You Might Not Think You're Sexist – Until You Take a Look at Your Bookshelf

Director and screenwriter John Waters once said: “If you go home with somebody, and they don’t have books, don’t fuck ‘em!” Wise words, but I’d add: Especially if they don’t have books by women.


When you live in a world with outrageous, explicit misogyny - domestic violence, sexual assault and attacks on reproductive rights, to name a few - it’s easy to breeze by the small stuff. After all, there are issues more pressing than whether or not the culture someone consumes is too homogenous.

But passive bias is still bias - and it has ripple effects into the broader culture. Is it really so much to ask that we pay attention to what shapes our tastes?

For example, I was riding the subway recently when I noticed my seatmate scrolling through a Twitter feed that looked remarkably like mine. I was tickled to be sitting next to a like-minded person, but as I looked on I noticed there was one thing that seemed to be missing from his newsfeed: women. He was following fantastic and smart men, but still - as far as I could tell, all men.

I got the same uneasy feeling when I listened to a podcast interview with a TV showrunner and writer that I admire. He spoke eloquently about his passions and mentors - and the people whose work he liked most. All men.

I’m sure both of these people are smart, engaged and not deliberately or actively sexist - but when your worldview is solely shaped by men, you are missing out. And like it or not, your taste in music, books, television or art says something about you: it sends a message about what you think is worth your time, what you think is interesting and who you think is smart. So if the only culture you pay attention to is created by men, or created by white people, you are making an explicit statement about who and what is important.

Part of the problem is that while art or books that white men put out is portrayed as universally appealing, culture produced by women or people of color is seen as specific to their gender or racial identity.

When author Shannon Hale visited an elementary school to talk about her work, for example, she realized that the audience was all girls: the school administration only allowed the female students out of class for her event. As Hale wrote at the time: “I do not talk about ‘girl’ stuff.”

“I talk about books and writing, reading, rejections and moving through them, how to come up with story ideas. But because I’m a woman, because some of my books have pictures of girls on the cover, because some of my books have ‘princess’ in the title, I’m stamped as ‘for girls only.’ However, the male writers who have boys on their covers speak to the entire school.”

This kind of passive sexism has wide-reaching impact - the annual VIDA count, which tallies the racial and gender diversities in magazines and newspaper bylines and books reviewed, for example, shows we still have a long way to go for equity in cultural representation.

Part of that challenge is not just about what kind of culture we consume - but what we put out into the world as well. Last year, technologist Anil Dash, for example, wrote about a new years resolution to only retweet women - he came to the idea after realizing that even though he followed men and women equally, he retweeted men three times as often as women.

“This, despite my knowing how underrepresented women’s voices are in the areas I obsess over, such as technology and policy and culture. I could do better.”

We all could.

Yes, our tastes are our tastes - I’m not suggesting you put away all books written by men or only listen to female musicians (well, not yet anyway). But our cultural biases - as unintentional as they may be - are worth thinking about. Not just to address broad inequalities, but to open up our own minds.

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