It's great finally to be catching up on my reports! For those who have enjoyed the hangouts, I'm hoping to fit in one or two before the end of the summer, and I'll keep you posted. This was not our first discussion of gender, but we had a great discussion beginning with the idea of gender culture for children, and then moving outward from there. I was joined by Brian Dolton, David Peterson, Erin Peterson, Glenda Pfeiffer, Jaleh Dragich, Janet Hariett, Kyle Aisteach, and Chihuahua0.
We started with merchandising. Merchandising is an overwhelming force for gender-normalization in our culture. Personally, I can't stand the way that when you walk into a store without literally having to take sides, male or female. It forces me always to choose one of my kids to be first (grrr - I don't need that everywhere I turn!). Fact: I was really proud of my son when he walked into a store without seeing that divide, as a toddler, and picked out his own bright orange hat and red patent leather shoes. He was the most awesome little boy on the block.
Chihuahua mentioned an interesting issue: he perceives a female bias in YA book covers. Have any of you out there noticed this? If so, then how do you think it might be addressed productively? He recommended "The List" as a very interesting and provocative book about the question of femininity. Kyle responded by remarking that certain genres of book are perceived as out of bounds for certain genders. Female-led adult fantasy is hard to find, as is adolescent romance for boys.
Merchandising and marketing play into this, and they also play into those scenes in girl-related stories that irk me the most, like the "salon scene" or "shopping scene" that seems to crop up in so many entirely unnecessary places. It takes a natural concern with appearance - one that is socially important in many ways - and turns it into a kind of gender-related coercion.
Then we went looking for good example of alternate gender roles.
Kyle gave us Eowyn from J.R.R. Tolkien "No man can kill me..." "I am no man." It bears some similarity to the classical pitfalls of prophecy with an awesome gender twist. Jaleh said she liked how Eowyn fought against her role, and did so effectively.
Kyle mentioned that there has been some debate between historians as to how effective Joan of Arc's disguise as a man actually was, the idea being that a lot of people must have known she was a woman and not cared. This was certainly also the case with female pirates and pharaohs.
Janet mentioned a female pirate who supposedly passed as a man but was known to have had a child. A woman named Mary Reed was scheduled to be hanged, but got out of it by announcing she was pregnant.
Kyle mentioned the story of a pope who went into labor during a procession.
Ursula LeGuin's The Left Hand of Darkness was a natural to this discussion, obviously. We all appreciated the kinds of issues that were brought up by her Gethenians and their mutable gender. One of the most piquant aspects of this is that in the Gethenian society, "Perverts" were those who were stuck permanently in one gender (and this was a label that inevitably got associated with the human male Genly Ai).
All of us appreciated stories where traditional categories were treated as problematic and exceptions were explored.
Erin mentioned a short story about coming of age in a group of people who got to choose their gender at a certain age as they grew into it. The protagonist was experiencing gender for the first time, and questioning the family's tradition, which was to become females and have children.
In The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin, the protagonist, Yeine, came from a matriarchal society which many of us had found refreshing. I liked it because the male attitudes were not fundamentally changed - just because the society was matriarchal didn't mean that the men had to be what we'd call effeminate, or behave differently from the way we'd expect them to. The difference was that the male desire to protect their women was something that the woman warriors appreciated in a rather condescending manner. The male desire to protect was considered rather darling of them. Kyle mentioned that he appreciated the way that Jemisin set up the plot and the natural reasons why Yeine would be the "chosen one" as opposed to someone else.
My own novel deals with questions of gender identity and misogyny. The interesting, and rather dismaying, thing that happened as a result was that one of my beta readers misinterpreted it as the novel being misogynistic. I'm making some changes to try to make the distinction more clear, as I didn't realize it could be interpreted that way. One of the things I have been doing is trying to strengthen some aspects of gender culture that are recognizable to my readers, such as the way that groups of boys will go out and try to impress groups of girls (and raise their status with the other boys), and the kinds of friendships maintained by my protagonist's mother. I'll probably have a more extensive post on this in the near future.
