The other day I was genuinely discombobulated (and a bit upset) that a fairly well-known literary author (or should that be authoress?!) decided to, completely out of the blue, tweet me at my Marija Smits Twitter account to say this:
@MarijaSmits PoetESS? Really? I’ve find that title very belittling. Poet is genderless. Like writer. And chemist.
Now, as some of you know, I am a deeply reflective person. I don’t do quick, clever retorts or off-the-cuff tweets (as I have to assume this was, given the typo). I don’t do ‘soundbites’, so I’m sure as hell not going to start a discussion about this on Twitter.
But… I thought and thought about it, and carefully considered what to do about this tweet. The HSP in me said: ‘Say nothing, don’t speak out, be silent, because then you won’t get hurt and overwhelmed by it all.’ But the Wild Woman in me – she who is very good at helping me to speak out when I know an issue is dear to me – said: ‘Be brave. Write. Explain yourself. Speak out for all the Wild Women who are silenced in small and big ways every day.’
So here are my thoughts. I would also like to add that as most of you know, yes, I am careful with my words, so I did not choose the title ‘poetess’ lightly, and I want to explain my reasoning behind this. To help me do this, let’s begin to analyze that tweet…
Why is the female gendered form of ‘poet’ belittling? Is ‘poet’ truly genderless? I sometimes see women calling themselves ‘female poets’ but I don’t read about ‘male poets’. So is ‘poetess’ “belittling” because the author who tweeted me assumes that the male form is the usual default, and that the female form is obviously subordinate and therefore lesser?
This is the same impulse in genderless environments/occupations like ‘scientist’ or ‘chemist’. In fact, these cultures (academic and commercial) are competitive, aggressive and confrontational, and, in fact, stereotypically masculine. Women are equal in this “genderless” world as long as they behave like men. But not paid the same, of course. And, it’s worth noting, some women are better than other women at behaving like stereotypically masculine men. (The arena of politics is another apt example.)
Removal of the female gendered form in artistic contexts is denying the different lived experience and different aesthetic/sensibility that women have. It belittles them by suggesting they can only be equal to men by being the same and having the same identity.
As a deeply reflective person, I thought about the pros and cons of using the word ‘poetess’ for a fair while before I decided to give myself that title on my blog… I meant to call myself ‘poetess’ because my poetry reflects (and is generally about) my life as a woman and the impact that my feminine identity has on my artistic expression. Why should we women NOT be allowed to draw attention to our gender in the names we choose for ourselves? Why must the female form be suppressed? How does this suppression “enlarge us” and make us less “little”? And finally, why must I, a woman, face attack from another woman who wants to censor the names I use for myself? This, in itself, is a belitting, and sad disempowerment – which is fundamentally against everything that I have strived for in my breastfeeding counselling voluntary work, my writing and my publishing work.
Continuing to look at the bigger picture, I also see from the breastfeeding support world that sometimes people get upset about the use of the word ‘mother’ and ‘father’ and that it should be simply ‘parent’. Now, I think we’re getting into difficult territory here, because mothers and fathers have differing, though unique roles. And believe me, I’ve seen enough people arguing about this until I’m fit to burst with melancholy. I’ve been drawn into it myself, while arguing for safe spaces for women, and I’ve been called names to my face and seen some pretty ugly name-calling online. And then I’ve also read the arguments about how we should all just call each other and ourselves humans so that we cut out any gendered stuff like ‘man’ or ‘woman’. And perhaps, while we’re at it, we should get rid of female and male names (or perhaps adopt the male names only – they can be the standard, right?!). Again, this is tricky territory we’re getting into, and one that needs far more critical (and nuanced) thinking about than our social media–savvy society seems to be able to cope with.
But, coming back to the tweet… I cannot see that my use of the word ‘poetess’ is worth the outrage. Or perhaps it is? Maybe, by labelling myself thus, I unknowingly hit upon a nerve. But I know too that we are living in the age of outrage and people seem quick to look for reasons to be offended. Indeed, some of them go out of their way to be offended. (Something I cannot for the life of me understand.)
I also thought it particularly apt that just the other day I read this excellent blog post by Kristen Lamb about whether or not Facebook is dying, and how it really isn’t about fun (and harmless) socializing anymore. Kristen said that she’d done something she’d never expected to do – unfollow other writers – because they were simply too busy being outraged (my words here) and it wasn’t much fun.
These writers—The Unfollowed—have mutated from friends into geysers of hysteria, hate, ranting, or general pissed-offedness. And I think that’s sad. The same writer who’s spending time on social media might one day announce a book that I would have seen and maybe even bought…had they not pushed me to the point of unfollowing anything they posted.
There are even some well known authors I used to read and buy their books…but now I no longer like them. Deep down I resent how they’ve selfishly beaten me over the head with their opinions. Frankly, there are too many nice and considerate authors to buy from instead.
The thing is… when this author-tweeter started following me on Twitter the other day, I felt genuinely excited because she is an acclaimed writer. Though now… I feel deflated and I have a desire to stay off social media. But hey, that’s the world we live in at the moment and it’s probably a good reminder to me that no matter what I say online someone somewhere will be offended by what I, a woman, choose to call myself.
The Wild Woman
I now feel in a place in my life where I don’t just want to stick to Aren’t cats cute? online. Maintaining a front of 100% bland and inoffensiveness is exhausting and depleting to the soul. So I will continue to be me, to be genuine and truthful to my own Wild Woman. For she is the one who reminds me in countless ways every day that I am a woman, and a mother, and a poetess, and that I should take pride in my identity.