Friday, July 26, 2013

Two X Chromosomes

Gender is, for me personally, a non-issue. I am biologically a female, but that is not as big a part of my personality as the fact that I’m an introvert, that I’m in the process of growing up in a safe neighborhood, and that I love math. I am an individual first and a girl second.

So it is in many books I read. Intelligent, independent, competent, complex female characters take action and bear the consequences and are treated by their authors as sentient beings - as real people. So it should be.

Some other authors have argued these points more eloquently and concisely than I could. Therefore I shall frame my thoughts on gender issues in books as a response to them.

I refer you to Shannon Hale’s post (from a long time ago), Why do you write strong female characters?:
I love my girl characters. I think they're different from one another, have various strengths and weaknesses like anybody does. I do think they're strong in their own ways. But I never make the decision "I'm going to write strong females in my books," a sort of inorganic goal to turn a character away from her natural tendencies of weakness into a statement of girl power. Yet that's what that question seems to imply.

So usually the way I answer the question is to say, "I think I'm writing realistic female characters."
…which is precisely the right way to go about it. When I was reading the second Princess Academy book I was gratified to note how all the girls had different personalities and how real they seemed, how like an actual group of friends.

More from the esteemed Ms. Hale:
While writing I'd decided that sexism didn't even exist in my fantasy worlds and I never had to wrestle with it. In my worlds, girls do stuff and nobody thinks two things about it.

But it turns out that my books aren't published in my fantasy worlds. They're published in this world. And people still do think two things about it, or three or four. And I'm surprised. But...but...didn't we already get over this years ago? Don't we already agree that girls are interesting and diverse, as are boys?

Are "strong female characters" really so rare that we note them, call them out as extraordinary?
Two things that stood out to me:

1. “I’d decided that sexism didn't even exist in my fantasy worlds” - I have done the same in GW, through measures such as turning titles like “Lord” and “sir” gender-neutral and fudging with last name inheritance (kids take the last name of the parent whose birthday they’re closer to). Since I can, I have also decreed that in GW, sexuality and race are non-issues.

2. “didn't we already get over this years ago? Don’t we already agree that girls are interesting and diverse, as are boys?” I thought so too. But then again, Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859, and creationists still exist.

Now I’d like to point you toward a post by PC Wrede entitled Dragons and Gender Bias…Huh?:
...most stories are not allegories, and the vast majority of characters in a non-allegorical, realistic piece of fiction are not going to work if they are portrayed first as a member of a group (“a typical ___”), and only second as an individual with whatever strengths and weaknesses, quirks and phobias, that particular individual happens to have.

And I would argue that regardless of what traits or attributes a character has – race, size, ethnicity, sex, age, hair color, etc. – what shapes them most is the interaction between their own personality and the attitude of the culture they grow up in toward their particular traits, because that pretty much determines both the way the characters think of themselves (and others) and the ways they expect other people to think and behave.

I don’t have to worry about the problem implied in the first paragraph - of creating a “typical” character - because my characters usually come to me on their own, first, and then I have to find a world for them after. If my characters were not individuals, I would not care about them; if I did not care about them, I would not write their stories.

Re: paragraph two: so I have these individual characters, and I've found a world that can hold them more or less adequately. “Adequately”, not “perfectly”, because it’s on the edges that conflict happens. The conflict differentiates among different aspects of a character - if I’m getting too vague, do tell me - I mean, sometimes I have characters whom I use in multiple settings, and in each one they are slightly different.

My Doppelgangers operate on the same principle. One of the UChicago essay prompts this year is “You are you and your…?” - which I took as a challenge to separate out from one’s identity all external influences. Say that it can be done. Say that I have a soul that is wholly mine. What happens to that soul when put in a different setting?

EAL = soul + safe neighborhood + small immediate family + ...
Vin = soul + early exposure to magic + early vilification for use of magic + ...
Orsolya = soul + irresponsible adult figures + crime-ridden neighborhood + ...

And so on.

Note, please, that in the above equations nowhere is there “being a girl” for me and Orsolya, and no “being a boy” for Vin. Why? I can’t say, simply, that gender doesn't matter - it does, and people still get into arguments about it. But it doesn't matter as much as people sometimes think it does, and it certainly doesn't matter more than a person’s individual traits - whether in real life or in a story.

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Self-deprecating meta-comment: perhaps this post was not really necessary. I assume that most reasonable people, and most people reading this blog, accept that female characters should have as nuanced/complex portrayals as male characters. However, writing this helped me clarify my thoughts, which for me justifies its existence.

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Small case study: my WIP, Orsolya. In it, Orsolya (female) does a lot of rescuing of Nikodim (male). Is it a gender-reversed rescue story in which the gutsy girl saves the lad in distress? Is it a romance in which a headstrong young woman does anything for her love?

No and hell no. It’s the story of how character A, who is fanatical about duty and absolutely does not want to fail the people who have given her a chance at being important, gives character B, who is sheltered even before being kidnapped, a kick in the backside spurring him to grow up and take responsibility already, and how those two opposite personalities grow to complement one another. I could reverse the genders, make them the same gender, and it wouldn't change the bones of the story.

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I can't write a post that touches on gender issues without including Mulan music.

Short Hair - Mulan OST

I claim this as my theme song.

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By the way, next week band camp starts. I'll try to do two posts a week as long as I can, but as the school year gets into full swing I may not be able to.

2 comments:

  1. male or female, it's all just people made of the same stuff to me too. both of the same stuff dreams are made on to bring the bard into the mix/ I, as a reader, love reading the stories of strong characters whether they are male or female, i don't think it takes an extra effort for the writer to make a woman exceptional in their story, because there *are* exceptional women in real life, as there are men- and i don't find that as a reader a strong female lead is something so extraordinary, it's just so very normal that she could be don't you think?

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    1. Yes! Precisely! I know some people who identify strongly with their gender, but honestly it seems like surface stuff to me. Extraordinary people of both genders exist. I guess maybe since girls are in many places encouraged more than boys are to hide the things that make them extraordinary, that's why 'strong female leads' are considered weird?

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