April is a special time of year at the Fantasy Book Cafe. It’s Women in SFF Month, a time when women who write and/or read science fiction and fantasy get their chance to post essays on everything from the state of the genre to their own personal favorite or most inspiring books. Each year their commentaries offer fresh food for thought, even on issues that have been contemplated and scrutinized over and over again.
One of these is the notion of gendered traits, the coding of particular characteristics of personality as “masculine” or “feminine.” We’re all familiar with the usual breakdown. Physical strength and courage, aggression, assertion of authority, and high-adrenaline risk-taking are “masculine.” Caregiving, the desire to please and concern for the comfort of others, interest in clothes and hair and other facets of appearance, nurturing, ease with talk of feelings, and selflessness sometimes to the point of self-abnegation are “feminine.” Guys like action movies; gals like romantic comedies. Guys like Walker: Texas Ranger; gals like Sex and the City. This coding has been covered and questioned hundreds of times, but somehow no one manages to have the last word.
Because, I’m afraid, there is no last word to be had. Ideas about gender keep changing, and so the conversation goes through endless permutations.
Fantasy novelist Sam Hawke, author of City of Lies (a book that has been on my To-Read list of a while, and that I will read this year, I swear), writes about how her ideas regarding gender and gendered traits have evolved in her essay for Fantasy Book Cafe, “The Sewing Test.” She explains the test is failed “when a book deploys a lazy code to tell me how much better, more interesting, more deserving a female character is than those silly other women by making her hate sewing or embroidery or [insert other female-coded activity]. . . It’s a statement that I’m expected to cheer on one woman by disparaging the rest of them.” While she may have grown up loving stories of the rebellious tomboy who fights her way free of restrictive gender roles, she says, she’s come to see that other forms of strength need to be valorized, hence her decision to write a heroine she describes as “kind, emotionally intuitive, clever, and psychologically if not physically resilient.” What she has created, and what makes me eager to read City of Lies, is a story in which these characteristics can save the day, in the face of the dominance of narratives where fighting is the primary path to victory.
Science fiction novelist S.L. Huang, author of Zero Sum Game, offers a different take on gendered traits in her essay “Being a Woman.” She describes the ongoing debate over what qualities a “strong female character” should have: “the pendulum would swing from ‘more strong female characters!’ to ‘stop writing women as if they’re men with boobs.’. . . Too often I saw people’s arguments devolving into telling people to stop writing exactly the women who were most like me, framing them as ‘not real women’ . . . A big step to figuring all this out was coming to question whether I was a cis woman at all.”
I may not have questioned my own place on the gender spectrum in quite the same way, but her words strike home with me, as I read this post only a couple of days after seeing a comment on Reddit Books complaining that the heroes in Robert Jackson Bennett’s Divine Cities trilogy, Shara Khomayd and Turyin Mulaghesh, were poorly written because they weren’t feminine enough. Since I just finished City of Blades and enjoyed every minute I spent in Mulaghesh’s company, this incensed me. How exactly is Mulaghesh insufficiently womanly? Because she can fight? Because she won’t put up with idiocy? Because she’s not overly worried about making everybody else feel good? Because she doesn’t get a romantic subplot foisted on her? I love her for all that! Like Huang, I want to see more characters like her, not fewer.
Oddly enough, I suspect that what makes Mulaghesh work so well for me is one of the things that makes Kalina work for readers of City of Lies: different as they are, both characters inhabit works relatively free of recognizable sexism. As a military woman, Mulaghesh is not an anomaly; many of the soldiers we see in secondary and tertiary roles are women. Kalina struggles with her disability, not gender expectations. In these worlds, women can do pretty much anything their individual capacities will allow, and strengths like kindness, empathy, courage, and confidence aren’t attributed to one gender or another. As a result, both characters are free to be themselves.
And it makes me think: do we writers concern ourselves a little too much with culturally gendered traits when we shape our female characters and try to endow them with life? How often do we let our awareness of the coding slow us down, or compromise our vision?
I wasn’t a tomboy like Hawke or Huang when I was growing up, but neither was I a girly girl. I hated sports and was lousy at them, yet I didn’t share the interests a lot of the girls in my class seemed to gravitate toward. I didn’t like make-up. When it came to clothes, I cared much more about comfort than fashion. My favorite pastimes were making up and acting out stories, and I couldn’t see those activities as belonging to a particular gender. Most of the fictional characters I admired most happened to be male, but they were boundlessly creative (if neurotic) storytellers like Danny Kaye’s Hans Christian Andersen, peculiar prophets like Fiver in Watership Down, wise and insightful teachers like Mr. Chips or Rudyard Kipling’s Bagheera and Kaa, or energetic clowns like Donald O’Connor’s Cosmo in Singin’ in the Rain. I saw no reason why the qualities that drove me toward them shouldn’t be found in girls as well as boys. That made it all the more frustrating that I had such a hard time finding girl characters with those traits — I only discovered Scheherezade, Mokey Fraggle, Matilda Wormwood, and Doreen Green much later — so that I saw no alternative to making up my own.
Between “masculine” and “feminine” coded traits we find a host of wonderful qualities up for grabs: intelligence, imagination, creativity, resourcefulness, integrity, honor, humor, idealism, competence, confidence, determination. None of these traits should or would render a character “too” masculine or feminine, and it’s this pool of characteristics I like to draw from when I’m fashioning my own characters, whatever their gender.
Bring on the female bards, artists, musicians, and neurotic storytellers. Bring on the female loopy inventors, and fearless, fanciful explorers. Bring on the female mentors and guides. Bring on the female eccentric seers. If we don’t like the gender-coding we’ve been given, challenging and changing it are in our hands.