Monday, January 21, 2013

Baffled by Gender

At Arisia this weekend I went to two panels where the topic of Gender was discussed.

I admit I bailed on the first one:  I was feeling guilty because I wasn't at the reading for someone in my Writers' Group. When I found the panel was not very informative, I ducked out to go to the reading.

I went to the second panel in part because Cecilia Tan would be on it. I've read some of her work, and have attended her panels and readings at past sf conventions. I have a lot of respect for her.

Here is the panel description, provided as a quote in case the link disappears:
Beyond Binary: Exploring Gender Via SF/Fantasy — Literature, Panel — 1hr 15min — Paine (2)
When words can take you to the outer limits of space and far-flung fantastic lands, why should so many cultures share the same gender definitions (and oppressions) as we have in the present-day US? How has SF/F given us a different (and hopefully better) perspective on defining gender, and where is it falling short? What are some examples of literature that do a good job in exploring or addressing gender issues of our real world? What are some things we haven't seen yet but would like to?
Dash, Greer Gilman, Julia Rios (m), Cecilia Tan
I could think of two science fiction books that I read in the 1980's that would apply to this topic. The first was the genderless humanoids in Ursula K.LeGuin's The Left Hand of Darkness. The second was a set of stories by John Varley. One of the stories started with a boy meeting a woman on a train. Later he calls his mother and tells her he doesn't want to go through with previous plans. I remember the mother's response was something like, "After I stayed up all night convincing myself it would be nice to have my daughter back, you tell me that now you don't want to go back to being female?"

I was used to stories about people being able to change gender willy-nilly. That is not at all new. I do think that Varley's characters had the advantage of more advanced medicine to accomplish this than people do currently.

Back in the 1990's, a coworker of mine was in a weekly role-playing game. He told me about a character who had ended up inside a body of the opposite sex. He then had to explain that it was a bad thing, because I couldn't understand that.

There may be something lacking in my imagination, because when I imagine waking up one day as a man, I imagine myself thinking, "Oh, this is fun." Being a woman is fun too. I don't see much importance either way. Use what you've got.

On the other hand, Greer Gilman admired that response in Virginia Wolf's character Orlando, so maybe they don't disapprove of that attitude.

I raised my hand and asked the panel what they thought of The Left Hand of Darkness and of the John Varley stories. They forgot about the John Varley, which would have been a lot more apropos, and talked about the LeGuin. Greer Gilman gave a useful summary of the story and the mechanics of the gender/sexual functioning of the aliens, most of which I had forgotten. One audience member provided the information that LeGuin has revised her thinking on the issue and updated it in another work.

Years ago, I remember my father commenting on Virginia Wolf's writing, saying that he thought her characterizations of men were like a little girl's conception of men and not what men were really like. He said there wasn't any difference between men and women, and I believed him. Since then, people have told me that's not true.

After it was over, I still didn't understand what they were talking about.

My trouble with this panel and with the one previously is that there was a discussion of Gender without a definition of what they meant by "Gender".

I was reminded of Groucho Marx describing an early caveman's discovery: After a lot of observation, he noticed a difference between boys and girls:  The girls were wearing skirts and the boys were wearing pants. I heard no better definition than this at the panels, so it is all I have to go by.

If you reject defining Gender based on your physical form, or your function in sex or reproduction, and you reject the much weaker means of defining it based on roles you tend to take in society or areas of interest, or emotional vulnerability, then what are you talking about when you use the word?

If there really isn't anything fixed about gender then why do you care about it?

I don't care about it, so I have a hard time understanding people who do.

Why is it so important that you need to define yourself in terms of being a particular gender, or no gender or as being "non-binary gendered"?

The panelists spoke of a person they knew, with first name "An" or "Ohn". That's how it was pronounced. They didn't spell it. Anyway, "Ohn" rejected all pronouns and wanted to be referred to as simply as "Ohn". As in "Ohn is going to Ohn's house to get Ohn's cat to play with Ohn's friends..." etc.  They were very respectful of this.

