The Rhetorical Situation Podcast: Gender Roles, Writing and Creativity in the 21st Century (Video)

Last week, I gave a talk about gender and creative writing.  I think it went ok.  I was nervous. I was nervous because I was speaking to people that really wanted to talk about creative writing and gender. But, even though I could talk about writing probably all day, gender is a new subject of investigation for me.

The talk was on a friday, around 2, so I know some people that wanted to come couldn’t.  There for, I’ve created a blog post that is a fair representation of the talk. There is video, five sections, through out the piece.  They aren’t edited very well. You can hear me but not all the other speakers. So, keep that in mind.  Also, not all the talk is videoed.  But, if you hit the videos at the right time, and follow along with the writing, you should get a solid sense of what I was talking about.

I enjoyed this very much.  Hopefully, I can spend more time doing this.  It’s more for my benefit than for others.  This blog is called, “The Education of Jarvis Slacks” for a reason.  Leave comments and let me know what you think.   

Some Quick Reading Statistics

Here are some statistics about who reads what,  from “Reading on the Rise,” the 2008 National Endowment for the Arts Report:

Who reads literature according to Gender:

Men = 37.6%

Women = 55.1%

-Nearly half (47%) of all adults read fiction (novel or a short  story) in 2008.

-Number of Adults who read literature in 2008: 112.8 million

-According to the survey, the absolute number of literary readers was the highest in the survey’s history.

This is all great news, right?  More people are reading, and there for more people are becoming educated and more people are learning about different pieces of our culture.

The Problem

The problem is that men still dominate this industry. My Reading List for a Typical Semester, from the Anthology, The Scribner Anthology of Contemporary Short Fiction edited by Lex Williford and Michael Martone (two men).

I have my students read eleven stories writing by Men.

“Sarah Cole: A Type of Love Story” by Russell Banks

“The School” by Donald Barthelme

“The Hermit’s Tale” by Rick Bass

“The Ceiling” by Kevin Brockmeier

“Jealous Husband Returns in Form of Parrot” by Robert Olen Butler

“Relief” by Peter Ho Davies

“The Caretaker” by Anthony Doerr

“We Didn’t” by Stuart Dybek

“Car Crash While Hitchhiking” by Denis Johnson

“Marie” by Edward P. Jones

“The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien

I only have my students read four women writers.

“Silver Water” by Amy Bloom

“A Temporary Matter” by Jhumpa Lahiri

“Stone Animals” by Kelly Link

“The Translation” by Joyce Carol Oates

In of the 50 “Best” short stories: 33 are written by men. 17 are written by women.

One school of thought is that I am, judging from the list of stories I selected, part of the problem. That’s partly why I decided to give this presentation.  I’ve always thought I wasn’t. I have talked about gender and gender roles in my classes for years.  It’s a subject that I’m happy to bring up, because I believe that the feminist movement is part of a large movement of Civil Rights.  It’s not “women issues” or “LGBT issues.”  These are human being issues.  This affects all of us.  I am a victim of the same stereotypical, biased society when someone tells another person that they have to do “X” when the other person wants to do “Y.”


This list is shocking to me.  And, after I did some research, the news get worse, not better.

This is The Count.  Each year, Vida collects information about which gender gets published more and gets more attention.  The statistics are heart broken. Check this out.


It’s a problem. A serious problem.  More women read than men. But more men review books and write about the reviewed books, promote the books, get their books promoted, get their books reviewed, and have more of their work shown to the world than women.  It’s a problem that is rotten, reflective of this “Good Ol’ Boy” mentality that holds men in position of power.

I counted the number of novels and short-story collections that were written up in the Times, mostly because fiction is what I write, and what I read. In 2011, the Times reviewed 254 works of fiction. 104, or 40.9 percent, were by women, and 150, or 59.1 percent, were by men.  Of the works of fiction that got two full reviews, 21 were by women, 22 were by men.  Of the works that received one full review plus a mention in a round up, 5 were by women, 11 were by men. Finally, of the works of fiction whose authors were reviewed twice and profiled, one was a woman and ten were men.

Jennifer Weiner from her blog.

At Harper’s, there were 27 male book reviewers and six female; about 69 percent of the books reviewed were by male authors. At the London Review of Books, men wrote 78 percent of the reviews and 74 percent of the books reviewed. Men made up 84 percent of the reviewers for The New York Review of Books and authored 83 percent of the books reviewed. The New Republic, I’m sorry to say, did not compare well: Of the 62 writers who wrote about books for us last year, only 13 (or 21 percent) were women. We reviewed a total of 64 books, nine of them by women (14.5 percent). “We know women write,” poet Amy King writes on the VIDA website. “We know women read. It’s time to begin asking why the 2010 numbers don’t reflect those facts with any equity.

