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Back when The House of Binding Thorns came out last year, Aliette de Bodard wrote a guest post for this blog about the treatment of pregnant people and the trope of dead mothers in science fiction. Now that In the Vanishers’ Palace, a brilliant queer retelling of Beauty and the Beast set in a science fictional universe and with mothers playing key roles in the plot, has come out, she’s back here with a follow up…
On motherhood and erasure: people-shaped holes, hollow characters and the illusion of impossible adventures
I’d expected motherhood to impact my life, because of course having young people in the household and being responsible for them will bring about huge changes.
I hadn’t expected it to make me so keenly aware of erasure in media and stories.
To put it bluntly, mothers are just not there . While pregnancy is either monstrous or sacred, either body horror or the delivery of the chosen child, motherhood is defined by its absence. We aren’t characters: we are people-shaped holes. We are empty spaces or hollowed-out characters, whose sole purpose–when the story bothers to give us one–is to erase ourselves for the sake of our children.
By far the most obvious hole is that left by death: our books and media are littered with the death of mothers of main characters. Star-Lord’s mother in Guardians of the Galaxy, Elizabeth Swann’s mother in Pirates of the Caribbean, Indiana Jones’s mother in The Last Crusade–the list is endless. The death can be at birth, can be off-stage, can be in the story, but it’s always either a minor inconvenience, something so far ago that it’s never even mentioned, or mined for a main character’s pain (and said character is almost always a cis man). We talk a lot about the fridging of women characters (and rightfully so): whenever a mother walks on stage I brace myself for the slamming of the refrigerator door, for it seems that we belong there permanently, our corpses there to serve, at best, as pleasant memories or motivations for our children. Nothing quite becomes us in life as our leaving it.
But there are other deaths. There are the mothers not mentioned and not named, as if they were utterly trivial (Belle’s mother is never mentioned in the original Beauty and the Beast; Arwen’s mother is similarly not mentioned in the Lord of the Rings movies , Killmonger’s father in the otherwise excellent Black Panther gets plenty of screen time, his mother doesn’t even rate one explanation). And then there are mothers who fail to have a story other than caring for their children, whose entire personality and motivations are subsumed in the act of motherhood (Lady Jessica in Dune, Frigga in the Thor franchise, who actually manages to both fail to have a plotline unrelated to her two kids and to be fridged in the second Thor movie).
One of the ways in which is this utterly toxic, in addition to killing off the actual characters, is that this devalues the work done by mothers by making it seem invisible and unnecessary: we seldom see the tremendous amount of work that goes into raising children (because dead mothers are usually replaced with indifferent, absent or abusive authority figures rather than warm adoptive parents ). And when works that centre complex, thoughtfully depicted motherhood are written, they are dismissed as of no importance, over-centred on boring relationships and over-concerned with trivial matters.
Whenever I bring dead mothers up, I generally get two explanations: the first is the natural occurrence of death in childbirth, and the second one is that this is a convenience, for how could a hero (especially but not only teenagers) go off on adventures with their mothers alive?
Let’s get the first one out of the way first: yes, death in childbirth was a major cause of death… in the past. But so were the deaths of children (a quick reminder that in 1800 more than 40% of children would die before seeing their fifth year), and popular media has way more dead mothers than dead infants (or people dying from typhus or cholera or a myriad ways lives were cut short, historically speaking). To say it otherwise: we are being awfully selective, as a culture, about which historical truths we’re choosing to perpetuate. Not to mention the fact that in we’re in SFF and that historical accuracy isn’t the best justification when we’re dealing with stories that have dragons and fairies and spaceships in them.
The second one… the second one is part of an underlying fallacy that I’m sympathetic to: the idea that mothers can protect their children against everything. I understand the desire and where it stems from, but the truth is that this is an impossibility. There are things far too large for parents to protect their children from (failure to protect a child against the consequences of war isn’t a parental failure, and it’s victim-blaming of the highest order to pretend that it is); and even if I could materially protect my children from events… the reality is that I cannot keep them forever safe, and nor should I. Part of parenting (and especially motherhood) is the art of gracefully letting go: of accepting that my children will have their own lives and their own challenges to face, and that such challenges, no matter how I may wish otherwise, will be dangerous. And yes, some of this will happen before they are ready, but our children cannot and will not always be ready for everything in spite of every one of our efforts.