I don't get it. I think that Ohn and those like Ohn are being a pain in the neck to all who have to refer to Ohn.  But I'm open to being convinced otherwise.

So please, un-Baffle me.


  1. I think the thing is that some people believe that "gender" as a word is problematic in the way that "race" was or is in some way and consequently not used as much as it used to be. One could say that the word "race" is neutral and only used as a means of classification (i.e. there are 3 races). Alas, it has also been used as means of nationalistic identification (the [insert nation] race) in spite that this goes beyond the original anthropological meaning. It's been used to legally set limits (see any number of laws associated with apartheid and segregated south for example). Finally it's been used to set one's own identity as one gross classification (are you black or not), and more refined in the sense of ethnicity (are you Hispanic or Chicano). Race also means less now in a world where intermarriage and new information about genetic variation makes the notion of 3 races overly simplistic.
    While on some level it doesn't matter, I can see why those on the edges resist the pigeon hole. I mean I'm Hispanic but for the most part I cannot identify with what Univision or Telemundo says I should be or like. I guess for people in a similar situation where what they like culturally/socially/sexually doesn't align with the traditional tracks of those three items for girls or boys might feel similarly; the difference being that for the most part the fact that I don't dance cumbia is not necessarily a stigma.
    In the end the problem is that gender may indeed be meaningless, in which case it would be pointless to use the word, with our without prefixes. If it is to exist at all, it must be that differences between what someone likes culturally/socially is linked to someone's sexuality in some readily apparent fashion.

  2. In Square Dancing, the difference between boys and girls is that one sometimes turns left and the other sometimes turns right. This maintains the symmetry of the dance, and also allows for spontaneous sex changes. Sometimes you're dancing along and just suddenly realize you're a girl (or boy, depending.)

    I like that concept of gender. While I really love being a guy, there are times I feel a little girly. I really think gender is all about bell curves. Girls 'tend' to act one way, and guys another. But every guy has moments when he acts in a 'girly' way. And the entire concept of 'male' and 'female' behavior is so rooted in culture that it's difficult to find many actual norms.

    In writing, what's important is that a character acts consistent within him(her)self. If a young boy, raised in the back streets of Chicago, cries over getting his dress dirty, then he has to have other characteristics to explain why he wears a dress, and why he cares if it gets dirty. Oh, and how he survived wearing dresses in such an environment. It's not that such a boy CAN'T exist, it's that such a boy is so rare as to strain credulity unless properly handled.

  3. I disagree with your father that men and women are basically the same. My experience is that men and women are hard-wired differently and those differences are reflected in cultures and behaviors. For that reason I think that writing cross-gender is difficult.

    Examples: In her books about Bren Cameron (Foreigner, Inheritor, etc.) CJ Cherryh created a male character who never came across as man to me. As a diplomat, he must speak carefully but Bren drinks tea (never has a beer), never swears, even among his own people, has only occasional sexual desires and rarely thinks of sex outside the bedroom, finds violence abhorrent, and generally acts more like a woman than a man.

    I recently read a book by a male author who doesn't get the female character right but the title slips my mind. I did once read a novel by Robert Penn Warren about a girl who is raised as a lady in the ante-bellum South, only to discover upon Daddy's death that she's actually his octoroon daughter and a slave. As his will left no provision for freeing her, she is sold down the river to Mississippi. That sounded like a really interesting premise but, as I read the book, I discovered that the author could not imagine this girl thinking for herself, much less acting on her own behalf in any way. Things happen to her and she accepts them passively. I found the character so unbelievable that I stopped reading about a third of the way through.

    Things used to be simpler: women didn't swear in public and men didn't wear earrings. Some of those lines have blurred. But the hard wiring remains the same.

    1. Your examples show that any character who doesn't have some aggression or ability to think independently is not believable.

      In the first case, the female author is assuming a male character is possibly like her, and creates an inauthentic man.

      In the second case, the male author assumes that women are different and creates an inauthentic woman.

  4. This is interesting: Nepal is now recognizing a "third gender" for those who don't wish to be identified as male or female:

  5. The moderator of the gender panel has this livejournal account of it: