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Today’s Nobel Prize in Literature is a Win for Humanity

7 minute read
Soraya Chemaly is a media critic and activist whose work focuses on the role of gender in politics, religion and popular culture. Her work appears in Salon, CNN, Ms. Magazine, The Guardian, The Huffington Post, RHRealityCheck, Role Reboot and The Feminist Wire.

Belarusian writer Svetlana Alexievich received the 2015 Nobel Prize for literature on Thursday. She is the 14th woman out of the 111 winners in the prize’s history. In other words, almost 90% of awardees have been men. Despite this much deserved-award, our culture continues to cultivate a preference for narratives about and by men.

Why does it matter? Pervasive, global, cultural biases favoring men’s language, opinions, experiences and authority have created a dangerous epistemological distortion in our understanding of what it means to be human. It matters because ignoring women’s stories, words and experiences dehumanizes all of us. It is deeply complicit in widespread gendered violence and injustice.

Today, still, simply having a man’s name often means that a writer’s work will be considered more seriously—by publishers, readers, critics and award committees. Earlier this year, novelist Catherine Nichols, replicating the format of countless implicit bias studies, changed her name to a man’s and resubmitted her manuscript to multiple publishers. “George” received more responses than Catherine. Nichols’ experiment is depressing, but not surprising. J.K. Rowling, among the most notable women to have gender-neutralized their names, is part of a very long tradition that includes the Bronte sisters (aka, the Bell Brothers), Louisa May Alcott (B.A. Evans), Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dupin (George Sand), Susan Eloise Hinton (S. E. Hinton), Harper Lee (Nelle Harper Lee), Mary Ann Evans (George Eliot), Robyn Thurman (Rob Thurman) and Alice Bradley Sheldon (James Tiptree).

Greater confidence and interest in men’s voices extends to the subject of stories. Earlier this year, writer Nicola Griffith conducted an analysis of the past 15 years of Pulitzer, Man Booker, National Book, National Book Critics’ Circle, Hugo and Newbery medal awards. Her research revealed not only that men are far more likely to win, but that even books with male protagonists are preferred. The Pulitzer Prize results were particularly arresting: None of the 15 winners were told wholly from the point of view of a woman or girl. In the least prestigious area, young adult fiction, criticized for not being serious fiction, girl protagonists fared better.

The obstacles women face being taken seriously as people whose words and experiences and opinions matter were neatly summarized in 1978 by Joanna Russ, in her slim and elegant book How to Suppress Women’s Writing. As she put it: “She didn’t write it. She wrote it but she wrote only one of it. She wrote it, but she isn’t really an artist, and it isn’t really art, She wrote it, but she’s an anomaly. She wrote it, but it’s irrelevant.”

This issue isn’t a “war of the sexes” or a “men bad” problem. All of us have these implicit biases. But there is a marked gender asymmetry that speaks to the fact that dominant groups often have no need or desire to understand the dominated. Whereas women will read writers of either sex, many men resist reading books by women. This is unsurprising given how early girls and boys are exposed to a gross majority, in almost any medium, of male-centered voices and are expected to emphasize with both genders.

This imbalance illustrates a compounded and negative social effect: Literary fiction remains dominated by male voices, but mostly read by women, who benefit from their consumption. People who read literary fiction have a better-developed sense of complex social interactions, or what social scientists call Theory of Mind. They do better on tests for empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence.

Left largely unchallenged, however, the bias for male voices continues to reproduce itself in the imaginations of children. White, male characters make up the majority of subjects of children’s books, games and television programing, even when women are writing. One analysis of children’s TV programming showed that all children, with the exception of young white boys, are left with degraded self-esteem after watching television.

Implicated in this problem, substantively, are schools. For example, I recently reviewed the course work for a 10th grade English class at a local high school. It included six books about men, one written by a woman. Among them was A Man for All Seasons, or, as one student, a 15-year old girl, put it, “A Woman for None.” The theme for the class’ first semester, replete with generic male universals, is “Man’s treatment of other men.” Of the books being read, none features a primary female heroine.

Ignorance is the primary result of this millennia-old ghettoization of women’s stories. Women’s epistemologies and experiences still remain, in the mass cultural sense, stigmatized. All you have to do is sit through a presidential debate where candidates can barely name a prominent woman historical figure, or a legislative debate where government representatives make brazenly false and ignorant statements about women’s anatomy, health care, autonomy and lack of moral authority.

“Who we read affects the way we see the world,” explains Kayla E. publisher of Nat. Brut, a biannual art and literary journal that aims to rebuild the fields of art, literature, and comics as inclusive spaces. “Audiences who mainly consume the white, male narratives that dominate these arts seem to have difficulty empathizing with writers and characters whose narratives are different. Focusing on voices and stories that are traditionally pushed to the margins or completely left out of mainstream art and literary culture allows us to addressing this empathic disparity.”

Individuals’ empathy, or lack thereof, is a critical issue in terms of media diversity. But the problem of perspective and empathy are even more important in terms of collective social justice. In her slim and elegant treatise, Epistemic Injustice, philosopher Miranda Fricker explains the “negative space” of epistemic injustice as the “wrong done to someone specifically in their capacity as a knower.”

Globally, women are often in this position—our human bodies, human experiences, human needs and human rights are routinely ignored, belittled or misunderstood. So much of our experiences remain shrouded in shame and silence, that they are incomprehensible, even to the people experiencing them. Sexual harassment, menstruation, intimate partner violence, rape, menopause, early marriage, compulsory pregnancy, post-partum depression, and gendered experiences of racism and religious intolerance are examples of parts of women’s lives that, apparently, many men with public authority, continue to not either have knowledge or understanding of, or empathy for.

