Changing the Game


“People who can readily put on their agenda the foundations of the world they inhabit must be haughty, high-spirited, and even reckless.”

--Roberto Unger

This was not the post I planned to write.

Last week I wrote a quick post to the private Women in Children's Literature board about simple things women might do to help each other in this industry. My plan was to copy my post over to the public board, use complete sentences, and move on. I still think those are good ideas: Actively reviewing each others books, mentoring each other, giving advice and critiques more freely to women, sharing connections, having a place we can throw up a flare for help, and possibly creating a Women in Kidlit Organization which has mentorships, awards, and resources. Phew, that was a long sentence! But something happened since last week, so I'm going to do a bait and switch here and post something different.

What happened? I've found myself wondering. I've been talking to people. I've been thinking about the recent discussions of women in children's literature, and been especially vexed by the disparity in awards, speaking engagements, panels, notoriety etc. This industry has a vast number of women and a fair amount of parity in many areas, so I keep wondering- why do fewer awards go to women? Why are there not as many women on important panels? Why do women in this business seem to lack the cachet many men seem to enjoy? It's certainly interesting that this comes up as the film industry reckons with similar problems, especially in terms of the creators behind the camera. I don't think it's a coincidence. I feel strongly there is a there, there. Or rather, there is a there, here.

The issues facing women in creative fields are complicated and uneven. They shift and look different from different angles, and for me at least, they bring up a lot of related and not-as-related issues about being a woman, a parent, and a creator. I am, however, reminded that questioning intertial factors, context, and history is essential to understand the way things are, and the way they can change.

Before being a writer, I was in visual effects- a male-dominated, creative industry. I was a texture painter, which is both artistic and technical. I worked with R&D, directors, producers, art department, basically everyone. Though it was creat-IVE, I was not a creat-OR...creating happened in the brains of the Wachowski's or whoever else had the vision. While there were a handful of ways being a woman felt uncomfortable, I never felt I was less valued. I proved my right to be there and be paid well, every single day. I had a job to do and objective metrics that helped others, and me, evaluate my value. I have personal qualities which helped me advance, but my skills alone were enough to keep me well employed and move up. In short, I was talented, skilled, and sometimes lucky. I played the game, and I was valued by my peers and supervisors.

It's different now being a picture book writer. My skills, talent, luck have gotten me far, but are maybe not enough to succeed in the way I'd like to (which, by the way, isn't really about sales) and I'll tell you why I think that might be. This is a creative industry and I think women are often considered, by those who award awards, people in positions of power and yes- other women, to be talented, lucky, and hard-working. But I don't think we are, as often, considered visionary. I may be wrong, but I sense that male creators are perceived as thinkers and risk-takers; that they have a stronger point of view, see the big picture, have an intangible, Don Draper sort of je ne sais quoi. Women might be thought of as influential, but are we perceived as game changers? Why not?

Clearly history plays a role. The books, in nearly every discipline, the books we've grown up with, the books we have been educated by, highlight Davinci, Newton, Einstein, Darwin, Hawking, Dr. Seuss, Plato, Pei, Lucas, Edison, Coppola, Dick, I could go on. Yes, Amelia Earhart, Julia Morgan, Mary Shelley, Ada Lovelace, Judy Blume, Margarent Wise Brown, or Frida Kahlo may come to mind, but we often find visionary and influential women relegated to chapters about...visionary and influential women.

The great and scary thing about being visionary is that it comes with the real risk of failure. Visionaries design buildings that are reviled and write books people loathe. They direct terrible films, they theorize things that are wrong. Visionaries face ridicule. That's the price of taking risks. That's the price of changing the game.

So I must ask, do female creators get that same space to get it wrong? I ask because if we don't feel we can get it wrong, we may only be able to create things that are good, not different. The danger in viewing women as equally able to play the game but less likely to change it, is that at some point they just play. They stop taking risks. They limit themselves before their idea even goes from an idea to something on paper. They edit before they begin. They're just happy to be there.

Let me be honest, I want to take risks and be appreciated for taking them. I want to fail. I'm a super weird chick with a whole bunch of crazy ideas who swears a lot. I believe that if given enough space to do it, I could blow your mind. I'm not sure, of course, but I'd like the opportunity to find out. I don't want to play it safe just so I can play. I surely don't want the perception that women aren't as forward thinking as men to mean they don't get deserved awards, or choice speaking gigs. I don't want young girls, our readers, to think that while they can be anything they want to be when they grow up, there exists a ceiling in terms of how bold they can be, how big a risk they can take.

A few final musings here. I feel remiss not to explore the music industry where, it seems, women enjoy more freedom to be big, risky, and bombastic. This tripped me up for a while, and I'm not sure I exactly know the answer...but I have a guess. In music, women are welcome- if not encouraged, not just to have a developed outward persona, but to embrace, enhance, explore that persona, often in a provocative way. They have the freedom to create their own cult of personality. But persona is a tricky beast in writing. It can be a lonely business, conducted over wires, not face to face where we can speak for ourselves. Sometimes we let our online biographies do the talking and end up one-dimensional. We don't have a ton of opportunities to take risks with our outward selves, and, when we do, there can be a feeling of not wanting to be noticed...at least too much. Note the difference between male author and illustrator photos and those of women. The male ones are often expressive, sometimes a little funky, sometimes playful- while women's lean toward soft, pretty, and appealing. I know that's what I was going for with mine! I mention this because when women aren't given awards, panels, speaking gigs, we become limited in what we can project outwardly and can readily become just words in an online bio, not whole people.

In closing, I'll ask of my fellow women creators that we be bold and brave. We can be grateful for our jobs, because writing and illustrating for children is an incredible gift, without forgetting that we're ambitious, we're brilliant- not just good, not just lucky. Some of us have kids, some not, we choose to write for kids because that's the voice that we found in ourselves- it doesn't necessarily mean we're sweet, nice, or parental (at least all the time). We are women, wives, storytellers, friends, musicians, artists, weirdos....we have some freak flags to wave. We have limitless potential, and there is no ceiling we'll bump into if we think about a place without a ceiling.

So let's go. I'll see you guys outside.


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