As recently as this year, a movie was released with a preproduction backstory that included how the female director considered submitting the script under a male pen name. Lisa Joy, the writer in question of Reminiscence, feared that because of her gender, she wouldn’t be taken seriously in the “action” genre. Naturally, her attempts to “prove herself” as a woman in the male-dominated category failed spectacularly when Reminiscence earned the title of “worst box office debut of all-time for a film playing in over three thousand theaters.” To be fair, however, Joy suffered from the symptom of HBO Max also streaming the movie at the same time—not that such a fact seemed to upset Dune’s bottom line. Nonetheless, Reminiscence was released at an awkward time for “major motion pictures” and addresses a subject that most people would still prefer to deny: that we’re all ultimately going to be wading around in water thanks to climate change. Especially those who can’t afford to hide from reality high up in their perches away from the poor (or in their underground bunkers or up in space with Elon’s colony).
One brings up this unfortunate set of circumstances for Joy because you can’t help but wonder if having a male name might have somehow helped her cause in the matter. That if she had gone with her original instinct to conceal her gender, maybe things would have worked out better for her in terms of not being dismissed by the industry for making one faux pas. As many are aware, men get plenty of chances to make all the faux pas they want (to quote Lorde, “You get fifty gleaming chances in a row/And I watch you flick them down like dominoes/Must feel good being Mr. Start Again”). And it’s also relevant to another fresh case of gender identity concealment in the literary world (about as real as The Matrix). Specifically, the author known as “Carmen Mola.”
As the carrot of one million euros in prize money from the Premio Planeta de Novela revealed earlier this month, however, Mola was but a concoction created by three men: Antonio Mercero, Agustín Martínez and Jorge Díaz. Although they really had the Spanish market going for a while with their gambit as “Spain’s answer to Elena Ferrante” (also long-speculated to be a man), what bid for anonymity could compete against every author fantasy of actually getting a significant amount of money for their writing? And, in fact, the Premio Planeta de Novela offers the highest monetary amount for a literary award in the world (a testament to how valued literature is in our doltish society). Ergo the sudden “whim” to emerge from the safe shroud of posing as the divine feminine, most notably with their most successful crime series centering on Inspector Elena Blanco (speaking of Elena Ferrante). The ready-made joke that it takes three men to try to understand the innerworkings of a woman should not be lost on anyone. Nor should the idea that, despite it still being very much a patriarchal society, men have felt obliged to encroach on an already limited space for women in both literature and, as mentioned above, film.
It seems ironic, of course, that men suddenly want to “be” the very gender that their kind deemed “second-rate” since the beginning of time. And yet, cultural moments like these are when people (men) like to bandy phrases such as, “Who cares? Who cares what gender anyone really is? All classifications do is serve to divide!” Well, first of all, whether we classify openly are not, the divides remain. And second, where were these sentiments when the oppression (men believing their “oppression” is real) was on the other foot? And it is undeniably smarmy for men to throw back into women’s faces what they had to do for so many centuries in order to be “taken seriously” in any medium (George Sand, anyone?).
Alas, the male—especially the white male—is aware of his irrelevancy, try as he might to ignore it, which is why he gets so angry and uppity when you call it like it is regarding this fact (even though Falling Down was depicting this current “phenomenon” early on). Except that it isn’t irrelevancy, so much as a lack of assured “supremacy” as it used to be in the “good ol’ days” known as pre-#MeToo and pre-George Floyd, when the “feelings” of non-white males could casually be written off as “subjective.”
Then there is the more recent “literary shtick” of women writing from the perspective of a male lead character (see: The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.). For it is statistically proven that books with male protagonists sell more copies. Making it all the more insulting that the trio that unveiled themselves to be merely posing as a woman retroactively changed the entire slant of their work. While everyone loves a good marketing gimmick (see: Diary of an Oxygen Thief), it can so often backfire when the public feels duped rather than somewhat in on the ruse. And this ruse is particularly affronting to women who still have to fight every day to be heard in the dusty old publishing houses simply trying to “stay with the times” by fulfilling a certain “[gender] diversity quota,” not because they actually care about the work. In this sense, Mercero, Martínez and Díaz were a publisher’s wet dream. For it allowed the company to keep the author’s male voice—still deemed more knowledgeable and assertive—while passing it off as a woman’s. Incidentally, a plot point in the first season of the Spanish show Valeria finds the eponymous character being asked by her own publisher to release her work under a male pen name. She ultimately refuses and goes the self-publishing route (resulting in her infuriatingly unrealistic success, but whatever). It’s telling, in effect, that a woman is still so often not presented with a real choice in how she wants to secure her success, whereas a man can arbitrarily decide to “experiment.”
Women once posed as men in the writerly fields because their gender was deemed inferior, less intelligent. “Knowing not of what they spoke.” Now, the tables seemed to have turned in a manner more appropriative of collective female trauma rather than done out of “necessity.” For all one needs to do is take a quick perusal through the bookshop or library (you know, if you still do that sort of thing in this Fahrenheit 451 era) and see that the male names are plenty domineering. Unless, of course, there’s miraculously a large bulk of them who are just women posing as men.