Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Gender: A Google+ Worldbuilding Hangout Report

So finally here I am to report on the Gender hangout, which took place on November 2. Cheryl Morgan, Dale Emery, and Kyle Aisteach came to talk with me and we had a terrific discussion; Harry Markov joined in for a few minutes at the end.

We started out by taking about one of the classic SF/F tales about gender, Ursula K. LeGuin's The Left Hand of Darkness. I've heard people characterize this book as too preachy, but I've never found it so. It's always seemed to me more of a thorough thought experiment, and my fellow discussants felt that it reflected some of the social issues at the time that it was written (1969, and I agree). Briefly, the people of LeGuin's planet Gethen have no gender unless they are in their four-day-a-month sexually receptive phase, when they may take one gender or the other depending on the circumstances. LeGuin approaches this in a very interesting way, too, both giving the outsider's scientific (and thus explanatory) viewpoint and local tales of human interaction that introduce us to the social rules of Gethenian societies from an insider's viewpoint.

The question of gender in stories isn't just about stories that focus on gender questions, however. There are tons of gender issues in all kinds of stories which are ostensibly "about" other things. I had a fascinating discussion with author Myke Cole about his upcoming novel, and he was thinking deeply about his portrayal of women, so that the context of a military plot wouldn't make them come out as men with women's names (I'm very curious to see his book; it's about the modern military with magic-users, and sounds fascinating). Kyle mentioned the question of female characters in video games. One game he mentioned portrays women as pilots "without much character," and he said he'd heard divided opinions on this portrayal - one friend who said the characters weren't feminine enough, and another who was happy to see them "not turned into the typical woman." Cheryl noted that in video games you also get the issue of gender change. Some games, like Mass Effect, allow particular characters to be either male or female, which changes the nature of the social interactions they engage in (including romantic liaisons that then can be either hetero- or homosexual depending on the gender chosen for the characters in question).

We talked a little about stories in which people change genders. Cheryl mentioned Steel Beach by John Varley, in which gender reassignment is very easy. Dale mentioned the film Orlando; there was also My Brother's Keeper, in which a monk receives a visitation from an angel, and apparently later changes gender. There are also stories where genderless characters are interpreted to have different genders by different people (or the reader). Kelley Eskridge's Dangerous Space was mentioned, as was John Scalzi's The Android's Dream, and apparently Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan series takes gender as a prominent secondary theme.

One thing that is very interesting to do as a writer (which many authors are already doing to great effect) is to engage with the question of gender from the angle of deliberately altering the social contracts that surround gender. That is, taking our current expectations of behavior that is masculine or feminine, and turning those expectations on their heads. Another is to engage in a world where many of the same gender issues occur that currently occur in our world, and then bring attention to them so that our subconscious acceptance of behaviors can be questioned.

It is very difficult to tease apart which aspects of gender are societal, and which are genetic.

Kyle told us of a friend who had written a story and then went through and switched the genders of all the characters. This is a very interesting experiment to try, because you will discover that changing the gender of a character has an enormous effect on a reader's (and our own) expectations for them. If you do this, you may decide that you would prefer to change a character's actions in one scene so they become less stereotypical. I myself recently changed the gender of a minor character in the story I'm writing because I felt that putting a woman in that position was too stereotypical: the woman was complaining about being asked not to take a dress fastened by magnets onto the planet (where there is a magnet prohibition), and declared she wasn't going to undress in front of a thousand people. When I changed the character to a man and the dress into a bodysuit, the entire interaction felt much fresher and less clich├ęd.

Whenever you are working with oppressed characters, it's important to realize that these characters aren't necessarily weak. They may have few areas in which they can exercise power, but they will most likely have a finely tuned sense of how to use that power to their own advantage. If a woman's only power is to choose a husband, she'll choose very carefully!

