Thursday, March 28, 2013


Back in the day, a certain cult-of-personality English teacher (not, I believe, in the sinister sense) at my high school, in a class dedicated largely to the purported genius of one male classmate, told my mother that I was "demure." I've gotten feedback like this over the years, if rarely phrased so... memorably. While a reserved-in-a-gender-normative-sense personality (perhaps not evident on-blog, or perhaps, who knows) might increase my allure in the realm of coffee-shop pick-up artists, it's not such a boon professionally. I have a whopping to-do list of editors and such to follow up with, writers I'd like to get coffee with in person to find out more about the profession what with everyone around me being an academic, but there is The Demure. It creeps up, this Demure, and makes me think that rather than pestering very important people who are, we can safely say, not sitting by their phones waiting for my email, I will... go for a run. Go grocery-shopping. Spend a week longer than absolutely necessary on a dissertation chapter. I'll be somehow productive, I'll stay off the streets, as it were, but I won't be heedlessly ambitious.

I really do think this is less about fearing rejection (internal grad-school funding competitions taught the win-some lose-some life lesson, if I hadn't learned it already) than a really ingrained sense that if a magazine editor contacts me out of the blue wanting me to write for it, or a literary agent expresses interest, and I reply enthusiastically and never hear back, I should do nothing. Not nothing - there's a friggin' dissertation in the works, people! But nothing in that particular situation.

Things like this do happen to me every so often, always in clusters, and, in anticipation of being told that my writing and ideas are in fact the very weakest to have ever emerged from a human brain (and writing for any place with lots of readers, there will always be commenters prepared to assure me of that), I opt not to bother those other than my three readers here at WWPD with my blather. And these are situations where someone who's a big deal definitively does like my writing and, presumably, topic-selection. What of all the decision-makers who don't even know who I am? Well, I'm not flooding their inboxes, to put it mildly.

I'd thought this was just me, or just me being appropriate. (If whichever entity desperately wanted me published, it would have happened. Which does sound "The Rules"-ish as I type it...) Then, on a Slate DoubleX discussion of... Lean In (which, Flavia, I do plan to read, but so do all other members of the local public library, and I'm demurely waiting my turn)? That survey of women's representation in major magazines?, it emerged that there's a huge gender disparity in who pitches articles, and in how persistent writers are in getting published. Women will pitch, hear 'no thanks,' and never pitch again. Men will pitch, hear 'no way,' and ask to be made editor.

I exaggerate slightly. But on this podcast or somewhere similar, it also came out that men will expect job-jobs when equivalently-credentialed women will shoot for - you guessed it - an internship. So it's not exactly that women aren't pursuing that career, or putting themselves out there. They're just doing it in a way that isn't quite so entitled. And "entitled" is apparently what you need if you don't want a fate of jogging, grocery-shopping, and slow-motion Chapter-Seven writing.

All of this seems the bleeding obvious, Gender Studies 101, but it hasn't been, for me, as I've been living it.

So! I think I know what I must change, and it's not turning a half-hour jogging routine into an hour-long one. I have not addressed whether aggressive women are then penalized in the workforce. They say it's true, but in my experience, it sure beats passivity.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for this post. I find myself in a similar loop more frequently than I like to admit. I chalked it up to imposter syndrome in the beginning of my career, but I think there is more to it than that at this stage in the game.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Thanks, glad you appreciated it! I wrote this post both for self-serving cathartic purposes and because I'd come to realize that this wasn't just my personal failing but something more systematic.

Freddie said...

I've always found that 90% of people will believe that I am whatever person I project to them, but as you say, my various demographic privileges are all bound up in that.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


Not knowing you personally, I don't know what your "various demographic privileges" consist of in full, but I'd guess from this photo, white, and would guess with even more certainty, male. Male, especially, seems to relate to the sense that one can project something other than an underestimate of what one really is, what one really can offer.

Freddie said...

I think you're misreading me. I'm just saying that my experience, as a white dude, is that people are more willing to accept self-presentation than they are with people who don't enjoy that entrenched privilege. Which is boilerplate, by this point, but the case.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Ah, I didn't get that at all - I thought you were saying that your demographics mean you haven't internalized whichever impostor-syndrome tendencies.

As for what privilege this offers in terms of others' reactions, I'm not as sure. My anecdotal evidence says that women (not all of whom, in this pool, are white) prepared to behave 'like men' in terms of professional assertiveness do just fine. If not as well as men with the same attitude, so very much better than women who aren't quite so demanding. That which is internalized strikes me as possibly more important than how others react, which is why I'm curious to read Sheryl Sandberg's book, despite being light-years away from COO of anything myself.

Freddie said...

One of the places where the value of male persistence/entitlement is constantly being established in our culture is in terms of pursuing women-- the "playing hard to get" trope, the idea that you have to keep pursuing after rejection, etc. Which leads directly to a whole host of ugly behavior, up to and including rape.

