by Camille Griep
Have you ever fucked up? I have. I have savored the taste of my own foot more times than I care to recount – a couple of those times in ways that should have been devastating, except for the grace of somebody else who’d royally screwed up once, too.
That’s why I find the vitriol against the recently lambasted YA author Andrew Smith a little hard to swallow. In case you missed the tiny piece of Vice’s interview with the author, whose latest book is about the pitfalls of patriarchies, here you are. When asked why his books are sometimes lacking in feminine viewpoints, he said:
“I was raised in a family with four boys, and I absolutely did not know anything about girls at all. I have a daughter now; she’s 17. When she was born, that was the first girl I ever had in my life. I consider myself completely ignorant to all things woman and female. I’m trying to be better though.”
“This guy has never met a woman!” Twitter screamed. “He thinks women are mysterious creatures,” folks paraphrased. The satirists had a field day. Smith up and quit social media, despite a small chorus of defenders who were subsequently walloped as anti-feminist apologists. “Let him explain,” plead the apologists. “We don’t need context,” replied the folks. “We’re not attacking; we’re discussing.”
Can we just stop for a sec?
Why don’t we need context? I know nothing about Andrew Smith’s situation in life. Though with five minutes worth of stumbling around Google, I was able to find a brief overview of his turbulent childhood (via EW). If he says he didn’t interact with “girls” – who are different from women, in my lexicon – before he became a father, then we can believe him or discredit him. But chances are, he knows how he grew up better than the rest of us. He considers himself “completely ignorant to all things female.” Hyperbolic? Probably. Self-deprecating? Possibly. Stupid? Absolutely. Worthy of the fervor that followed? Nope.
If I said that I have no idea what a “father” is, the knickers of the world would likely remain untwisted. Yet there are fathers all around me. Surely I have met a father! And while these things are true, and I did have a grandfather who late in his life became my very good friend, I do not know what a father is or what a father does or what it feels like to have a “real” father.
Of course Smith has met a girl. Of course I have met a father. I am a girl; he is a father. Does that mean either of us knows what makes each other tick?
The uplifting of his gaffe as evidence of male domination is especially troubling because Smith was responding to a question that was a criticism of his work. Even though his work is widely regarded as welcoming all comers, in his reply to the Vice interviewer, he owns the fact that he can do more for his female characters and states he is “trying to be better.”
I don’t know how to write fiction about fathers, so I don’t. In my forthcoming novel, fathers are distant or long gone. I should try harder. I should do better. Andrew Smith acknowledged his shortcomings, too, and admitted that the next step was to try harder. That’s all any of us can do. I’ve seen this argument picked apart as “lazy” and “part of the problem” and “not okay.” But there are places that I simply can’t go — or maybe places that I don’t know how to go yet. I’ll be reaching toward them for the rest of my life, and I bet Smith will be, too.
And forget writing for a second: Isn’t that also the point of this exercise of feminism? To engage thought processes that are flawed, identify, and strive to heal? Or is it attacking someone who’s shown their weak underbelly — someone who says, I’m not very good at this; I must do better? Because the more I sit here and try to figure it out, the less sure I become. I want to be a feminist. But I don’t want to attack people when they don’t measure up. And I don’t understand why these two things can’t coexist.
When I was a younger woman, one of the ways I put my foot in my mouth was by misunderstanding feminism. I was also fairly devoid of larger world context and empathy. I tried harder. I listened. I was so grateful for the messages in Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist because I think very few of us come to feminism as perfect specimens. But I also got quiet, because even as I was trying, I felt like I was — am — still failing. And though I do identify as a feminist, I have always felt I haven’t been a good enough feminist to say anything to other, better feminists. And that, on its logical face, is ridiculous, and, deep down, is a problem with a dialogue that has become overblown with rhetoric. For us or against us. Maybe I’m traveling in the wrong spheres, but what I keep hearing from my fellow feminists is, “this is the party line and if you don’t fall into it, you’re part of the problem.”
I want to see male authors try harder when it comes to women. But belittling and heckling and threatening them just as they are owning their mistakes doesn’t seem to be the right way to do that. Furthermore, when other feminists stand up and say, hey, I think this person’s remarks might have been taken out of context, I think the appropriate reaction is to have a dialogue about it, instead of branding these people traitors and dismissing what they have to say by calling everyone who doesn’t agree “willfully ignorant.”
We all should be trying to do better. Smith should, we should, trolls that beset both sides should. Yes, these conversations are tiresome, but they become less so when treated with rational thought instead of knee-jerk sensationalism.
I know my own argument can be dismissed as some can’t we all just get along “Kumbaya” bullshit, but there is a real person with real feelings behind all this. A person who has said he wants to be better. And instead of encouraging him to do so, we’ve effectively said, don’t bother, shove your nuance and your reasons: we’ve passed our judgment, and you’ve been found wanting.
Is that how we’re supposed to treat other humans, other artists, because they’ve made a mistake, because they’ve admitted to a blind spot? If so, then I guess I’ll take my place on the Try Harder bench with Mr. Smith. Maybe by opening my mouth to beg for a more nuanced view, a more careful conversation, even empathy for our fellow humans, I have declared I’ve failed as a feminist, yet again. Or maybe I’m declaring that I’ve been a human, too. I’ll even admit that I’ve been one all along.