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What We Read When We Don’t Read the Internet PRESENTS! The J.K. Rowling Complex, or, Why My Initials Are How You Know Me

[Yes, we are back! Because here is the thing about this particular THEME POST PARTY, my friends: We got so many folks coming our way that we just decided to keep partying right straight through the weekend. We have discussed, for example, what we read! Or: What we don’t read! Or: What NO-ONE should read, because it is a super-stupid idea! (Crime and Punishment and Sweet Valley High — the amazing best-seller ideas, THEY JUST KEEP COMING.) However, have we discussed what is like to be a lady who WRITES things? Except for tangentially, we have not! Therefore, let us meet our new friend, the intriguingly be-initialed M.R. Fall.]

So, let’s be honest here, friends: none of you are going out to the theater unless there’s some live, nude Daniel Radcliffe onstage.

Okay, maybe that’s an overstatement. But the fact is that audiences are dwindling and the average age of audience members continues to rise – meaning, ladies and dudes, a vast number of you aren’t joining the theater party if Harry Potter isn’t the one pouring your champagne, and this noble art form is going to die out with the greyhairs in the orchestra seats (if you know what I’m saying) (and I think you do).

Here’s another fact: maybe a reboot wouldn’t be such a bad thing. In the past year or so, there have been some serious findings about the current status of gender bias in theater. Turns out this bias is more than the physical discrimination also present in film, television and fashion; it’s a bias against lady playwrights, against their lady words, lady intelligence and lady ideas. The bias against female playwrights translates into a bias against their protagonists, if playwrights dare to make them in their own lady-images. Women are fundamentally unlikable, the prevailing wisdom goes, so women lead characters are unlikable, too. And women playwrights are even more unlikable because they have something to say.

I’m not going to summarize the article written by playwright Marsha Norman in American Theatre about this, but I will cite three of her statistics. First: 83% of produced plays are written by men. Second: according to the U.S. Department of Labor, if less than one-quarter of professionals in a given field are women, that profession is considered “untraditional” for women. Third: “using the 2008 numbers,” Norman wrote, “that makes playwriting [and other theater professions] untraditional occupations for women.”

Pretty grim, right? But, in her article, Norman added something else. “If it goes on like this,” she wrote, “women will… all start using pseudonyms.” Frankly, Marsha Norman, you might be thinking to yourself, after reading all of those statistics, that doesn’t sound like such a bad idea! And you know what, you guys? That’s what I thought, too.
I had a pretty important choice to make when I began my professional life last year. I could do what I had been doing during my college days and keep writing under my tried-and-true lady name. Or I could write under my initials.

I had been considering writing under my initials even before I’d read that article, though, so I decided to run the idea past a few friends. Reactions were decidedly mixed. Another playwright I was working with, who happened to be a lady, thought it was “weird.” My roommate had a long discussion with me about it and asserted that I should use my full name and “just be myself on the page.” When I replied that I might end up “just being myself on the page in unproduced obscurity all the way to the grave,” there was throat-clearing, shrugging and silence. But the strongest reaction was from a male friend of mine, also a writer (Dude Writer Friend, or DWF henceforth):

MRF: I might start writing under my initials.
DWF: Oh. I was thinking about doing that.
MRF: Cool! That’s great.
DWF: No, not really. Once other girls catch on, you’ll all start to do it. Then people will assume I’m a girl, too.
MRF: (Angrily) And how is that a problem?
DWF: I don’t know. (Beat.) It just doesn’t seem fair.

Doesn’t seem fair. Because I might get to share in his privilege somehow. Because I might get past the initial “contemporary-dude-playwright-edgy, contemporary-lady-playwright-risky” rejection gate. Because I might get to be heard.

Yet there was an additional dimension to his response. Part of the reason why the initial delusion works is not simply because of the initials’ ungendered ambiguity, but also because the most famous abbreviated authors are men (J.R.R. Tolkien, T.S. Eliot, C.S. Lewis, J.D. Salinger, A.O. Scott). Consequently, when a reader is faced with initials and a last name, chances are they will assume the author is a guy. Thus the initialed author is not simply genderless – she is male.

Because the author’s name or initials or abbreviation is usually the first or second thing a reader or play-goer sees, it’s the primary, formative lens through which the work is viewed. And if that work is seen through the lens of male authorship, reactions are significantly more favorable – especially for playwrights (Emily Glassberg Sands did some amazing research on this).

Now imagine a world where all women write under their initials (let’s also assume they’re taking it all the way and refusing to publish jacket photos, or being super-guerilla by using fake ones), and the arts industries and the public realize they’re doing it. When faced with an initialed text, the gender assumption is no longer automatic. The author could be male. The author could be female. The author could reject the binary completely. But there’s no way to know for sure.

Then the privilege is not simply gone for dudes like DWF; the privilege is gone for everyone. At last, the playing field is truly level. Work can be analyzed only on its style and content, nothing else. For some men, especially the burn-out, low-talent hacks, this is terrifying. A woman writing under her initials can’t be seen as “woman” and dismissed without being read. She is finally just another voice rising from the page.

But let’s go back to the hypotheticals for a second. We’ll pretend DWF had an oddly mystical vision in the coffee shop and he saw a future world where all girls, women, ladies and whoever else followed my lead and started using their initials instead of their names (in this hallucination, I am like the Pied Piper of Frustrated Artists, except the story ends with my killing derivative Mamet-speak one-acts instead of children). The initial delusion is no longer viable; people no longer assume abbreviated authors are male. So what are the guys going to do?

Probably go back to writing under their full names, because being taken for a woman artist is a fate worse than death, and the authors left writing under initials will be assumed to be women even if they’re not. DWF, in his worried response, indirectly acknowledged what I already knew to be true: it’s so much harder to be a lady in writing that no one would want to do it if they didn’t have to. Not even DWF could handle a month-long case of mistaken identity if the mistake erred on the side of his being a woman. Understanding that he might have to deal with that at some point on the horizon, I knew, accounted for a bit of his fear.

So, then, why did male authors write under their initials in the past? The answer is simple: women weren’t perceived as an artistic threat. The choice of men to continue writing under their initials is, perhaps, further evidence that they believe their position and privilege in the arts communities are fully and eternally intact. If women never find a way around gendered authorship, that primary barrier that supersedes all others, women will never infringe upon their sacred territory.

It was then, as I saw DWF’s annoyance in the café, that I understood there were two ways I could look at my initials. Yes, they were a kind of castration, a partial erasing of my identity, a dismantling of myself. But they were also my liberation, the first step in a subtle destruction of the restrictive gender-authorship perceptions that keep good female authors stuck at their day jobs and mediocre male authors on stage and in print. I wasn’t denying myself. I was denying others the right to make unfounded judgments. Literary managers could no longer use those wholesale adjectives like “emotional,” “sentimental” or “melodramatic” and toss my script back into the slush pile – after all, what would happen if the author was actually a man? (Hint: that dude would get a full production and a pat on the back for being “in touch with his feelings.”)

Theater is only real when it’s enacted for an audience. Novels, poems, illustrations – these things can come alive at any time, for anyone. Theater is different. It has to be spoken, witnessed, received. If a play is read in the forest and no one hears it make a sound, the play didn’t simply “not happen.” It was silenced. Having my work refused from exhibition in the public sphere would be the true erasure of my thoughts and ideas, of my self and identity – not using my initials to get that work onstage.

My initials made DWF uncomfortable, and they made him uncomfortable for a reason: they were an effective strategy. Later that year, my initials in the program of my first professional production were the testimony to their viability. I wonder what DWF thought of that.

Still, this was only a small gain (remember those dire statistics?) and mine is not a total solution. Folks “forget” to use my initials and list my full name instead. They question my decision, roll their eyes when I try to explain. And season after season, the same four plays still get revived over and over, all of them by men.

Like I said, you guys, none of you are going to see theater anyway. Let’s just pretend it’s an intentional boycott until things start to change.

[M.R. Fall is a playwright with a day job. She blogs at Her initials blog at]


  1. EM wrote:

    It also probably doesn’t hurt that your initials read as Mr. Fall.

    Saturday, June 5, 2010 at 6:01 pm | Permalink
  2. M.R. Fall wrote:

    True! Other people have mentioned this before, too.

    Saturday, June 5, 2010 at 6:30 pm | Permalink
  3. rowmyboat wrote:

    I have thought about this before, except that I have a very gender neutral name — neutral first name, no middle name — so that I wouldn’t even need to go to initials in order to obscure the fact that I’m female. On the flip side, I don’t have a choice in the matter, unless I made a pseudonym, so if I was ever a famous anything, I couldn’t strike a blow by using my full name. Since I’m not particularly artistic, I’ve mostly thought about this in terms of future journal articles and the like.

    Saturday, June 5, 2010 at 7:07 pm | Permalink
  4. hekatesgal wrote:

    Your gender neutral might get your resume for jobs that aren’t traditionally female read faster.

    Saturday, June 5, 2010 at 8:33 pm | Permalink
  5. ladysquires wrote:

    I have seriously considered this as well. Despite having one of Top 5 names for girl-children born in the early 80’s, the only time I ever hear my given name on television or in film is when it is attached to a vapid mean-girl cheerleader or the barely-legal trophy date of a male lead.

    What’s funny is that my given name was exclusively a dude name in the nineteenth century.

    Saturday, June 5, 2010 at 8:35 pm | Permalink
  6. M.L.Benjamin wrote:

    Courageous and insightful. M.R. Fall’s words fracture and fragment the ever-so-present glass ceiling.

    Saturday, June 5, 2010 at 9:11 pm | Permalink
  7. JRRTOLKIEN wrote:

    This is brilliant! It really shows how subtly gender biases can enter into everyday conversations and fields like theater. Where else can I read your stuff, M.R. Fall?

    Saturday, June 5, 2010 at 9:37 pm | Permalink
  8. Andy wrote:

    When I see an author I’ve never heard of going by their initials I assume it’s a woman trying to get around gender bias.

    Saturday, June 5, 2010 at 10:43 pm | Permalink
  9. karolina wrote:

    what’s wrong with crime and punishment? (genuinely curious)

    Sunday, June 6, 2010 at 1:13 am | Permalink
  10. Jennifer wrote:

    Yeah, I’d assume the same as well, Andy. It worked so well for Joanne Rowling and all…

    This is a very good piece, and I appreciate you coming out of the gender closet in order to write it. It is absolutely infuriating that pretending to be gender neutral/male is the only way around it, still, in 2010. At what point does “post feminist” exist, please? It sure doesn’t now.

    Sunday, June 6, 2010 at 2:24 am | Permalink
  11. Maggie wrote:

    This is an issue, in fact, two mostly unrelated issues close to my heart. Because I love the theatre, but I don’t write for the theatre. And I’m leaning towards initials when I publish.

    I’ve put a lot more thought into the latter than the former. I mostly just want to write SF&F and don’t think of the theatre as a good venue for it. But it is discouraging how male-centric that scene is.

    I don’t think gender ambiguity is my primary reason for initialling things: that would be the ridiculous length of my full name and the slightly frivolous sound of my currently preferred nickname. But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy a bit of are-they-or-aren’t-they, and the one thing I’ve published initial-ly (ho ho) so far has had a gender-neutral protagonist, as well, so there was a part of me not wanting them to be read female automatically.

    I don’t know, I kind of feel like I doth reassure myself too much, or something. On the other hand, I’m planning on staying Maggie for comics, so maybe this is just me having unconscious associations of seriousness with initials and not with my name.

    Sunday, June 6, 2010 at 4:12 am | Permalink
  12. lycia wrote:

    It’s really sad, in my opinion, that this is a choice women have to consider nowadays.
    But if it helps to avoid prejudices it’s still the best way.

    Sunday, June 6, 2010 at 5:46 am | Permalink
  13. g wrote:

    This post is close to my heart, my heart still being entangled with my thesis on pseudonymity and gender. Unfortunately, it had to be cataloged under my lady-name in my college’s library, including my lady-middle-names. The conversation you had with your Dude Writer Friend is revealing but not all that surprising – has authorship changed much for women in the past 150 years? Manipulating our names to seem more masculine is still a means to exercise power, but the initial route is more common than a complete pseudonym. As I hope to be a writer instead of a (traditionally-female) administrative assistant someday, I guess I and others like me will have a similar decision of nomenclature to make.

    Also, have traversed over to your blog and am finding it wonderful.

    Sunday, June 6, 2010 at 10:18 am | Permalink
  14. rowmyboat wrote:

    Your gender neutral might get your resume for jobs that aren’t traditionally female read faster.

    Lol, in my case, I may have a gender-neutral name, but anything that includes my education history (such as a resume or CV) is a dead giveaway, as I did my undergrad at a well-known women’s college.

    Sunday, June 6, 2010 at 10:34 am | Permalink
  15. Not to derail this thread, but I wonder if that might subconsciously be the reason that so many people these days are naming their daughters with traditionally male names (Dylan, Taylor, Riley, etc.) – especially, it seems, conservative suburban types who don’t usually question things like gender roles.

    Sunday, June 6, 2010 at 11:35 am | Permalink
  16. Muse of Ire wrote:

    Ursula K. LeGuin tells a story of agreeing to use her initials on a short story published in Playboy. It’s not exactly parallel — the story had already been accepted, the editor suggested the initials, LeGuin was reluctant — but the point is the same, the magazine’s readership wouldn’t be receptive to words printed under a femaile name. The fact that her case happened some 40 years ago and it’s still happening now seriously makes me tear my hair out.

    On the question of Dudes Who Used Initials, several of the names you cited were British academics, and use of initials happens to be a convention in that world. J. R. Neale, F. R. Leavitt, and F. A. Yates also come to mind — but F. A. Yates was a woman.

    Sunday, June 6, 2010 at 1:18 pm | Permalink
  17. J. Koyanagi wrote:

    Excellent post deconstructing male privilege as it relates to writing.

    Sunday, June 6, 2010 at 4:04 pm | Permalink
  18. AB wrote:

    My nickname is gender neutral, I win!

    It’s sad but true, even these days I’d contemplate hiding my gender if I thought it would make life easier.

    Sunday, June 6, 2010 at 5:35 pm | Permalink
  19. Kate wrote:

    As a consumer rather than a creator, I LIKE the idea of gender nuetral names. If I really dig something I will probably want to know more about the author – including their gender. But I want to be able to experience the product first, through whatever lenses I can, before my inveitable gender assumptions get triggered. That way, when they DO get triggered, they are easier to discard. And the play/book/story gets to live its own life, which is ultimately the thing I love best, especially about theatre.

    Sunday, June 6, 2010 at 7:51 pm | Permalink
  20. Ben wrote:

    This was a really interesting post. I’m just wondering, how would George Eliot fit into your schema?

    Sunday, June 6, 2010 at 9:52 pm | Permalink
  21. Anna wrote:

    I read Karen Healey’s post that touches on her publishing under her full name: Which Readers?

    It’s why I publish academically under my full name, instead of my initials. (Although, like so many, my name is not what I comment under. Can’t be crazy and an academic, after all. They frown on that. Unless one is an eccentric prof, which usually means “male”.)

    Monday, June 7, 2010 at 5:06 am | Permalink
  22. Sarah wrote:

    As a scientist, my publications are done under my initials – the same as all the other authors in the journals I use. One must go to the contact info in fine print at the bottom of the article in order to discover the lead author’s full name. I hadn’t considered the effect of this before, although at a conference I have thought, “Oh, so-and-so is a woman? Awesome!” Now I’m really glad that we do it that way!

    Monday, June 7, 2010 at 11:16 am | Permalink
  23. another maggie wrote:

    …MR F!

    Monday, June 7, 2010 at 11:40 am | Permalink
  24. Other Becky wrote:

    Karolina @ #9: It’s not Crime and Punishment that’s being mocked, it’s the conflation of classic female (Noun) and (Noun) novels with something ridiculous — e.g. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies — by turning it on its head, giving a classic “male” novel (Crime and Punishment) a ridiculously “female” add-on (Sweet Valley High).

    Monday, June 7, 2010 at 11:45 am | Permalink
  25. HH wrote:

    My first novel is out right now under my real lady name, which also happens to be sort of cheerleadery, even though I am not. It is a serious literary novel that also happens to have sex in it, and a plot–and so is automatically “chick lit” or a “beach book.” People picking it up expecting that kind of read end up either pleasantly surprised or pissed off.

