My Life In Neon

Sci Fi / Fantasy writer Autumn Nicole Bradley – Dream in digital, live in neon

Archive for the tag “Gender”

Genders Are Categorizing Heuristics

Genders are categorizing heuristics, not categories unto themselves. As such, they fall prey to the same problem all clustering algorithms do: poorly segregated datasets yield many false positives and negatives, and there may exist more viable and clearly separated clusters when one increases the number of potential clusters. When the dataset is {All human behavior}, at best they can be used to determine centrality of certain clusters, but not their boundaries.

If I tell you what I am, I am telling you what centerpoint to use to estimate who I am, not what my limits are.


So, a friend of mine asked me the following question:

Do cis women deserve a space to talk about the ways in which misogyny and issues that uniquely affect FAABs (like reproductive rights) intersect?

Yes. If you ask if any marginalized group deserves space to discuss issues specific to them, yes. Absolutely. So long as we live in a society in which patriarchal structures leave a pregnant or potentially pregnant person’s control over their own body as an open question fit for debate without them present, there is absolutely reason to create and maintain spaces to discuss ways in which they are affected by that control and organize the means to unravel that system away from interference by that system.

However, I want to ask a question of those who would specify that this hypothetical space is for cis women only: what purpose is being served by making that that explicit declaration?

Would you also make an explicit declaration that cis women who, for whatever reason, are known to be infertile are similarly not welcome to share stories about how presumptions about their fertility have led to misogynistic treatment; or stories about how learning they were infertile led them to question core assumptions about their womanhood; or raise the issue that their body autonomy is in jeopardy because men have already made laws blackmailing pregnant people into allowing themselves to be forcibly penetrated in a twisted caricature of medical care, and they show no signs of stopping at that law?

Would you declare any infertile cis woman to be out of bounds for raising those topics? Would she be accused of imposing herself on the group, of centering the debate on infertile women and distracting from the conversation, of triggering participants by reminding them that they can become pregnant (possibly against their will)?

Or would she be thanked for sharing her struggle, welcome in the knowledge that everyone there understands that when women are reduced to their presumed reproductive ability, when they are reduced to their parts, the misogyny catches all women in the blast regardless of their ability to reproduce?

When laws about marital partnerships are intended to reduce women to chattel for birthing children, where does the issue of reproductive rights stop affecting all women and start affecting only those who know they can become pregnant?

Fertility is a presumptive quality, not an inherent trait. No one knows they are fertile (or virile) until they succeed in producing a viable zygote that is carried to term and born live. Even then, we only know in retrospect that they were fertile; there is no biological mandate or metaphysical certainty that their body will ever be fertile again. All qualities associated with fertility are presumed based upon having anatomy that appears fully functional and has not been proven otherwise, or removed or altered by surgery or medication.

I am not demanding the floor at a reproductive rights rally, nor am I demanding a seat at a support group for people who have chosen to abort a pregnancy. I will never know the fear of having control over that aspect of my body taken away by men I will never meet. But I am questioning the true intentions of any meeting that must explicitly declare it is for cis women only on the premise that there are some issues that only affect cis women. Unless the issues discussed are firmly restricted to only those people who are, have been, or have no reason to assume they could not become pregnant, then I put forward that the space’s organizers are being disingenuously cissexist at best, and openly transphobic at worst.

If someone expects infertile cis women to either: A) not be interested enough to attend, or B) behave appropriately if they do, or C) leave when the moderator asks anyone who is unaffected by the issue at hand to please leave; and if you would not attribute to their infertility any hamfisted attempt to center the conversation on them, then that expectation ought to extend in the same manner to trans women, as well as trans men and non-binary CAFAB people. When the sign on the door preemptively declares an event is for “womyn born womyn living as womyn”, it advances a biologically essentialist standpoint. When that standpoint is defended on the grounds that there exist some topics that are only relevant to CAFAB people—reproductive rights, menstruation—the space had better be dedicated to those topics or else it shamelessly exploits people who need space for those topics as human shields on the front line of a woman-on-woman war that doesn’t need to be fought.

