Non-binary and Not Represented – Morgan Dambergs
In part of her introductory essay on non-binary gender in SF/F, Alex Dally MacFarlane wrote about Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, noting that it has become the, “go-to book for mind-blowing gender in SF, despite being written in 1968. Nothing written in the decades since has got the same traction.” Le Guin herself has written about her choices in that novel, and acknowledged that there are ways in which she fell short of her goal and failed to create a truly agender society.
Bookseller Morgan Dambergs talks about the very few books that acknowledge non-binary gender at all, and reiterates that what they are asking for isn’t to be included in Every Single Story, but simply to be acknowledged, and for the genre “to treat us in stories and in life as regular human beings rather than oddities or jokes or something purely alien.”
I am genderqueer—agender, specifically—and at thirty-one, I have yet to read a novel that features an agender character. I guess that shouldn’t be surprising to me: in the last decade or so, I’ve read more than two hundred science fiction and fantasy books, and only three have included non-binary characters at all. I think that lack of representation has a lot to do with why it took me twenty-one years to find out that non-binary identities exist, and why it’s only been in the last six months that I’ve finally accepted my own genderqueer identity as real and something I’m allowed to express.
When I was nineteen, I read Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness. I remember being very interested in the Gethenians, a species of humanoids that spend most of their lives sexless and genderless. But a mild fascination was as far as it ever went for me; there was never any sense of identification. There are two reasons why The Left Hand of Darkness failed to resonate with me. First, when I read the book, I had never yet heard the words “genderqueer” or “non-binary” or even “genderfuck,” or heard of anyone who identified as anything other than binary male or female. I had no lexicon to help me drawn a connection between the genderless Gethenians and my lifelong discomfort at with treated as either purely female or purely male. As far as I knew, there was no human experience comparable to how the Gethenians lived. For example, except during their monthly breeding period called kemmer, Gethenians don’t have any genitalia, so they’re not assigned a gender at birth. Our world, on the other hand, had made it clear that because I was assigned female at birth, I had two options: “stay” female (I didn’t have the word “cisgender” yet either) or “become” a transgender man. Since my biology and society were not and could never be like the Gethenians, the genderlessness of Gethen life never amounted to more than a pleasant thought experiment for me.
My second issue with the book was the human protagonist, Genly Ai. Genly is a cisgender male who finds the genderless Gethenians completely baffling, and spends much of the novel arbitrarily labelling them masculine or feminine to make himself more comfortable. I realize that Le Guin was trying to use Genly’s prejudices to point out the arbitrariness of that kind of labelling. But like the human protagonists in many SF and F stories, Genly is also intended to be the readers’ entry point into Le Guin’s speculative world. His point of view is the one meant to ease us into and explain the stranger aspects of the Gethenians—not least their lack of gender. When you’re a human being who is deeply uncomfortable with the idea of having to choose between being exclusively male or exclusively female, and your first introduction to the idea of a genderless society is from the point of view of a human who can’t wrap his head around how anyone could ever be truly genderless, it’s pretty, well, alienating.
And then there are the other two books I mentioned. The first is Valentine by S. P. Somtow, the second book in one of my favourite horror trilogies. The book’s non-binary character is named PJ Gallagher. He identifies as cisgender male in the first and third books of the trilogy, but becomes temporarily (and mystically) non-binary as part of the plot of Valentine. PJ accepts his transformation gracefully, as do his fellow protagonists, and he’s not treated like a freak. But he does ultimately identify as a cisgender man, not as a non-binary and/or genderqueer person, so there’s little about his experience of non-binariness that matches up with mine. PJ’s non-binariness is fleeting, not a journey and a struggle he’s been going through all his life. Also, PJ is from a half-Shoshone background, and Somtow misappropriates a real non-binary Shoshone identity, called “berdache,” to describe PJ. My understanding is that being berdache is a lifelong identity, not a temporary one. I can only imagine that PJ’s portrayal must be infuriating and hurtful to anyone who identifies as berdache in real life.
The second book is Craig Thompson’s graphic novel Habibi, which is no less problematic. The non-binary characters are based on the Hijra, a real third sex—neither male nor female—that has long existed in parts of the Indian subcontinent and Pakistan. My understanding is that, like Somtow’s misuse of “berdache,” Thompson’s idea of what it means to be Hijra has little to do with the lives of real Hijra people, especially in the modern day.
The Hijra in Habibi take in Zam, an adolescent boy who is one of the book’s two protagonists. Under their care, Zam becomes a eunuch (a practice that is not especially common amongst real-life Hijra) and is taught how to live and work within their communal home. When Zam eventually rejects them and runs away, he talks about feeling disgusted and regretful that he “ruined” his body in trying to become one of them.
It’s hard to put into words just how much that bothered me—and again, the portrayal must be so much more hurtful to anyone who self-identifies as Hijra. I can’t speak as a Hijra; but I can say as an agender person that, although I don’t deny being genderqueer has made my life more difficult, I also don’t regret growing up to be the person I am. I definitely don’t pine for the cisgender woman I could maybe, potentially, have been. And I’ve read nothing that implies the average Hijra feels any less comfortable with their non-binariness than I do with mine. That makes Zam’s arc little more than a twist on the old “gay recruitment” scare story: an innocent young boy becomes trapped in the clutches of the twisted Hijra, who coerce him into becoming one of them—and it ruins his life forever!!! (Yeah, ’cause that’s not horrible or marginalizing or written from a place of extreme cis privilege.)
So let’s recap real quick. Of the three books I’ve read in the last eleven years that include non-binary characters, one features non-binary aliens who are painted as too alien for me to find identifiable; one has a character who self-identifies as cisgender male but becomes non-binary very briefly for a specific, mystical purpose; and the third treats its non-binary characters as manipulative, pathetic and/or self-hating.
Not much to work with, really, is it?
I followed the comments on Alex Dally MacFarlane’s introductory post for her Tor.com series on non-binary characters closely. One of the most frustrating arguments I encountered is that because some SF and F stories featuring non-binary characters have already been written, there’s no need to spend time talking about them. The people making that argument seem to feel that all the books need to do is exist and the people who need them most will find them somehow. But I’ve been in need of those stories for as long as I can remember and have been actively searching for them for close to a decade. So far, with no resources at all to point me in the right direction, The Left Hand of Darkness, Valentine and Habibi are all I’ve managed to turn up.
When I was younger, reading about shy and introverted characters helped me feel like I wasn’t the only shy, introverted person alive in the world, and like those traits were just personality differences, not flaws I had to fix. I have every reason to believe that, if I’d had the chance to read more books about non-binary characters as a teen or young adult, I could have understood and accepted my agender identity many years ago. That’s why the discussion of non-binary genders in the science fiction and fantasy community is so important to me. Drawing attention to—maybe even inspiring authors to write more—SF and F novels that include non-binary characters can potentially change the lives of real non-binary people for the better. We’re not demanding to be included in every single science fiction and fantasy story ever written from now on. But asking the science fiction and fantasy community to acknowledge our existence, to no longer assume the gender binary is the default, to treat us in stories and in life as regular human beings rather than oddities or jokes or something purely alien—I don’t think that’s really so much to ask.