As a member of third-wave feminism, growing up in the 1970s and ’80s, I was brought up to believe we lived in a meritocracy, where the battles had been fought and won, with the spoils left for us to gather. It is sobering to realize that we may live and work in a world still held in the grip of unconscious biases, no less damaging for their invisibility.

Ruth Franklin from The New Republic

So what can be done? Women need to submit more work to editors – editors can’t select work they don’t see. Writers’ groups and creative writing courses need to be more supportive over rejections and reinforce the fact that rejections are very much part of writing.  Poems are usually sent out in batches of four, so for every poem I have accepted, there are usually at least three that got rejected.

Challenge course tutors whom only use examples of writing by men and don’t use examples of writing by women. Challenge those who boast of not reading women’s writing.  This is not something to be proud of but something to be ashamed of. Focus on gaining experience to become a better writer rather than worrying about whether your work is ‘good enough’.  It’s down to editors to select work for publication, not writers. Women need to get more involved in reviewing – contribute to Amazon or write guest posts to writers’ blogs if setting up a blog or  becoming a reviewer for a magazine doesn’t look attractive.

Emma Lee from her blog.

But this isn’t an either/or situation; women face challenges at both ends. Publishers and editors are biased to think that men’s stories are the best and most important ones, deserving of publication and reviews, while women writers, socialized to those same beliefs, agree and don’t try hard or often enough to get published. This double-challenge doesn’t only affect women writers; it muzzles women’s voices across all media. Change will continue to be slow for women until they recognize that their stories and their viewpoints are important. All the producers and editors and media magnates in the world can’t help women get their voices out there until they decide to try. And keep trying. Because people will tell them, repeatedly, that they aren’t qualified or have nothing to say or, for whatever reason, don’t deserve to speak.

Margot Magowan from Ms. Magazine Blog

No one told me this outright. But I was told to worship Chekhov, Cheever, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Carver, Marquez, O’Brien. . . . This was the dawn of political correctness. Women were listed as concessions. In the middle of my master’s, a female writer took center stage with a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award — E. Annie Proulx. Ah, there was a catch. She was writing about men and therefore like a man.

Juilanna Baggot in the Washington Post

It’s probably the case that there is an unconscious sexism afoot in our literary culture, which props up the work of men at the expense of equally worthy books by their female counterparts. There are female writers working today – Mary Gaitskill, Jeanette Winterson, Ali Smith, Alice Munro, A.L. Kennedy, Barbara Gowdy, Monica Ali, A.M. Homes, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and Lynn Coady spring immediately to mind, all of them writing about different subjects and in wildly different styles – whose work is easily as good as that of their male contemporaries; they deserve greater recognition than they have historically received.

Steven W. Beattie from

From my own experience, students tend to generalize gender in a Creative writing class, and rely on conventional troupes when discussing character actions and situations. That used to work, but now that the idea of gender is becoming more evolved, having a discussion about gender and how writers and readers dealt with it in creative writing class and the workshop environment would be helpful.  Gender can be talked about in writing, artfully and intelligently.  And many men and women have dealt with it.  It’s important, before we talk about what we can do to fix this problem, is to look at how gender has been handled by a few key pieces of writing in the past.

“The Yellow Wallpaper” is, as a story viewed as a piece of Creative Writing, sort of a mess.  It’s abstract, which is common for many creative pieces written at the time.  But, what makes this story so amazing is how forcefully it pushes against the established gender roles of the time.  The story is about a husband and a wife.  The husband sequesters the wife to a home outside and away from everyone and everything. While the husband is free to travel all about, the woman is stuck home because of her “Nervous condition.”  The husband wishes for her not to write, but she does anyway, in secret.  Demanded to live in a room with strange, yellow wallpaper, the wife at first hates being stuck there, and describes the wall paper with cryptic detail.

There is a recurrent spot where the pattern lolls like a broken neck and two bulbous eyes stare at you upside down. I get positively angry with the impertinence of it and the everlastingness. Up and down and sideways they crawl, and those absurd, unblinking eyes are everywhere. There is one place where two breaths didn’t match, and the eyes go all up and down the line, one a little higher than the other.

What she thought was disgusting at first, she quickly learns to embrace it.

