Men value my opinion

In the last few months two men have asked me to read their unpublished manuscripts and give them my opinion, because they value my opinion. Indirectly and with great euphemism they gave me to understand that they were worried about the presence of problematic ideological elements in their texts. The motivations at work here are simultaneously noble and selfish. On the one hand, they genuinely don’t want to contribute to the reactionary and male-chauvinist literary discourse that predominates in western literature. On the other hand, they don’t want to look chauvinist — in a world where the reading public is increasingly feminist, misogynist rhetoric, themes, and comments all become an obstacle to professional success. Bukowskis aren’t winning literary contests like they used to. Instead, they evoke pity and yawns among judges who increasingly understand the celebration of what is traditionally masculine as a gesture that denotes insecurity and a profound emotional and intellectual immaturity.

Congratulations on the nobility. Now, let’s examine the selfishness. The first thing I feel compelled to criticize is the private and maternal role these guys saddle me with in the production of their texts. I’m also a writer, which is to say, someone with a voice who wishes above all to be heard in public. The field I most enjoy is criticism. I want economic and symbolic recognition from readers for my talent in this office. But when the men who value my opinion ask me to dedicate my time to editing the chauvinism out of their texts, I’m not playing the role I’d like to play in the creative process. My work and wit aren’t projected outwards any more, instead remaining enclosed in a conversation, in the domestic sphere. Rather than serving as the raw material for my own writing, working to my benefit, they become means to the personal success of the writer who asked me for help: my name is not expected to appear in the published work, credited as “editor or ideological critic.” My function in this case is that of friend and confidant who selflessly provides her intellectual labor. In truth, what they expect is that I become a protective barrier between them and an intelligent audience that will judge their obliviousness, their lack of feminist theory and practice, ever more harshly. They task me with the mission of avoiding the embarrassment of publicly flaunting their sexism. My critical comments, then, made discreetly, in a soft voice, never see the light of day. My skills are deployed in secret, kept between the author of a manuscript and his unpaid ideological assistant, who revises texts purely out of the loving-kindness she feels for her friends. Thus I stop being the center of my own discourse, which doesn’t even manage to become writing proper. My voice and my feminism aren’t materialized in such a way that society can see and recognize me as a protagonist. Like a mother ironing her children’s outfits so they can make a good impression on the job, I, motherly writer, spruce up my friends’ images just as they’re about to go out and receive a baptism of fire in the public sphere.

Similar things occur everywhere and in many different ways. Chauvinist men expect women around them to take care of them, to attend to their needs and wishes with haste. They ask, with breathtaking entitlement, that we make them beneficiaries of our efforts, even if it implies making a gift of our time, postponing our own needs and wishes. Most don’t even notice the doggedness with which they strive to occupy leading roles. But their demands reveal that they seek the spotlight, that they have and expect others to recognize their vast self-esteem. They expect us to grant them sex. They expect us to grant them affection. They expect our hands to clean up their grime. They even expect us grant a unilateral demand for education or feminist critique. And, as if that wasn’t enough, they want us to make all these sacrifices in the most abnegated and secret silence of private life, so that they don’t strike other people as demanding and chauvinist!

I understand perfectly well the anxiety of facing judgment. As a feminist and a Marxist-Leninist I experience it every day, and the criticism I get from some quarters isn’t exactly constructive. But even so, this isn’t so bad. A judgment is just an invitation to see things a certain way, to question the framework in which one operates and relates to others. It’s possible and worthwhile to reflect on the matter without so much sentimentalism, since the way we handle this has an impact on the way we relate to others, and to ourselves. Dismissing negative observations about our behavior by classing them as bad-faith epithets simply guarantees that we will never become kinder, more interesting, nor very mature. Without exception, the people I know who have faced accusations of chauvinism with aplomb have become kinder, happier, and more intelligent as a result. I am one of them. I found that those who called me chauvinist turned out to be serious, studious, sensitive people, capable of building stronger arguments than I could. Therefore I set out to study their sources. I discovered a rich political and intellectual tradition. I read brilliant articles. I went to study groups. I looked on myself with horror and shame. I cried, I fought, and I began to transform myself. I’m still reading theory, still fighting, and I see, as the years go by, that accusations of chauvinism become less frequent. I still get them, but less often, and I’ve lost the fear of them, since nowadays they pop up in much more interesting conversations, for more complex reasons. I recommend to the guys that, instead of straining with all their might to avoid accusations of chauvinism by enlisting the help of a private feminist critic, they risk publishing something, saying the wrong thing and taking the hit. Those critiques will be much more instructive and transformative than pre-release motherly coddling. On the one hand, they will be healthier, since they will be coming from critics who freely chose to pay attention to the book in question; on the other, they will be more powerful and sincere, because, in absence of a pre-existing relationship between author and critic, the priority will not be to look after the feelings and ego of the author, but to analyze the work as such.

