Kameron Hurley, way back when this blog was a baby, was one of the authors willing to write a guest post for me; back then it was about having her debut series finally picked up in the UK. Now, with her fourth novel releasing tomorrow in the UK and the first in a new epic fantasy series, she is back on another of her awesome blog tours – and I highly recommend going through the whole thing, Kameron is such a phenomenal writer, who deserved both her fan-writing awards at the Hugos this year. This time, with an epic fantasy I simply raved about, which does so many interesting and nontraditional things while still embracing a highly traditionalist genre, Kameron is here to talk to us about one of those nontraditional things… her approach to gender. So, without any more suspense, I am honoured to present to you…
Beyond He-Man & She-Ra: Writing Non-Binary Characters by Kameron Hurley
While browsing a flea market not long ago, I sat down to take a rest and found myself watching an old crossover episode of He-Man in which She-Ra makes her first appearance. I’m often amused by the sheer batshit crazy of the old 80’s Hanna-Barbera cartoons, and this one was just as wild as I remembered, with folks with swords flinging themselves between planets, people turning into birds, talking cats, and the transformation of our hero and heroine from regular old prince and princess to buff guy and hot gal.
It was in looking at that transformation – you pick up the sword and if you’re a guy, it gives you more rippling muscles, a loin cloth, and a tan, and you pick it up as a woman and you get longer hair and a shorter skirt – that amused me most (the fact that his mantra is “by the power Grayskull” and hers “for the honor of Grayskull” is equally amusing). Because here we were in this bizarro universe where cats could talk and women turned into cats, but men were still Men and women were still Women, and princes were princes and princesses were princesses.
It was as if the crazy, drug-infused imaginations of the cartoon writers hit a brick wall when it came to the acceptable presentation of gender of their characters. He-man needed to look strong, and She-ra needed to look hot. Forever and ever, amen.
I see this failure of imagination again and again in the fantasy and science fiction I read. Folks will go on for pages and pages about new worlds and the intricacies of far-future tax laws and terraforming, but at the end of the day, the men are Men and the women are Women and the only variety you see outside of explicitly feminist work is some aliens who have sex with everybody.
So when I sat down to write my new epic fantasy novel, The Mirror Empire, I decided I wanted to do better. I wanted to create societies I hadn’t seen before, especially not in fantasy. When I decided one of the primary societies in my world, called the Dhai, were a consent culture, it opened up a lot of interesting possibilities about how consent and autonomy and gender identity worked too. If it was impolite at best, and criminal at worse, to lay a hand upon another without consent, how did that society view one’s self-expression of gender? It made perfect sense that it would be the individual, not the society, who chose their own gender, and in Dhai, they had a few to choose from: female passive, female assertive, male passive, male assertive, and ungendered. It made sense that individuals could choose to use different pronouns according to how they self-identified throughout their lives, which meant that someone could, in theory, self-identify as all five genders over the course of their lifetime. It also means, of course, that the outward physical presentation of biological sex of any Dhai character cannot be determined merely by the pronoun I use for them in the book. To make things easier on readers, I made the decision to use only “she” and “he” without passive or assertive markers in this first book, making the gendering look simpler than it was to the casual reader. In the second book, Empire Ascendant, I introduce my first ungendered characters, whose pronouns are simply expressed as “they.”
The nomenclature I used: “passive” and “assertive” was also a bit of a reader shorthand. I have a lot of sympathy for readers tossed into the world of The Mirror Empire – I realize there’s an incredible amount of new and different stuff we’re not used to in it, as so many of us having grown up on endless iterations of Tolkien that perpetuate the same pseudo-medieval societies and mythology, but I really did work hard to simplify things here. Passive and assertive gender types, both male and female, do come with their own expected modes of dress and behavior, as does the neutral gender. But I wasn’t going to spend half the book going into the intricacies of that. In Dhai, assertive tends to have the more negative connotation, as they are those who seek to stand out, to stand apart; the freewheeling liberals out to buck the system. Those more passively gendered are the more conservative, the more reserved, adhering more to tradition – it has nothing to do with who wants to get into a fight or not, as violence is abhorred by all Dhai. As for the female/male associations with those assertive/passive choices, they are completely untethered to our notions of biologically prescribed sex; sexual expression is messy and complicated, and has never been binary. We constructed it that way to make it easier to put folks in boxes, and in Dhai they have many more boxes to choose from. But at every turn, I sought to handwave a lot of this as I wrote, making it as digestible as possible the first time through.