The other underlying fallacy is that mothers and adventures are incompatible, which is a terrible thing to assume on two fronts: the first, that mothers themselves cannot have adventures (see above for my objections: obviously motherhood is an important thing in mothers’ lives, but mothers’ lives cannot and should not be reduced to the importance of their children). The second is the fallacy that it is impossible for families to have adventures together: that any children’s adventures (I use “children” here as the opposite of parents rather than as an age category) have to be exclusive of parental presence. It is a very particular perception, coming from a society with socialization greatly stratified by age as well as strong individualism, which makes us see adventures with parents or older people (or, for that matter, parental presence in our lives ) as undesirable rather than commonplace occurrences.
There are exceptions to these rules, and I treasure them all: Jackie and Rose Tyler in Doctor Who, the numerous mothers in Melanie Rawn’s Dragon Prince trilogy, Jess and her mother (and her four sisters) in Kate Elliott’s Court of Fives trilogy, Tralane Huntingore and her daughters in Justina Robson’s Glorious Angels, Essun and her daughter in NK Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy, Consort Jing in Nirvana in Fire, Mme de Morcerf in Dumas’s Count of Monte Cristo, Queen Talyien in KS Villoso’s Wolf of Oren-Yaro, Anyanwu in Octavia Butler’s Wild Seed, Cordelia Naismith in Barrayar, Lillian in Victor LaValle’s The Changeling…
In my own fiction, I made a deliberate choice to have mothers as characters, and to have them with their own vastly different stories. My latest book, In the Vanishers’ Palace, is a dark retelling of Beauty and the Beast where they are both women, and the Beast is a dragon… except that Yên, my impoverished scholar and Beauty analogue, has a mother who is the village healer, who is very much present and important in Yên’s life; and Vu Côn, the shapeshifting dragon who is Beast analogue, is herself a mother to two teenage children, who are both an important part but not the main thrust of Vu Côn’s own life or story. I wanted to make a not very subtle point that mothers are their own characters: Yên’s own mother is crucial to Yên’s view of the world, but she also very much has her own outlook and her own life: she is the village healer and aims to remain that way, unlike Yên who only dreams of escape. And meanwhile, Vu Côn is certainly struggling with two over-inquisitive dragon children on the cusp of adulthood, but the main thrust of her own story is her relationship with Yên (she takes Yên as payment for a debt, and finds herself attracted to her–knowing that she cannot act on that attraction because she’s Yên’s mistress and there is no consent between master and servant).
I think of this, and of the mothers in my other stories and books, as necessary work: as my own brick in the wall to make sure that mothers aren’t erased, that the holes we have become in the fabric of stories are instead filled with genuine, complex and rich characters instead of faceless, nameless and unimportant cyphers. Some days I worry that my stories are such small stones in a universe full of such holes, but then I remember that every wall is built brick by brick, and that not everything can go up as fast as I’d like. I remember that we have to try–that we all have to try, because how can we do otherwise?
 Throughout this blog post, I’ll be making a deliberate gendered distinction, because the set of expectations is vastly different between cis mothers and fathers. People who don’t fall in either of these categories (trans, non-binary people, and other marginalised genders and sexes) are even more at risk of erasure, othering, demonization, etc.
 I’m talking about the movies here: in the books Arwen’s mother is Cerebrían, who passes into the West prior to Arwen’s meeting with Aragorn following torture at the hands of Orcs (which is again erasure but of a different kind).
 The idea that adoptive parents and adoptive families in general are trumped by blood relations, no matter how much love they might have poured into raising children, is another hugely problematic one.
