Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Will you take a stand on gender?

The topic of gender seems quite appropriate to the day following Hillary Clinton's speech at the Democratic convention. She certainly puts a spotlight on the issue of gender conflict in its current form.

Modern-day feminism (or post-feminism?) and women's liberation have put an interesting twist on the portrayal of women in fiction. Particularly tricky (to my mind) must be the task of writing historical fiction in which women must be portrayed as era-appropriate, yet continue to satisfy the needs of modern reader.

In fantasy and science fiction, we don't have to follow as many strict requirements on how gender is portrayed. My gut feeling is that many modern and futuristic societies in SF these days tend to aim for gender equality. In the Harry Potter books, for example, gender equality in witchcraft was not dicussed as an issue of contention, but two of the founders of Hogwarts were female, and witches generally were considered to have as much power as men (go, Professor McGonagall!). It's a gender balance intended to be unremarkable to the reader, yet which at the same time reflects a healthy level of idealism, in that it is more even than our current real world balance. Then of course there's the other extreme, that of creating a very remarkable alteration in gender roles. There have been the Star Trek societies where women dominate, or those where gender role differentiation itself is considered evil.

If you really want to see a gender portrayal that will knock you on your ear and make you think, go read Ursula K. LeGuin's famous book, The Left Hand of Darkness. It's often described as feminist SF, but it's not strident, and I don't get the feeling that it's out to shove female advancement in anyone's face. It simply sets up a beautifully three-dimensional humanoid culture in which people have no gender most of the time, except for a period called kemmer when sexual situations will cause their genders to differentiate in one direction or the other. LeGuin takes base assumptions of gender physiology and expands them into an entire internally consistent cultural system complete with folk tales, gender taboos not at all like our own, etc. and then plops a Human male negotiator down in the middle of it, providing readers with a unique experience of culture shock. There are many reasons why this book won so many awards. I have always loved Ursula LeGuin's writing, and I even made my husband read this book.

I'd like at this point to add another ingredient to writerly thought processes: that of demographics, and demographic pressures. Which is to say, if you're going to pick a particular way of portraying gender roles (assuming there are any and you aren't trying to redesign such concepts from scratch), you might want to consider how external pressures from environment and society influence gender roles.

Say you have a group of beings divided into childbearing, and non-childbearing genders. Their society will flex adaptively to allow childbearing, and childrearing, to occur most productively and effectively for its needs.

If children are born helpless, mothers will most likely be expected to take care of them; however, if those mothers have a tendency to want to eat them, fathers might have a key societal role in removing them from the danger zone and sending the mothers off to find food.

If the society is agrarian and of relatively low-technology, then lots of backs and arms will be required to maintain food productivity, and the burden of childbearing will tend to be higher because more children are important for optimal survival (this may also come along with cultural restrictions on sexual activity not geared toward the production of children).

If there are many dangers in the environment, non-childbearers will generally take the role of protecting childbearers from those dangers – this can take the form of the hunter-gatherer division of labor, but the actual form of division in an SF society can differ based on the specific conditions you're setting up.

In a society with a high degree of complexity, gender roles can diverge culturally, so that some societal groups believe childbearers must be protected and others believe they must be treated more equally with non-childbearers. This will depend on the nature of the demographic pressures. Take for example the society portrayed by Margaret Atwood in The Handmaid's Tale. That was a case where male/female was less important than childbearer/non-childbearer, because most women had become infertile. And as a result, the childbearers were heavily oppressed by the leaders of the society who wanted it to survive: they were expected to do almost nothing but attempt to bear children. In my own society of Varin, the groups that experience the most gender differentiation are the oppressed caste, which seeks to protect its women from harm but believes there is no difference in the ability of men and women to work equally when no children are involved, and the noble caste, which is inbred and shrinking, and thus subjects its women to unnaturally extreme childbearing pressure.

There are a lot more directions one could go with a gender discussion, but this will be it for me for today. I welcome any comments, questions or suggestions on where to take the issue next.

Upcoming posts at TTYU: swearing, schooling/education


  1. I seem to be mentioning David Brin a lot here (I'm not really that huge a fan but he does have some interesting ideas). He wrote a book called "Glory Season" about a planet of mostly-cloned females who keep males around for specific purposes. I didn't like some of his views on a society run by women(for example, science and technology advancement basically stop) which I don't think is a natural conclusion to make.

    As for alien species, Amy Thompson comes to mind, with her novel "The Color of Distance" in which the "aliens" (I guess I should just call endemics since the humans are really the aliens) have a reproductive strategy more like many species of frogs or fish in our world, producing lots of eggs, few of which survive embryogenesis to adulthood. For them, each egg is nothing special at all, and the offspring are fair game as food, until they get large enough. Changing from an unreproductive to a reproductive is almost the same as changing from being an animal to a person. But they also regulate that very strictly, because too many offspring making that transition would cause massive overpopulation.

    I'm not sure about other examples though. It's interesting how different cultures have adapted to biology.

  2. Thanks for coming by again, bumble brain. I enjoy your thoughtful contributions. This is not exactly a gender comment, but I find it interesting how people tend to base aliens on particular species-analogs from earth (including fish, frogs, etc.). Kudos to Amy Thompson for picking an unusual one. In fact I've encountered many readers who have a harder time with a story if the aliens do not conform to some kind of earth model. [comments like "I didn't know whether they were X or Y, which made the aliens hard to visualize..."] Certainly I think in short stories it's very helpful to pick a species analog and then develop the differences therefrom, instead of spending time and words starting from scratch. The behavioral stuff can often come along with it, gender roles and all.