Way back in 1993, Deborah Tannen had an essay in The New York Times about how everything a woman does is a marker, in that it says something about her. It comes from linguistics, where “the unmarked form of a word carries the meaning that goes without saying — what you think of when you’re not thinking anything special.”
Men, she says, have the option to go through life with their choices as nothing special: “Men can choose styles that are marked, but they don’t have to, and in this group none did. Unlike the women, they had the option of being unmarked.” A guy who dresses nondescript, not showing off his looks, is just a guy; a woman who dresses not showing off her looks is A Woman Not Showing Off Her Looks. It’s significant in a way it isn’t with men. It’s assumed to be a conscious choice from which we can conclude the woman is actively discouraging male interest; is a frump who doesn’t know how to show herself off; or hates men (I have heard more than one claim that women who don’t dress the way men like women to dress must be man-haters).
When men wear sensible shoes, they’re just sensible shoes; when women do it, they’re frumps or lesbians. If a woman doesn’t wear makeup, it again implies she’s a frump, not sexy, not interested in men, whereas men not wearing makeup is unremarkable. Tannen points out that while “Ms” may be unmarked in the sense of not disclosing marital status, the choice to use it says something about the woman, or is assumed to say it, just like a woman taking her husband’s last name or not or hyphenating does. Similarly it’s noteworthy that we have a woman as vice president but for many people having an unbroken string of men is unremarkable.
When some seniors at Wellesley College objected to then First Lady Barbara Bush as commencement speaker — shouldn’t they have a woman who’d accomplished more than be the wife of the president? — one alumnus claimed this was an insult to stay-at-home moms, by implying the seniors didn’t think that was good enough. It wasn’t (Bush wasn’t invited because she was a mom but because she was the president’s wife) but it’s another example of No Unmarked Woman. The seniors saying they didn’t want Bush was treated as a statement about life choices. The lack of stay-at-home dads with no professional accomplishments among commencement speakers? That’s unremarkable.
As I’ve also mentioned before, though I can’t find the link handy, similar thinking bedevils any of us writing women characters: there are people who’ll read significance into what in a male character would be unremarkable. A fantasy protagonist who defeats the unbeatable foe is unremarkable when male, a Mary Sue when female (as in some negative reviews of Uprooted). A woman who’s rational rather than emotional is being written as a man. Writing a woman who’s a kick-ass fighter dismisses women who’d rather nurture than fight. A woman who’s beautiful and heroic is over the top (Mary Sue again) and maybe fan service; a woman who’s heroic and unattractive implies you can’t be both strong and beautiful. And so on.
The late comics writer Dwayne McDuffy once observed that because black characters used to be so rare, a given character stands in for the entire black population, which is unattainable. I think some of the same is true of women characters. Every one of them is marked. Every one of them is assumed to make a statement or mean something. They can’t just be individuals.
If we ever get to the point where that’s no longer true, we’ll really have made progress.
#SFWApro. Cover by Scott McKowen, all rights to image remain with current holder.