 Source: https://ourworldindata.org/child-mortality
 Some parents are terrible, abusive and should be excluded from lives: I’m not saying parental presence should be the norm or that all parents are loving–simply that their absence cannot and should not be the only narration that exists.
Aliette de Bodard is one of those fantastic writers whose short fiction has won huge plaudits, but whose first novels – the Obsidian and Blood trilogy – largely sank into obscurity due to publisher mishandling; she is also someone I hugely admire and am a friend of. Her new novel, The House of Shattered Wings, came out from Roc in the US yesterday and will come out from Gollancz in the UK tomorrow; I reviewed it last week, and absolutely loved it, especially the politics of the novel. Aliette is herself currently at Sasquan, but her publicity blog-tour continues apace – and I asked her to write about one of the things dear to this blog: gender and diversity…
I’ve been trying to write several versions of this post and always found myself staring at the screen. Writing a blog post pointing out all the ways that my book is diverse feels very embarrassing to me: I’m a basic not-loving-the-limelight introvert, and the previous drafts of this all sounded far too smug and self-satisfied for my personal taste–as in “see how wonderfully diverse my cast is and how progressive I am?”
And hum. I just can’t.
So I’m just going to talk about process, and about diversity and me.
I was a voracious reader as a child, consuming books from the library at a rate that had my parents torn between pride and alarm; and devouring everything from historicals to mysteries to SFF, without making many distinctions of genre.
It took me a long, long while to realise that what they all had in common, and the narrative that they were engraving into my brain, was that people like me did not get to go off on adventures, or to feature much in stories. And when they did, it was often in stories that didn’t quite speak to me: I love Ursula Le Guin’s The Word for World is Forest, but as an allegory of the Vietnam War it falls flat, because my Vietnam War, the one in family memories, isn’t a grand rebellion against cruel colonists, but a confused and half-untold story of conflicting loyalties and difficult choices on the way to independence, of families torn apart and exile, and of a litany of heart-breaking losses. So, even if you do have nominal diversity, narratives and stories can widely vary depending on who is telling them.
When I started writing SFF, for the longest time I had to fight against myself. Against that narrative that white people, white males, white Westerners, were suitable heroes, and everyone else was not. And I wish I could say all I had to do was be aware of that to overcome it, but prejudice is like the air you’re breathing: it’s really really hard to set aside; and you can have the best of intentions and still perpetuate a harmful or thoughtless narrative.
I had to go about it piecemeal: to have women characters and protagonists, to have POC characters and protagonists, to have Vietnamese characters and protagonists (that was a big hurdle to clear: it’s hard to describe the sheer stomach-clenching terror of getting these wrong, of giving everyone a wrong impression of the culture, and of being taken to task by my family for making a mess out of it); and to tackle other axes of marginalisation I’m less intimately familiar with (queer characters, …).
I don’t write stories with checklists of “ooooh let’s have a woman here and let’s have a POC here etc.” I want to write stories that speak to me (especially to ten-year-old me, who sensed something was missing and couldn’t put her finger on what!). But equally, I’ve become aware that it’s very easy to fall back into prejudice. If I don’t pay attention to what I’m doing, my characters revert to my mental default.
When I was writing The House of Shattered Wings, my novel of a devastated Paris with Fallen angels, magicians, alchemists and witches, one of the things that I tried to pay particular attention to was gender roles. I know I have a tendency to revert to “type” (aka cliché) when not giving some thought to what’s happening. Due to years of schooling myself, I now tend to have all my primaries default to female: I saw nothing wrong with having Selene, a political leader and head of a major House of Fallen angels and magicians, be a woman who usually wore men’s clothes (and to have this situation be so usual), and nothing wrong either with Madeleine, my House alchemist and resident geek, being one. My third main character, a Vietnamese immigrant and ex-Immortal, was originally called Isabelle, until I realised this was a really skewed gender balance, and switched her with a male Fallen angel named Philippe. Other female notable characters included two further major political leaders, and a badass archivist with a key plot role (and long-time lover of Selene!).
