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Notes from the Labyrinth
Unobtainium and Dragons' Bones
Groundwork for discussions of sexual politics 
25th-Apr-2007 10:14 am
ws: ophelia-waterhouse
This past weekend at Penguicon 5.0, I was on a panel called "Limited Female Roles In Fantasy, Comics, and SF" with Elizabeth Bear (matociquala to y'all), John Scalzi, The Ferret, and M. Keaton. It was a good panel--don't get me wrong about that--but I felt, and I think perhaps other panelists did, too, a certain amount of frustration in trying to define what it was we were talking about.

I know why this is. It's because sexual politics is incredibly complicated and full of nebulous and subjective ideas. And because in trying to talk about sexual roles we are inevitably stuck in the position of fish trying to talk about water. It's hard to step back from something so immersive, hard to define things that we've been shaped by since we were born.

I've had this experience before, at a variety of cons (and, yes, that does include WisCon), and it occurred to me this morning that maybe it would be worthwhile to try to lay out some of the fundamentals in a blog post, just to get all this definitional nonsense in one place.


"Sex" vs. "Gender"

Sex is biology. Gender is culture.

But wait! It's not that simple. (Of course it isn't that simple. Nothing about sexual politics is simple.)

"Sex" is talking about the equipment a person is born with. Male. Female.

... Intersexed.

Sex isn't a binary any more than gender is, although American culture traditionally wants to make it a binary goddammit, thus causing all sorts of problems for those who happen to be born in-between.

But wait! It isn't even that simple.

Transsexual people, people who choose to go through SRS, are making choices on the level of sex, not gender. Biology is not destiny; sex is neither binary nor immutable.

"Essentialism" in the context of sexual politics refers to the idea that there is some essential, irreducible difference between men and women. As will be obvious from the foregoing, I consider this a deeply problematic stance.

So if "sex" is biology--and all its complications--what is "gender"?

"Gender" is what human societies do with "sex," how expectations of behavior are influenced by perceptions of biology. Hence the term "gender roles."

Gender isn't a binary either. There's a kind of loose, largely unexamined consensus in middle-class white American society about how men and women behave. (Men are from Mars, remember, and women are from Venus.) And cultural hegemony means that that consensus gets applied widely.

But that doesn't make the consensus true.

I think it's misia who pointed out that for an increasing minority of the population, the proper gender tag is "geek" first and "male" or "female" second. I am one of those people myself. There are other sub-cultures in which performance of gender likewise does not map onto the (spurious) binary of sex--hence the terms "butch" and "femme," just for one example. So when you say men communicate in a particular way, or women are drawn to a particular type of story, my immediate instinct is to make you specify. Which men? Which women? Because generalizations leave a heck of a lot of people out in the cold.

We're all created equal, but that doesn't mean we're created alike.

The Vicious Circle

Women have limited roles in sf (print and media) because:
(a.) That's what audiences want.
(b.) Women aren't as interesting as men.
(c.) Artists are products of their culture, and have difficulty thinking outside the box.
(d.) Men are doing it on purpose to keep women oppressed.
(e.) The genre is traditionally male-dominated, and its conventions and tropes leave very little room for telling women's stories.
(f.) SF is always social allegory, and this trend is an accurate reflection of reality.

All of these answers are wrong.

Some are less wrong than others; b. and d. are both pernicious nonsense; f. is a cop-out, as is a.; c. and e. are partially true, but ignore the work already being done, by both artists and audience members of all genders, to change that.

You'll also notice that cause and effect are hopelessly jumbled. Individual artistic expressions cannot be separated from the culture at large; artists are influenced by culture, and the culture is in turn influenced by artists. It's complicated and messy, and it's impossible, past a certain point, to disentangle the synergistic feedback loop between artists and their culture. Again, generalizations just get you in trouble.

And My Point Is ...

