Wow. A lot of great comments and other responses to yesterday’s blog post that genderswapped scenes from Heinlein, Asimov, and Anthony.
Some preliminary thoughts:
- My goal was not to say or suggest these three authors were HORRIBLE HUMAN BEINGS and if you ever liked anything they wrote then YOU’RE A HORRIBLE HUMAN BEING TOO! Pretty much everything we love is problematic in at least some respect. (But please don’t take this to mean we should ignore or excuse sexism, etc. either.)
- Yep, I started with older, classic/popular works. It would indeed be interesting to see how more recent and current bestsellers looked when put through the same genderswapping process. I’m hoping to get to that.
- “What is seen cannot be unseen.” I hope so. One of the most powerful aspects of this kind of exercise, in my opinion, is that it helps us to see things we’ve gotten so used to we might not even notice it. Hopefully, that awareness continues beyond the immediate examples.
In a way, yesterday’s exercise grew out of an experience I had writing — and then rewriting — my story “Spell of the Sparrow,” which eventually appeared in Sword & Sorceress XXI. I’d originally drafted the story, a sequel to “Blade of the Bunny,” from the male character’s point of view. Then I saw the call for S&S, and I thought this story might be a good fit. But S&S stories have to be from female characters’ PoVs. So I rewrote it.
It was eye-opening. Sentences and phrases and individual words that had seemed completely neutral suddenly reared up like speed bumps, tripping me up as I read. It highlighted my own gender-based assumptions and threw them back in my face.
That’s a good thing.
I don’t think writing should ignore the realities and complexities of gender. I do think it’s good for us as writers — and as human beings — to be more aware of our own baggage and assumptions.
We’ve all got some. We live in a world that’s far from equal, and we’re immersed in stories and portrayals that perpetuate and normalize those inequalities. That doesn’t make us horrible, awful, evil people. It makes us human. What’s more important, I believe, is what you choose to do with that baggage. Do you double down and attack anyone who dares to suggest you’re anything but perfect? Or do you work to do better?
Here’s a genderswapped excerpt from Libriomancer, where I introduce Lena Greenwood for the first time.
When I saw who was standing there, my body went limp with relief. Lenny Greenwood was the least imposing hero you’d ever see. His appearance supposedly changed over time, but for as long as I’d known him, he’d been a twenty-four year old Indian man. He looked about as intimidating as a teddy bear. A damned sexy teddy bear, but not someone you’d expect to go toe-to-toe with your average monster.
Wisps of loose black hair framed dark eyes, a slender nose, and a cheerful smile, as if he had walked in on a surprise party. He wore a brown bomber jacket with a Snoopy patch on the right sleeve, and carried a pair of three foot long fighting sticks made of unstained oak.
I definitely don’t think that’s on the same level as yesterday’s excerpts, but even so, there are a few bits of description that feel more jarring. For a stronger example, let’s take a look at a bit from a little later in the book.
The sky outside was dark, and the clock said it was just past five in the morning. The red glow of the clock was just enough to make out Lenny sitting on the edge of my bed. I heard Smudge stirring in her tank. At night she slept in a twenty-gallon aquarium, lined with obsidian gravel and soil. A single cricket chirped. That was a mistake. A scurry of feet and a faint spark followed, and that was the end of the cricket.
“Mm.” Lenny studied me in the faint light. “Has anyone ever considered doing a topless librarian calendar?”
I grabbed a flannel bathrobe from the floor and pulled it on. “Hauling books is good exercise.”
“Very.” He stood and stepped toward the door, his fighting sticks in one hand. “I think I need to start spending more time in libraries.”
Okay, that scene just got creepy as hell, reminiscent of Twilight.
Now, it’s true that Lena’s character is problematic in a number of ways. That’s intentional. But the dynamics of this scene feel very different, and much more disturbing than before.
Ultimately, I think this sort of thing can be a really useful exercise for most of us, both to better see the sexism and imbalances in the stories and books we read and the world around us, and to better see it in our own writing. In our own minds and assumptions.
I’ll end this with a quick genderswapped scene from one of this year’s Hugo-nominated books, Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves. Again, I think this comes out worlds ahead of yesterday’s examples…but the results are still fascinating and even powerful, at least to me.
I’ll be curious to hear other folks’ thoughts!
[The ISS] was then in earth’s shadow, on the night side of the planet, and so all was dark otherwise, except for white light spilling out from the little quartz window beside Dan’s workstation. This was barely large enough to frame his head. He had straw- colored hair cut short. He had never been especially appearance conscious; back at the minehead his sisters had mocked him to shame whenever he had experimented with clothes or cosmetics. When he’d been described as girlish in a school yearbook he had interpreted it as a sort of warning shot and had gone into a somewhat more manly phase that had run its course during his late teens and early twenties and ended when he had started to worry about being taken seriously in engineering meetings. Being on Izzy meant being on the Internet, doing everything from painstakingly scripted NASA Pr interviews to candid Facebook shots posted by fellow astronauts. He had grown tired of the pouffy floating hair of zero gravity and, after a few weeks of clamping it down with baseball caps, had figured out how to make this shorter cut work for him. The haircut had spawned terabytes of Internet commentary from women, and a few men, who apparently had nothing else to do with their time.