The question, I guess, is whether you can decouple the entitlement that people like in business and "success" from the entitlement that contributes to a culture of rape. I'm very skeptical-- but then, I'm no fan of success in the typical terms, so I'm biased.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Yes, this absolutely relates to the dating world, "up to and including rape." Thus my "The Rules" reference in the post, and I'm now wondering if the dating-analogy angle came up on DoubleX as well. But the problem there is that male sexual entitlement can lead to... what you say. Whereas male professional entitlement sometimes leads to banking catastrophes, but mostly leads to... people being able to make a living, people getting middle-of-the-road articles published, that sort of thing.

"but then, I'm no fan of success in the typical terms, so I'm biased."

This itself may have a demographic angle - if you're a woman, you can never really say this, because it might always be that you just don't have the confidence to pursue your dreams. And all dreams, of course, leave one COO of Facebook. (But I digress, and need to stop dropping references to this book that I actually really want to read before having read it.)

Petey said...

"While a reserved-in-a-gender-normative-sense personality ... might increase my allure in the realm of coffee-shop pick-up artists, it's not such a boon professionally."

Gotta keep your priorities in order.

Professions are ephemeral. Being the center of the universe in a coffee-shop is forever.

(Most literature concentrates on explaining this phenomenon in detail. Perhaps you can aggressively pitch an article along these lines.)

"And all dreams, of course, leave one COO of Facebook."

No doubt accomplished by being appropriately demure to Zuckerberg...

(This How To Become a Teen Millionaire: Be Incredibly Demure piece is related to our topic here.)

redscott said...

Regardless of gender, if you can bullshit people without regret and don't believe it when a few of them (or all of them) tell you that you suck, your persistence over time will likely pay off. Just by the laws of large numbers, small chance of success times gajillion applications of shtick = $. Fortunately or unfortunately, what this means is that people who are good at that either have really stable, sustainable senses of self-worth (good) or are clueless, insensitive sociopaths (bad). Gender-wise, men may not be so hot at the former but excel at the latter (ask Jaime Dimon!). In my professional dealings, it's not all one or the other with the genders. But it's much more likely that the successful woman will be confident and self-aware while her male counterpart will be the one who, in another context, wouldn't mind disposing of you Dexter-style if the risks were low. So I'm hoping that you (an inhabitant of good column A if I'm not radically mistaken) will persist and slowly displace the Dexters!

fourtinefork said...

Hi Phoebe,
Thank you for this! I have slowly been testing the waters by pitching a few non-academic things. I need to follow-up on the ones I haven't heard back from, instead of assuming I suck. The very reason I contacted these particular publications is that they've published things in my area of expertise that were lacking in research/actual content, and I figured maybe I could find a use for all that detritus from the archive.

Also, I finally have reworded cover letters from what was a formerly very demure opening, "I would like to be considered blah blah" to a more assertive (I guess?), "I am writing in application to..."

If you do find a cure for the demure (I've been called variations on that before), please share! Or write your own best-selling version of Lean In. Likely, I'll patiently wait my turn for the library copy, but I'd read it.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


You're welcome, and good luck pitching!

No definitive answer yet to demure, but the search goes on. Part of my hope here was to fill a certain inevitable void in the conversation - we're always going to hear most about this topic from women who have a certain platform, and who, to have gotten to that place, obviously have personalities, talents, and experiences not only unrepresentative of women as a whole, but not all that representative of women even of their class/level of education. While no experience is representative, I can offer something of a glimpse of how it goes for the educated-but-ordinary.

Autumn Whitefield-Madrano said...

I've got to do more thinking on this, but I can't help but wonder how much of this is bound up with the whole male gaze thing, insofar as women are supposed to prize being seen, which, in a larger sense, translates to being *noticed.* I used to find myself saying that if my work were "really" good, then people would "just find it," just like I dreamed of being singled out from the wall of dateless 7th-grade girls at the school dance. And while there's some truth to the idea that good work will get eyeballs, that only goes so far. And that's when, I dunno, the equivalent of really aggressive perfume comes in handy?

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


You, Freddie, and I are all agreed that there's a dating analogy. And I like your point re: "noticed" - I've certainly experienced that as well. Which leads to situations where my writing is noticed... and that's about the end of it. Either I haven't properly followed through, or I've underestimated what properly following through consists of.

I think this even goes further than an analogy. In retrospect, a lot of the attention my "writing" got early on, like when I was still in or just out of college, was from male readers who... obviously could notice much better-looking and less-clothed women (or just women writing on sexier topics) on the internet, but the mere fact of Young Single Woman On Internet was sufficiently titillating. While this wasn't generally creepy or offensive attention (there are worse reasons to want to date someone than because you like their writing!), it did somewhat blur the line between ostensibly separate worlds, and make it seem as though the female behavior appropriate for one was also appropriate for the other.

Anonymous said...

You must be doing something right. I found this post and your blog by following a link you provided in a post on the Dish - one of the most popular sites on the internet. May I suggest that you don't demure when your internship ends and ask the grumpy old bear for a full post that advertises your writing, your blog or whatever you are working on directly. He owes you at least that much for all the work you've done to help make that site one of the best around. And from what I've read here so far, you have a lot of interesting ideas to share.

Dish Reader