If you're in this kind of discussion, whether on a panel, on the internet, or at the dinner table, do your damnedest to define your terms. (If you're on a panel, I'd even recommend trying to do this ahead of time.) Try to use words that say what you mean as precisely as possible. Specify what you're talking about, what you mean by particular overdetermined words. This ensures that everyone's talking about the same thing and has the happy side-effect of focusing the discussion.

Never trust a generalization you can't see the back of.
25th-Apr-2007 05:29 pm (UTC)
*+faves for future reference*

I tend to avoid sf with guys in the lead role, just because I never seem to find ones that don't fall victim to Action Hero Syndrome.
25th-Apr-2007 05:48 pm (UTC) - So...you are going to WIscon, right?
And you're going to do a panel on this stuff, right? (Nag nag nag) I would love to hear what you have to say further.

I have such a love-hate thing with SF/F. I actually swore off SF for many years after coming to see that genre as a boy's-only club. I kept reading fantasy because women at least had a place at the table there, even if sometimes it isn't exactly always a revolutionary or progressive place, lol. And sometimes they even let the gay people in (older) fantasy stories! Briefly, but they had a walk-on part at least.

Sometimes I think SF/F is getting better in terms of gender/sex/preference issues. I feel encouraged that I am running across authors who have characters all over the map and yet don't make that a heavy theme of their books . . .gender and preference diversity just IS part of the character pantheon, like hair color. Several of you that did that Penguicon 5.0 panel make me feel encouraged and I have several of those folk's books on my keeper shelf. :-)

Then I will read some awful SF book (because Mr. Neanderthal is speaking at a local con) and I just want to turn my back forever on a genre that heartily supports June Cleaver in crotchless panties as the only suitable role for women in SF. And glbt people? Don't ask, don't tell.

So I love it . . .I hate it. I pick up three or four SF/F books because I love them, then I run over to literary fiction the next month to escape what I hate in SF/F. *sigh*

I keep hoping that there is a real "movement" brewing among younger SF/F authors, something like the New Wave SF writers in the late sixties early seventies but also completely different.

25th-Apr-2007 09:01 pm (UTC) - Re: So...you are going to WIscon, right?
Have you already read MZ Bradley, Octavia Butler, Storm Constantine, Sheri S. Tepper, Lois McMaster Bujold and Joan Vinge? All SF authors who did a good job with playing with gender stereotypes, some of whom also introduced LGBT or pansexual themes.

Truepenny, great job explaining the difference between sex and gender and the fact that M/F is a false binary in a very clear, concise way, and thank you for mentioning intersex. I have a couple of close friends who are intersexed and it still seems to be this great unknown phenomenon even though it's amazingly common.
27th-Apr-2007 01:25 pm (UTC) - Re: So...you are going to WIscon, right?
I have read some of the above and I actually have collected ALL of Tepper's works (even the one's well out of print!). But I will look for Storm Constantine (what a GREAT name). And I must read more Bujold! She is even local, she is almost my neighbor, lol, but I have somehow missed reading her work. It's funny how one can just whiff on good writers sometimes.

Thanks for the heads up on more books to read!
20th-Dec-2007 09:05 pm (UTC) - Re: So...you are going to WIscon, right?
I had to google intersexed to find out what it was. I get the gist of it but the sites I did read seemed to leave it up in the air as to where to draw the line between male/intersexed/female. Yep generalizations are to be questioned under a hot lamp. Sex gender? Nature nuture? They are so intertwined as to be inseperable. Trying to define them seems like it would make for good philosophical debate to no apparent end. I am a man and I like women. In life and in my reading I am not very interested in what they are sexually as I am in how they treat me and others. Do they tell the truth or do they lie. What do they lie about and what motivates them to lie. Do they lie because they are theives that don't want to get caught or do they lie to keep from hurting someones feelings. Are their lies to protect others feeling so bad that there is no point in asking their opinion or are they reasonable? Do they help the helpless or do they help themselves. About the only time I care about sex is when it is a primary motivator and or tool behind their actions.
20th-Dec-2007 09:17 pm (UTC) - Re: So...you are going to WIscon, right?
If you're "a man and I like women", then obviously you do care about sex, or you'd call yourself pansexual.