There have been a couple of attempts at practical synthesis, but the majority of feminist lessons can’t be distilled into simple formulas for a writer to follow so that their texts won’t be chauvinist. Thus, to writers who do not wish to be accused of chauvinism, I can only recommend the same strategy I followed: stop being a chauvinist. This is only possible through a deep understanding of the phenomenon of chauvinism, an understanding that can only be obtained by studying its most potent critique: feminism. Quitting male chauvinism is a long and tortuous process that ultimately gives great satisfaction, but not before causing a lot of pain. It requires immense willpower and strength. What’s more, success is only ever partial; rather than a done deal, it’s a lifelong commitment to study and struggle. One must approach the required reading with the same seriousness and rigor that a male chauvinist intellectual reserves for Hemingway. Unfortunately for men, it’s not like washing underwear or flattering egos: no woman can do it for them. Not even the most feminist of editors would be able to purge sexism from the pages of a book written by a man who hasn’t dedicated a single day of his life to reflecting critically on gender, the patriarchy, the gendered division of labor, heteronormativity, sexual orientation, sexual identity, the family as an institution, motherhood, abortion, friendship, marriage, love, male domination, private property, domestic, sexual and emotional abuse, etc. These things constitute and affect our interpersonal relationships and also the interpersonal relationships we imagine for our fictional characters. Someone who’s illiterate in feminism cannot but produce stories that, down to the last detail, perfectly embody the ignorance of the illiterate in question.

Male chauvinism isn’t a discrete element that can be removed from a text at will, like a bad simile or a misplaced comma. It’s the very soul of the text. It determines everything, from thematic choices, the construction of characters and their relationships, the possibilities offered by the plot and the point of view, all the way to imagery, narrative asides or omissions, dialogue, descriptions, emotional atmosphere, tone, and register. A feminist woman, for example, does not write nostalgically about manly men who hunt bears or save damsels with a pair of trusty pistols. Nor do they see the appeal of spending their precious time watching a movie about a rich and petulant egomaniac who considers himself awfully clever seeking the approval of impressionable adolescents whom he fucks to stave off his own feelings of worthlessness. These kinds of stories are produced and consumed only by people who don’t ask themselves too many questions. I dare say that a feminist editor wouldn’t even bother trying to fix narratives like these. They would immediately see that the only reasonable course of action was to throw them in the garbage. Instead of wearing themselves out fixing the unfixable, they would perhaps take to producing feminist theory, in the hope that future generations might one day be able to produce art up to the standards of intelligence and sensitivity of an increasingly demanding audience.

Hoping to eliminate the chauvinism of a text through minor edits reveals, besides just an incomprehension of the scope of the problem, a more concerning intellectual laziness and weakness; as mentioned previously, eliminating chauvinism implies poring for years over texts that aren’t just theoretically ambitious, but also difficult to read, insofar they pack an emotional punch. Feminism is a destruction of the certainties we rely on to navigate reality. It implies discarding much of what we accepted as normal, natural, and beautiful. And there are few things as painful as finding oneself completely in the wrong, and admitting this error with integrity. It’s also disrespectful to the feminist theoretical tradition to suggest that, with a couple of edits, one can make significant improvements. Clearly they underestimate feminism as a body of theory: they wouldn’t ask a physicist to explain fluid mechanics to them quickly via WhatsApp. On top of underestimating feminism, they have disproportionate faith in themselves: if they believe that with a few edits they can purge chauvinism from their writing, they must not consider themselves very chauvinist in the first place. To them it’s not a matter of radically revolutionizing their perception and the way they relate to others, but about making a couple of writerly adjustments here and there. Scratch out a few adjectives, add a few others, and it’s done: the text is now good to go.

