Monthly Archives: May 2013

Switching Pronouns, Cannibalistic Llamas, and Other Gender Assumptions

Debbie says:

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After this post goes up, Laurie and I will both be at WisCon, in Madison, Wisconsin, one of our two annual breaks from blogging. So we’ll be back sometime next week.

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Benjamin Rosenbaum’s has things to say about writing and gender. Rosenbaum has been trying to write a novel that uses extrovert/introvert as the genders, and still uses he/she as the pronouns. He’s been running into trouble:

See, I figured I’d created wholly new genders for this future society. Bail and Pale; extravert and introvert; a Kirk gender and a Spock gender, if you will. I’d divided up the pie of gender anew, replaced our gender ideology of “hard” and “soft” with a different one of “fast” and “slow”.

I made the Bails “she” and the Pales “he” (mostly because invented pronouns are hard to pull off, on a line level, at novel length) — but this was, I thought, a relatively arbitrary assignment. It could be inverted just as easily. The point was partly to destabilize the reader, to make them aware of their assumptions, of how they inevitably read “she” and “he” through a certain filter — and then to keep upending that. And this part of the experiment did, I think, have some moderate success.

But. As noted — there was also a good deal of fail.

When I began revisions for the third draft, I tried flipping the genders, making Pales “she” and Bails “he”. (It’s actually not as trivial to implement this as you might think; it’s not just a search-and-replace. This is because, annoyingly, “her” maps to both “him” and “his” — you have to decide, on a case-by-case basis, which one you mean. Similarly, “his” maps to both “her” and “hers”. It took a day of fiddling, but finally I had everyone’s gender swapped).

I suggest you do the experiment sometime, with something you’ve written. It’s mind-blowing. Maybe particularly because I’d set myself up for a fall, by imagining I’d written Pale and Bail outside our associations of gender.

The same characters, with the same in-world genders, taking the same in-world actions, read totally differently in terms of reader sympathy. I’m hard put to say more without spoilers, but actions which, when Fift was a “he”, seemed rash but self-evidently necessary, somehow suddenly, now that Fift is a “she”, seem bizarre and selfish. Shria’s Bailish sexual forwardness, when she was a “she”, seemed provocative but also stimulating, attractive; now that he’s a “he”, it seems predatory and gross. Switch the pronouns on “proud, rebellious teenage male” and you get “mentally ill teenage girl”; switch the pronouns on “manic pixie dreamgirl” and you get “asshole”.

Author Kameron Hurley, writing at A Dribble of Ink, speaks directly to Rosenbaum’s problem:

I often tell people that I’m the biggest self-aware misogynist I know.

I was writing a scene last night between a woman general and the man she helped put on the throne. I started writing in some romantic tension, and realized how lazy that was. There are other kinds of tension.

I made a passing reference to sexual slavery, which I had to cut.  I nearly had him use a gendered slur against her. I growled at the screen. He wanted to help save her child… no. Her brother? Ok.  She was going to betray him. OK. He had some wives who died… ug. No. Close advisors? Friends? Maybe somebody  just… left him?

Even writing about societies where there is very little sexual violence, or no sexual violence against women, I find myself writing in the same tired tropes and motivations. “Well, this is a bad guy, and I need something traumatic to happen to this heroine, so I’ll have him rape her.” That was an actual thing I did in the first draft of my first book, which features a violent society where women outnumber men 25-1.  Because, of course, it’s What You Do.

Hurley’s quote above is part of a superb article challenging what she calls the “women, cattle and slaves” narrative. Really, you have to read the whole thing, but I’m going to quote some additional choice bits to encourage you to do just that:

I’m going to tell you a story about llamas. It will be like every other story you’ve ever heard about llamas: how they are covered in fine scales; how they eat their young if not raised properly; and how, at the end of their lives, they hurl themselves – lemming-like- over cliffs to drown in the surging sea. They are, at heart, sea creatures, birthed from the sea, married to it like the fishing people who make their livelihood there.

Every story you hear about llamas is the same. You see it in books: the poor doomed baby llama getting chomped up by its intemperate parent. On television: the massive tide of scaly llamas falling in a great, majestic herd into the sea below. In the movies: bad-ass llamas smoking cigars and painting their scales in jungle camouflage.

Because you’ve seen this story so many times, because you already know the nature and history of llamas, it sometimes shocks you, of course, to see a llama outside of these media spaces. The llamas you see don’t have scales. So you doubt what you see, and you joke with your friends about “those scaly llamas” and they laugh and say, “Yes, llamas sure are scaly!” and you forget your actual experience.