Morgan Dambergs runs a very small used bookstore in their hometown of Halifax, Canada. They spend much (though never enough) of their free time reading and writing speculative fiction. They hope to someday publish some fantasy and horror novels, which will, naturally, include both non-binary and binary characters.
February 28, 2014 @ 9:40 am
A novel with agender protagonist I can think of (content warning: the protagonist’s home culture treats their agender minority VERY BADLY, in all the ways a majority usually mistreats a minority over whom they have total power) is Carolyn Ives Gilman’s “Halfway Human”, which I found really well-done. Mind, I’m trans, not agender, but it didn’t feel tokenist or like the novel agreed with the more trogloditic characters within it.
February 28, 2014 @ 10:11 am
Thank you both for posting this.
I’ve been thinking about writing “the other” lately, and have tried to include non-binary people in stories (of questionable quality), as well as other “others.” The more I write about “other,” the less “other” it is, which I find a weird and uncomfortable sensation–probably good in general, but annoying because then I start taking “other” for granted, then look for other “others” and so on, while my subconscious resets “normal” to “cisgender white people” while I’m not looking. That’s an internal challenge to writing “other.” “Other” keeps getting rickrolled into my own personal “normal.” GAH.
The external challenge. I get yelled at, from time to time, on handling “other” situations like a ton of bricks. I call this on myself; I often include heavy doses of satire and horror that’s presented as chipper and cheerful. I think that’s more of a problem with me and presenting satire and horror well (a matter of skill), but it still bites. I want to yell at people. “Stop taking yourself so seriously! It’s a DYSTOPIA. They don’t handle diversity well!” Moreover, I’ve been a hypocrite and yelled at people who meant well and handled poorly the “other” stuff that I know personally, so I *really* don’t have a leg to stand on.
Everybody’s working on their skill levels, nobody likes to get yelled at, and, in short, blah blah blah excuses.
Thank you for helping me refocus on this. It was an excellent blog post, and I will stop chickening out.
February 28, 2014 @ 10:13 am
Perhaps the problem with agender characters being written well and common is they are daunting to write unless you come from a place of knowledge. I speak from my own writing experience in that I would be afraid even with the best of intentions of doing a poor job of writing an agender character or offending those out there who live that experience. However, I would greatly enjoy reading stories that included them in a thoughtful way, one with respect and knowledge.
February 28, 2014 @ 10:32 am
I am actually working on a book with a non-binary character for whom the non-binaryness is a normal part of hir culture. It is a fantasy book written for young adults, and I hope to have it finished this year and published the next (if someone is kind enough to pick it up). So far my first readers’ response to the book has been very positive, especially this particular character.
February 28, 2014 @ 10:33 am
I remember having very similar feelings about two of those books, and that was from a Cis PoV. With LHD, I was too young to realise about unreliable narrators, so found it incredibly frustrating that this dude was spending the whole book assigning gender and judging people. I guess I was used to finding protagonists likeable and sympathising with them. I keep meaning to read it again now.
Habibi was such a hot mess. I kept waiting to turn the page and have him go HAHA! I’m subverting all of this! See how wrong you were to buy into all over these exploitative Orientalist tropes I’ve been feeding you? But no. It was just 800 pages of Orientalist tropes with like gazillion graphic rape scenes. I think I gave up before I got to much of Zam’s story. Now I’m glad I did. Pity. The art was stunning.
Thank you for writing about your experiences, Morgan.
Jim, thanks for hosting. Is this the end of the line?
February 28, 2014 @ 10:36 am
Kris, I was thinking the exact same thing as I read the post. If I were to attempt to write characters who’s experience I have no personal knowledge of, then I’ll be the next one who’s not doing it right. It almost seems like arrogance to even think I could pull that off.
The intersection between people who identify as agender and are also writers AND could also write a good novel about it must be a pretty small space. There must be someone out there, though.
My biggest frustration is that this would be less of an issue if our cultures didn’t work so hard at pigeonholing genders in the first place. All women are This Way and all men are That Way is terrible for everyone.
Jim C. Hines
February 28, 2014 @ 10:39 am
Good writing, as a general rule, requires research. Sometimes that means Googling dolphin penises because you’re trying to figure out the biology of your merfolk. (Not that I’ve ever done that, personally…) But I think it also means working to listen and read and learn about people who are different from yourself in whatever ways.
I’ve certainly screwed up in my own writing before. But the two things that have really helped me to improve, I think, are:
1. I figured out that in my very early (thankfully unpublished) stories, I was defining characters one-dimensionally. I.e., “This is the Diabetic Character.” Getting over that and letting the characters be people first, helped a lot. The different aspects of their character shape who they are, but none of them should be solely defining.
2. Listening. Reading blogs and Twitter and comments and books from a more diverse range. I had to make that a conscious choice in the beginning. And also listening to the feedback on my writing — even the harsh feedback.
Writing is scary. Putting your work out there can be terrifying. But I think the best writers are often the ones who aim high and choose to write the things that scare them.
Jim C. Hines
February 28, 2014 @ 10:41 am
I believe this is the last guest post. There are one or two folks who didn’t get back to me, so if something shows up from them in my email, I may do another post. But I’m planning on doing a big roundup next.
Given how this went, though, I definitely want to look into doing something similar in the future.
February 28, 2014 @ 10:49 am
Well yeah, but is this the kind of thing I can really understand and write well after online research? To do it real justice, I’m imagining I’d need to actually talk to a number of people to get a feel for their point of view.
Huh, by the end of writing that paragraph, I started to think maybe I really could do that. But some better writer than me with more existing knowledge is going to be a better choice in the short run, otherwise y’all going to be waiting a hell of a long time for that book. 😉
February 28, 2014 @ 10:51 am
I constantly face the fear of “putting it out there”, but oddly have found that my biggest fear has not been so much “getting it wrong”, as it being unpublishable because the world hasn’t changed enough. I’ve spent my life a proud member of the freaks and geeks club, and while my personal nuclear family is alarmingly vanilla (at least from the perspective of someone who doesn’t know us well), my inner circle of friends is … not so much… and offers a tremendous source of research and guidance with dealing with cultures and subcultures that are not my own.
Jim C. Hines
February 28, 2014 @ 10:57 am
There’s no reason to limit it to online 🙂
David Louis Edelman
February 28, 2014 @ 11:00 am
Thanks to Morgan for this, and thanks to Jim for posting it. I suspect the problem right now is mostly one of awareness rather than one of prejudice. I doubt that a significant portion of the SF/F population (let alone the general population) is even aware that non-binary sexuality exists. Western society’s only just starting to take transgender issues seriously, to accept the fact that sane people might want to (or need to) transition from one gender to another. The fact that some perfectly sane, healthy people might not want to identify with one gender or the other hasn’t even occurred to most in this country. (Of course, once it does occur to them, then you’ll get to deal with their hatred, prejudice and xenophobia, which will just be oodles of fun, I’m sure.)
February 28, 2014 @ 11:18 am
I think that lack of representation has a lot to do with why it took me twenty-one years to find out that non-binary identities exist, and why it’s only been in the last six months that I’ve finally accepted my own genderqueer identity as real and something I’m allowed to express.