So I had this slightly smug feeling that my cast was female-dominated; in fact, a quick head-count showed that it was about 70% male and 30% female, because whenever I needed a character who appeared only for a few scenes, I would reach for a male one! I had to hastily rewrite the entire secondary cast to switch genders here and there: the end result is about balanced (but note that I still had the feeling my cast was overwhelmingly female. It’s a known effect of prejudice: anything that strays from the default appears to loom larger than they really are).
One of the things I also wanted to do with the novel was to have a universe in which there was little sexism, because prejudices fell mainly on axes of race (white/non-white), magical nature (Fallen angels vs mortals; within Fallen angels, how powerful they were; within mortals, whether they were good at magic or not) and power/safety (who had safety in a devastated city, and who could offer it to others). So I had to check, once again, that I wasn’t perpetuating sexist ideas that came from our universe: Selene, the head of the major House, struggles in her leadership role and doubts herself, and I had to make very sure she wasn’t doing that because she was a woman, but rather simply because she was young, untrained, and trying to do justice to her powerful master Lucifer Morningstar. She’s in a tense relationship with many of the other heads of Houses, and again, this couldn’t be because she was less powerful than them (another cliché of women being weaker and less competent than men): she’s actually in a dominant (though increasingly unsteady) position, and she knows it.
All of this hopefully feels natural and unforced in the novel: a lot of it was forethought, and pulling out clichés by the root when they occurred (and relying on kindly beta-readers to take me to task for my prejudices!) . I won’t say I’m 100% happy with the way it turned out: already, I can see places where I would do things differently, and I’m of course not totally sure that my best intentions didn’t result in some horrible misstep.
But that’s as it should be: because diversity is a process and not a state, and because I’m always, always learning; and hopefully doing slightly better every time!
House of Shattered Wings is out from Roc as of yesterday, and from Gollancz as of tomorrow; my review & the blurb:
Paris has survived the Great Houses War – just. Its streets are lined with haunted ruins, Notre-Dame is a burnt-out shell, and the Seine runs black with ashes and rubble. Yet life continues among the wreckage. The citizens continue to live, love, fight and survive in their war-torn city, and The Great Houses still vie for dominion over the once grand capital.
House Silverspires, previously the leader of those power games, lies in disarray. Its magic is ailing; its founder, Morningstar, has been missing for decades; and now something from the shadows stalks its people inside their very own walls.
Within the House, three very different people must come together: a naive but powerful Fallen, an alchemist with a self-destructive addiction, and a resentful young man wielding spells from the Far East. They may be Silverspires’ salvation. They may be the architects of its last, irreversible fall…
Elizabeth Bear has long been one of my favourite writers, as readers will know; her upcoming novel, Karen Memory, is one of the books I am most looking forward to in 2015, and comes out on February 3rd. Given Bear’s outspoken feminism and her tendency towards female protagonists, I’m delighted to be able to present to you a piece by her on the strong female protagonist, and the problems thereof.
Hi. I’m Elizabeth Bear, the author of Karen Memory, a new steampunk Weird West novel out from Tor. And I’m here to talk about failure modes in the theory and practice of creating the “strong female character,” specifically as it relates to female protagonists in science fiction and fantasy.
Or possibly, to rant about very concept of the “strong female character,” because it’s a catchphrase I’m starting to get really tired of. (I think Kate Beaton sums up why pretty well here)
Specifically, my problem is that the idea that a female lead must be a “strong female character” leads to a whole complex of other problems. So here’s an inexhaustive survey of some of them, and some suggestions on how to avoid the traps.
There’s the “She’s not like other girls” problem. (One of the things that I liked very much about Buffy the Vampire Slayer is that while the protagonist is a Chosen One, part of the point of the narrative is that she is like other girls. She just, you know, has superpowers. I have other problems with the show, but that’s neither here nor there.) This is related to the Smurfette problem—where there’s only one female character in a male ensemble, and so that woman has to be all women, and exemplary in every way. (There’s usually one black guy, too, who stands for all black people everywhere.)
