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Why the VIDA Count Matters

Read Thursday, 9 Apr 2015

In the wake of the 2014 VIDA Count, released this week, Kylie Maslen argues that female participation and visibility in literature has important flow-on effects — influencing wider cultural issues such as gender equality and domestic violence.

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Image: Anita Sarkeesian at RMIT Storey Hall for the Wheeler Centre
Anita Sarkeesian speaking at RMIT Storey Hall for the Wheeler Centre earlier this year

After attending Anita Sarkeesian’s recent Wheeler Centre lecture in Melbourne, I was struck by her comment that ‘we can be critical of the things we love’. Though women make up 47 percent of the gaming audience, within games themselves they’re far too often portrayed as damsels in distress, helpless, or highly sexualised male fantasies — as explored in Sarkeesian’s video series, Tropes vs. Women in Video Games. Sarkeesian’s critique, despite (or because of) her passion for gaming, made me think about my own love of Australian rules football; women make up 44 percent of game attendees, yet Aussie rules has traditionally been a ‘boys club’ that has actively vindicated men who have committed hate crimes against women. (I wrote about this issue for Kill Your Darlings, in ‘Footy, Feminism and Criticising What You Love’.)

But gaming and football are not alone in boasting large female audiences, yet dismissing female involvement. The 2014 VIDA Count — released this week — showed that ‘women buy two-thirds of books sold but magazine reviews are centred on male authors and critics,’ according to a round up in the Guardian. As Roxane Gay states in her essay ‘Beyond the Measure of Men’, ‘In literature, as in life, the rules are all too often different for girls.’

VIDA’s mission is to ‘increase critical attention to contemporary women’s writing as well as further transparency around gender equality issues in contemporary literary culture.’ By compiling statistics of the books reviewed in top literary magazines and newspapers, VIDA has shown that there is a standing tradition of publications reviewing far more books written by men than women, in reviews that are far more likely to be written by men than women.

The stakes are higher than simply alienating women from literature.

The count has had some real and positive impacts. In 2012 VIDA showed that The Paris Review’s publishing favoured men by a 20/80 ratio — but after pressure from these results, in 2013, the magazine published to an even 50/50 gender balance. The VIDA count has also led to broad discussions within the publishing industry, essentially outing editors who have fallen on sexist tropes as justification for the lack of women published, as well as the lack of books written by women that are given space in their publications. For example, when asked for comment on the low rates of female reviewers in the London Review of Books by the BBC’s Open Book program, editor Mary-Kay Wilmers responded: ‘I think women find it difficult to do their jobs, look after their children, cook dinner and write pieces. They just can’t get it all done. And men can. Because they have fewer, quite different responsibilities.’

Graph: NYRB's VIDA results, past five years

Two of the most publicly-discussed and widely-cited examples of literary publications which favour male voices are the Times Literary Supplement (as covered here) and London Review of Books, scrutinised in the Guardian after last year’s VIDA count in ‘Why the LRB should stop cooking up excuses over lack of women reviewers.’ In defence of these biases, The New Republic’s Ruth Franklin produces statistics which show that more men have books published than women. A further counter argument is that publications are writing for their audience: according to their reader profile, the New York Review of Books hosts a circulation base where the readership is seventy percent male.

I am not arguing these facts. But I believe that by diminishing female voices in criticism, and in the authors of the books they review, these publications are perpetuating gendered roles and entrenching the myth that literature — and in particular, literature of the quality reviewed in publications such as these — is a place for men. There has to be a limit to the excuses quoted in defence of these publications and their editorial decisions to dismiss female writers and critics. As Beulah Devaney says in the Guardian, ‘suggesting that women are reviewed less and write fewer reviews because of endemic structural sexism ignores the LRB’s — and other publications — role within this sexist system.’

The VIDA count gives us — as lovers of books and literature — the data and knowledge to make informed decisions to advance the argument.

The stakes are higher than simply alienating women from literature. As Jessica Yu writes in her essay for The Lifted Brow, ‘Flab and Excess — On Women, Writing, and The Publishing Industry’, ‘the problem of gender imbalances in publishing stems from an even deeper societal issue: poor representation of women in the public sphere more generally.’

This week, the Guardian reported on former Governor General Dame Quentin Bryce’s comments about the prevalence of domestic violence in Australia, where ‘two women are killed through domestic violence in Australia every week’, making it ‘the leading preventable cause of injury and death in women under 45’, according to VicHealth. Bryce, who recently chaired a taskforce aimed at addressing the problem in Queensland, was speaking with  the ABC’s AM program:

The truth is that domestic and family violence is caused by unequal distribution of power and resources between men and women, it’s about the rigid gender roles and stereotypes that characterise our society, and the culture and the attitudes that support violence against women.

Bryce’s contention is that cultural pursuits carry the power to broaden stereotypes held about women. They also contribute to the power structure between men and women in society, and by extension, influence the rate of violence against women. By critically examining contemporary culture, whether gaming, football or literature, music, film or television, and highlighting misrepresentations of and prejudices against women, we help to change these cultural products into a truer representation of the society we are — one in which women account for just over 50 percent of the population, and where women contribute a high proportion of audiences to cultural and entertainment pursuits.  As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie states in her influential TedX talk, ‘We Should All Be Feminists’, ‘culture does not make people — people make culture.’

The VIDA count matters because all forms of culture need to take a stand against the long-standing biases that contribute to gender roles and stereotypes that say women are valued less than men. Violence against women thrives in societies when women are poorly represented — reinforcing outdated ideas that women are not intellectually, artistically or professionally equal to men. The VIDA count gives us — as lovers of books and literature — the data and knowledge to make informed decisions to advance the argument.

Throughout history, books have been used as instruments of power. Let’s not forget that the power of books is not limited to the words on the page.

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