It could have been me writing that sentence. Thank you, Morgan, for writing a beautiful piece. I could not agree with this more. And I couldn’t have said it better than you did here:
I have every reason to believe that, if I’d had the chance to read more books about non-binary characters as a teen or young adult, I could have understood and accepted my agender identity many years ago. That’s why the discussion of non-binary genders in the science fiction and fantasy community is so important to me. Drawing attention to—maybe even inspiring authors to write more—SF and F novels that include non-binary characters can potentially change the lives of real non-binary people for the better. We’re not demanding to be included in every single science fiction and fantasy story ever written from now on. But asking the science fiction and fantasy community to acknowledge our existence, to no longer assume the gender binary is the default, to treat us in stories and in life as regular human beings rather than oddities or jokes or something purely alien—I don’t think that’s really so much to ask.
February 28, 2014 @ 11:20 am
Interesting article. As someone noted already, part of the reason many writers won’t tackle an agender main character is because most would be afraid to “not get it right” (you have, after all, attacked writers who have done just that. With reason, I might add). I doubt any of the writers you mentioned in the article meant to insult anyone. I personally would not know how to begin writing such a character. When you’ve never had a doubt in your life about being a man or a woman, how do you fathom not knowing or not being either? I have never believed in “write what you know” because if we writers only did that, well… we wouldn’t have westerns, sci-fi, fantasy, or anything else that’s not about driving to work or raising kids in modern America. But at the same time, a writer ought to have some clue of their subject matter (exhibit A: Craig Thompson) in order to treat it with some respect.
Perhaps, then, it is Morgan that needs to write a book, to ensure such a character gets the proper treatment, for the sake of future agender individuals looking for a voice.
On another note, “Star Trek: Enterprise” did an episode about an alien race with three genders. This alien race has a binary pair that require the third gender for the purposes of reproduction. The third gender is statistically rarely born (only 3% of the race), so binary couples who want children have to apply to be assigned a “Cogenitor.” The Cogenitor is treated like a nearly inanimate object (and called “It” the entire episode). Even though It’s an intelligent being, they don’t get educated, they are expected to remain quiet in the presence of others, they don’t eat with the family, and they are rather like servants.
So the Enterprise’s Chief Engineer, Tucker, becomes fascinated with It. He ends up secretly sneaking into the alien’s quarters and teaching It to read and about human history and space exploration, and suggesting that It has the same rights as the male and female members of Its race. Turns out It is very intelligent, and becomes voracious about reading, and experiencing everything that life has to offer. Ultimately the alien asks for political asylum on the Enterprise, wishing to stay on the ship instead of return to a life of servitude.
I won’t ruin the ending in case anyone wants to check it out. It’s a Season 2 episode and it’s called “Cogenitor.”
Jim C. Hines
February 28, 2014 @ 11:24 am
Claudia – Criticizing a book is not the same thing as attacking a writer. I don’t see anywhere in this post where Morgan has attacked anyone.
There’s no such thing as a published book that doesn’t receive criticism. It’s part of being an author.
February 28, 2014 @ 11:49 am
As a cisgender hetero female I empathize with the previous posters who have said that they are afraid of trying to tackle non-binary genders in their own fiction. I have the same fear of getting non-binary characters wrong or exoticizing them in some way, and so I’ve continued to write typically binary characters.
But that’s just the easy way out – we need to move past this fear. In particular, the comment that Morgan should write her own book so that agender individuals can be represented in spec-fic is highly problematic. Why should the people who are being stigmatized/minimized do all the hard work? I find that to be close to blaming the victim: “Hey, there, the reason you’re not being heard is because you’re not loud enough. The fact that there are so many other voices drowning you out isn’t the problem, you know; it’s just an unfortunate coincidence. Now shout harder.”
February 28, 2014 @ 11:49 am
I wanted to note that the term ‘berdache’ is considered problematic in some circles. It’s French in origin and… not very complimentary, at all. ‘Two-Spirit’ seems to have entered the lexicon in an attempt to displace it.
I keep rolling Habibi around in my head, too. Setting everything else aside, I’m reading Zam as a person who ultimately identifies as male, despite their experiences with and living as one of he Hijra. As a transwoman, I haven’t much in the way of castration anxieties, but I can understand a young person upset at their inability to perform in their desired biological and cultural context. On a character level, it works. Taken as a whole? Whoa, nellie. Gay recruitment with a side of tearful remorse and permanent scarring, hooray.
Michi Trota (@GeekMelange)
February 28, 2014 @ 11:53 am
I do hope you do it again. I know several people who only heard about this after you were (unsurprisingly) inundated with ideas and wished they’d had a chance to submit, too. I think this is a lovely way to share your already considerable platform with people who might not otherwise have the chance to have their say, so count me in for looking forward to another round of guest posts sometime in the future.
February 28, 2014 @ 11:54 am
Mary Gentle has a race of aliens (in ‘Golden Witchbreed’ and ‘Ancient Light’) who are born agender and get gendered at puberty. Nobody knows what they will be, so they’re raised gender-neutrally. It’s not a lifelong state, and it’s not the point of the story, but it’s something. I thought the books were good.
February 28, 2014 @ 11:54 am
Thanks. A roundup will be a great way to point others to these posts. I don’t have the writing gene myself, but find discussions of these topics helpful both to my own reading choices, and to assisting in better understanding my students in my role as a university advisor.
Thanks again to all the contributors!
Michi Trota (@GeekMelange)
February 28, 2014 @ 12:04 pm
Nowhere in the article did the author state that they thought the presentations of agender characters they found were written that way to be intentionally insulting or offensive. However, “intention isn’t magic” and pointing out how characters may have been written problematically isn’t automatically saying that writer of those stories is “bad”.
I second Jim in the need to remember that “criticism” != “an attack.”
Even if Morgan wished to do so, simply writing stories with those characters (and doing it well) != getting them published. There are already considerable barriers to getting published and it’s often that much harder when you are not only writing about characters who publishers may (erroneously) consider “not sellable to a mainstream audience”, but you also come from a marginalized group who has that much harder of a time getting picked up by publishers.
There is absolutely no obligation on Morgan, or anyone else who feels similarly about wishing to see more representation in SF/F, to write the stories and characters that they wish to see more of. Just by speaking up, Morgan (and the other essayists in this series) are providing a rather substantial amount of guidance and food for thought for other writers who may want to address similar issues in their own writing.
February 28, 2014 @ 12:11 pm
It’s be cool of you to run it again. I look forward to it. Maybe it could be an annual thing?
I’ll probably link the roundup around once you do it.
February 28, 2014 @ 12:15 pm
Thanks for putting this out there, and to Jim for hosting all of these great posts.
For me it’s laziness. It’s easymode to write the typical genders or just not bring it up at all. Just have to get out of that mode somehow.
And I love the BS people give about “there already are some stories about *your* type, no need for more!!1!!” Well then, stop the effin presses, cause there’s more than enough SWM fiction on the shelves! All done here, nothing to see, no more stories will ever be written because it’s all be done! Hate that crap. That’s why I love NaNoWriMo; “The world needs YOUR story.”
