I was reading a middle-grade book last week, contemporary setting with adventure fantasy elements, written this decade, la la la fine yay. And suddenly in the middle of it, the little brother was telling the protagonist that changing diapers was girls’ work. And she basically stamped her foot, and the book went on.
…except that he was the little brother, so it made sense for her to keep doing more of the care for their baby sister, because he was younger than I’d expect for that task. So…the idea kind of stood. It was embedded there in the text, and the next two most helpful adults with the child care were also women, and suddenly there’s a subtext.
It’s not a book about misogyny. So far as I can tell, it’s not a book that meant to portray a society that told girls that their role was having and caring for babies–either in a positive or a negative light. But there it is, a random line that just sat there being frankly kind of gross. That just sat there reinforcing to girl readers that this is how boys will view them and their lives, reinforcing to boys that this is a normal thing to say and a normal way to behave, not worthy of comment.
I’ve talked before about how I’m trying to not write misogyny in fiction any more. And this is simultaneously why I have that determination and the hard part of keeping it. It’s easy to not write misogyny that seems important at the time–at least comparatively easy. The large plot points like “society tells our heroine she cannot be a phoenix wrangler because of her gender” tend to jump out at you. “Big fight with family member over proper gender roles”: that takes up enough space on the page that it’s hard to miss. And it’s also easier to actually deal with head-on in the text, if it’s not something you actually believe in, if it’s something you want to fight or refute. It’s a lot easier to let your heroine show that girls can too be phoenix wranglers, or to have family members bend on “proper” gender roles.
When it’s a single line, a throwaway bit of dialog, it may not even register. It may just be the way of the world in the author’s experience. But depending on how you write it, you can help to make it more the way of the world in the reader’s experience, too, because hey, it was in all the books they were reading growing up. I’ve been revisiting a lot of ’70s and ’80s SF I read in high school and college, and it’s really striking to me how much blatant, hostile sexism I was completely used to. It’s really astonishing how much was just “how things are” and not a reason to find a book gross or upsetting.
Writers who are writing today: that’s what we’re doing right now. We’re setting norms. We’re building readers’ data sets about the world. Every. Day. It is very much worth paying attention to what assumptions we’re reinforcing with “unimportant” lines of dialog and bits of description. The larger points, the things we hoped to be writing about, the things we were conscious we were writing about, are by no means the only things that matter.