Okay, I’ve got it.

Okay, I have my thoughts in order now. For those of you just tuning in, this is about an anonymous comment left on my journal, which I feel to be very wrong-headed, but against which I was having a difficult time assembling my arguments. I can’t promise conciseness, exactly, but I’m aiming for coherence, which is what I was lacking before. And thank you to everyone who commented, often making points along these same lines, which helped me go “yeah, that’s what I was after.”

To recap:

It seems to me that a lot of books these days throw in a mixed cast for the hell of it, to be PC, to try to please everybody. Some stories are just Man Stories; some are just Women Stories. Could you imagine a random female having been thrown into, say, DELIVERANCE? The whole idea is silly. I say you should write a story as it is–if it’s male adventure, then that’s what it is; throwing in a woman won’t make it different or better.

We can leave aside the triple use of the eyebrow-raising notion that writers “throw” such things into their stories “for the hell of it.” I want to talk about the gender politics here.

First up: “Man Stories” vs. “Woman Stories.” This presupposes a notion of stories being ineluctably “male” or “female” in their point of view, intended audience, whatever. Presumably “Man Stories” involve blowing stuff up, while “Woman Stories” are touchy-feely. But I’m likely to suggest watching Die Hard, while my husband will vote for When Harry Met Sally, so clearly that’s not universal. Does this make me a bad woman, and him a bad man? Gendering stories like that just reinforces the ideology that as men or women we “should” behave in certain ways, have certain tastes, etc. And that has pernicious knock-on effects in the long term.

Next: the suggestion that “a random female” doesn’t belong in Deliverance, or whatever male-focused story you want to substitute in there. (Hint: “a random” anything doesn’t belong in any story.) I’m not terribly familiar with Deliverance, so let’s take the example from comments in my other post, that of Wellington’s army on the Peninsula in the 19th century. Granted: soldiers of the time were all-but-universally male, and the fact that the occasional cross-dressing woman did end up in the army doesn’t mean you should shoehorn one into the story out of some misguided notion of gender parity. But is that the only approach? Armies were surrounded by laundresses, prostitutes, local women, officers’ mistresses, wives following their soldier husbands, and a variety of other individuals of the female persuasion. Not every story will involve such people, true; a focused short story about one soldier comforting another as he dies on the battlefield might have just two characters, both male. (But does the dying one have a fiancee or wife? Are there women picking over the corpses around them?) Arguing from extreme cases is pointless, though. More important is the general picture: that while the soldiers of the time were male, writing about a 19th century army while ignoring all that supporting cast perpetuates a fallacious notion, namely, that Manly Man Soldiers don’t need or have wimmen in their lives. They did and do. Or, to state it more broadly: it perpetuates the fallacious notion of women’s irrelevance to history (or the present day).

From there: if your story is set in a secondary world, you own what you created. And I don’t mean the copyright. I mean that you have made choices; you are responsible for them. Does this mean you should create only utopian societies where everything from gender onward is peachy keen? Of course not. That would be boring. But if you set it up so women are insignificant to your story, then can you explain why? Are your reasons good? I could tell you why there are so few men in Doppelganger, and while my reasons have a certain amount of validity, I’m not thrilled with them. I’d probably handle it differently now. But the point is, I own those choices; I’m the one who made that world and told that story.

All of this, of course, applies just as well to race, etc.

And in conclusion: little or nothing of what I’m saying here applies to the book this all started with, because I don’t think these fallacies are what was at work in that writer’s mind. My anonymous commenter simply happened to post in reply to that entry. There may be a connection in his mind (I’m assuming it’s a him), but not in mine.

0 Responses to “Okay, I’ve got it.”

  1. katfeete

    Well said.

    I waffle on this a bit, because lord, do I despise tokenism — the female/non-white/gay character tossed in as an afterthought, a bone to the dog named Political Correctness. On the other hand, I’ve come to recognize the dis-inclusion as a kind of authorial laziness. I keep remembering a post made on a sff.net newsgroup (in relation to some questions on a Mary Sue test on my site) in which the poster said, “The character has my gender and race because he needs to have a gender and race, so why not make him mine so I don’t have to strain to come up with it? The story is not about gender and race.”

    Leaving aside the problem that the story is not about gender and race only if you are a white male, I’ve always assumed that a necessary component of writing to stretch for people you aren’t — that, in other words, what this particular poster considered an unnecessary strain was the entire point.

    For myself, as a writer, I found that once I’d gotten over the defensive “don’t want token characters” excuse, inclusiveness was mostly a matter of timing. Once a character was set in my head as a particular race or gender (sexuality seems a bit more open to flex), it was impossible to change, but if I thought to ask myself, “must this character be white?” early enough, then I came up with a far wider variety of characters. It’s a tactic, now habit, that has made me a better writer overall.

    (While I tended to write slightly more women than men, it was race that was my particular bugaboo — I grew up in a 98% white, very rural, corner of Virginia, and so unsurprisingly I tend to assume everybody’s white. Darn early training.)

    Anyway, just some random, semi-associated thoughts. Thanks for posting something that sparked them.

    • Marie Brennan

      the story is not about gender and race only if you are a white male

      Well said, back atcha. ^_^

      I hear you, on prodding yourself early enough. I did that with an urban fantasy YA project I’m considering; the idea was taking shape in my head right during International Blog Against Racism Week, and as I posted at the time, I suddenly found myself wondering, “why is everyone in this story white?” So now the boyfriend is black and the best friend is probably half-Vietnamese. The protagonist and one other central character have to be white for plot reasons (as in, their ancestry is part of the story, and it has to be European); the one remaining character of importance can’t seem to be anything other than white in my head.

      It isn’t about tokenism; it’s about me prodding myself out of my defaults. America isn’t all-white, so my story shouldn’t be, either, unless there’s a good reason. (Hell, if I were setting it in L.A. instead of Massachusetts, I’d throw the proportions the other way — there’d probably be three Hispanics, three Asians, and three blacks to every white person in the book.)

  2. Anonymous

    No worries! Working out the individual instances helps with the larger problem.

  3. Anonymous

    It’s easy to get caught up in the technical details, if you know them. But in a sense, that’s just a different form of info-dumping; it’s My Research/Skill Let Me Show You It. If you’re writing for the audience that loves that sort of thing, awesome — I’m told Tom Clancy’s technothriller infodumps are half the reason readers show up for his books in the first place. But it won’t work for everything.

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