Michi Trota (@GeekMelange)
February 28, 2014 @ 12:25 pm
Exactly. I get very twitchy when I see the “Well, why don’t you write the characters/create the video game/draw the comic book art/etc you want and put it into the market for others to buy and learn from, so you can change things that way?” argument. It’s from a well-meaning but somewhat blinkered point of view that supposes that doing so is just that easy when it really, really isn’t. Especially when you belong to a group of people who already have even more of an uphill battle to fight to even break into those industries in the first place.
The idea that it’s “difficult to write characters who aren’t like me” because you’re afraid of doing it wrong is, while understandable, also ignores something fairly critical: people who are not white or straight or cisgender or men are already expected to write characters not like themselves and do so believably. There was a really great interview with Greg Rucka, who’s written some amazing comics, including a fantastic run writing Wonder Woman, who pointed out why he hates getting asked how he “writes women so well”:
Rucka is just talking about writing female characters, but this idea carries across to other issues as well. In the essay I wrote earlier this week, I talked a bit about how my characters tended to be almost always white, even when I was Mary Sueing myself – even as an Asian American woman, I’m comfortable writing my characters as white, even more so than I am about writing them with Asian identities. I am just as comfortable writing about characters who are women as much as I am writing characters who are men. THIS is the “gift” of living in a society where the default identity is “straight, white, cisgender, man” – these are the identities we’re conditioned to empathize with and see as the “normal default.” The corollary to that being that we’ve also internalized the idea that writing characters OTHER than “straight, white, cisgender, man,” (especially if you are one or more of those defaults) requires some sort of super special power in order to do it right, when in fact it doesn’t. All it requires is that, as a writer, you put just as much thought and effort into writing characters who are agender, PoC, transgender, etc., as you do writing characters who are white, straight, etc. – by writing them as people, not as tropes or stereotypes. Writers research, this is nothing new. All this means is that you just need to research a few more things.
Tina Smith Gower
February 28, 2014 @ 12:35 pm
Thank you so very much for this. I don’t feel I’ve the words to say how much it helps hearing this so many times from so many angles. I default binary. And I’d very much like to break this habit!
Thank you, Morgan for your insight 🙂
February 28, 2014 @ 12:51 pm
Have you read Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan books? In several of them, there’s a hermaphrodite who is a fully fleshed-out character and comes from a world where they are not uncommon. I’d be interested in your thoughts on this.
February 28, 2014 @ 1:58 pm
Thank you Jim, for opening up your blog to this wonderful mind-expanding series of posts. After reading this one, I’m adding gender to my list of “character traits to consider”. I never thought about it before, having grown up in such a binary society, but it’s something that I think will ultimately flesh out my characters and give them depth. I’d recommend, beyond the obvious research, that any writer wary of full-on committing to a genderqueer character just take some time to ask themselves what their character’s relationship to gender is, even if they don’t end up being genderqueer. You might learn more about your characters in the process.
Beth Bernier Pratt (@bbpratt)
February 28, 2014 @ 3:03 pm
I hope you do more! This series has been one of the best things on the web lately.
February 28, 2014 @ 3:04 pm
Part of the hurdle to cross is linguistic, as well. As you point out, we’ve only just gotten some of these words (like “cisgender” and “genderqueer”) in our lexicon, and they’re unfamiliar to a great many people outside of certain circles. Even within those circles, people can’t always agree on things like pronouns. I know people who choose, like yourself, a singular “they” (which can get confusing in a narrative context) others who go with “xie” (however that’s pronounced), some who alternate pronouns (also confusing in a narrative). It’s all over the board, and it introduces a layer of difficulty to the actual act of writing. Not that this is a reason to avoid it, but I suspect something that simple really does play a role in why nonbinary characters don’t get more play.
I don’t know any stories directly off-hand featuring genderqueer or agender people as such. I’ve got a couple things that at least flirt with the topic, though, that might be interesting.
One is actually an anime (and I believe a manga, though I haven’t read it if so) called Ouran High School Host Club. The story is about a girl, Haruhi, who ends up through circumstance acting as a boy in a male host club (which caters romantically to female clients), and the whole series is very funny and self-referential, playing with a lot of shojo tropes. But the thing that I enjoyed is that nobody makes a particularly big deal about gender, most especially Haruhi. When asked about her gender, she says:
“…It doesn’t really matter, does it? Why should I care about appearances and labels, anyway? It’s what’s on the inside that counts.” And it’s pretty much left at that.
Of course, Ouran Host Club has some other problematic areas, but on the whole it’s pretty fun to watch.
Another recommendation: Tanith Lee plays a lot with gender, especially gender fluidity. The Secret Books of Paradys and Tales From a Flat Earth both deal quite a bit with gender identity, fluid sexuality, and other oddities. Although, I’ll give a big ol’ trigger warning for sexual violence, as it’s a theme that comes up often.
Anyway. Food for thought. This whole series has been very intriguing, and is making me consider some of the stories I’m telling.
February 28, 2014 @ 4:42 pm
A couple of people have commented on the difficulty of writing from a non-binary perspective. Jim has said this can be done with a bit of research, but I think he glossed over the complexities here. Now, I admit that I haven’t done the research, but I presume that Facebook did when they came up with their list of 58 gender identities for their users. However, in this essay Morgan illustrates two new genders that do not appear on Facebook’s list and at the same time expounds on why they were done badly. The problems of writing non-Cis characters are myriad and non-trivial and we must ask the question is this an effective use of the author’s valuable and limited research and writing time.
Morgan says that the lack of non-binary characters in SF delayed the acceptance of their own gender. I can totally understand that. But when I write, I am not writing for a non-binary kid in another country that I have never met so that they can better understand themselves. I am writing for broad appeal; I have to in order to convince a publisher that my work might be worth the investment of printing. And even if I wrote an agendered character perfectly, what then of the gender-fluid, pangender, transfeminine and two-spirited people? Do they not also need inclusion?
February 28, 2014 @ 4:53 pm
Thanks, Elliot, I’ll check that out! I appreciate the warning up front, so I know what I’m in for. After writing the post, I’m even thirstier for non-binary specfic than I was before — especially something that includes agender people — so this is really good to know. 🙂
Michael M. Jones
February 28, 2014 @ 5:00 pm
Another lovely and thought-provoking article.
I think the real stumbling block where non-binary and agender characters are concerned is that it’s a very hard concept for most of us to truly grasp, and it’s also a topic which hasn’t really been present in the mass consciousness until recently. Sure, you have the rare outliers who address the concept like le Guin, but still…
I suspect that it’s going to take some mindblowing works from those who truly understand, even exemplify, the non-binary and agender modes, for it to truly take root in the genre. Luckily, I’m seeing a lot of authors and projects at least trying to achieve that goal.
It’s stories like this, though, that make me want to do what little I can to encourage growth, diversity, and representation. Everyone deserves the opportunity to see themselves in the works they read/view/experience.
(On a side note, an erotica anthology I’ve edited, which will be out sometime later this year, features an encounter between a cis female and a character of non-specific gender.)
Morgan, if you take anything away from these comments and my own disjointed ramblings, please know you’re not along in wanting change, and some of us are trying to help affect that change.
