Ways of Struggling with Gender

YA writer Mette Ivie Harrison writes an excellent post on Gender Masquerades (mostly focusing on the tv show The Mentalist but with wider applicability):

As it is now, any romance between them I think is simply too uncomfortable for a modern American audience which, for all our talk about equality between men and women, still clings to very stereotypical views of what is feminine and what is masculine. I wish that I believed that we would come to accept that labeling certain behaviors as “masculine” or “feminine” is just silly and ultimately confining to both men and women in the real world. We should not choose our behavior based on what is allowable to our gender, but on what is authentic to our feelings and to the person we want others to see us as. All gender, in my view, is in the end, a masquerade.

Her thoughts have a lot of resonance with me and my experience (as does a story she tells from her own childhood) for a number of reasons.

I’ll just mention one, reflecting the current series I’m working on, Spiritwalker (Cold Magic and Cold Fire, with Cold Steel still a-writing). [If you are extremely sensitive about spoilers, the following may be construed to have them in the most general sense.]

One of the elements I’m struggling with in Cold Steel is, as always, the baggage of my youth sliding in unannounced and unheralded to warp what I think I’m trying to do (what I’m actually doing is probably beyond my ability to parse).

I’m a feminist. I’m an athlete. As a child I was what was then called a “tomboy,” which to me means merely that the things I was told were “boy” things, like playing outdoors, climbing trees, being active, and wanting to have adventures, were the things I did and wanted to do.

I try very hard to write stories in which there are as many female characters as male characters, with as much agency and importance in the plot. Yet I often have consciously to go back through later drafts to make sure that my female leads aren’t being more passive than I actually want them to be, aren’t letting others make decisions for them or devise all the cunning plans (unless there is a specific reason because of experience, competencies, or social roles), are showing leadership, and are present as confident individuals with a strong sense of themselves (as long as that is within character).

Yes, even with Cat, who is one of the most forthright characters I have ever written.

Curiously, I had less of this problem with the character Mai, in the Crossroads Trilogy, who is certainly my most stereotyped-gender “feminine” protagonist. In an odd way, this suggests to me that I may have been to some extent unthinkingly “comfortable” with the limitations she and others saw in her role, enough so I was always able to write her as a strong-minded character who grows into her full potential without any unconscious backsliding on my part. One way to describe it is that she fit a role I never did, although I was told often enough by the society around me that it was a role girls ought to want to fit. Obviously Mai’s journey has its own unique path, but regardless, I find that the more I dig down, the more baggage I find.

With Spiritwalker one of the interesting struggles I’ve had is with the American ideal (and I want to be specific here by citing American culture) of the male warrior hero. I’ve written warrior heroes before (Sanglant from Crown of Stars is an example of this type). Andevai is not a warrior hero. He can in some ways be described as essentially a geek. I grant you that he is an extremely competitive young man who takes any assault on his status so personally that he will go out of his way to make sure you know that he is better than you at whatever it was you challenged him at . . . albeit mostly within the context of his expertise, which is cold magic, and almost exclusively in the context of other young men.

Cat is the one with the killer instinct (which I mean literally). When Andevai says, “That is what I want. No killing.” in Cold Fire, does that make him less manly, by these standards? She’s the effective fighter who thinks on her feet. He’s the methodical thinker who prefers to plan everything out. They’re both very physical, by which I mean they both live very much in and think about their bodies, but his physicality is mostly described in the context of his manual labor, his fixation on his appearance, and the mentions of his love of dancing (which culturally for him is a masculine activity) while hers is mostly described in athletic terms, like punching sharks, out-racing soldiers, and playing batey. Her capacity for violence is much higher than his. I keep slamming up against my own knee-jerk reaction that I have to make him more violent lest readers think he is not “masculine” enough while at the same time I deliberately riff on “beauty and the beast” variations to flip these expectations.

I go on about this because I’m trying to understand how these underlying message creep into my ways of struggling with gender in my fiction. I don’t have an answer, nor do I think there really is one except for the constant need to be alert, to be present, to try to keep one’s eyes open and learn and do better. It’s a constant, changing process, just as living is.

Do you struggle with gender issues in your work? Do you struggle with gender issues in work you read? To go back to what Harrison said, where do you find your authenticity?


ETA: I want to flag Cora Buhlert’s really excellent post responding to Mette’s post as well as (to a lesser extent) my own.

Hmm, looking at all this I wonder whether the rather rigid gender role pattern in the US (which is a lot more rigid than in Germany) is gradually breaking up.