The Binary Strangle

I was working with this literary agent to develop my memoirs about 8 years ago, and after getting the opinion of several editors she told me what the problem was: I didn’t present things in clear enough black and white. There was too much grey. Not enough “binary.” Too much ambiguity.

“We can’t tell easily enough who the good guys and bad guys are. We need distinct villains. And we need a more of a love story. Or else it’s not going to play to the mass market.”

And so it’s like you live life and have these experiences and make these conclusions, but that’s not going to exactly “sell.” There needs to be an editing, of your own life.

***

I was always told that I wrote “like a man.” But I could only get work writing “feminist” topics and in “women-themed” comic books and magazines.

So I really began to feel like an impostor. And I would get criticized by women claiming to be feminists who didn’t like my content, and males who didn’t read my content but de facto hated on me because I was a female writer writing what they assumed was “feminist” material.

It was such a farce, and I didn’t know how to get out of that loop.

You don’t get judged or evaluated as a person. You just get “sorted” in broad strokes.

***

So I just started turning down any sort of work that was exclusively “female oriented.” That was it. It’s not that I didn’t want to occasionally write about those topics. But being shoved in that pigeonhole literally felt like being asphyxiated.

And once I decided to shed that “gimmick,” there was very little left. Editors were only interested in what I might do for “Women’s History Month,” for example. And casting away that “gimmick” was essentially like disappearing completely.

I had no identity. The binary had effectively strangled me, wiped me off the map.

Too much grey. Not enough mass market appeal. Heroes, villains. Zeroes and ones.

***

But the funny thing that happened was—how things eventually shaked out—over the past several years I actually met people and clients (who are also people) who approached me on my own terms. Who were interested in my ideas outside of the binary realm of “the struggle of feminists vs. misogynists.” Who hired me because they needed a competent writer or editor—not because they needed to fill some “quota.”

I’m not saying that it was an overnight process, but it did happen. And slowly, tentatively, I began to rebuild my identity.

And so a reporter from some news outlet would contact me because I wrote an Edward Snowden biography or whatnot…not because they needed to find out for the umpteenth time “how it feels to be a woman in comics” (I often felt like responding to the question with “I’d love to know, myself”).

To be honest…when I look back at the whole “geek girl” thing of the past decade, especially as it applied to myself, I am deeply repulsed. I am deeply repulsed at how so many people only could relate to me in that way, and how I consciously took on that role as a way to have some sort of “identity” in that realm.

***

But I get it. Binaries are still the way many humans choose to relate to other humans. And I don’t think it’s necessarily a “choice” in every case, either. It’s this leftover primal coping mechanism, from back when animals were in the wild and had to make quick, “snap” decisions: Safe or danger? Friend or foe? Run away or fight? Is it time to mate? and so on.

On the other hand, humans are evolving. Humans haven’t stopped evolving. And one of the ways we are evolving, I feel, is that our minds are better able to deal with a spectrum of possibilities and scenarios, rather than the “either/or” check-box thing.

***

This all being said, I am still, in many ways, a “people pleaser” at heart. Like, I still want to make my mom happy. At the age of 42, making her happy that I’ve picked out “the right clothes” is still important to me. Again: these are, I believe, at least partially primal drives manifesting themselves. Nobody wants to be rejected by their parents. Nobody wants to be rejected by the tribe.

But it is the “pull” of Evolution that increasingly drives me forward these days. I can’t escape it. It continues to nudge me out of where I feel safe.