February 28, 2014 @ 5:23 pm
i’m sorry, but aren’t we talking about people writing science fiction here?
If I’m not Gregory Benford, can I not write science-bsased work? No, I read, I ask questions, I go to workshops like Launchpad- in other words I do my best to learn my subject.
February 28, 2014 @ 5:28 pm
When I was 13, reading about two 100% lesbian minor characters, and later, a gay male protagonist helped me, a bisexual woman, in the first steps of figuring out my own sexuality. Because the idea of attraction to one’s own gender was introduced to me, I could contemplate the possibility.
(I didn’t come out as such until university but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t thinking, processing, and deciding – and getting crushes – well before then).
So why assume that one has to read (Or in your case, you’re complaining you might have to *Write*) a book with every possible variation of non-binary before thinking “Wait, that might be me”? Because the only ones that Morgan encountered were flawed enough to make it hard to recognize themselves?
No one person will ever be able to include the whole variation of human experiences, especially when it comes to gender, sex and sexuality. That doesn’t mean they should go back to writing just their handful of safe comfortable and already thoroughly represented character types.
As for “I am not writing for a non-binary kid in another country” and the rest of that line.
First, I know writers who have said very nearly exactly that (The writer I am thinking about who laid it out it most explicitly said, paraphrased, that if their books *were* picked up by a 13 year old kid of the minority they happened to be writing about, they wanted that kid to feel that they’ve been identified with and written about truly, not slapped in the face with another horrid stereotype.) NB: Some of the writers I am thinking of who chose to think about representation are bestsellers and/or critically acclaimed, so obviously, thinking about something other than “Broad appeal” worked for them.
And second, most of the people I know who seem to have been well-published/popular/well-reviewed/name-your-condition-for-success weren’t writing for broad appeal. They wrote books true to their own heart and soul – and a part of that heart and soul was shared with friends who didn’t happen to be mainstream. I’ve heard more versions of “When I stopped trying to make my writing please everyone and started writing the books I wanted to read, I finally started getting somewhere” than I have “I wrote for broad appeal, and look, money came my way”.
“The problems of writing non-Cis characters are myriad and non-trivial and we must ask the question is this an effective use of the author’s valuable and limited research and writing time.”
Seems to me that this ENTIRE set of guest posts has been an explicit and obvious “YES” to the idea that researching and writing minorities is not only worth time, it’s IMPORTANT. You reached this guest post and didn’t pick up on that?
Jim C. Hines
February 28, 2014 @ 5:29 pm
I think you’re missing several of the points here. And please note, I never said nor would I ever say that writing *well* is easy.
“And even if I wrote an agendered character perfectly, what then of the gender-fluid, pangender, transfeminine and two-spirited people? Do they not also need inclusion?”
What about them? Nobody’s saying that EVERY story must include EVERYBODY, though that’s what some people seem to be hearing in these conversations. What a lot of people are asking for is a more realistic description of the world and its people, for writers to look beyond the rather narrow and limited subset of characters we often choose to portray.
Personally, I think that yes, it’s totally worth my time as an author to recognize that the world includes a broad range of people, and to try to write a story that acknowledges and reflects that diversity instead of ignoring it because it’s hard.
The problems of writing *any* character well are myriad. That’s part of being a writer. Or at least it’s part of being a *good* writer.
February 28, 2014 @ 5:31 pm
The only agendered characters I can think of are Mercedes Lackey’s wolf-like kyree (IIRC). But I doubt you’d identify closely with a wolf, and the pronouns are relentlessly male. Another of her characters, Tarma, is described as sexless, due to the intervention of her Goddess. While she kicks arse, I don’t know if Tarma would appeal.
There are things about Lackey books that make me want to beat my head against a wall, but assuming you can cope with the “shy child gets a mindspeaking best friend and blossoms” trope, they are fun.
February 28, 2014 @ 5:34 pm
I don’t get the “I’m not agender so I’d be afraid of writing it wrong.” I’m not a man but it’s pretty hard to get away from including men in one’s stories. I’m not a POC but I think everyone here would agree that it’d be a bit weird if I never included any POC in any of my stories (especially since I write fanfic in fandoms that include some awesome POC). I’m not terribly straight or gay or bi but I’ve got to write characters who are.
And yeah, writing some of these things is a bit difficult or a bit scary. Oh noes, I might do it wrong and have someone dislike my story and this is obviously more terrifying than all the other millions of other reasons people might dislike my story. (I mean, actually it is, because if someone doesn’t like my plotting at least the plotting doesn’t actively hurt them, and I don’t like to hurt people. But since lack of inclusion passively hurts people too, really I’m less likely to hurt people if I make some effort. Even if it’s scary.)
But how is agender any more difficult or more scary than any of these other things that I have no personal experience of? At some point I’ve got to get over myself and write something outside my kindofasexual cis white asthmatic female experience, and when I inevitably stuff up I’ve got to take the critique gracefully, and continue to work at my skills so I do better next time.
I mean, that’s not even just a normal part of writing. It’s a normal part of living.
February 28, 2014 @ 6:44 pm
“Alien Nation” the TV show (many years before VOY) did it better — their third gender did whatever job was suited to them as a person, and was an acknowledged part of the family, but didn’t live with them and had entirely independent working and relationship lives. Subsequent children might or might not be the product of the same third parent, but usually were, since there was genuine affection and freedom of choice for everyone.
February 28, 2014 @ 7:03 pm
Well, yeah. Ideally, Morgan would be able to write their books and get them published, but publishing is such a tough business that millions of straight cis white able-bodied men never make it. Jim here is successful at it and still has to hold down a day job to support the family.
And Morgan hits on the point that there need to be a lot more books NOW for the kids to read. Morgan can’t do it alone.
And what about the adult non-SWM who simply aren’t writers? Maybe they’re mathematicians or mechanics or chefs. They need to read about people like them without being told it’s up to them to do all the work.
You wanna tell Michael Sam (the young black gay football player) that if he wants to read about either or both of the minority groups he belongs to, he’s gotta write a book about it in his copious spare time from keeping in tip-top physical shape and hoping to become a professional in his chosen field (also very selective) and being interviewed?
February 28, 2014 @ 7:07 pm
Someone apparently missed both your intro and Morgan’s last paragraph about not wanting to be in every story.
February 28, 2014 @ 7:10 pm
You may not be a man, but you know them, right? You probably know a lot of them, and have your whole life. You probably know some POC and non-cis people, too. It’s not as though you only found out any of those groups existed in the past year.
I don’t know anyone who identifies as agender (or at least who’s open about it). I never even knew that was a possibility until recently. Even Morgan only accepted this in the past six months–and here I went to great lengths to avoid using a gender pronoun because I don’t know what’s correct, and when I tried to google it I found conflicting info. That’s how little I know about it, and I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one here in that position.
So there’s no need to be snide when people are reluctant to write about a subject on which they know almost literally NOTHING.
This will surely resolve over time, but at the moment, most of us are still just discovering this.
And if I had just discovered the existence of men, I doubt I’d be keen to write about one of them either before finding out more about their point of view.
