Sexist 50's

Throw Out the Sexism from Throwback Articles

It can be fun to read a republished article on writing, gleaning advice and observations from a different era to see how literary rules and techniques stand the the test of time. But sometimes it can take you back into a warped time best left in the archives of history.

I recently read a writer’s magazine article on how to surprise readers without tricks or stale plot twists. You know, refraining from the same old thing, like finding out at the end that the narrator or protagonist is a ghost. The thing was, this article was one of those throwback offerings, written in 1959.

How many women will immediately know where I’m going with this after learning the original date of the article? No surprise there. Because 1959 wasn’t exactly a fresh, innovative time for females.

As I read this throwback piece, it threw me back into the same old stale sexism. The inevitable moldy myopic focus on men, men, and more men. Men were always the hero, always the star.

Female characters were secondary to the story. Mere frippery in many instances. The nagging wife. The nauseatingly subservient housewife. The bimbo. The young innocent (and haplessly helpless). The object of—as in objectified—sexual desire.

What makes a story stale in 2021 may not necessarily be a trite ending or overused plot scenario. Forget formulas or not-so-clever takes. It could be an inability to move beyond gender stereotypes and, in certain cases, outright misogyny.

Is it any wonder I wasn’t enamored of the “classics” back in high school when it came to required reading in my AP English classes? I was a teenaged female reading about men, men, and more men. Men in war, drunk men (or clearly drunk authors), men pontificating ad nauseum on religious precepts. Men on adventures—without women.

Too many classics are classically sexist, beginning with inevitably male authors that make gender bias, and often racial bias, a sure thing.

Then there’s the murder mysteries that were never my favorite read. What is it with writers who can’t seem to craft a murder victim who is not a female dying naked as the result of a gruesome, sordid sexual assault? Killed by a man, of course. And the male detective protagonist is also always male, and often predictably sexist.

In this article from 1959, not a single example provided under the mystery category involved a female protagonist. Every last one was male. Because the author of the article was, of course, a guy. This was 1959, after all.

Yes, there were female authors who somehow became famous prior to the romance novel boom in the seventies. But even S.E. Hinton of The Outsiders fame did not broadcast that her name was Susan. Perhaps because all of the main characters in that novel were male, save for one—and only one—secondary female.

Don’t get me wrong. I still loved the story, especially the character named Cherry. But it would have been nice back in seventh grade to have a few American literary role models beyond this novel and Little Women. Maybe a few female-driven stories written for adult readers as well.

I often wonder how many female writers might have also penned “classics” or could have been prolific, commercially successful authors back in the day if society had not treated us as second-class citizens. Both in real life, and on the pages of well-worn novels.

I just finished reading a “This Week in Writing” online snippet from a writer’s magazine that listed milestones in terms of birth or death for eight famous authors. The dates spanned from a birth in 1794 to a death in 1990. Not a single writer noted was female by the male editor who created the list. Why is that?

Perhaps what we now need are articles from writing magazines on how to avoid sexist clichés and the importance of ridding the publishing and literary world of sexism and an advantage derived merely from gender. Or at the very least, offerings that are more inclusive of women.

Women should be both protagonist, not necessarily in a formula-driven romance, and also embraced as authors in every other genre where men have had free reign to dominate, without female competition. Not for mere decades now, but for centuries.

Competition might just lead to more interesting stories, and better writing. Because the feminine point of view as seen from the male mind is often unfortunately blatantly sexist if not utterly clueless or self-serving. The epitome of stale and a throwback female readers can do without.

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