It’s Not the Name, It’s the Persona

James Chartrand is a well-known blogger in certain circles through his articles for Copyblogger and his web design and copyrighting company, Men With Pens. Yesterday James admitted on Copyblogger that he’s really a she. She’d adopted a male pen name to make it easier to land freelancing jobs.

You know the punchline, of course: it worked.

There was no haggling. There were compliments, there was respect. Clients hired me quickly, and when they received their work, they liked it just as quickly. There were fewer requests for revisions — often none at all.

Customer satisfaction shot through the roof. So did my pay rate.

This shouldn’t surprise you. Sexism, both overt and subtle, is still rampant. Women make less money than men for the same jobs. One recent study showed that having blind auditions for orchestras, where the reviewers didn’t see the candidate and did not know the candidate’s name, increased womens’ chances in the first round by 50%. For the final rounds? 300%.

Many women writers have used a male name or obscured their gender by using their initials. It’s especially widespread in science fiction and fantasy, where Andre Norton, C.L. Moore, C.J. Cherryh, James Tiptree, Jr., and J. K. Rowling all used a variant on their name so no one would know they were women.

James has taken a lot of heat for this. Not all of it has been from people who want to deny the sexism her experience highlights. Jessica Wakeman, writing at The Frisky, rails against James deciding to “pass” and calling her an Uncle Tom for not fighting the sexism directly, and in doing so shows that she and the point of Chartrand’s experience aren’t even in the same zip code. Wakeman deliberately co-opts racial terms to make her point, which is troubling to begin with, but her point makes no sense. “Chartrand just contributed to the stereotype that male copywriters are more talented than women copywriters,” she writes, which is the exact opposite of what Chartrand has done. Like James Tiptree, Jr., Chartrand ‘fessing up to being female shows that females are indeed as talented as male ones. Like the blind audition study, Chartrand has shown the unspoken gender bias that’s going on every day.

If you’re going to be down on James Chartrand, be down on the persona she created. She not only used a masculine name, she went out of her way to sound as super-manly as possible. As Amanda Hess pointed out, Chartrand’s company is named “Men With Pens”. Chartrand described her lone female employee, Taylor Lindstrom, as “the team’s rogue woman who wowed us until our desire for her talents exceeded our desire for a good ol’ boys club.” She illustrated her blog posts with pictures of naked ladies, and chided mommy bloggers to give more weight to male voices. It’s as if every morning before writing she tied a red bandanna around her head, nodded sagely to her poster of Arnold Schwarzenegger, and downed her usual breakfast of whiskey and cigars. She responded to the sexism she was experiencing by creating a sexist persona.

That’s the real problem with James Chartrand’s story. It’s both a good anecdote about the sexism women experience and a cautionary tale about a woman who decided she had to be a man’s man to get ahead. I’m not disappointed that James Chartrand chose not to fight the sexism she experienced. I’m disappointed she decided to perpetuate it herself.

8 thoughts on “It’s Not the Name, It’s the Persona

  1. I’ve encountered many women who are more sexist in their professional interactions than most men are. Like it or not, our society still gives us subtle messages that men are more valuable, competent and knowledgable than women. Women have bought into that as well. We’re harder on each other than we would be on a man.

  2. As I commented elsewhere, I think Chartrand’s coming out will have a greater impact on the glass ceiling than her writing would have, had she written under a woman’s name from the start. She’d be perpetuating it if she hadn’t come out. As it stands, she conducted an experiment, got data, and in-your-face’d it to the internet, where we can’t hide from it.

  3. I dunno; from one perspective, you could say she *exploited* the sexist community by pretending to be sexist herself and getting their money as a result. It’s that community that creates the need for those people–she decided to go after that money by creating the persona they wanted. And then, by coming out, she humiliated them besides.

  4. Vika: Yeah. That’s why I think Jessica Wakeman is completely misguided in her critique.

    Lucian: I don’t buy that. By her own admisison she wouldn’t have told people she was a woman if someone else wasn’t about to do it for her. And even if she was exploiting the community, she was also perpetuating its sexism and choosing as its target people who were outside that community (mommy bloggers, in the specific example cited).

  5. One of Ursula Le Guin’s earliest stories, nominated for a Nebula, was published in Playboy under the name “U. K. LeGuin” because Playboy felt that a female attribution might make readers “nervous.” Years later Le Guin commented, “It’s not surprising that Playboy hadn’t had its consciousness raised back then, but it is surprising to me to realize how thoughtlessly I went along with them. It was the first (and is the only) time I met with anything I understood as sexual prejudice, prejudice against me as a woman writer, from any editor or publisher; and it seemed so silly, so grotesque, that I failed to see that it was also important.”

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