The Saiduan, too, the northern neighbors of the Dhai, have non-binary conceptions of gender, with a third gender, the ataisa, making an appearance throughout. I have two secondary characters in The Mirror Empire who use the pronoun ze/hir, which has become… immensely more complicated in book two now that one of them is a POV character. I used this third pronoun very subtly in the first book, knowing that the deeper folks got into the trilogy, the longer I had to get them used to it. By the time we get to our ataisa POV character I’m hoping folks will be used to it. As to how that particular gender marker in Saiduan expressed itself, or was chosen, I wanted them to have a single gender that meant “the between people,” so that if one wasn’t comfortable with the male or female gender, one would get bucketed into the third. The difference between the Dhai and Saiduan, though, was the consent of this – the society itself chose who became which gender, and though individuals could still insist on or fight against a particular identity, because the Saiduan were less egalitarian and not at all a consensual culture, it made more sense that one’s identity there, like our own in many places here, was thrust upon them.
Finally, not being content with six genders, I also have a character who identifies as none of them. Because as we’ve learned in our own messy culture, our categories and boxes for people will never be an entirely good fit for everyone. We tend to messily choose the about-right-sort-of-I-guess-approximate box to work ourselves into, and the fewer the boxes, the harder it is for us to squeeze into them. In the case of this particular character, they are also able to shift their physical expression of biological sex throughout the book, often shifting pronouns to match that expression, but not always, because why bother, when none of them fits anyway? This character’s struggle with their own gender, and trying to fit their physical expression of biological sex with their pronouns, and still being dissatisfied, knowing they only fit in the seams between things, as someone else, was one of the more heartbreaking characters for me to write. What happens, when the world built up around us does not even have a proper word for us?
Throughout the books, writing about characters of all sorts of genders, was fun for me, and I hope, will be fun for the reader, too. Because the truth is that when you write societies where gender and the physical presentation of a particular sex are divorced from one another you, as the reader, only know their gender. You don’t get caught up in what’s underneath their clothes because it simply doesn’t matter unless and until it matters to the story. I’ve heard a few people say that Dhai having five genders doesn’t matter at all, because it’s not made a big deal in the first book. Yet the politics infused in the five genders of Dhai was not a first-book task I was going to take on. Not yet. And don’t forget to go back over everything I’ve said here, reread some of those character descriptions, and start interrogating who has been explicitly said to have the gender and biological sexual expression you expected as you read the book… and whose was never mentioned at all, because it was no business of the story’s, as yet.
Perhaps it won’t matter, when we peel the world back and folks you assumed acted one way because of their gender were not, in fact, expressing that behavior for that reason at all, but simply because they are who they are. Our genders are not Dhai genders, or Saiduan genders, or even the violently feminine and passively masculine genders of the Dorinahs. How they express themselves, and how they expect to be treated when they present themselves, are far different than what we have here. But there is only so much a new reader will take before their head bursts and they throw away a book in confusion, and I get that. I’ve been very conscious of it throughout.
Whether I succeeded in luring in new readers this way, with this careful measuring out of just enough information but not too much, has yet to be seen. But for those hoping for more, I can say this:
Be patient, dear readers. Things are going to get much, much more interesting.
If that amazing essay doesn’t make you immediately rush out and buy not only Mirror Empire but also God’s War (whose sequel I’ve reviewed) I honestly don’t know what will. This is unlikely to be knocked off the top of my Hugo slate for next year, and I can’t really praise it highly enough.