I’m getting really fond of the room in spite of the wall-paper. Perhaps because of the wall-paper. It dwells in my mind so! I lie here on this great immovable bed — it is nailed down, I believe — and follow that pattern about by the hour. It is as good as gymnastics, I assure you. I start, we’ll say, at the bottom, down in the corner over there where it has not been touched, and I determine for the thousandth time that I will follow that pointless pattern to some sort of a conclusion.

This can be interpreted as the wife learning that she hates her gender roles, and is embracing an alternative, where she is not confined by what she is supposed to do but by what she wants to do.  Through most of the piece, she is conflicted. She wants to learn more, but she is also hindered by the established gender boundaries.  It is not unlike becoming educated about your prison and wishing to unlearn what you have learned so you can conform again.

There are things in that paper that nobody knows but me, or ever will.  Behind that outside pattern the dim shapes get clearer every day. It is always the same shape, only very numerous. And it is like a woman stooping down and creeping about behind that pattern. I don’t like it a bit. I wonder — I begin to think — I wish John would take me away from here!

Later, she fully embraces this change. Gilman also does a little creative-writing judo here.  At first, the wife witnesses the woman peeling out of the wallpaper. But then, without any explanation, the wife suddenly is the woman out of the wallpaper, representing a complete embrace of this change and this tossing aside of established gender roles.

Then I peeled off all the paper I could reach standing on the floor. It sticks horribly and the pattern just enjoys it! All those strangled heads and bulbous eyes and waddling fungus growths just shriek with derision! I am getting angry enough to do something desperate. To jump out of the window would be admirable exercise, but the bars are too strong even to try. Besides I wouldn’t do it. Of course not. I know well enough that a step like that is improper and might be misconstrued. I don’t like to look out of the windows even — there are so many of those creeping women, and they creep so fast.

I wonder if they all come out of that wall-paper as I did? But I am securely fastened now by my well-hidden rope — you don’t get me out in the road there! I suppose I shall have to get back behind the pattern when it comes night, and that is hard! It is so pleasant to be out in this great room and creep around as I please! I don’t want to go outside. I won’t, even if Jennie asks me to. For outside you have to creep on the ground, and everything is green instead of yellow.

And finally, with a broken man on the floor, she lives his world completely.

 Now why should that man have fainted? But he did, and right across my path by the wall, so that I had to creep over him every time!

In 1913, Gilman answered the simple question of why she wrote “The Yellow Wallpaper.”  Her answer is so brilliant that I present it here in its entirety.

Many and many a reader has asked that. When the story first came out, in the New England Magazine about 1891, a Boston physician made protest in The Transcript. Such a story ought not to be written, he said; it was enough to drive anyone mad to read it.

Another physician, in Kansas I think, wrote to say that it was the best description of incipient insanity he had ever seen, and — begging my pardon — had I been there?

Now the story of the story is this: For many years I suffered from a severe and continuous nervous breakdown tending to melancholia — and beyond. During about the third year of this trouble I went, in devout faith and some faint stir of hope, to a noted specialist in nervous diseases, the best known in the country. This wise man put me to bed and applied the rest cure, to which a still-good physique responded so promptly that he concluded there was nothing much the matter with me, and sent me home with solemn advice to “live as domestic a life as far as possible,” to “have but two hours’ intellectual life a day,” and “never to touch pen, brush, or pencil again” as long as I lived. This was in 1887.

I went home and obeyed those directions for some three months, and came so near the borderline of utter mental ruin that I could see over. Then, using the remnants of intelligence that remained, and helped by a wise friend, I cast the noted specialist’s advice to the winds and went to work again — work, the normal life of every human being; work, in which is joy and growth and service, without which one is a pauper and a parasite — ultimately recovering some measure of power. Being naturally moved to rejoicing by this narrow escape, I wrote The Yellow Wallpaper, with its embellishments and additions, to carry out the ideal (I never had hallucinations or objections to my mural

decorations) and sent a copy to the physician who so nearly drove me mad. He never acknowledged it. The little book is valued by alienists and as a good specimen of one kind of literature. It has, to my knowledge, saved one woman from a similar fate — so terrifying her family that they let her out into normal activity and she recovered.

But the best result is this. Many years later I was told that the great specialist had admitted to friends of his that he had altered his treatment of neurasthenia since reading The Yellow Wallpaper. It was not intended to drive people crazy, but to save people from being driven crazy, and it worked.