I want to be clear about something: if you have a space dedicated to survivors, no one ought to be trying to recenter it on how hard the abusers have it in the justice system; if you have a space dedicated to queer issues, no one ought to be trying to recenter it on how hard it is for them as a straight person to accept their bisexual child; if you have a space dedicated to people of color, no white person should be trying to recenter it on how awesome of an ally they are. Those are actions that drip with patriarchal, colonial entitlement and are rightfully condemned as such when someone has the gall to do them.

So it is with that understanding in mind that I ask fellow feminists to ask themselves whether they are being honest with themselves about the intentionality behind a space that supposedly has a built-in need to exclude trans women.

Polyamory in SF/F – Star Trek: TNG and Wheel of Time

Recently, over at the blog, there was an article lamenting the absence of polyamorous relationships in science fiction and fantasy. The piece gets a bit repetitive in parts as Mandelo pines for more examples of plural love, but the questions posed near the end (one explicit, one implicit) struck me:

In space, why does the two-person relationship stay the norm? I’d like to see more collective relationships developed between people living together in shuttle environments, for example. Close quarters are bound to produce some interesting variety in liaisons and emotions. In a second-world fantasy, it would be one more part of the created universe to have the regular structure of relationships include three or more people for a family unit.

As far as science fiction is concerned, the situation I have encountered most frequently with regard to polyamory is the gene pool angle. From hardcore “science fact” speculative fiction to flashy space operas, the issue is treated in one of two ways. In the first, it is treated with sterile, clinical disregard for sentimentality attached to sex, and for some reason, everyone goes along with it emotionlessly. The other, with a wink and a nod, men offer serious reasons (note: gene drift and shrinking gene pools are serious issues in isolated communities) but in reality are grinning like 14 year old boys at the thought of repopulating the species with as many women as possible.

For example, a classic moment in Star Trek: TNG: (Jump ahead to 4:40. The timed embed isn’t working)

When the episode aired, the very notion of suggesting polyamory on prime time television was controversial. This is before we had shows like Big Love dedicated to handling the topic in a more realistic way. So on one level, I appreciate Star Trek: TNG’s effort in shifting the Overton Window on polyamory just by bringing it up. But the scene itself is dripping with stereotypical behavior. Even Dr. Pulaski can’t help but grin here. (To be fair, it seems she can’t wipe that smirk off her face no matter how serious the topic is.) Topping it off is the only plausible reaction: Picard rolling his eyes at the absurdity of it all as something between genuine character response and audience surrogate. He lampshades the silliness being displayed, and in the one redeeming moment offers the suggestion that the other delegate is just scared of the ramifications of uniting their societies, not of the polygyny specifically. He desperately gives the audience hope that this is still a serious topic being dealt with maturely, only to have that hope dashed by the delegate declaring that it is “repugnant.”

Oh well.

As far as fantasy, Mandelo’s article missed the granddaddy of modern fantasy epics: the Wheel of Time. In it, Rand al’Thor falls in love with not one, but three women: Elayne, Min, and Aviendha. He spends the better part of Fires of Heaven whining about this predicament (as do several of the women who pine for his return). Eventually, he ends up married to all three, and them to each other.

Cop out.

How do you know it’s a cop out? It’s easy. It’s far too easy, to the degree of being unbelievable. The women are all such good friends that they readily and wholeheartedly jump into it. And from that point forward, none of the relationships is ever truly explored in any meaningful way. Aside from moments of longing for one or the other, there’s no window into the reality of their relationships. There’s nothing domestic about the relationships; the problems of the world supersede all else to the point where the relationships are conveniently about sex and longing. We don’t need lurid details of whether the women bump uglies without Rand around. But the effect of the absence of detail of any sort beyond the Rand+Woman of the Day coupling is a rigidly compartmentalized set of three relationships independent relationships (no matter what is said about how much the women care for each other). He’s married to three separate women, in three separate relationships, not unlike wife-and-mistress-and-mistress. We never see anything normal or relatable about how they interact as a polyamorous unit, so there’s no way to really treat them as such.