Jim C. Hines
February 28, 2014 @ 7:19 pm
JJ – I don’t think anyone is saying folks should run out to write about subjects they know almost literally nothing about. Rather that, as writers, it’s our job to remedy those gaps in our knowledge.
Michi Trota (@GeekMelange)
February 28, 2014 @ 7:28 pm
Well, the thing of it is, that “reluctance” to write characters whose experience a writer is not that familiar with? Is a really oft-repeated refrain when it comes to excuses as to why writers don’t seem to write as many characters outside the default of gender binary, often straight white able-bodied men, and frankly after you’ve heard it for the millionth time, it’s gotten stale and really annoying. Because writers are supposed to be creative and imaginative – so creating a world with sentient machines and talking plants can be done, but suddenly it’s super difficult to write believable agender characters? It’s like DC’s hand-wringing about doing Wonder Woman “right” and Marvel hedging about making Wakanda “believable” but this summer, we’re getting a comic book movie with a machine-gun toting raccoon and a space Ent. And because women, PoC, people with disabilities, people who aren’t straight and people with non-binary gender identities, are already expected to be able to write characters who reflect most of the societal defaults, even though those aren’t those lived experiences.
Yes, it can be daunting – practically everything about writing and creating your own worlds and characters from scratch is. But it’s also really freaking frustrating to hear how selective that difficulty apparently is when it suddenly comes to writing characters who don’t fit those societal defaults.
February 28, 2014 @ 7:29 pm
Of course not. But after several people admitted that we’re intimidated to write on the subject, having someone mock us for that was a little off-putting.
Besides, I had to pick at the bad logic. 😉 There’s a vast difference between writing something you are not but have familiarity with, and something you just found out about.
Michi Trota (@GeekMelange)
February 28, 2014 @ 7:36 pm
I loved Tarma, and Waarl – their snarky banter was hilarious – but yeah, I don’t think they quite fit the what Morgan is talking about. Tarma was decidedly a cis woman before her… erm, trauma (sigh, rape trope), and AFAICT in the books, even though she was “stripped of sexual desire” there was nothing in the stories that indicated she no longer saw herself as a woman, either. She certainly still referred to herself as one, anyway. Perhaps the more appropriate term for her would be “asexual” as she had no desire for sex with anyone, regardless of gender (and again, the reasons why… make me kinda squinty-eyed).
As much as I loved the Vows and Honor books (still do), I want to go back to them and pour over them with a more critical eye because I remember there were lots of things in there that were nagging in the back of my head as problematic, but I couldn’t put my finger on why (I fell in love with those books when I was 14). I think as an adult now, I might have a better handle on what wasn’t quite working for me.
February 28, 2014 @ 7:36 pm
so creating a world with sentient machines and talking plants can be done, but suddenly it’s super difficult to write believable agender characters?
That’s a false analogy. You can make up a world. You can’t make up someone else’s experience.
Michi Trota (@GeekMelange)
February 28, 2014 @ 7:53 pm
I have to disagree. One of my favorite characters in LotR was Treebeard. A talking tree. Tolkien managed to write him as a wholly believable character, but unless it’s a really well-kept secret, I don’t think there were any talking trees for him to learn from in order for that character to be well done. Same with any number of sentient machine characters: Asimov’s robots, for instance. AFAIK, we haven’t created any intelligent machines and there are none for writers to talk to about their experiences, and yet the creativity and imagination was there to write those characters well.
Writers make up people’s experiences all the time – they can’t get into a person’s head and write directly from someone’s exact PoV, but they can learn by researching, by talking to people and by learning, and if they try, they can write experiences that feel genuine by utilizing what they’ve learned.
Yes, there’s a difference in that there are no talking trees or self-aware machines who can speak up and say “Actually, you got the experience of what it’s like to be me wrong,” but it’s still exercising the same kind of creativity, empathy and imagination to write good characters who aren’t, well, you or from a point of view/experience that you’re familiar with. Which is why the refrain of “but it’s intimidating!” while an understandable feeling, is also really irritating to a lot of people who have those identities that have been largely ignored or unexplored by published, well-known writers. We see people creating amazing worlds and characters whose experiences can help others expand their perspectives, so we would like for our identities and experiences to be reflected, too.
I get why one might feel defensive like “But I didn’t KNOW about identities like this, it’s not my fault for not knowing.” No, it’s not your fault, and now you know, because Morgan, and other essayists, have written about these things. But please also try to understand why it’s been really, really frustrating for people who have identities that are already marginalized IRL to also hear about how “intimidating” it is to write about some of those marginalized identities, too.
February 28, 2014 @ 8:05 pm
Since there are no talking trees, then there’s nothing to get wrong. I’m not going to write about people who actually exist and just make shit up about them.
I feel like you guys are deliberately misinterpreting this. We’re talking about REAL PEOPLE. Not made up races or settings. I don’t think it’s appropriate to treat it the same as talking trees (much as I love Treebeard).
Jeez, this branch of the thread started because I felt that Zeborah was being a little insulting, and now I feel like I’m being attacked for that.
Michi Trota (@GeekMelange)
February 28, 2014 @ 8:08 pm
Well clearly asking for just more representation and more diverse characters means that writers must now have a checklist of “character types” that they have to include in every story (this, by the by, is what ends up making characters tokens rather than well-written participants in a story).
In all seriousness though, all this is asking people to do when they write stories is to consider more identities outside of the cultural defaults.
Jim C. Hines
February 28, 2014 @ 8:27 pm
What is it that’s making you feel attacked, JJ? I’m seeing folks disagree with you and talk about their frustration at some of the responses they see so frequently when talking about the lack of representation and diversity in stories, but I’m not seeing anything that looked like an attack against you.
Michi Trota (@GeekMelange)
February 28, 2014 @ 9:17 pm
No, I don’t think real people are just like talking trees or sentient machines, and I apologize for not making that clear because real people absolutely should not be treated equivalent to talking trees. What I wanted to say was that considering how well those kinds of completely fantastical characters have been written even though they aren’t real and therefore there are no talking trees or thinking machines to talk to in order to learn from them about their experiences, I fail to see why it’s such a difficult prospect to write characters who have real world, non-normative/cultural default identities when there *are* agender people, PoC, and so on, to talk to, read about, and learn from/about. You can’t find an Ent and learn about what it’s like to be an Ent, but you *can* read & learn about, and maybe talk to, a trans woman or queer Asian man or a person living with autism.
Again, I get why it’s intimidating because there are real people who could be hurt by poor characterization, however unintentional. However, it’s still rather frustrating and somewhat insulting that identities that are non-normative are seen (in general, because JJ is not the only person I’ve seen express this) as “intimidating” to write, when writers with non-normative identities are expected, as a matter of course, to write characters with normative identities.
(Even when writing a talking tree, you’re not just “making shit up,” you’re still creating a real character with thoughts, feelings, complex motivations, all those traits that (hopefully) make a character believable and compelling. There’s still plenty to get wrong in making a completely fantastical character a *good* character.)