Outsiders always make good protagonists, and Chihuahua mentioned that he likes to take a look at gender outsiders. It's an approach that is fascinating and worth considering.
Jaleh brought up a point that I've made elsewhere on the blog, that people will fight the social roles imposed on them, but will not move completely outside the cultural worldview in order to do so. If you're writing a historical piece, don't have someone challenge his or her gender role in a modern way. Their actions will be appropriate to the time period, and there will be specific accepted ways in which rules can be bent. Erin agreed with this, saying sometimes even readers won't pick up on the cultural groundedness of protest, and will ask why a character isn't mad about being oppressed. Keep in mind that a member of an oppressed culture will not have the same anger as an entitled modern person. Erin mentioned the case of the people who were interned in the Japanese WWII camps in the US, and how they will typically call it "unfortunate" rather than getting overtly angry.
We also talked about the Bechdel test. As I understand it, the test asks the following questions: Does this story have women in it? Do they talk to each other? Do they talk about something other than men? A story that answers yes to all three has "passed" the Bechdel test. As Brian said, the test is not absolute - some bad stories do pass the test. Chihuahua gave the example of having two women talking in the background of a story about Halloween costumes. It's harder, but not impossible, for stories to pass the test if they have male protagonists. The presence of men tends to change the way that women talk to each other, which is interesting. I find the test most useful as a thought-provoking device, allowing us to ask how fair each story is to women, and which aspects of it contribute to a more realistic view of the world vs. a more female-blind view of the world. Chihuahua said that it would be interesting to consider a reverse-Bechdel test for certain genres, asking whether boys are speaking to each other about topics other than girls... Kyle mentioned the Simpsons, and David asked about how much of male behavior is done to impress females - an interesting pointer. Brian characterized the Bechdel test as a pointer to issues, prompting people to ask "why are you not passing?"
Kyle calls the prevalence of male protagonists in Fantasy "a structural problem." One could see it in part as a symptom of our culture's preference for the adventurer plot, which at least in the case of historical or historically influenced worlds, can be more difficult to achieve with female characters. The most important thing, we all agreed, is to be mindful of these issues as we write. Not all stories need to fall into an easy category. Chihuahua mentioned a story in which a 1900's steampunk shapeshifter can switch from male to female. That brought Loki to my mind immediately. The story of the wall around Asgard, and how Loki changed himself into a mare to stop its completion, and then ended up giving birth to Selipnir the eight-legged steed, is a wonderful example of gender-bending in classical mythology (I highly recommend you look it up for the details).
Kyle expressed disappointment in the social model that appears in many steampunk stories, where classism and racism tend to remain unquestioned. He wanted to see stories from the butlers' points of view (which I found heartening, though I'm not at all writing steampunk!). Brian mentioned that there has been lesbian steampunk. Chihuahua mentioned that the 1920's were interesting years for gender roles because openly gay actors were more accepted; that would be an interesting era to explore. Kyle said that the 1920's were a time of women's liberation, trends toward racial equality and acceptance of LGBT people, but that later backlash had led to more extreme imposition of gender roles. A society can't be counted on to progress steadily toward more acceptance and tolerance (interesting story possibilities here). Glenda explained that in the culture she's working with, it's semi-matriarchal but not a full gender reverse. In her world, women's nurturing qualities are seen as the proper kind of strength to make good rulers capable of making long-term plans.
We barely touched on the question of subcultures. Gender norms, and who gets excluded on the basis of them, vary between groups. For example, I have read personal articles about transgender or bisexual people feeling rejected by gay- or lesbian-normative groups. These areas are fraught with significance for everyone.
Erin recommended Tamora Pierce's work, and David gave us a couple of links:
Thanks to everyone who participated! I look forward to talking to you all again soon.