    I used to publish under initials and caved when the book was under submission because I just wanted to get published (“women are the ones who buy books,” etc etc). Now I’m sorry, and wondering if I can go back–even though one second of research (google me) would reveal my gender. I still think it would help me get reviewed more seriously. And I would welcome the chance to explain why I’m doing it. Since I am now known it would be more of a gesture than anything. And yes, when I published with initials everyone thought I was male.

    Monday, June 7, 2010 at 2:05 pm | Permalink
  26. M.R. Fall wrote:

    Hi everyone!

    So, I forced myself to stay off the thread for a day or so, mostly because I had the compulsion to respond to EVERY SINGLE COMMENT and I didn’t want anyone to feel oppressed by my constant presence (“M.R. Fall, hovering since June 5”). I’d like to respond to a few things that really grabbed me, though.

    @Ladysquires / @TheWhatIfGirl: To me, these comments really highlighted something interesting in relation to naming. In the nineteenth century, Ladysquires’s name was a masculine one; TheWhatIfGirl’s comment brings our attention to the fact that this practice giving daughters “traditionally male names,” (and thus turning those names into feminine ones) continues today. Today’s Dylans and Taylors are yesterday’s Ashleys and Evelyns – and this definitely tells us something about the advantages of male-gendered or ambiguous names, historically and at the moment.

    @Jennifer: Thank you for your support – it felt like something I had to do, especially given the importance of the issue.

    @Lycia/ @AB: I, too, think it is extremely unfortunate!

    @G: It is so, so disappointing that your college didn’t allow your thesis to be cataloged as you saw fit, especially given your particular area of research and analysis. I would hope that, no matter what the library computer/ catalogue system required, authors would be allowed to name themselves. Also, I’m so glad you’re enjoying the blog!

    @J. Koyanagi: Thank you!

    @Kate: That’s really great to hear (read?). And I’m glad you’re supporting your local theatre community!

    @Ben: I think George Eliot is an excellent example of the other way women fight against authorship bias: total pseudonymity. The Bronte Sisters were originally published under their male pseudonyms: Ellis, Acton, and Currer Bell (if I’m remembering correctly). These ladies are just a few examples of a much larger literary phenomenon. I have to wonder if we’d be able to experience their key works today if they hadn’t been published originally (or in Eliot’s case, still) pseudonymously. But I think this deserves a much deeper exploration than I can give it in this space.

    @Another Maggie: … yes! Serendipity was, for once, on my side.

    In any case, thanks to all for engaging. I wish you the best on your journeys in the Land of Naming. Perhaps someday we’ll all “just be ourselves on the page” – but I fear this day is a long way off.

    Monday, June 7, 2010 at 7:44 pm | Permalink
  27. Rikibeth wrote:

    I do not have a great deal to add to the subject of gendered names and theatrical and literary success — but I did want to address the “no theater without the lure of live nude Daniel Radcliffe.” I did not, in fact, go to see that production of Equus! However, the only theater I have seen recently that was not community theater with my boyfriend in the cast was the Red Bull Theater’s production of Marlowe’s Edward II, which was recommended by a friend on the basis of “tall skinny naked boys kissing.” So I suppose I am just as guilty as all of the people who avoid theater lacking in Live Nude Daniel Radcliffe, after all.

    Monday, June 7, 2010 at 9:33 pm | Permalink
  28. Ghams wrote:

    This is really interesting. I was just saying to my significant other that when we have a girl baby, I want to name her Elliot or another gender neutral name. Due to internet commenters. Really. Less harassment.

    I have taken to using my initials on the internet, and on my photography website, because I am a librarian AND my name is Grace and everyone assumes I am a 90-year-old lady at a church picnic. But yes, I do think people often view art through the lens of gender, and I thought I’d be removing that entirely. But I see from this post that I am actually just putting a male lens on, instead. Hmm. Problematic.

    Tuesday, June 8, 2010 at 9:56 pm | Permalink
  29. Keely wrote:

    @ Other Becky: Cool idea to turn that formula on its head, but I think Sweet Valley High is a poorly-chosen “Column B” item–it’s a franchise in its own right, not a definitive type of imaginary being. Better Crime and Punishment and Unicorns–or, even better, War and Peace and Unicorns–which, by the way, as someone who thought the initial conceit was totally awesome to begin with, I would DEFINITELY READ.

    Friday, June 11, 2010 at 9:55 am | Permalink

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