March 10th, 2008

ozarque figure

Writing nonfiction; It's A Whole 'Nother World; part two...

Yesterday I posted about how the process of revising/updating The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense [hereafter GAVSD] by retyping it from beginning to end has been a kind of culture shock for me, because the world of (roughly) 1979, when it was written, was so incredibly different from the world of 2008. Some of that has to do with very small things .... like minor changes in American English slang and jargon over the years, and example dialogues where the speakers obviously take it for granted that a calculator is a very expensive item. But most of the shock came from something much larger and much more intractable -- how, and to what extent, images of biological gender differences in our culture have changed over the past thirty years. As starcat_jewel commented:

"I bought your book about male and female communication (blanking on the title, and I don't have it handy -- sorry!) a couple of years ago, and kept running up against (what felt to me like) much larger issues than simple communication that you weren't even acknowledging -- one woman's husband being an abusive, bullying jerk, and another one feeling free to discuss things she'd said to him in private about her work situation with one of her co-workers, who just happened to be his golf buddy. But at the time the book was written, neither of those behaviors would have been seen as any way abnormal for a man."

That book [not in revision, alas] is GenderSpeak, written in 1992, published by John Wiley in 1993 -- much more recently. And starcat_jewel is right that the image of what's "abnormal" for a man or for a woman has changed dramatically since that book came out.

This topic is so complicated that I don't really know how to tackle it; it's the kind of topic that I'd ordinarily feel I needed at least six weeks to work on before I could even begin to write about it adequately, and right now -- because I'm revising the other book -- I don't have those six weeks available. I'll try to at least make a small Starter Dent in it here this morning, but I won't get far. For one thing, it's all tangled up with the generation gap, and it's all tangled up with class distinctions ... it's just all tangled up.

For most men and women of my own generation and the one just after it, here in the rural area where I live, my perception is that nothing much has changed. If I were revising GAVSD for them, I could leave the line where I say that women who get married should expect to be referred to as "the little woman" alone; it would still be appropriate. Our county went 80% for Hillary Clinton in the Arkansas primary, and for voters of those two generations a major reason that happened is that they're comfortable having Senator Clinton as president because they know that Bill Clinton will be right there in the White House with her.

For my grandchildren's generation, the idea of a man feeling free to call his wife "the little woman" is utterly alien. My granddaughters, if any man tried that with them, would chew that man up and spit him out. My grandsons would have a hard time even imagining such a man. There's a perceptual revolution here. The advice on crossgender communication I wrote for women in GAVSD was written for a world where that man was the man women married and the man women worked for and the man women had to deal with as doctor and lawyer and professor and parent and auto mechanic and "expert" of every variety. And that world is gone forever.

And yet.... Think of the recent flap over women feeling that they cannot get ahead in their careers, perhaps cannot even hang on to their jobs, unless they dye their hair. Think of Nora Ephron fretting about her wrinkled neck. Think of the woman in the Nutrisystem ad who brags that since she's lost all those pounds her husband "jokingly" calls her "his trophy wife." Think of the glass ceiling, and the persistent difference between what women earn and what men earn for doing exactly the same work. Think of the Pope's recent directive against the use of any inclusive religious language. Think of the likelihood of a woman John McCain's age ever being accepted as a candidate for president. Think of the tolerance for total disrespect for women in rap lyrics. Think of the domestic violence statistics. Think of the fact that a woman who goes for a walk after dark in any of our cities is still referred to as "asking for trouble." Think of the huge following for beauty pageants, even for tiny girls who are still toddlers. Think of the fact that it's still mostly women who are held responsible for caregiving, especially for the elderly. It seems to me that some sort of bedrock of prejudice against women is still there under the surface, that people of all genders still buy into it, and that pretending that it's not going to be a factor in crossgender communication is foolishness.

I don't know what to make of all this; I don't know how far to go as I revise and update my book. The world of 1979, with its rampant taken-for-granted right-in-your-face sexism, is gone forever. The question, for me, is whether the world of 2008 is just a world with its own new sexism, prettied up a great deal but still something that has to be dealt with. The answer to that question matters, if I am to make the book as useful as I'd like for it to be. I only have one chance to get this right.