Woman aren’t weak.  They don’t need “rest.”  And they shouldn’t be removed from stress.  I like how Gilman says that she cast the note to the winds and went to work, the normal life of every human being.  She didn’t frame this as a woman’s struggle, which it honestly is.  But as a human struggle.  It was the idea of removal, that women weren’t part of natural, human process, which drove her to write her story.

Gilman’s story recognizes and exposes traditional gender roles. Here’s an example of a writer reinforcing the gender roles. Another classic example is, of course, Kate Chopin’s Story of an Hour.  In this story, an older woman’s husband is thought to be dead.  The older woman feels some grief, but she also feels elation because she is finally freed of her gender role.

There would be no one to live for her during those coming years; she would live for herself. There would be no powerful will bending hers in that blind persistence with which men and women believe they have a right to impose a private will upon a fellow-creature. A kind intention or a cruel intention made the act seem no less a crime as she looked upon it in that brief moment of illumination.

And yet she had loved him—sometimes. Often she had not. What did it matter! What could love, the unsolved mystery, count for in the face of this possession of self-assertion which she suddenly recognized as the strongest impulse of her being!

‘Free! Body and soul free!’ she kept whispering.

Contrasting the first two examples, here is a piece from Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills like White Elephants.” This classic story is about a man and a woman has a discussion about the woman getting a “procedure,” which is an abortion.  The term “abortion” is never stated, and it bothers students to no end, but it’s rather obvious. Here is a section of dialogue from the text.

“I think it’s the best thing to do. But I don’t want you to do it if you don’t really want to.”

“And if I do it you’ll be happy and things will be like they were and you’ll love me?”

“I love you now. You know I love you.”

” I know. But if I do it, then it will be nice again if I say things are like white elephants, and you’ll like it?”

“I’ll love it. I love it now but I just can’t think about it. You know how I get when I worry.”

” If I do it you won’t ever worry?”

” I won’t worry about that because it’s perfectly simple.”

“Then I’ll do it. Because I don’t care about me.”

“What do you mean?”

” I don’t care about me.”

“Well, I care about you.”

“Oh, yes. But I don’t care about me. And I’ll do it and then everything

will be fine.”

” I don’t want you to do it if you feel that way.”

Hemingway goes on to show the resolution of the piece, showing that the woman never disagrees with the man, but settles into her fate.

“Do you feel better?” he asked.

“I feel fine,” she said. “There’s nothing wrong with me. I feel fine.”

Hemingway “shows” us this world, a world where a man can basically force a woman to have an abortion, even if she doesn’t want to. He doesn’t say it’s right or it’s wrong.  You would think that, because he is showing us this, he is obviously against it and is showing us this to make us disgusted by it.  I argue that, if this were true, there would be more protest from the woman or even showing the woman not going through with it.  “Hills Like White Elephants” is reflecting the world.  Reading other Hemingway pieces, it’s obvious that Hemingway is comfortable with this and has no problem with how Gender roles work.  He isn’t writing to challenge them. He’s simply showing how the world works with them.

Not all male writers are oblivious to gender and gender roles. One example is Raymond Carver.  In his story, “They’re Not Your Husband,” a husband pushes his wife to diet.  He wants her to diet so she looks what he thinks he should look like, so she can fit into this idealized role of a woman.  In reality, she’s healthy, and his urging her to diet reflects the damage he is doing to her.

But a week later she had lost five pounds.  The week after that, nine and a half pounds. Her clothes were loose on her.  She had to cut into the rent money to buy a new uniform. 

            “People are saying things at work,” she said. 

            “What kind of things?” Earl said.

            “That I’m too pale, for one thing,” she said.  “That I don’t look like myself.  They’re afraid I’m losing too much weight.”

            “What is wrong with losing?” he said.  “Don’t you pay any attention to them.  Tell them to mind their own business.  They’re not your husband.  You don’t live with them.”

            “I have to work with them,” Doreen said.

            “That’s right,” Earl said.  “But they’re not your husband.” 

Carver’s story paints the husbands as causing pain, unneeded pain, on his wife for his own desires.  The end of he story dismisses Earl all together as a “joker.”  Unlike Hemingway, Carver uses his story to say how gender roles can do damage to women, not just showing that the gender roles exist.

More contemporary books are pushing the boundaries of what we think of gender.  A great example is Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides.  In the book, the main character, Callie, has a 5-Alpha-reductuse Deficiency Syndrome.  Because of this, Callie changes from a male to a female.  This condition occurred because of an incestuous relationship in her/his family generations before hand.  From an article by John Mullen in the Guardian Book Club, the obvious question comes up about what the transformation from female to male.

