasn't been my experience in general–but I can certainly believe I've missed something. In fact, that makes me all the more anxious to understand you.

    I absolutely understand not wanting to haul out specific quotes from specific people–THESE ARE THE CRIMINALS–but even a general description of the problems you're seeing would help me sort this out. Thanks! I feel a bit dim.

  3. I'm following your argument and nodding along, but I have two questions: Do you think sexism has to do with economics? For instance, women who balance part-time jobs and motherhood are seen as "lesser" in their careers.

    Do you think female dominance in publishing has made the male presence "rare" and therefore more desirable? (Having said that, the female presence in a male-dominated genre doesn't seem to work favourably).

    Great start to an important discussion!

  4. Thank you for this thoughtful post, Ellen (and Cynthia for hosting Ellen!) Cheryl Sanberg and Anna Maria Alvarez just wrote an inspirational piece in the Wall Street Journal about "banning bossy," which certainly resonated with me and echoes many of your insights here! Aloha!

  5. Great post. Women are harder on ourselves and we do feel this competition with other women, but we shouldn't. For example (and I haven't been a victim of this) when women who work criticize women who stay home and raise children, and vice versa. People do that because they're secretly afraid that the choice they made is wrong. But we need to stand by our choices — both the right ones and the mistakes — and know that the choices of others don't lessen the strength of our own choices.

    We're not going to change the media until we change ourselves first. Let's start a revolution! Dress for ourselves not because of how magazines and the media tell us we should dress, and support each other and men — all people — for our work and contributions to life, regardless of our gender.

    For the most part, I've found that support in children's literature. Let's spread it across the world.

  6. So far I've had four well established authors write me directly about this post.

    All of them said I could mention their thoughts without using their names. A couple of them strongly encouraged me to do so.

    They talked about (on the part of women in the industry) a presumption of competence when it comes to male authors and illustrators, the increasing pressure on female authors/illustrators to look young and stylish, and the low numbers of men among beginners juxtaposed against the extraordinary percentage of them among not only the published but highly acclaimed (and income earning).

    By the latter, they mean that there may be only one or two men at, say, their SCBWI conference, and it's almost assumed that–based on industry norms–he will go on to become successfully published and may well make a living (whereas for most of the women, that's far less certain).

    Note: Austin actually has much more gender (and other types of) diversity than that, but their numbers ring true based on my travel to other SCBWI chapters around the country.

    See also Jennifer R. Hubbard's comment on this post mirrored at Cynsations at LiveJournal:

  7. Here's Jennifer's comment (reposted with her permission):

    When a relative of mine had a baby girl a few years ago, I went looking for a congratulatory card.
    All the "It's a girl!" cards were pink and flowery, with verses about sugar and spice and everything nice.
    The boy cards were more rough-and-tumble.
    It made me ill, this relentless, insistent stereotyping. I thought: It has to start ALREADY? In infancy?

  8. "there may be only one or two men at, say, their SCBWI conference, and it's almost assumed that–based on industry norms–he will go on to become successfully published and may well make a living (whereas for most of the women, that's far less certain). "

    Boy no kidding. I have become well aware of that, and of many of the other issues you list Cynthia–thank you so much for that. I had thought that much of it came from more male-dominated fields — for example, the media-outlet editors who decide which books get reviews in major papers. It hadn't occurred to me that much of it may be pushed from inside, by women in publishing. How sad.

  9. Thank you for posting! I've been talking to some of my colleagues about this very thing in re: awards and recognition. Of course we internalize sexism and we try hard to fix ourselves often without fixing the systemic issues. However, as authors we have a great opportunity to affect this dynamic and contribute to a different dialogue if we continue to support each other and support books that demonstrate the strength of women. — Swati Avasthi

  10. Even though we have slightly differing opinions about sexism and critical views from women, I think we'd both agree that having a *supportive* environment is crucial to personal success.

    I've seen women sabotage and criticize female colleagues for having success, and it's NEVER okay. It's the "why not me," attitude.

    Women achieving success in specific fields widen that path and makes room for more women to succeed.

    We are all on the same path. We need to remember to share our knowledge, help each other achieve our goals, be supportive, and celebrate one another whenever possible.

  11. Thank you everyone for commenting! I wish I could reply to each one of you under your comments but I think that must be a livejournal thing not a blogger one! :o) But I thought it timely and relevant that Sarah Rees Brennan did a post on tumblr that goes much further into details:
    Faith – And isn't that exactly the problem? That female traits are always considered negative so that by calling a man a feminine trait it becomes an insult? I'm with you – I would love to see a world where we don't stereotype people period.

    Katherine – I think Sarah's post will give you some interesting links to see more of what has been brewing.

    Sarah – I think that economics is always to play with sexism. When you look historically around the world – women have less money, own less property, have less education, in areas that are profoundly sexist. There are so many layers and levels of sexism that we couldn't possibly touch on them all here which is why the post was very specific to inherent sexism in women. And yes, i've seen women who stay home with their kids say just as horrible things to working women and vice versa. Instead of accepting each other's choices, we feel the need to cut them down and that's not right. As you can see, there's so much to talk about on this subject. It is one that I hope keeps being talked about.

    Margo – I LOVE that Banning bossy post and have been reblogging it on my tumblr!

    Samantha – Completely 100% agree!!! I'm in that revolution!!

    Cynthia – interesting enough, today after the blog post went up, twitter stat counts emailed me and said I lost 53 followers today. I find that an interesting correlation. there's a reason people don't want to be as candid about their sexist experiences.

    Swati – Absolutely!

    Marsha – Sexism has so many levels to it that while we may not pinpoint out the same issues as sexism they probably are all related in some way. and I agree, I hate when women sabotage each other. And I'm a firm believer in supporting one another.

  12. Thanks for this essay, Ellen. (And I'll definitely be checking out your book, just as an aside.) It's really hard to believe in this day and time that we women can often be our own worst enemy, that we can sometimes engage in unhealthy competition.

    I've just published a book, a modern retelling of Peter Pan, and had the Peter character use the term, "bossy" when commenting on the Wendy character as not being so bossy. Then came the #banBossy movement and I went back to reflect on the use of the word in the text and decided it was okay, because the character who used it later called Wendy brave. It's obviously important for a character to change in fiction; now if we can get all those adult Peter Pans to do the same.

  13. From:

    I just wrote a blog post about optimism, but one of the things I touched on was people who are trying to do the Right thing by pointing out where things are not so good, but not offering solutions or acknowledging progress. A lot of this is exactly what Ellen's talking about: how in effort to draw attention to sexism in the media, women will end up being OVERcritical of female characters. Suddenly every portrayal of a woman is WRONG because it's too weak or too strong or too interested in dating or too NOT interested in sex or too smart or too stupid or too bad-tempered or too GOOD-tempered or too gentle or too annoying or… I mean really! How is it possibly helping the cause to be so CRITICAL every time a female character DOES take center stage?

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