And the truth is it isn’t. Every day a chauvinist writer spends not learning about feminism isn’t a day that they hurt women, but a day spent ruining their own career. In time, they’ll find it harder to publish, because readers are in fact learning new concepts and theories every day. We aren’t stopping. We’ve got an eye out for the latest developments in the field. We become experts ourselves. We hone our sight and hearing to the point that from the very first page we can tell where a story is headed, whether the author is a resentful heterosexual male or not, what fears and fantasies stitch together its symbols and decide the course of the story. It can’t be helped. Whoever would rather not be a failed writer, whoever really wants to sell their beloved wares in the market of contemporary literary fiction, will have to become fluent in feminist discourse even if they hate it. If before there were altruistic reasons to learn (solidarity with women), now it has to be done for selfish reasons as well. Mere intellectual survival demands that we crack open an Angela Davis book every once in a while.

Lastly, in regards to this essay’s title: Men value my opinion. The bait they’ve used to entice my private pro bono critical revision is that my opinion is very important to them. First they flatter me, then they expect me to work for them. This is disquieting, because it reveals that they also value their own opinions immensely. It’s as if, to reimburse them for their recognition of my intelligence, I was obliged to put this intelligence at their disposal whenever they saw fit. What’s more, it’s a gesture of kindness that simultaneously raises questions about who is helping whom. It’s as if they were saying: “Hey, Sobri, since you’re a feminist and you have an interest in literature being less chauvinist, you should help me make my personal project more feminist.” I have a counter-proposal. As I’ve been a feminist for years and thus have a bit of a head start, why don’t I, instead of wasting my time trying to purge chauvinism from their literature, spend more time on my own original stories, which are already feminist, while they, who are still struggling with chauvinism, could become my unpaid assistants, diagrammers, promoters, etc., so that I can bring my work to the market sooner, become famous, and get rich. I imagine it’s not such a tempting proposal, because I would be offering neither the protagonism nor the recognition that the men who ask this kind of favor reserve for themselves. In spite of my best intentions, what I’d be offering, at the end of the day, is nothing more than a willingness to absorb alien labor to heighten my own standing as a woman who writes. The idea of taking the labor of others for free bothers me. Even if it’s framed as a recognition of someone’s abilities, that doesn’t make it any less a self-interested usurpation of them. That’s why it would never occur to me to ask someone to criticize or edit something for me for free, especially a writer I consider my equal. Rather, if a reader for some reason decided to volunteer work or resources, I would hope it was by their own volition, because they like what I say and they want to collaborate with me, not because I am inconveniencing them with my personal ambition, insecurity, and laziness. Collaboration should not occur because I’ve saddled someone with an undeserved burden. That, never.

It’s instructive to compare the intellectual catcall “I value your opinion” with ordinary catcalling directed at women’s bodies, since both of them operate on chauvinist expectations and the exploitative dynamics of emotional labor. The man that catcalls a woman offers her something that, from his perspective, is a gift: the recognition of feminine beauty. But he doesn’t accept just any response in exchange for his words, because he gets offended if his target reacts negatively. This happens because he considers his sexual attention something that each and every woman walking down the street should receive and reciprocate happily. In exchange for the catcall, the harasser doesn’t wait, but demands the gratitude of the stranger, in the form of a flirtatious smile or a shy gesture. In other words, the catcall is not an invitation to smile at the “compliment,” but the obligation to do so, unilaterally imposed by the catcaller. In this way it is a transgression of the limits of another’s body, an abuse. When the catcalled woman feels disgust, she isn’t just disgusted by the man, but by this imposition, by the fact that the man has put her in a situation where she has to assume behaviors that she would likely not otherwise assume. Similarly, the “I value your opinion” as preamble to a demand that I satisfy the self-interested catcaller is an extortionary and totally disrespectful gesture.

So yes, it’s great if you want to value my opinion, but don’t tell me this just to appropriate my time by putting me to work reviewing manuscripts. Better to keep that appraisal to yourselves, alongside your opinions about my body, and instead value what I want you to value: my time and my writing. The hours I could have spent today helping a male chauvinist hide their chauvinism in private I instead spent writing this, which was a lot more fun.