"the sites I did read seemed to leave it up in the air as to where to draw the line between male/intersexed/female."
That's because there *is* no good place to draw the line, and ultimately the best thing to do is to let the intersexed person choose what sex, if any, to identify with.
21st-Dec-2007 08:32 pm (UTC) - Re: So...you are going to WIscon, right?
Of course I care about sex. I never said I didn't. I just don't care much about sexual activities of others. Real or fictional. I would never tell someone male, female or anywhere in between what gender they should have sex with. I would no more try that than I would tolerate someone telling me what gender I should have sex with. Frankly that's the problem with the world in general. Too many people think they know what is best for everyone else.
25th-Apr-2007 06:05 pm (UTC)
The panel at Penguicon was a fascinating panel, even though there were a lot of tangents. *rummages through her notes* I didn't take quite as many as I would have liked, because the discussion got so fast and furious. What I really thought interesting was the bit (I think you said it? or was it Bear?) about women and women's choices not being the normal stuff of traditional heroic fantasy/sf. It has been very true for my experience of reading -- it seems to me that only a very few books in the genre actually have women who have experienced motherhood in the heroic role (Sarah Zettel's "Fool's War" and Bujold's "Paladin of Souls" are the two that leap to mind as having characters I could identify with, as a mother/older woman).
25th-Apr-2007 08:00 pm (UTC)
I have a novel in progress with two male protagonists. At one point I considered the possibility of making one of them female. One of the characters is the "straight man" of the piece and the other is more colorful--he has a good heart, but he's egotistical, obnoxious and amoral.

I realized I could make the first character female, but not the second. Because while people will tolerate--if not exactly like--obnoxious egotism in a male character, they detest it in a female character. I don't know why! It isn't fair! But I've found it's much harder to create interesting female characters than interesting male characters, because many traits that are accepted in men are despised in women. I wish it wasn't so.
27th-Apr-2007 01:30 pm (UTC) - You might be surprised . . .
I think some of this is changing. I really do. I think readers are FAR more accepting of traits that used to be seen as primarily male in female characters, including egotism. And amoral female characters, too.

You might be pleasantly surprised, if you write it the way you want it without worrying about such things, to discover that many readers love the unusual and will accept your "atypical" female characters.
25th-Apr-2007 10:16 pm (UTC)
Very interesting post; I like it.

For me, I don't care what the sex/gender of the main characters are as long as they have strong, distinctive personalities and are flawed in some way; give me a character I can relate to, whether with like or distaste.

I am currently on the fourth book of Michelle West's Sun Sword series and she has very strong female characters in her tale. (male characters as well) I have found that over the years, I am drawn more to women SF/F authors than men. (though there are several male authors that I do enjoy) I'm not sure if it's because more female authors write character driven pieces, (as opposed to action driven), than men or not. Maybe a generalization, (my bad!), but much of my personal experience. I always love a good SF/F LitFic. :)
30th-Apr-2007 11:39 pm (UTC)
Robert J. Sawyer is a good example of a male science fiction author whose books are more character and concept driven than action oriented. And his Hominid series was very much about gender assumptions.
1st-May-2007 02:36 am (UTC)
Thank you for the tip! I'm always, always looking for a great read. Hominid is now on my 'to read' list.
27th-Apr-2007 05:47 pm (UTC) - It also helps...
if the convention doesn't change the scope of the panel topic away from what you prepared for--that added to the general confusion. You did an excellent job in summarizing the core of the discussion and presenting it here (although I still think you got girl-cooties all over my genre and H. Harrington is a dude).

All of this a roundabout way of giving me an excuse to say that I had a wonderful time discussing this and other things at the Con and I greatly appreciated it. Hopefully we can do it again sooner rather than later. Thank you.

28th-Apr-2007 11:57 am (UTC)
Gee this sounds familar....Well said!
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