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A Rant about Gender in Fiction

According to an article I read yesterday, men behave a certain way, and women behave a certain way. When, as a reader of fiction, you feel a character does not behave appropriately, it’s probably a gender problem.

For example, if a male character wants a relationship more than sex, or if he shows an interest or ability to care for a child, he’s acting like a woman in a man’s body. If a female character wants sex more than a relationship, or if she cares about legacy more than the immediate gratification of dealing with children, she’s acting like a man in a woman’s body. The writer offers no evidence–from theory, practice, or anywhere else–to support her views.

I wish I could laugh at stuff like this. It’s stereotypical crap. Unfortunately, a lot of people accept it as fact. One of the commenters says that although she can’t think of examples to support the writer’s view, the article feels right. Of course, when you go by feel without ever checking in with real life, it’s easy to convince oneself that reality is as it seems. Ah, the power of fiction.

As much as I disagree with these prescriptivist assumptions about gender, what the writer gets right is that readers, editors, and publishers have expectations about how characters may behave in regard to gender. And if men are limited to certain actions and feelings, the options become more limited as other aspects of identity are revealed. For a character to embody a multi-faceted identity (gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, religion, socioeconomic class, and more) apparently risks overwhelming a reader. To avoid problems, some writers follow the rules by keeping their characters simple. They anticipate readers, editors, and publishing asking things like, “Why does the character’s sexual orientation (or race or religion or whatever) matter?” So they willingly create characters with only a few aspects of identity to avoid conflict. This practice resembles that of self-identified “friends of diversity” who prefer to focus on one or two categories rather than acknowledging how complexities of identity play out in an individual.

What’s interesting to me is that gender is always identified in fiction. As Phyllis Burke has noted (and many others, to be sure), it’s the first detail announced about a newborn baby. So this cultural expectation extends to our fiction and, for most readers, includes a few other related rules. If the character’s identity is not developed in any other way, that’s not a problem, but without gender, the character cannot be considered a person. Heterosexuality is presumed unless the character is in a same-sex relationship, which, in a world with only two genders, should be easy enough to determine. However, if there’s a conflict between the character’s gender identity and what others perceive hir to be, that “problem” must be addressed in the narrative.

The real problem, in my experience, is the closed-mindedness that keeps these cultural expectations in place and not only allows but encourages us to perpetuate such a limited world view in our fiction. It’s true not just of books, but also movies, TV, theatre, videogames, and other cultural texts that we believe or, at least, accept.

In this environment, developing as a writer has been difficult. My characters are perceived as men and women, but their gender identities are more complex, and their desires for sex and relationships are not easily tied to their perceived genders. My stories are sort of “about” that but not necessarily about that. These characters and their stories are based on what I know from living my life and talking to other people about their lives. This nuanced world view is the real normal, whereas compartmentalizing identity is strange, and becomes stranger to me every day.

I understand the need for narrative economy. The mind can only hold so much info at once, so fiction can’t reflect everything. But we’re smarter readers than is assumed by the folks who make tons of money from sell us stories. I’m tired of reading about characters who are paper-doll versions of real people (exception: satire). I won’t write that crap. As a barely published writer, it’s hard to know if I’m not getting published because of the content of my writing or because of a lack of quality. But I’d rather fail at reaching a lofty goal than succeed at hitting a target inches away.

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3 Responses

  1. Wow brilliant. You’ve articulated this nicely!

    I’m writing a novel with a trans character and several queer characters and I’ve found it challenging. I wonder sometimes if I’m overburdening my character with too much *other*, or if, indeed, the burden is on the reader (which I don’t want too much of either!)

    • Thanks. I try to establish “normal” in the world of the story (or novel) and then get response from readers. I also tend to avoid much physical description so the emphasis is on what characters think, feel, and do. Based on my very limited pool of readers, it seems to work. I’m interested to know your approach for your novel. How’s it working for you?

      • Mine is very short on physical description. It’s even kind of location-less,as much as possible. I want sort of a universal feel to it, so that the reader sets the location themselves almost, and implants my characters into their comfort zone.

        But it’s the first thing I’ve ever written that’s more than a couple thousand words, so I’m finding it tough just to carry everything through consistently.

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