February 28, 2014 @ 9:52 pm
This last thread of discussion (mostly with JJ Litke and Michi Trota) and a thread in Derek Handley’s post are making me wonder if there’s a handy guide anywhere to “How to first find, then approach, a suitable person from a minority to check your manuscript for egregious screw ups in representation without sounding like you think they, personally, speak for their whole minority.”
Because, well, I know people from several minorities, but not all of them well enough to ask to read a draft or a summary out of the blue — and of course, there are whole groups of people where I don’t have anyone in my obvious social circle to even approach on the question. And so many people are tired of 101 questions to start with.
March 1, 2014 @ 12:07 am
It’s not hard to find out the gender Morgan prefers: it’s right there in the bio at the end of their guest post here.
To the broader point, the fact that someone knows almost literally nothing about a subject just means they shouldn’t send out a short story about it today. It doesn’t mean they can’t write about it ever and that therefore Morgan has to. Because we can do research. We can find people talking about this; we can get to know them; we can learn.
And yes, some of the stuff on the internet is contradictory. That’s because not everyone’s the same. (So even if Morgan did get a book published, that wouldn’t solve the problem: it would only be one experience.) But we can read all of these contradictory viewpoints and get an idea of the ranges of opinions and experiences and the commonalities and the differences, and that big mess is the stuff we need to know.
It’s like and it’s unlike when I suddenly realise I need to know about cars for a story. It’s like that because I know nothing about cars but I have to and I’ll look stupid if I say the wrong thing. So I go out and do research and learn enough not to look stupid.
It’s unlike it because with people, getting it wrong doesn’t just make me look stupid, it can hurt them and I don’t want to hurt them. So yes, it’s scary. But saying nothing also hurts them. So if I don’t want to hurt them then I don’t have a choice: I have to try. And the fact that it’s scary for me is not the important thing. They don’t need to hear me talking about my feelings; in fact, the scarier it is for me, the less they need to hear about it. What they need is representation.
(And as to me being snide and insulting – look, obviously I’m not pulling any punches: I’m directly challenging an idea and if you hold that idea dear then my challenge is going to make you uncomfortable. But when I say “I” and “we” I mean I and we because this broad issue of including people who are outside of our personal experience is one that every single writer in the entire world has to think about and work on. Also, when I say “I don’t get such-and-such”, that’s what I mean. It’s not secret code for “You’re an evil person,” and frankly I don’t take any responsibility for anyone who reads it that way.)
March 1, 2014 @ 12:20 am
Book Recommendation: Bone Dance, by Emma Bull.
Explaining anything regarding a non gender binary character would spoil a plot twist. Even saying that there is one spoils some of it, but that’s this context. I liked it so much I read it, flipped it over and reread it, and then read it again the next day.
If I ever write anything publishable, it will include characters that are both not like me in color, gender, sexuality, etc. and not within the general range of defaults that are expected. Which may (probably will) the publishing options, even if I can manage to come up with a plot.
Jim C Hines series on Equity
March 1, 2014 @ 3:15 am
[…] Non-binary and Not Represented – Morgan Dambergs […]
March 1, 2014 @ 12:13 pm
Octavia Butler’s Xenogenisis trilogy (sometimes called “Lilith’s Breed,” I think) has a non-human race, the Oankali, who have three genders: female, male, and ooloi. Children are asexual, taking on one gender at puberty. There are a couple of central ooloi characters in the books, one of whom has an even more complicated time because of being from a mixed Oankali-human family. Butler identified as asexual (not agender), IIRC, and does as good a job of any I have read (from my perspective as a cis woman) of presenting a convincing alternative to binary sexuality.
Also, there’s a much later story that Ursula Le Guin set on Gethen, called “Coming of Age in Karhide.” There are no humans in the story, so though it still presents a binary view of sexuality, it feels like a much more real exploration of how Gethenian life would work than the Left Hand of Darkness did.
March 1, 2014 @ 2:22 pm
I hesitate here since the book’s mine so I’m essentially tooting my own horn, but… DARK WATER’S EMBRACE (Eos Books, 1998, and re-released recently through ArcManor’s Phoenix Pick) uses a third, non-male & non-female gender. It may be that Morgan might find them to also be problematical, but it *is* another sf novel with more than two genders (and it won the Gaylactic Spectrum Award for Best Novel in 1999 (tied with Anne Harris’ ACCIDENTAL CREATURES).
Jim C. Hines
March 1, 2014 @ 2:30 pm
I understand the hesitation, but I’m cool with you mentioning Dark Water’s Embrace here, since it’s relevant to the conversation. Thanks!
March 1, 2014 @ 6:30 pm
CJT gave a shout-out above to Bone Dance by Emma Bull, and I want to give it a resounding second. It’s one of my favorite books of all time, and the nongendered character in it is well-rounded, sympathetic, and treated (imo) with great and loving respect. It also- in my opinion as a rape survivor- deals beautifully with the aftermath of violence (the violence in it is not rape, and not graphic, but is obviously metaphorically similar). It’s been a joy and a support to me over the years as I’ve grown into the person I now am. I’ve probably read it 20 times.
It’s available on Amazon, but don’t read any of the reviews (including the editorial reviews that are up near the top) if you don’t want major spoilers that might impact one’s enjoyment of the story.
I’d also like to note that, although Western literature/culture is pretty crappy with respect to nongendered characters, Japanese literature/culture is much better. There are many characters in Japanese manga, anime and games that are never identified by gender (I assume this is also true of Japanese novels, but I don’t have enough experience as a reader there to comment).
In Japanese religion and folklore, some of the kami (Ancester Gods) have no gender, so the idea of nongendered beings is, to some extent, something that is just there in the background and taken for granted. And Japanese is also a language in which gendered pronouns are easily omitted, so authors have the freedom to include nongendered characters without having to make much of a specific effort. Consequently, lots of work that has an ensemble cast will have at least one nongendered/ambiguously gendered character. (How well-rounded the nongendered characters are is another matter unfortunately, but at least there are plenty of examples to work with). The TV Tropes pages labeled “Ambiguous Gender” and “No Biological Sex” both list a bunch of manga, anime and games to try out that have nongendered characters in them. (The “No Biological Sex” page has a spoiler for Bone Dance… grrrr).
Simple Desultory Philip
March 1, 2014 @ 7:27 pm
First, knowing about the existence of, and knowing personally, many individual men and women hasn’t stopped hundreds of thousands of people from screwing up badly when writing about them over the course of centuries. But I’d rather be able to read bad representations and then criticize them in an effort to help writers do better next time than to not have any representations of them at all.
Simple Desultory Philip
March 1, 2014 @ 7:37 pm
But Treebeard isn’t just a talking tree. He’s male, he’s cisgendered. We know from Tolkien that there are Ents, and there used to be Entwives, who are obviously the female versions, but the Ents “lost” them at some point in their history, which is why there are no Entings (which is I guess what you call Ent babies) anymore. Even these “fantastical” creatures that are, as you say, totally not real and made up, can and certainly frequently DO conform to normative concepts of sex and gender. Saying “they’re shaped differently from real people so you can’t critique these characters even though they display the same aspects of gender (to the point of marrying, apparently, “Entwives”, after all) that people do” isn’t actually an argument.
