Matthew Warner

Are the Publishing, Theater, and Movie Industries as Bigoted and Sexist as Everyone Thinks?

There’s a literature professor in Canada named David Gilmour who sounds like a pinhead. In a recent Hazlitt interview, he says:

I’m not interested in teaching books by women. Virginia Woolf is the only writer that interests me as a woman writer, so I do teach one of her short stories. But once again, when I was given this job I said I would only teach the people that I truly, truly love. Unfortunately, none of those happen to be Chinese, or women. Except for Virginia Woolf. And when I tried to teach Virginia Woolf, she’s too sophisticated, even for a third-year class. Usually at the beginning of the semester a hand shoots up and someone asks why there aren’t any women writers in the course. I say I don’t love women writers enough to teach them, if you want women writers go down the hall. What I teach is guys. Serious heterosexual guys. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Chekhov, Tolstoy. Real guy-guys. Henry Miller. Philip Roth.

In one fell swoop, he slams all writers who are female, Chinese, or gay.  And people who aren’t “serious.”

So yeah, he sounds like a racist, bigoted, misogynistic pinhead.  And maybe he doesn’t like comedy, either.  Responses like this one (“you might as well shit all the beds while you’re at it”), this one (“a curdled mess of intellectual mediocrity”), and this one (“Gilmour’s extreme point of view is a perfect example of the woman problem in literature”) are right to call him out on it.

But here’s my question.  How would people have reacted if, say, Gilmour were a female literature professor who said she only wanted to teach novels written by African American women? There are entire academic fields devoted to African-American studies and women’s studies, so I don’t believe this is improbable.

While I’m posing this hypothetical scenario, let’s assume this professor makes the statement with an absence of judgments against writers who aren’t African American women.  Perhaps that makes the comparison invalid, in which case I’m sorry for wasting your time.  But would Gilmour be in the fire right now if he’d just said, “All those other writers are fine, but I simply prefer to teach books by white male heterosexuals”?  You tell me.  Is the actual problem here that: (1) he only wants to teach books by white male heterosexuals, or (2) his decision is being motivated by racism, bigotry and misogyny?  My worry is that it’s not just #2.  If the objection is also that he’s daring to limit his scope of study to a particular gender or race, then there’s a bit of hypocrisy at work.

My headline above casts a wider net than just literature and publishing.  Prachi Gupta, the Salon writer I quoted who complains about the “woman problem in literature” links to another interesting article she wrote about novelist Jonathan Franzen.  In a New York Times discussion about sexism, Franzen complains that the New York City theater scene is “most glaringly dominated by male sexism.”

I don’t live in New York, so I’ll have to take Franzen’s word.  I live in a small Shenandoah Valley city, and I’m submitting my small portfolio of stage plays to various markets.  And instead of feeling like, as a white male heterosexual, that the world is my oyster (as if anyone’s race, gender, or sexual orientation should even matter, and no, they shouldn’t), it feels like most of the open submission markets are restricted to playwrights who are not male, white, or straight.  I need not apply because of my genetic profile.  Yes, saying “it feels like most” is admittedly unscientific, but that’s my perception every single time I sit down to market my work.

And it doesn’t stop there.  I’m also an aspiring screenplay writer.  I’m now experimenting with a movie-industry equivalent to Publishers Marketplace called The Black List.  During sign up, I learned about this great program they have to connect new screenplay writers with Warner Bros. in something called a blind script deal.  It sounded awesome until I got to the part about this promotion being intended for writers who are either female, in a minority, or over 60.  Foiled again.

Returning to publishing, a few years ago I attended the RWA annual conference.  Out of about 3,000 attendees, about 2,997 of them were women.  This convention was so large, sophisticated, and well run that it made the SF/F/H conventions I normally attend look like keggers on my back deck.  The RWA is full of women who are dominating the publishing profession at all levels.  Since then, my wife and I have often visited New York for marketing meetings with New York publishers to discuss their website campaigns.  Most of the people we see around the table are women.  So, from my perspective, I think women are doing just fine in publishing — and what’s more, I believe they achieved their success through hard work and merit, not through any special privileges accorded to them because of gender.

Look, I don’t wear my race, gender, or sexual orientation on my sleeve.  Those qualities are unimportant to me, and I don’t use them to judge others.  As much as possible, my wife and I are raising our children to be blind to these things, because racism, sexism, and bigotry are evils that should be stamped out.  I believe that all people deserve the same rights and privileges as anyone else.  Look back through my blog posts in support of gay marriage, and you’ll see how passionate I am about this.

And this is why I don’t believe restricting competitive opportunities to anyone on the basis of genetic characteristics is helpful to anybody.  This is the old debate about Affirmative Action, in a way.  Two wrongs don’t make a right.

Are the publishing, theater, and movie industries as bigoted and sexist as everyone thinks?  From my perspective, as a relatively inexperienced writer (and I say that without a trace of irony, even after over twenty years), I have to say it looks that way.  But the bias doesn’t always seem skewed in the direction popular opinion holds.

But hey, I don’t live in New York or Los Angeles.  I don’t have the specific data the policy makers of the entertainment industry used to justify such programs and markets.  I could be wrong, and this could just be the sour grapes of a frustrated writer.  So educate me.  Tell me about your experiences.