Alexievich’s Nobel could be interpreted by some as a sign that women not only have equal access, influence and recognition, but that boys and men suffer because of it. However, this assumption, a common one, also illustrates the problem. Studies show that when women speak as little as 30% of the time in mixed gender settings where they are outnumbered by men, everyone thinks they dominate. When they make up as little of 17% of crowds, visual bias results in people thinking the gender split is 50/50. As one student explained to me earlier this year, “Feminists go too far. There is such an imbalance in favor of women today.”

While it is no one’s fault that this is the situation we find ourselves in, literary and media institutions have to do more to understand the problem of homogeneity and male dominance as an ethical and moral failure. The Internet has undoubtedly shifted the playing field, enabling women to share stories long suppressed in culture. For example, the subject matter of 12 projects recently complied by Nat. Brut. proliferate stories about these and other, similarly women-centric topics. The telling of these stories is creating social understanding and allowing people to make sense of their shared experiences in ways that they haven’t historically been able to.

Diversifying media is not a superficial exercise, a job expansion project, or a “politically correct” way to unfairly slant the professional playing field. It is the promise of a more just society.

See the 20 Most Famous Nobel Peace Prize Laureates

President Obama speaks on healthcare and the Affordable Care Act
Barack Obama, 2009 "For his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples"Brooks Kraft—Corbis
03/25/2006. Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency in Dortmund.
Mohamed ElBaradei, 2005Shared with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) "for their efforts to prevent nuclear energy from being used for military purposes and to ensure that nuclear energy for peaceful purposes is used in the safest possible way"Patrick Piel—Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images
Aspen Institute Holds Awards Dinner
Jimmy Carter, 2002"For his decades of untiring effort to find peaceful solutions to international conflicts, to advance democracy and human rights, and to promote economic and social development"Mario Tama—Getty Images
Kofi Annan
Kofi Annan, 2001Shared with the United Nations "for their work for a better organized and more peaceful world"Courtney Kealy—Getty Images
Portrait Of Shimon Peres
Shimon Peres, 1994"To honour a political act which called for great courage on both sides, and which has opened up opportunities for a new development towards fraternity in the Middle East"Thomas Imo—Photothek/Getty Images
Yitzhak Rabin, 1994"To honour a political act which called for great courage on both sides, and which has opened up opportunities for a new development towards fraternity in the Middle East"MENAHEM KAHANA—AFP/Getty Images
File picture of PLO chairman Arafat speaking during the ceremony of the sixth anniversary of the Palestinian declaration of independence
Yasser Arafat, 1994"To honour a political act which called for great courage on both sides, and which has opened up opportunities for a new development towards fraternity in the Middle East"AHMED JADALLAH—Reuters
Nelson Mandela, 1993Shared with Frederik Willem de Klerk "for their work for the peaceful termination of the apartheid regime, and for laying the foundations for a new democratic South Africa"TREVOR SAMSON—AFP/Getty Images
(FILES) Photo dated 23 May 1996 shows My
Aung San Suu Kyi, 1991"For her non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights"EMMANUEL DUNAND—AFP/Getty Images
Mikhail S. Gorbachev
Mikhail Gorbachev, 1990"For his leading role in the peace process which today characterizes important parts of the international community"Diana Walker—The TIME & LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
The Dalai Lama
The Dalai Lama, 1989"In his struggle for the liberation of Tibet [he] consistently has opposed the use of violence. He has instead advocated peaceful solutions based upon tolerance and mutual respect in order to preserve the historical and cultural heritage of his people."Chris Langridge—Sygma/Corbis
Various Writers and Journalists
Desmond Tutu, 1984"[A] renewed recognition of the courage and heroism shown by black South Africans in their use of peaceful methods in the struggle against apartheid"David Levenson—Getty Images
Elie Wiesel at Nobel Peace Prize Press Conference
Elie Wiesel, 1986"His belief that the forces fighting evil in the world can be victorious is a hard-won belief... based on his own personal experience of total humiliation and of the utter contempt for humanity shown in Hitler's death camps"Robert Maass—CORBIS
Mother Teresa, 1979"The loneliest, the most wretched and the dying have, at her hands, received compassion without condescension, based on reverence for man"Jean-Claude FRANCOLON—Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images
Anwar Sadat
Anwar Sedat, 1978"For the Camp David Agreement, which brought about a negotiated peace between Egypt and Israel"Sahm Doherty—The TIME & LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
Henry Kissinger
Henry Kissinger, 1973"For the 1973 Paris agreement intended to bring about a cease-fire in the Vietnam war and a withdrawal of the American forces"Diana Walker—Getty Images
Martin Luther King, Jr., 1964"First person in the Western world to have shown us that a struggle can be waged without violence"Gamma-Keystone/Getty Images
Jane Addams, American reformer and feminist
Jane Addams, 1931"[F]or her social reform work" and "leading the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom"Universal History Archive/Getty Images
President Woodrow Wilson in the Oval Office
Woodrow Wilson, 1919"[F]or his crucial role in establishing the League of Nations"Bettmann/Corbis
Theodore Roosevelt
Theodore Roosevelt, 1906"[F]or his successful mediation to end the Russo-Japanese war and for his interest in arbitration, having provided the Hague arbitration court with its very first case"Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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