March 1, 2014 @ 11:24 pm
If you were to do another series, I’d love to see a post about the inclusion and usage of overweight characters in fiction. I think some authors go out of their way to be respectful to other races/gender identities/sexual preferences etc. only to write overweight characters who are dirty, clumsy, cowardly, greedy and stupid. And it pisses me off. For too many (otherwise decent) people, fat-shaming is the last refuge of discrimination and hate-speech. That needs to change.
Jim C. Hines
March 2, 2014 @ 10:36 am
That would be an excellent thing to include!
March 3, 2014 @ 10:35 am
I wasn’t “blaming the victim” when I suggested Morgan write a book. Clearly there aren’t enough voices out there in the writing world that cover this issue, and more to the point, there aren’t enough voices that “do it right.” I don’t think it’s unreasonable to suggest that someone with the experience to effectively write such a character take part in doing so. Or, if Morgan has not the inclination to write, then perhaps Morgan needs to reach out to an admired writer and chat with them about the possibility.
I’m not sure what part of this suggestion–meant to improve both the quality and quantity of agender writing–is “blaming the victim.” If the problem is that there isn’t enough writing out there to effectively cover the topic, then the answer must to write more and write better, yes?
March 3, 2014 @ 10:36 am
I should have said “criticize” instead of attack. Poor word choice, that is all.
March 3, 2014 @ 10:42 am
I said nothing about Morgan being obligated to take care of the problem.
I suggested that to improve the quality and quantity of agender voices, we needed people with the right experience to write, because so far the writers who have made the attempt have clearly missed the mark in some form or another. You can keep hoping that some writer somewhere out there is going to hit the bullseye someday, or you can make the attempt to add another voice yourself. I don’t see the conflict in my statement.
What is so offensive about prompting someone to share their experiences? Morgan has already written an amazing piece here.
March 3, 2014 @ 10:46 am
Enterprise. Not Voyager.
I barely remember Alien Nation. It was on while I was a pretty young kid. Can you even watch that anywhere anymore?
I also don’t think that it’s a bad thing to have tv shows (or movies, or books, or whatever) keep trying to represent this issue. It keeps the topic fresh, and makes people aware that there are voices out there being lost in the crowd.
The Enterprise episode is FAR from my favorite, and I don’t know that they handled the issue correctly. I merely note that it is fascinating–and somewhat admirable–that they tried to cover it at all.
Jim C. Hines
March 3, 2014 @ 10:57 am
I think part of the reason Christina described this as close to blaming the victim is because it’s such a common response in this sort of conversation. But when the strongest response to discussions of representation are suggestions that the underrepresented individuals just do it themselves, that’s a response that removes any responsibility from the rest of us and puts the burden on the underrepresented group. Michi points out some of the other reasons that’s problematic.
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with wanting more fiction and stories from underrepresented voices. I would *love* to see more.
But that can’t be the only answer. I don’t think it’s fair to put the responsibility for fixing a problem that was caused by society as a whole on the shoulders of the people who were hurt by that problem. I also think that we as writers have a responsibility to do better, and to be a part of the solution.
Some of what I’m saying here goes beyond your specific comments, I know. But that’s in part because parts of your comments are things that get repeated so often, if that makes sense?
I hope this helps.
Michi Trota (@GeekMelange)
March 3, 2014 @ 11:12 am
Thank you, Jim. Pretty much what you said. I’d also like to add that while the suggestion that Morgan (and other people with marginalized identities) write books/stories with characters who are not as well-represented in SF/F is made with good intentions, it’s very likely going to irritate people because it assumes (even unintentionally) that the receiver of the suggestion has never even considered that possibility.
People with marginalized identities are no strangers to having to do for themselves, rather than waiting for people to speak up for us. The idea that if we want something done, maybe we have to do it ourselves, almost always immediately occurs to us, whether it’s writing a book, or designing a game, or creating a comic, etc. That possibility doesn’t even need to be suggested and doing so can (again, unintentionally) come off as condescending as a result, especially because of how often it’s made and all the previously noted problematic implications in that particular suggestion. Please note that I don’t think that was at all the intention, but intention doesn’t always define impact.
March 3, 2014 @ 4:39 pm
I’d like to see middle-aged people. There’s young hero/ines, and old wise wo/men, but honestly — where are the average middle-aged ladies (some of whom are of greater girth)?
March 5, 2014 @ 12:02 pm
The offense was unintentional.
Also, Morgan wrote a damn good piece here, so I guess I was just puzzled as to why it would be offensive to suggest that Morgan continue writing.
March 5, 2014 @ 3:18 pm
Something that I don’t see mentioned much in this thread is that there isn’t just one way to be agender, or trans, or whatever, despite what the OTWers in each community may say. I’ve mostly noticed that among transgender & gender variant people, since that’s where I’ve been visiting, but they’re all over the map. Everyone has a different way of feeling trans (or sorta-trans or just not ISO male/ISO female), and a different way of handling it.
I can’t help thinking that if a writer really tries to get inside the head of someone of non-standard gender and tries to get beyond the tropes and work out a coherent character — a _whole_ person — there will be someone out there who will say: this is a lot like my experience. I’d guess that a large part of the value of doing the research is that it helps from assumptions and beliefs you didn’t even know you had, so your characters are free to be who _they_ are, and not contstrained by what you’ve always assumed All People Are.
Also: this is SF & F. This is not Earth 2014, or at least, not _our_ Earth 2014. The characters don’t have to be carbon copies of real-life people. We (well, _some_ of us) _like_ reading about and getting inside the head of characters that aren’t like the people we see on TV every day. The joy of well-written stories about such characters is meeting someone who _seems_ so alien and then getting inside their head to the point that we no longer think of them as so different from you and me.
Which is my biggest disagreement with the anti-diversity people. I mean, what’s the point of SF&F if you’re just going to write the same tropes and same stereotypes that fill TV and movies and bookstore shelves? It’s like going to a comedy club where every comedian tells the same 100 jokes every night.
March 7, 2014 @ 12:50 am
A few more agender characters that haven’t been mentioned: one of the characters in Marvel Comics’ ‘Runaways’ (written first and best by Brian K. Vaughan) is genderfluid. Over in Dc Comicd, Shining Knight (in Seven Soldiers of Victory, Demon Knights) is genderqueer. The bots and cons in IDW’s current Transformers comics are theoretically agender, but go by male pronouns and are generally treated as male by the writers (which the exception of one trans character who clearly prefers male pronouns, but is misgendered by everyone anyway.) So not really a rec for that aspect, I just wanted to mention them. There’s an agender romantic pairing in the webcomic Gunnerkrigg Court, although again the agender characters are referred to by masculine pronouns.
March 7, 2014 @ 12:52 am
Oh, and the anime Revolutionary Girl Utena has a gq/genderfucking queer lead! TW for sexual assault later on.
March 8, 2014 @ 9:50 am
Dean Koontz’ Odd Thomas series (at least the first 2 books of it) has a secondary character who is morbidly obese and a brilliant novelist, Little Ozzie- he is a great father figure to Odd and a great friend.
Guest Post Roundup, and Phase 2
April 29, 2014 @ 2:20 pm
[…] Non-binary and Not Represented – Morgan Dambergs […]