by Kay Holt
Athena’s note: This entry first appeared at Science in My Fiction (SiMF). Like its author, it wears many hats. Kay Holt is the co-founder and editor of Crossed Genres and the founder of SiMF; neither venue needs lengthy introductions. She was also my co-editor for The First Half of the Sky (a collaboration I intend to renew whenever the opportunity arises), so the article is part of the ongoing series in which I showcase the contributors to the anthology. It’s also one more reaction to recent SFWA events that I, among many others, discussed in my previous entry — and equally so to the persistent stone-age level of gender discussions in self-labeled progressive/visionary communities.
When I was a kid, dresses weren’t the problem. I was. Of all the sticks and stones lobbed in my direction, ‘tomboy’ was one of the kindest. I didn’t help my circumstances by refusing to wear pink or pigtails or shoes that went ‘click’ on the sidewalk.
I wasn’t just a no-frills kind of girl. On school picture day, I rocked a pair of boys’ Transformers sandals. There was more to me than met the eye. True, I was born with certain genitals and I wore my hair very, very long until I was an adult. But no matter how hard people tried – and sometimes they tried with fists and guns – nobody was able to convince me that my crotch defined my self.
Girl or boy, gender was an imposition as far as I was concerned. I took to it like I took to a beating: With my guard up and my head down. That is, until I grew up enough to ‘fight like a man’. After that, I started hearing a lot of, “Babe, you have to let the boys win.” Why? “Because if you don’t, some guy’s gonna kill you.”
Those were the stakes. Be a proper girly-girl. Accept your role. Take it. Or else.
Pardon me while I carry on answering that threat of violence with a rude gesture of my own.
Ordinary people say a lot of daft things:
- Gender and sex are the same thing.
- Gender is innate and never changes (or should never change).
- Gender determines sexuality (and it should).
- I’m/she’s a girl, so I/she naturally [fills in the blank like a girl].
- I’m/he’s a boy, so I/he naturally [fills in the blank like a boy].
When called out for telling lies and otherwise embarrassing themselves, they raise the usual defenses:
- I can’t help it; I was brought up this way.
- God says [whatever I say].
- Science says—
GOTCHA! Science says that all humans are far more alike than we are different from each other, regardless of gender, sex, sexuality, race, or [you-name-it]. In unbiased experiments, the binary sexes (female/male) are effectively indistinguishable from each other. There isn’t a lot of research done which includes the entire plurality of gender (or the many sexes), but given that most people fail to even recognize more than two genders, my educated guess is that science wouldn’t be able to find a significant difference between straight, white, cis-gendered men and asexual, multi-racial, intersex androgynous people. Because there is nothing to find except IDIC.
Writers are human, though, so they sometimes make this noise:
- My story’s not about that.
- My characters just formed [white/straight/]cis-gendered.
- I write for kids, and this ‘subject matter’ is too mature.
- This is historical fiction, and gender wasn’t a ‘thing’ in the past.
To which I must answer:
- Maybe not, but while opportunity is leaning on the doorbell, you’re hiding under the bed.
- Who’s in charge, here? You, or the figments of your imagination?
- Bullshit. Kids are swimming in this ‘subject matter’ while you’re refusing to write them something potentially life-saving.
- BWAHAHAHAHA! (Do better research.)
These are usually met with hand-wringing and sham-sincerity: “I’m afraid of screwing it up. I don’t want to offend anyone.”
Tough luck, Pinocchio, because, first of all, there is such a thing as offense by omission. Secondly, you’re better off telling the truth: You can’t handle critique, and you don’t want to learn. Finally, if your writing never challenges convention or tradition, it’s probably not important. Deal with that.
This sort of careless writing and non-thinking is why science fiction and fantasy fans can’t have nice things, like a woman Doctor Who. And why the first book in a certain bestselling series wasn’t a stand-alone titled Hermione Granger Kills The Dark Lord With Her Brain. And why writers are still falling over themselves trying to write the next Twilight, of all crap.
Because when we reach for a hero, we keep reaching until we find a dude, and when we need a victim or a dummy, we grab a chick (and put her in the fridge). Those characters who don’t fit the cis-gender binary are ignored completely… Until somebody needs a truly sinister villain. Or a corpse. Then it’s like a pride parade breaks out on the page.
Fortunately, there are some quick and easy shortcuts to avoid being a gender jerk in fiction:
I lied; there are no shortcuts. Educate yourself. Read stories you’re too timid to write. Read blog posts and articles by people whose very identities challenge your notions about what is ‘normal’ and ‘right’. Get uncomfortable. Spend some quality time with a mirror and a microscope. If you examine yourself honestly and find nothing about who you are that’s unconventional, please cast your likeness as the villain in your next story.
You might win an award for giving everybody the creeps.
The Other Half of the Sky contributor series:
The Hard Underbelly of the Future: Sue Lange’s Uncategorized
Shimmering Kaleidoscopes: Cat Rambo’s Near + Far [reprinted in SF Signal]
Ancestors Watch Over Her: Aliette de Bodard’s Space Operas [reprinted in World SF]
Bloodchildren, an Anthology of the Octavia Butler Scholars, edited by Nisi Shawl