Friday, October 6, 2017

Let's not pretend a female author could get away with this.

I love the Times' Carry-On column, in which they talk to some prominent person about what they pack for (usually frequent) travel. And Stephen King came across as pretty delightful in his; nothing I'm saying here is a criticism of him and I just wanted to make that clear up front.

But. But! In this he talks about how he just wears jeans and t-shirts on book tour, and doesn't pack any toiletries, just uses whatever his hotel provides. (Or motel. Apparently he prefers the Motel 6, which I guess is the sort of charming low-brow taste it's cool to have when you have enough money to stay wherever you want. I will promise you right now that no matter how much money I ever make, I will never ever prefer the Motel 6 over a nice hotel. BUT I DIGRESS.) But seriously, that's all fine! I'm glad he has a system that works for him. I wish Stephen King no ill.

What is less fine is the reaction to this I saw around the Internet, a chorus of "Oh, he's so normal and down-to-earth and only cares about his WORK, not like all those shallow lady authors who care about their APPEARANCE!" (I'm exaggerating, but only very slightly.) And I would like to tell you that this is sexist nonsense. Do you think there aren't a whole lot of female authors who would love to not worry about how they look on book tour? Of course they are. But they're not granted that luxury.*

I know a fair number of authors and have heard stories from and about many more. And I'm, you know, on Twitter, where we all get a firsthand look at how people respond to women who are public figures in any way. You can see on social media how any time a woman speaks out - especially the most successful; say J.K. Rowling - people rush in to call her ugly and criticize her appearance and evaluate her sexual attractiveness in all sorts of gross ways. If she decided to only ever appear in t-shirts and use generic motel shampoo, I promise the result would not be that people would stop talking about her appearance. It would only become more of a distraction.

And it's not just social media, where we have all (for good or ill) learned to expect people to be terrible. Before they do book signings or appear on panels, the authors I know all think carefully about what they're going to wear; a lot of them get their hair done or their nails done or plan out their makeup. They have to cart around hair and skin products with them on book tour. Exactly zero of them do this because they are shallow and care more about their looks than their work. Some of them genuinely enjoy and are interested in fashion and makeup and that's great! But some, many, of them do this primarily because it is what is expected of a woman who dares to speak in public.

These issues don't just randomly start with events after an author has been published, of course. As in pretty much every industry in our historically patriarchal, sexist society, this is baked in to the publishing industry. Publishers know that it's easier to sell books by young, conventionally attractive (white) authors, and this affects who gets book deals in the first place, who gets marketing budgets, who gets sent on tour.

So: I'm glad Stephen King can wear his jeans. I wish more people could wear what makes them comfortable without worrying about external standards. But let's not take this as a sign of King's virtue, the purity of his dedication to his work. He's a white man who makes a lot of people a lot of money, so he is given this freedom.

* And I'll say - even among male authors, obviously Stephen King can get away with a lot more than someone less wildly successful or someone new trying to make a good impression. But in general, this is all harder for women and their appearance is more heavily scrutinized.

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