Is It Sexist?

Yes It's Sexist

The term “sexism” refers to:

(a) the idea that each sex has a set of related characteristics that are common to all members of that sex, and

(b) the discrimination that inevitably results from this idea.

“Is it sexist?” can be a tricky question with multiple gray areas that are open to interpretation, but it’s not rocket science.

If it’s a work of fiction, are sexist statements such as “Like all women, she was a poor driver” made not by characters (who are allowed to have stupid opinions, just like real people) but by omniscient third-person narrators or obvious author stand-in devices? Yes? THEN IT’S SEXIST.

If it’s an anthology of fiction, are 80% to 100% of the writers represented male? Yes? THEN IT’S SEXIST.

If it’s a work of nonfiction, does it rely on sexist statements such as “there are no lesbians in Japanese history” as evidence to support its arguments? Yes? THEN IT’S SEXIST.

If it’s an anthology of academic nonfiction, do none of the scholars acknowledge the existence or influence of real (as opposed to fictional) women within the scope of their studies? Yes? THEN IT’S SEXIST.

If it’s an encyclopedia or other reference work, are fewer than 20% of the entries about real (as opposed to fictional) women? Yes? THEN IT’S SEXIST.

If it’s a biography of a man, does it attribute every negative thing that happened in that man’s life to a woman? Yes? THEN IT’S SEXIST.

If it’s a biography of a woman, does the author undermine her personal agency and criticize her decisions as not being appropriate to her gender? Yes? THEN IT’S SEXIST.

If it’s a series of interviews, does the interviewer ask a different set of questions based on the sex of the person being interviewed, such as asking women about their families while asking men about their careers? Yes? THEN IT’S SEXIST.

If it’s a publisher, is more than 80% of the company’s output the work of male writers and artists? Yes? THEN IT’S SEXIST.


Again, this can get complicated, but you’re not trying to land a rover on Mars here. You have two options:

(1) Flip out and starting delivering tirades against all the nasty mean people who don’t know anything and are ruining your fun with their trite and ignorant libel. You may want to use the term “feminazi,” because someone pointing out that women are people is just like Hitler invading Poland. Obviously.

(2) Take a break and eat a sandwich or something. Once you’ve calmed down, recognize that your accuser may have a point. If you’re an author or a press, meditate on the statistics concerning how much money women spend on books, and take some time to think about how many choices people have in terms of where they get their reading material.

In conclusion, books are for smart people, but sexism is stupid. The end.

15 thoughts on “Is It Sexist?

  1. A corollary:

    Is it written or published by a woman?


    Is it written or published by a member of a minority group?


    Was it written or published in a less enlightened time?


    Does it have immense historical or literary value?


    Was it intended as to be nothing more than escapist entertainment?


    Can you enjoy things that are sexist?


    1. I appreciate this corollary a lot. Internalized misogyny (or internalized queerphobia, etc.) is serious business and is often perpetuated by women writers, journalists, etc., whom imply that “men do/are X” and “women are like Y.” It’s always weird for me to be told by a woman that men are for doing the heavy lifting or that they’re hopeless at something. Without self-awareness and awareness of the issues of unequal pay, prioritizing male authors, etc., we can’t fight the problem.

      I really like the checklist. Sometimes being blunt is right choice, and it certainly is here.

  2. Three possible objections:

    * * * * *

    (1) But Kathryn, that’s so gender binary!

    Yes, yes it is.

    Sexism depends on the unquestioned notion of a gender binary, and the resulting prejudice and discrimination affects queer, transgender, and intersexed people in the same way it affects everyone else – if not more so.

    If you want me to say that there should be more non-stereotypical representations of people with non-normative sexualities, genders, and sexes in both mainstream and small press publishing, I will totally say that.



    * * * * *

    (2) But Kathryn, what about anthologies of female writers, those are sexist too!

    Lol no.

    This is the same sort of derailing argument as the one that goes “the term ‘feminisim’ is sexist because it puts the emphasis on women’s rights instead of gender equality.”

    The point of feminism is indeed gender equality, but this mostly* involves making females equal to males. Thus the term “feminism.” If, within the pool of full-time salaried workers, women make 76 cents to every man’s dollar in the United States, the point is not to lower the income of men but to raise the income of women. If women are 40% more likely than men to live below the poverty line in the United States, the point is not to have more economically disadvantaged men but to have fewer economically disadvantaged women. If almost 90% of welfare applicants in the United States are female, the point is not to have more male welfare applicants. Get it?

