Being conscious about gender

I recently read a blog post over at Kate Elliott's LiveJournal in which she writes about struggling with gender in her novels:

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).

Kate is reacting to a post from Mette Ivie Harrison that concludes, "All gender, in my view, is in the end, a masquerade." (You can read the whole of Mette's post here.) Kate continues:

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?

When I read Kate's post I was immediately struck with a sense of "wow, I've done that," particularly where she writes about consciously going through later drafts of her novels to make sure her female leads aren't being too passive.

I, too, am a feminist. And I'm a lesbian. I've been thinking about gender as a lived experience for a while, especially because I have plenty of friends who aren't traditionally feminine. I would have expected that in my writing, I wouldn't fall back on traditional Western beliefs about passivity and femininity.

In my first two fantasy novels, Ash and Huntress, I don't think I encountered the passivity problem. But with my next novel, I found myself falling straight into the passive feminine character trap — even when I truly, in my gut, did not believe that character was a passive individual. It was a little startling to me to see it on the page, and I do hope that in revision her character has become the individual I imagined her to be.

In thinking about why this happened, I believe it's because my first two novels were not set in the contemporary United States. They are both set in secondary fantasy worlds where I have purposely expunged homophobia and (mostly) sexism from those societies. Because of that, the girls in those books are not weighted down with the expectations and traditions that an American girl in the twenty-first century is burdened with. I took great joy in turning those traditions upside down.

But when I began writing a book set in the contemporary USA (Adaptation), I promptly fell into the passive trap. I had never written a novel set in the "real world," and suddenly I was dealing with all sorts of expectations and traditions about the way girls behave, how they dress, what they do. It was … truly weird. Yes, I found it much weirder to write about contemporary teen girls than magically gifted sages or tomboyish heroines who like to go hunting.

The weirdness might come out of both being fairly close to the experience of a contemporary teen girl (I mean, I was one — not yesterday, but within living memory) and also having come very far from it (by coming out, by being in a community full of gender questioning). In the last year I've thought a lot about things I never expected I'd have to think about again: boys, for one thing.

How do girls think about boys, and how can I express that without falling into the passive trap in which the boy is always initiating things? In a related vein, how should my boy characters behave? (In my previous books, my male characters were men. I knew how they behaved. But boys, not surprisingly, are a foreign country to me.) How do I present their masculinity in a way that's appealing and sexy, without falling into too many "hot boy" traps? (These are common in YA, and involve jewel-colored eyes, broad shoulders, and brooding, not necessarily in that order.)

And clothes. How can a character express her identity through her clothing? In Ash and Huntress, the girls basically wear uniforms — except when Ash goes to the ball. That ball gown is one moment of theatrical costuming that I understood; it was symbolic and it was magical. But in a book set in the contemporary USA, every time a girl gets dressed, it says something about her. And my job was to figure out what I wanted it to say. (I'm not even getting into makeup.)

These are things that most women probably have absorbed as common, everyday behaviors that they do almost without thinking. But as the writer creating a female character, I had to think about these everyday behaviors in a way that felt totally foreign to me. I had to think about them as chock full of meaning.

(To some extent, this is what all writing is about: thinking about the everyday with a different, symbolic lens. But it's very easy to simply write a story set in the real world without thinking about these issues at all; to just write a girl wearing makeup and a skirt without being conscious of the fact that her appearance speaks volumes about gender, sexuality, class, etc. I'm also not saying that every book must engage with these issues, but my books do. So I think about them.)

That's not to say that every tiny little gesture a character makes is laden with symbolism (necessarily), but yeah: the way a girl looks and acts and thinks about boys (and girls) is full of statements about gender. This is one of those moments where I think, duh, Malinda, you should know that by now. But putting it into practice, in writing, is a very interesting experience. It's like un-doing everything you do every day automatically, and re-doing it with purpose. It can be trippy.