These characters never seem to have female friends, somehow. Possibly because they just can’t relate to other women with their hair and their nails and their silly giggling.
Then there’s the brittle-and-mouthy problem, which is particularly epidemic in urban fantasy, and has to do with writers attempting a sarcastic noir voice and a hard-boiled protagonist who takes nobody’s nonsense—and winding up with somebody who you would chew your arm off to get away from at a cocktail party. Except they would never be invited to a cocktail party, because they tend to provoke a fight in any conversation they get into, since it’s a cheap way to generate tension. These characters wind up making most of their own problems, frankly, because their only means of interpersonal communication is getting in people’s faces.
These characters never seem to have any female friends, either. Or maybe one. Somebody who enables their undiagnosed and untreated personality disorders.
(It is perfectly possible to write a female character with an attitude problem and have her work quite well. Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski leaps to mind as an example: she’s defended and sharp-edged and patrols her boundaries ferociously. But she’s also capable of realizing what she is doing and making a conscious effort to step the hell off. Self-awareness fixes a lot of characterization ills. And she has a number of female friends. 😉 )
Next on the list, there’s the thing the internet has dubbed Trinity Syndrome, which ranks as the characterization trope I hate most in the world. It’s generally identifiable when a totally cool woman shows up in the first act, is awesome and competent, mentors the ineffectual male hero, is generally better-suited for his job than he is… and by the end of the third act has lost all purpose in life except to hang on his arm and step aside so he can have her job. It’s the GIs coming home after WWII all over again. How to Train Your Dragon II, I’m looking at you!
These women never have any female friends because they are usually the Smurfette, too.
Last but not least, there’s the ever popular madonna/whore dichotomy, where women are either pure and innocent and defined by men, or self-actualizing and evil to the core. You can google that one if you want more information, because even typing “madonna/whore dichotomy” makes me tired to the bone.
They never have any female friends either, unless they’re mothering them.
So. You want to write about women, and you want to avoid falling into these traps. How does a well-meaning person go about it? (And it’s not easy! These roles and tropes are ingrained into the very fabric of our society, into the stories we grow up learning how stories work from. They feel superficially satisfying because we’re programed to expect them on a deep cellular level! No blame, as the I Ching says.)
Well, to escape the trope, we must learn to interrogate the trope. We have to stop thinking of our female characters as Strong Female Characters and let them be people. And more, let them be people on equal footing with the male people—in terms of agency and desires, at least, if not in terms of social expectations. (Heck, one way to show a woman’s strength is to show her dealing with the exhausting nonsense and the extra work that comes as part and parcel of being a woman.) (And heck, let’s see some roles go to strong characters who are trans, or who reject gender binary completely.)
There’s no particular magic to writing a Strong Woman that doesn’t apply to writing all people. The end.
Let’s have Strong Characters, by which I mean strongly characterized characters, people with foibles and strengths and bad habits, regardless of their gender and their sex.
Thanks Bear, for that amazing piece of writing, and excellent guide to how (not) to write female characters!
Elizabeth Bear was the recipient of the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer in 2005. She has won two Hugo Awards for her short fiction, a Sturgeon Award, and the Locus Award for Best First Novel. Bear lives in Brookfield, Massachusetts.
Set in the late 19th century—when the city we now call Seattle Underground was the whole town (and still on the surface), when airships plied the trade routes, would-be gold miners were heading to the gold fields of Alaska, and steam-powered mechanicals stalked the waterfront, Karen is a young woman on her own, is making the best of her orphaned state by working in Madame Damnable’s high-quality bordello. Through Karen’s eyes we get to know the other girls in the house—a resourceful group—and the poor and the powerful of the town. Trouble erupts one night when a badly injured girl arrives at their door, begging sanctuary, followed by the man who holds her indenture, and who has a machine that can take over anyone’s mind and control their actions. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, the next night brings a body dumped in their rubbish heap—a streetwalker who has been brutally murdered.
Bear brings alive this Jack-the-Ripper yarn of the old west with a light touch in Karen’s own memorable voice, and a mesmerizing evocation of classic steam-powered science.
