Just now I was working on a minor transition scene: our heroes were sitting in a diner and unwittingly witnessed the villain making a deal.
In order to more subtly plant the villain in the diner, I listed off the restaurant’s other patrons: a boy in a college hoodie, a homeless man, the villain’s henchman, and the villain himself.
It took me a moment to realize what felt off about that: even though I’d gone for a variety of people, I’d made all four of them men. Aside from my protagonists, the only woman in the building was the waitress– and this is in a book that’s intended to be female-focused and female-driven.
Diversity is an element that needs to be actively considered when you’re writing, or else it becomes easy to backslide.
Why worry about it at all?
Remember, even though women comprise roughly 51% of the population, but they don’t get nearly that much representation in media.
This isn’t meant to shame anybody– like I mentioned above, this sort of thing is insidious. It’s so ingrained into our society that we don’t see that we’re doing it. After all, it only took a momentary lapse of attention to turn a regular diner into a sausage fest.
How do I fix it?
More authors writing more balanced stories will help to normalize the idea that women are, you know, half of all human beings. There are a lot of systemic issues that need to be addressed before common perceptions really do change, but it’s a start.
Within your stories, I recommend actually listing off all your named characters according to the gender they identify as. Try doing the same for individual scenes. The nice thing about lists is that they’re hard to argue against. Perception can be fogged by unintentional bias; numbers are far more concrete.
Once you’ve got your lists (and, if you’re like me, you’re slapping yourself for letting things get so unbalanced), start thinking critically. Would my villain’s henchman be uncharacteristically different as a henchwoman? Would my villain be any less intimidating as a woman? Is there any reason why I can’t just swap pronouns and make that stoned college student a girl instead of a boy?
With some characters, their gender has a huge impact on their role in the story, but it’s not true nearly as often as you’d think. You can see it in the differences between Red Dragon and NBC’s Hannibal, where both Alan Bloom and Freddy Lounds were cast as women– and doing so opened the door for more interesting perspectives and subplots, without any noticeable cost.
Do you have any characters who could do to have their gender reassigned? Have you swapped a character’s gender in your stories? Tell us about it in the comments!
I’ve heard a lot of people say gender doesn’t matter– that we are all equal in soul and under the skin– and I’m not arguing that, with or against. But it’s undeniable that society changes our expectations of how men and women look, think and behave, and how they should be portrayed– at least on some level. The Hawkeye Initiative plays with this concept a lot, pointing out that what we consider acceptable poses for female comic book characters are just plain ridiculous when you make a male character try to pull them off.
Even in my own writing, gender plays a big role in how my characters behave. My first finished manuscript began as an idea for a character, but without a sex to go with it. After consulting with my little sister, I decided the name was more feminine than masculine, and the rest of the story fell into place. I can guarantee that it wouldn’t be the same story if Chicago was a teenage boy being stalked by his childhood maybe-girlfriend. In another manuscript, I’ve got a very powerful and confident woman… who, when genderflipped, stops seeming powerful and starts looking like a sexual predator.
I’m not saying all traditional gender-based behaviors and actions are necessarily bad, but they do open the doors for us to gain some new perspective.
If you’re having trouble writing a scene, try flipping it– all the dudes are now chicks, all the chicks are now dudes, all the MtF are now FtM, etc– and write it from that perspective. What are they saying that they weren’t saying before? What are they suddenly hiding? Pay attention to the changes in their body language, changes in vocabulary.
Once you’ve written it gender-bent, go back and turn it right-side-up (or maybe you’ll find it works better that way, and change the rest of the story to match it). If you decide to keep your initial gender roles, rewrite that scene back in the old style, but still pay attention to the body language, the vocabulary, the taboos and secrets and posturing. You’ll be amazed what you find.
I ended up doing a lot of research for yesterday’s post, and editing some of that out. One of the things I found was a list of women that you don’t really hear much about– not the wives of famous people, but women who held what I fondly think of as “non-traditional” careers.
Emma Goldman (1869-1940) – Vilified in her day as the “most dangerous woman in America,” this Russian emigrant earned her title, “Queen of the Anarchists” as labor leader, lecturer, writer, women’s rights activist and free love advocate.
Anne Hutchinson (1591-1643) – A Puritan woman who defied the male-dominated Massachusetts Bay Colony and after banishment helped settle Rhode Island and New York.
Hedda Hopper (1890-1966) – In the golden age of Hollywood, Hedda could make or break careers. Gossip was her business and J. Edgar Hoover was her penpal.
Marie LaVeau (1796?-1863?) – African-American Voodoo Queen of New Orleans and famous herbalist.
Molly Pitcher (Mary Ludwig Hays McCauley) (1754-1832) – Born Mary Ludwig, this revolutionary heroine followed the Continental Army for more than 3 years, doing what was needed to free the colonies from the tyranny of England.
If you look at the majority of non-modern fantasy, be it medieval, pseudo-victorian, what have you, you’ll notice a pattern: everybody’s white and straight. If genderqueer or homosexuality is brought up, it’s with a heaping helping of homophobia and transphobia; if people of color are included, you can expect to see racism that would make the KKK hang their hoods in shame. And if a woman has a “non-traditional” role, it’s because she’s a spunky, norms-defying rebel.
Guys, it’s getting old.
“But we’re just being historically accurate!” you may say.
Yesterday I talked about borrowing story elements from more than the few overtapped sources that have donated to most of our mainstream media. But when I say we should look at other cultures and sources, I wasn’t just talking about mythological animals and pantheons.
Let the spectrum in
William Shakespeare gave us what I consider a compelling Primary Source Document on the presence of POCs in European society when he wrote Othello.
The movie Arabian Nights did a great job of portraying the way international interaction happened in a lot of the ancient world: we have an African wizard venturing out to China to make deals with Aladdin; we have Englishmen and Chinese men and locals alike living within a few blocks of one another in a bustling metropolis.
And that’s the thing– any major urban area is going to attract people from all over the world, especially traders selling rare exotic goods to the social elites. Often enough those traders will be foreign themselves, or have non-locals in their caravan/on their ship/etc. Unless there’s some major isolationist movement going on, there should be a healthy population of out-of-towners.
Homophobia is so 1950…
Keep in mind that
Gay male relationships were considered the purest form of love in ancient Greece, and Plato believed that only barbarians would condemn such a love
Historical records suggest that bisexuality was considered the norm in China before the Tang Dynasty
In New Guinea it’s believed that sharing semen through male/male sex promoted growth, while excessive heterosexual sex led to “decay and death”
Several cultures have a third gender (or more than that!)
Several cultures are matrilinial in their leadership and inheritance. Even among cultures that weren’t, women were often encouraged to know how to fight.
Keep in mind that females have held pretty much every conceivable male role. History is full of powerful female rulers, such as Hatsheput of Egypt, Empress Wu Zeitian of China, and Queen Elizabeth I of England. Hell, the world’s first novel was written by a woman (The Tale of Genji, by Murasaki Shikibu of Japan). There are plenty of websites to exploreon that topicas well.