Kyle made the interesting observation that comedy about women with power used to be far more common than it is now. He gave the examples of Vaudeville and the television show "Bewitched." Cheryl mentioned a show with advertising men and dumb women in charge. Kyle also pointed out that "Mr. Mom" was a comedy, but that men who care for children at home are so much more common now that making a whole comedy about it would seem strange.  (Comedy generally flirts with borderlines of unacceptability in one way or another; things that make people uncomfortable. If women with power ever become entirely normal, the impetus for comedy will have to shift somewhere else.)

Society is not uniform in its expectations of gender behavior. Different cultures see the role of women and men differently, and even see the divide between them differently. If we start looking into the behavior of other animal species, the expectations differ even more widely. Lions have specific gender-related roles related to hunting, dominance, etc. Spiders have even more dramatically different gender behaviors (human women are not likely to bite their husbands' head off literally!). Raccoons follow a pattern where the females with young drive the males off, and the males live in group homes separately from the mothers. Pronghorn antelopes tend to divide into herds of all males and all females, but some males run with the females. Every animal species which has been studied for gender relations exhibits some homosexual behaviors, and some pairs form stable families, as for example pairs of female albatrosses.

When we write portrayals of gender orientation behavior, it's important to think through how readers will see what we portray. By this I mean that we should pay close attention to whether we are giving value judgment messages. When I was first designing For Love, For Power, I knew that my antagonist, who is a sociopath, was going to have a homosexual relationship during the story, and so I realized that I needed to be careful to have my protagonist's side of the story portray homosexual relationships between non-sociopaths, or I'd accidentally be seen as delivering the message that all homosexuals are sociopaths. When I spoke about it as having a "grid," Kyle immediately picked up on this and explained to us that people who write for TV shows literally have grids they fill out so that they can make sure to have characters with different racial, gender-related, and behavioral characteristics. The danger of this, of course, is that viewers or readers may be able to detect the grid you were working with (ex. "We have the homosexual crazy guy, so we need a heterosexual crazy guy, and then a homosexual sane guy, and a heterosexual sane guy, oh, and there should be women too, which boxes do we need to fill in for them?"). It's worth taking the time to make sure you're developing the details of each character and making each person "fill in his/her box" in a way that is subtly grounded in character and backstory, rather than just setting up cardboard box-fillers.

Stereotypes exist for a reason. First of all, it's vitally important for human survival that we be able to create categories out of things that may only vaguely resemble one another - if we couldn't recognize an apple because it was the wrong color or shape, we'd go hungry, and if we couldn't recognize a lion because it was a bit too small, we'd get eaten. Second of all, behavioral trends exist, and gender characteristics tend to pattern in predictable ways. For each category we create, there is the stereotype at the dead center, and a range of core/prototypical group members around it (which vary to some degree), and then further out there is a wide variety of less typical group members and individuals whose group membership is ambiguous. It's good to keep this in mind whenever we work with categories in our worldbuilding.

Dale mentioned that he has been working with a small breakaway community where gender roles differ because of the need to increase the population. Demographic pressures can have varying effects on the social roles expected of different genders. In his world, these pressures lead to a greater degree of gender equality, while in my own, similar pressures result in extreme oppression of women. What is happening in the worlds you are designing?

In amidst our discussion, Dale perceptively pointed out a pattern he's observed in some classic works of science fiction, including Asimov's Foundation and Empire and Robot stories: Men were referred to by last name, while women and robots were referred to by first names. The simplest explanation for this is that there is a subconscious perception of both women and robots as those who serve men - at very least, the pattern suggests that robots and women pattern together in social estimation, while men pattern differently.

At the end of the discussion Dale asked me if there was anything I had to say about gender in language. I nearly burst out laughing, because I have nearly an endless amount of stuff to say about gender in language... so we decided on that as the topic for the next hangout. That hangout took place last week, November 9, and I'll be writing that one up as soon as I can.

Thanks again to Cheryl, Kyle, Dale, and Harry for coming to speak with me. It was a wonderful chat. Since I'm writing this up late, please do feel free to comment with anything I may have forgotten!

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