Karen Memory came out February 3rd. My review is forthcoming.
Benjanun Sridungkaew will likely have come to most people’s attention over the last 18 months for her prolific, wonderful, non-Western-centric short fiction that has taken in virtually every subgenre there is; she has been published on Tor.com, Giganotosaurus, in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Clarkesworld, reprinted in various year’s bests – hell, just go and check out her bibliography; and this year she was nominated for the John W. Campbell Award. She’s finally graced the world with her first novella-length work, which I loved; so here is Benjanun Sridungkaew, on Scale-Bright!
When I came across this lovely art of Bai Suzhen and Xiaoqing – the white and green snake, respectively – I had a giggle when I read the description: like me, the artist thought ‘the guy the White Snake married’ (Xu Xian, though I often have trouble remembering his name, I think we all do) was… not perhaps the most exemplary hero. In the original legend, he comes across as gullible, weak-minded, and a little boring, being prone to fainting and being deceived. He is, to be charitable, not particularly worthy of Bai Suzhen (one wonders: what is he worthy of? Hm).
Which is to say, I could have told the story of the White Snake finding the reincarnation of her husband in modern Hong Kong – that would be how some writers might have done it – but, really, why would I? It doesn’t seem like much of a story, and if he failed her so badly back then it doesn’t seem likely he will be much more sensible a few reincarnations later. I would have been bored trying to whip that material into something that’d excite and interest me. Maybe she could look for her son, who would presumably have been born half-demon? That has a bit more promise, but it’s still not quite right. It’s lacking something. Fun. Excitement. When I write, I want the story to excite me first.
But I really liked the White Snake legend. What was one to do?
By that point I had already written the stories collected in The Archer Who Shot Down Suns, centered around the archer Houyi and her wife Chang’e. And I wanted to do more with those characters – and so tying them all into the same thing emerged as the likeliest choice. I would get to continue the thread I built up through those three short stories, and play with another favorite myth at once – and I really like efficiency! The best part is that I didn’t have to change anything about the original – with Houyi I made a particular, significant deviation from the source material, but here I built on what is already there. The legend of the White Snake already centers on two women bound as sworn sisters, who do all the things – having adventures, fighting, knowing what they want and going for it against all odds.
What I am taking a long, long way about to saying is that I think it matters what stories we choose to tell, the direction of narrative we take. Ana Grilo, reviewing Scale-Bright, says that the mythical story threads are ‘important in their reshaping the imagining of the world from a very feminine point of view’ – and I was so delighted to see that, it’s definitely one of the objectives I set out to accomplish. Yes, I could have woven the story around Bai Suzhen searching for her son, her husband, or both; another writer might even have made a reincarnation of Xu Xian or her son the lead of the book – or kept Houyi’s gender from the legends, brought ‘him’ into modern Hong Kong as a wuxia hero in leather jackets. Those could have been good stories, I imagine, but they are not the ones I chose. I’m faithful to old legends that I love, but I don’t think we should be totally shackled to them. Storytellers get to modify, leave out, expand.
In my book, Houyi is a woman. She has a wife and wears dapper, and loosely follows an internal code similar to that of wuxia heroes. Chang’e is not a frivolous ditz (as some of the variants portray her); she is an equal partner to her wife, as capable as Houyi and striving as hard to be an aunt to their niece Julienne. Xiaoqing is notorious for having seduced peasant girls in ancient China, and the demon’s realm is populated by beings who are unfettered in romance. The various story threads in the novella are held together by a depressed young woman, who gets to have adventures and find herself worthy of herself.
These narrative choices don’t come out of nowhere. Whom we choose to center is as important as whom (or what) we leave out. We make the choices of whether face-punching occurs in the stories we tell, or whether the shoes we make are comfortable for everyone to wear and don’t flood the waters with weird, awful chemicals. And personally, I feel much more comfortable not going around punching people in the face or pumping toxic waste into the waters. Hooray for nice, clean waters!
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.