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Half the world is full of women, but it’s rare to hear a narrative that doesn’t speak of women as the people who have things done to them instead of the people who do things. More often, women are talked about as a man’s daughter. A man’s wife.

I just watched a reality TV show about Alaska bush pilots where all of the pilots get these little intros about their families and passions, but the single female pilot is given the one-line “Pilot X’s girlfriend.” It wasn’t until they broke up, in season 2, that she got her own intro. Turns out she’s been in Alaska four times longer than the other pilot and hunts, fishes, and climbs ice walls, in addition to being an ace pilot.

But the narrative was “cannibalistic llama,” and our eyes glazed over, and we stopped seeing her as anything else.

This is how rocket scientist Yvonne Brill gets an obituary about her beef stroganoff, later edited to wonder how she could be both a great mom and a rocket scientist. How a software engineering professor of my acquaintance gets introduced as “she makes great tiramisu” while her male colleagues are being introduced by their specialties in the field.

Nearly forty years ago, Samuel R. Delany was writing about the same struggle. In a long thoughtful essay from 1975 (not available on line) called “The Scorpion Garden,” (in The Straits of Messina, a Delany essay collection), he says:

Having constructed a scene in a book where a man and a woman must have a physical fight and the woman win, rereading it three days later I notice that I have written the whole six pages without a single declarative sentence beginning with the pronoun She followed by an active predicate! (Needless to say, there are many such sentences that begin with He.) All through the scene, although he occasionally reels from her blow or the like, she never actually hits him.

If deeply committed writers have been struggling with these problems for the nearly 40 years since 1975, and are still struggling, what does that say about everyday discourse? Media representation? Comparable storytelling issues involving people of color, disabled people, any marginalized group?

I am deeply grateful that Rosenbaum, Hurley, and Delany (and many others) are traversing this road and sharing their obstacles with us. Seeing how hard they work to defy the omnipresent cultural narrative is inspiring. Embedded cultural expectations are not permanent, but they last an awfully long time, and I believe it’s effectively impossible to see from inside the culture whether change is happening or not. But if it is, these are the people helping make it happen.

Breakfast: Not Sexier than Before, but Funnier than Ever

Laurie and Debbie say:

Having a product called “Sexcereal” is funny enough.
Seriously promoting it as being full of foods that make you sexy is funny enough.
Having different versions of it for men and women is funny enough.

But honestly, the folks behind Sexcereal are in the wrong business. Hollywood pays big bucks for people who can be this hilarious:

Once upon a time, not that long ago, before there were drugstores on every block, when you wanted something to nourish or heal you, you simply walked into the woods and gathered the plants, herbs and spices that after thousands of years of human trial and error proved their medicinal worth. That’s the purpose of food and that’s what SEXCEREAL is – a food with purpose.

Forty years or more ago, the mother of one of Debbie’s friends used to say that in the days of hunter-gatherer societies, between harvesting food and avoiding predators, people probably weren’t thinking about multiple orgasms. Besides, we thought the purpose of food was nutrition and satisfying taste.

It isn’t clear that the makers of SEXCEREAL know this, but the history of breakfast cereal is tied to the history of promoting sexual abstinence. In the late 19th and early 20th century, men whose names are still household names today (Graham, Kellogg and Post) created corn flakes and grape nuts as part of a health food craze tied to the Seventh Day Adventists, who are also celibacy advocates.

While the name of our cereal, SEXCEREAL, may be utterly progressive to some, shocking to the more puritanical, SEXCEREAL is really just a simple throwback food product and concept. We did our research, collected the ingredients and put them together in a pouch and created a cereal that nourishes you both north and south of the equator.

*ahem* “north and south of the equator”?

The name of the cereal is … well, not subtle, but neither progressive nor shocking. Perhaps “silly.”

SEXCEREAL is the world’s first gender-based cereal, because men and women are biologically different and therefore often require different nutrients to keep us functioning well where and when it counts the most.

Men and women may be biologically different in some minimal ways, but nutrition is not one of them. As we’ve written before, even major worldwide sports organizations have been forced to admit that there is no scientific way to tell who is a man and who is a woman.

SEXCEREAL is also a cereal-celebration of love and intimacy, the ties that bind, which is a great soundtrack to any breakfast. How often can you celebrate just protein and fiber? Of course, with SEXCEREAL, you can do that as well.

Do they mean a soundtrack to breakfast like Meg Ryan’s famous faked-orgasm-in-restaurant scene in When Harry Met Sally? Or the cheerful crunch of two people preparing for the big sex event? Or are we “celebrating protein and fiber” in the sense that Catholics celebrate mass?

Don’t buy SEXCEREAL; nominate their copywriters for comedy awards.

Thanks to Robert Gonzales at io9 for the pointer.