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Gender’s Giving Sci-Fi and Fantasy the COOTIES!

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.

Kay Holt

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.

Recommended reading:

Baggage Check” by Shay Darrach
FINE a comic by Rhea Ewing
Anita Sarkeesian’s Feminist Frequency

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

14 Responses to “Gender’s Giving Sci-Fi and Fantasy the COOTIES!”

  1. delagar says:

    So much win here.

    I was going to quote my favorite bits, but I kept finding new favorite bits.

    <3 <3 <3 !

  2. green_knight says:

    My writing took a turn for the better once I realised that my brain reaches for certain defaults: male protagonist, renaissance-ish setting. I used to accept that as ‘this is what the story is’. Once I started questioning I found many more layers of inspiration. Turns out that my brain *is* capable of telling more varied stories and that the initial flash of inspiration is just a placeholder for the people who are *really* involved. Who knew?

  3. jose says:

    I thought the use of the words “cis-gendered” and “trans-gendered” implicitly accepted innate, inherent differences between men and women, e.g. “I was born with a female brain”. Yet you say the binary is effectively indistinguishable. Those two ideas don’t go together.

  4. Athena says:

    Jose, I’m not the author of this essay but I will give an opinion wearing primarily my neurobiologist’s hat. Brains cannot be distinguished by biological gender (however you define it: chromosomally, anatomically, hormonally — bearing in mind that at least in the last two categories there are no binaries but a continuous spectrum). I think cis/trans generally refers to how people feel with/about their own body/brain/mind in relation to their assigned gender (this is also a continuum). The issue is how internal and external perceptions translate to social customs and policies.

  5. Tigerpetals says:

    Yes! Death threats…I have a variety of reactions to them, but they all include hatred.

  6. […] Athena Andreadis points out that dealing with things like the recent gender and race idiocies in SFF and cleaning up the messes made by (mostly male) others is why there are so few perceived outstanding women in whatever field and why the women who are there are often ignored and dismissed, when their anger makes men uncomfortable. Great post, complete with reference to Virginia Woolf’s essay Three Guineas, a piece which I’ve always liked and which has attracted a lot of megative criticism it IMO doesn’t deserve. Athena Andreadis also published this great essay by Kay Holt entitled “Giving SF and fantasy the cooties”. […]

  7. Barkeron says:

    I remember watching a segment on a fairly popular pop-science magazine (well, infotainment magazine if you’re honest) that reported on Recent Scientific Discoveries(TM) proving a high concentration of oxytocin in a fetus promotes the development of the logical-mathematical parts of the brain/intelligence, therefore mathematicians and physicists have more “feminine” brains. Mind. Boggling.

    Since it got mentioned, any words on the internumbskulls’ reaction to Tropes vs. Women?

  8. Athena says:

    I wrote a bit about the gendering of brain by pundits in That Shy, Elusive Rape Particle. Like all hormones, oxytocin has many functions, although most have been tested in rodents whose hormonal wiring is (repeat after me) radically different from that of humans. But it’s funny how factoids (or folkloric non-facts) get shifted to argue in favor of the status quo — aka women’s inferiority. Anne Fausto-Sterling wrote whole books about this.

    I don’t know what is going on with Tropes vs. Women in the larger context. The SFWA is still pondering long-term decisions (to be fair, it is going through the 2-year change of leadership, in addition to the difficulty of the issues themselves).

  9. jose says:

    Thank you Athena.

  10. Christopher Phoenix says:

    Thanks for sharing this excellent article, Athena, you couldn’t have picked a better editor for The Other Half of the Sky. This gets to the core of the issue, we are all basically humans, our abilities and personalities are not determined by our gender/race/whatever, and a status quo that says otherwise is a societal construct- and a harmful one. Nothing more.

    I don’t think human society can truly thrive until the concept of a “person” becomes all-inclusive, of everyone, with all our differences. Especially if we hope to meet and communicate with other intelligences in the galaxy, or to stretch the definition of “human” by using genetic engineering to adapt ourselves to other planets.

    And, someone who doesn’t have the curiosity to explore characters who break from societal norms isn’t going to be writing ground-breaking (or endurable) stories of any genera.

  11. Athena says:

    I can’t agree more about my choice of co-editor; the rest of it as well!

  12. Walden2 says:

    This quote:

    “Finally, if your writing never challenges convention or tradition, it’s probably not important. Deal with that.”

    Reminds me Groucho Marx’s comment about how if a comedian isn’t offending someone, he isn’t saying anything of importance. I know his idea of offending is rather different from what the author is saying, but it still comes down to you can play it safe or you can be truly meaningful.

  13. Walden2 says:

    This new novel could be interesting (and relevant to this article), especially in regards to one of the main characters:

  14. Lauren says:

    I was surprised to find one day that a character I had written, but not really thought all that hard about because he wasn’t a main character, presented himself to me as black, and also as a love interest of the main character. As a white woman, (and a novice writer) this is probably only surprising because of the realm of my own experience, but I think it’s interesting that he very suddenly took on a race and identity that I hadn’t necessarily planned on. That said, I write in a world where gender and race aren’t important, or not as important as actions, and can’t stop someone from achieving something, and so my heroine is both feminine and capable. I’m enjoying exploring the balance. I haven’t really tried to make a big deal out of either gender or race in the narrative because I don’t want it to be a big deal in the world of the story, no one assumes that just because she’s a woman she can’t do something. (hey, it’s my fantasy!) I think Hermione is also both feminine and capable, btw, and I would love to read a book where she is the main character!