I used a term in the title of yesterday’s Doctor Who rant that I never quite defined, and I’m not sure the meaning is obvious in context. The term is “pink ghetto”. It describes the tendency of our culture to treat the things associated with women as being only of importance to women. This happens for most (all?) groups not in power, but when it happens to women, we call it “pink”.
Thus, the fellow who was talking to someone between sessions at Science Online last month. When the woman he was talking to asked whether he planned to stay for the next session, he asked what the session was. When he found out it was “Blogging Science While Female”, he practically fell over himself to assert that he wasn’t staying for it. It had “female” in the title. It wasn’t for men (though several sat in the audience, quite engaged to all appearances).
This phenomenon is very easily seen in the choice of issues on which politicians campaign, in nominations for popular awards and in the list problem, and in art/popular culture. Oh, does it happen in art, where the subjective taste of critics and award-granting bodies is elevated over that of the consumer.
In fact, the most recent use of the term I’ve seen happened in response to a review of a political book. The book in question is Jodi Kantor’s The Obamas, which is an inside look at how the Obama administration and the Obama marriage interact. The focus on a marriage, however, was enough for critic Douglas Brinkley to dub the book “chick nonfiction” in his New York Times review. Anna North made some astute observations at Jezebel:
Brinkley’s review is largely positive, and as many very successful writers of women’s fiction might ask, what’s wrong with chick lit anyway? Nothing — but Brinkley’s piece also contains some more subtle hints that he maybe doesn’t take Kantor all that seriously. He calls her portrayal of Michelle Obama a “hug,” for one thing. Then there’s this: “On a couple of occasions, the tabloid scent in the book is so strong that one would be forgiven for thinking Kantor writes for Us Weekly, not The Times.” Would Brinkley have smelled that “scent” so strongly if The Obamas were written by a dude?
Little slights like this aren’t especially surprising, especially for women writing in traditionally male fields like politics. What’s really interesting is how Brinkley feminizes Kantor’s whole project. The entire point of Kantor’s book seems to be that the Obamas’ marriage has a huge impact on the presidency, and thus on the direction of the entire country. Brinkley himself even acknowledges as much, right before that “chick nonfiction” comment. So if their relationships affects all of us, why is a book about it just for chicks? Maybe Brinkley’s thoughtlessly sending The Obamas to the pink ghetto because a lady wrote it — but I think it goes deeper than that. I think Brinkley’s whole approach speaks to the idea that marriage and relationships in general are somehow women’s issues. Which makes it easy to dismiss them (to the detriment of many relationships) — except when they affect our nation’s government. With an offhanded comment, Brinkley may have unintentionally pointed out something pretty crucial: sometimes, “chick issues” are really fucking important.
I think the most important point here is that subject matter alone doesn’t necessarily relegate art to the pink ghetto. Enough masculinity attached to a project can completely change the way it’s viewed.
“It’s just interesting to sort of stack them up against a Lorrie Moore or against a Mona Simpson — who write books about families that are seen as excellent books about families,” Weiner says. “And then to look at a Jonathan Franzen who writes a book about a family but we are told this is a book about America.”
Jane Smiley, who is regularly reviewed in the Times, has been cited by Franzen as a source of inspiration; she admits to having a favorable opinion of the writer. Still, Smiley says she can understand why some female writers whose work is commercially successful but critically ignored would be frustrated.
“Chick lit is no longer chick lit,” she says. “There’s an aspect of fiction that is being written by women that is really smart, really daring, in terms of the subject matter that it takes on — and really popular. And I think it’s being overlooked because it’s so, so straightforward and because the payoff is emotional rather than intellectual.”
Men can rescue marriages and family from the pink ghetto simply by writing about them themselves. The fact that men then get reviewed and promoted far more often by the media means that any individual man writing about these subjects will be rewarded far better for it than most of his female peers will, despite the fact that the vast majority of writers who write about these topics that make up the best-selling genre of fiction will be female.
“Female” subjects combined with female writers and characters are consistently shunted to one side by the tastemakers. This is the pink ghetto.
This is also why it’s important to be a little extra self-aware when we are critiquing the treatment of gender in media. Media that suggests the performance of femininity should be of primary importance to women is a problem. Media that suggests that all the members of one sex should behave in the same way is a problem.
Critiquing media because it ever presents women as performing femininity or having an interest in those “female” subjects is also bad. Critiquing media when it associates women with those “female” interests but not when it associates men with those same interests is feeding women with those interests to the pink ghetto. Let’s stop doing that. Okay?