Laurie Toby Edison

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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.

One Response to “Switching Pronouns, Cannibalistic Llamas, and Other Gender Assumptions”

  1. Cru Says:

    This. Yes. Thank you.

    A while back The Female Character Flowchart was making the rounds, showing all the paths to various female characters in film. I mainly saw it discussed in terms of the nearly universal shallow and two dimensional representation of women in film. You had a slightly different take. You noted how the wide variety of stereotypes showed significant improvement in the different kinds of roles women could play.

    What you have written here seems to me to be in some sense the other side of that improvement, this part that is so hard to shift. It seems so unavoidably personal and difficult. Perhaps that’s why I haven’t seen it written about so much, at least not this clearly and directly. I really like what you pulled together here.

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