    Historically – and “historically” here can be quite recent in certain situations – male authors and creators have had exponentially more opportunities both to publish their work and to promote their work. This gap has been getting smaller, but it still hasn’t been bridged, and female writers, as a broad demographic, are stuck playing catch-up. An anthology celebrating female voices is thus like one drop in an ocean of male voices. Sure, a male writer may be denied an opportunity to participate in an anthology or a literary magazine featuring female writers; but, as a male writer, he still has way more opportunities on the whole than any given female writer. This is why we have things like literary prizes given primarily to women – to offset the long history of all the attention going to men.

    * But far from entirely! The idea is that, if one minority group makes advances, then this benefits everyone. To give an example, gay marriage is a major step towards marriage equality laws that will ultimately benefit straight people as well. The goal is for everyone to experience the least amount of discrimination, not for upper-class white straight cisgender feminists to succeed at the expense of everyone else.

    * * * * *

    (3) But Kathryn, don’t you think your overuse of capslock makes you and your argument seem frivolous? Why do you insist on writing as if you are shouting at your reader?


    1. Another big part of (2) is just that words are often imperfect anyway and you just kind of have to deal with it. The word “feminism” was coined in the 19th century, and borrowed from the French language. If we were inventing a new word today, we’d probably call it something else, but right now the word has stuck and it’s useful to keep around. Of course, if the word was actively sexist, then we might want to get rid of it anyway. But it’s not, it’s just slightly annoying to a certain kind of overdefensive man.

      1. Word.

        Every time I read that the term “feminism” is sexist, it makes me want to Hulk out and punch things. Yes, “feminism” was coined in the nineteenth century. No, we have still not fixed all the shit that feminism set out to fix back in the 1800s. Fix the shit, and then we’ll talk about changing the name.

    1. Each question refers either to a book that I considered reviewing for this blog or to a publisher (or publisher imprint) specializing in Japanese fiction.

      I don’t want to name them, because that would be mean.


    1. Back in grad school I actually typed out a sexism bingo sheet for sci-fi and fantasy novels, and it resulted in a super-fun evening of drinking with a group of friends. What was amazing was that I didn’t need to explain anything to anyone; we all got it. For even the weirdest of tropes, like “battle-hardened female character is transformed by magical healing cock” or “woman is impregnated against her will through a trans-dimensional wormhole,” we could come up with dozens of examples. Those were some good times.

      Anyway, I don’t want to say that I based my sexism bingo card directly on Terry Goodkind, but Terry Goodkind was never far from my mind, bless him.

        1. Okay, you got it!

          * * * * *

          Safety in Breeding Pairs
          All female characters except for the male lead’s love interest are dead by the end of the story.

          Dr. Healing Cock
          Sex with the male lead can cure all traumas, from emotional assault to being shot in the stomach.

          NO HOMO
          One or more minor female love interests are inserted into the story for the specific purpose of proving that the male leads aren’t gay.

          It Sucks to Be a Lesbian
          Sometimes a female character with a sexuality not entirely focused on men will make it more than fifty pages without being killed off, but her days are still numbered, usually because she’s evil.

          Wormhole Pregnancy
          The reader doesn’t know why a female character is suddenly pregnant, and neither does she, but it has something to do with theoretical physics.

          All Your Women Are Belong to Us
          Harems. They’re everywhere.

          The Borg Is Female
          In which the abject or uncomfortably posthuman is characterized as female, even if there’s no need for it to have a sex or a gender.

          All sorts of terrible things can happen to men, from having their hands cut off to being blinded to being unjustly imprisoned to undergoing a justified existential crisis, but the worst thing that can happen to a woman is rape.

          Trinity Syndrome
          If the most badass character in the story is female, she doesn’t get to be “the chosen one.”

          Robot Girls Just Wanna Have Fun
          Why do robot police officers need secondary sex characteristics anyway? I really want someone to explain this to me.

          Ursula Le Guin Already Wrote This
          When a writer’s fanfiction based one of Le Guin’s universes – usually the Earthsea mythos – is praised for its originality.

          Who the Fuck Is Octavia Butler
          When a story that portrays extreme difference in a positive manner is praised for being groundbreaking.

      1. That’s what I love about a lot of my friends as well, we all get it, talk about these issues when they come up and recommend each other great books/series/… and the like. It really helps avoiding giving people money I really do not want to support (i.e.Orson Scott Card) as well as just avoid media I wouldn’t end up enjoy anyway.
        Blogs like yours and the internet are a big help too 🙂

        That bingo sounds scary (these things happen in Terry Goodkind books? Really?), but also quite fun. I wouldn’t mind a peek either 😉

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