Why, one reader asked, did he decide to make the fictional metamorphosis from female to male rather than vice versa? This makes the male condition his final and “true” self. “I chose female to male because that is the truth about that condition,” was the simple answer. The novel had to be faithful to the medical textbooks.

Another example is the book Written on the Body by Jeanette Winterson in which, by using innovation, creativity and sheer brilliance, has a first person narrator whom is “genderless.”  We have absolutely no idea if the narrator is a man or a woman.  The best part is, a page into the book, you realize it doesn’t matter.

You were careful not to say those words that soon became our private altar. I had said them many times before, dropping them like coins into a wishing well, hoping they would make me come true.  I had said them many times before but not to you. I had given them as forget-me-nots to girls who should have known better. I had used them as bullets and barter. I don’t like to think of myself as an insincere person but if I say I love you and I don’t mean it then what else am I? Will I cherish you, adore you, make way for you, make myself better for you, look at you and always see you, tell you the truth? And if love is not those things then what things?

What we can do about it. 

Not all Fiction pushes the boundaries of Gender roles.  But, if they don’t, they run the risk of being trite and clichéd.  In the Creative writing class room, we encourage young writers to write about what they know, to write fiction that is grounded in reality.  But, we also warn them of writing clichéd and boring pieces.  In one breath, we are telling them to understand and respect gender roles in their writing.  In the next breath, we are asking them to push the ideas of normal and write original, powerful pieces.  How do you do both?  Can you?

Let’s look at an example.  Here is a sentence from a story that a student is working on.

“Bill, the husband grabbed his to-go cup of coffee and kissed his beautiful wife on the cheek as she feed their new-born son.  Bill hated going to the office and leaving them at home all day.” 

This is the classic American gender role set up. The husband goes to work, the wife stays home with the kid.  By writing this, the student is acknowledging that Gender roles exist and that the student is comfortable with them OR the student isn’t trying hard enough to be creative.  We can switch things around here to become a bit more innovative.

“Sue grabbed her to-go cup of coffee and kissed her handsome husband on the cheek as he feed their new-born son.  Sue hated going to the office and leaving them at home all day.” 

Just by changing who is doing what, we have a far more complex story in two sentences.  The gender roles are reversed, which could lead to some exploration. Why has the woman decided to go to work and why is the husband at home?  This is not what is normal in our society. This could be a compelling story about the changing of gender roles and how the couple deals with the change.


Here is the question:  Does the story have to be about the gender roles being reversed?  Aren’t we reinforcing the gender roles if we are calling this a reversal?  Aren’t we re-enforcing gender roles and gender stereotypes by saying that the two sentences above are “abnormal” and “strange” and “different”?  What do we do here?  Do we, as writers, use this as a story calling into question gender roles by exploring gender roles?  Or do we simply ignore it all together and, thus, establish that the about situation is the “New Normal”.

What about this one?

“Sue, grabbed her to-go cup of coffee and kissed her beautiful wife on the cheek as she feed their new-born son.  Sue hated going to the office and leaving them at home all day.” 

Or this one?

“Bill, grabbed his to-go cup of coffee and kissed his beautiful husband on the cheek as he feed their new-born son.  Bill hated going to the office and leaving them at home all day.” 

Do the stories play on the Gender Role reversals/destruction?  Or does the story ignore it in order to foster acceptance?  Can it do both? Neither?  What about the reader? Do the reader’s preconceptions play a part in this?  What if the reader can’t push past their believes about Gender roles?  How many great stories are passed on by editors because of this?  How many novels are published because the publisher things the story is too “racy,” even though what was taboo five years ago is quickly becoming gendered?

And why can’t gender become the main topic? If more women write, and more people try, can we become more of an open society?  Are we missing anything? More women are educated about gender than men, and we can’t become a bigger and better society without discussing the oppression of one gender over another.

Five Things You We Can Do To make this Better

  1. 1.     Discuss it.
  2. 2.     Encourage Innovation.
  3. 3.     Keep an Open mind (on all sides).
  4. 4.     Practice what we preach (read more woman writers).
  5. 5.     Keep discussing it. 

Understanding Gender Roles and how they affect people is a fundamental part of writing.  Writing is about expressing your view of the world and showing the world how you see things. It’s also about risk taking and pushing aside barriers.  Just like James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison did for the African-American community, writers have to understand how and why Gender roles are affecting their writing process.

Here is a link to the books I mentioned, in case you want to check them out.  There is another link for the entire Women’s Studies summit, which was fantastic.