The end result is the “Luckiest Man Alive” phenomenon. Again.

So, what would the best way to handle it be? My feeling on it is to build it into the world on day one if you are going to explore the topic at all. Don’t even “explain” it. Just have it present. If it’s a fantasy world, have the MC’s parents in a polyamorous relationship, or someone in their village, or whatnot. The fact that they are in a polyamorous relationship should, at that point, be treated like any other relationship. It doesn’t need explaining, or excusing, or further comment. Just make it an unobtrusive part of the world, as everyday and normal as trees.

I’m not saying it should be done this way to avoid criticism or opposition. Quite the opposite. If it is explained thoroughly, or treated as something “special” enough to warrant a long description, then it becomes an author soapbox, where the author is shouting, “SEE? THIS IS NORMAL!” The best way to show something is normal is to treat it as uninteresting from the perspective of the characters.

Gender, Power, and Violence

When I started writing Root of the First, I set down the normal guideposts (a short thematic statement, a one-sentence plot, and so on). But that was for the book. I set down a different set of thematic guidelines for the setting as a whole. They were more like conditions than thematic statements; they were standards that I wanted my setting to meet.

  1. Magic is not magical; at least not to the people of the setting. That is, to them, there is no “magic.” Everything that is magical to the reader has to have some—however fuzzy—grounding in the very nature of the world. No dancing elephants.
  2. The central conflict in the world can be boiled down to consumption vs coexistence.
  3. The indigenous population has a progressive view of gender and sexuality, while the conquerors bring with them the patriarchy we are all familiar with.

Number 3 is the tricky one, and has led to no small amount of navel gazing on my part. There were a number of problems with even setting out on that venture, not the least of which is that for all my good intentions, all it takes is a short chat with a friend of mine who studies these things to remind me how deep privilege really goes. I give myself some credit for trying, anyway (and major kudos to her for being patient).

I do my best. I make it clear that women are, if not equally represented, at least equally welcome in the armed forces, nobility, and old world clergy (the new religion is intentionally very patriarchal). Marital arrangements aren’t inherently biased against women; the protagonist has freely rejected more than one without shame or consequence (aside from her mother’s disapproval, which stems from an entirely different source). But that’s all the “easy” stuff.

Generally speaking,  I’ve gotten better at spotting resulting problems, but after living 27 years with certain assumptions about the world, I’m still working on recognizing gender biases in the premises. Worse are the situations where a confluence of character motivations and plot points create a situation where even I, with my biased eye, can spot the issues, but find few meaningful or viable alternatives.

I came upon one of these navel gazing passages in my rewrite. Three scenes back to back to back near the midpoint of the novel:

  1. In one, a woman is stabbed by a gender-not-specified guard. To me, this one makes perfect sense because first, she’s a bodyguard, and second, it’s a swordfight. The only other potential victims are a child, and the protagonist, and someone needs to get hurt in that scene to motivate the next move. From an objective viewpoint, though, the injury robs her of agency, and puts her entirely in the hands of the protagonist, (highly arguably) only to showcase a heretofore unseen ability to muster courage.
  2. A female character finds herself entirely at the mercy of a male character. The power does shift back and forth between the pair during the scene, but she’s never presented a means of escaping the situation, and he most definitely “wins.” What that entails, I won’t detail here, but suffice it to say, if he doesn’t win, it short circuits Act II. The important fact here: the suffering does not happen to the protagonist, nor a faceless character, nor does it serve as motivation for the protagonist (directly, anyway. The protagonist knows the victim is in trouble, but has no idea what kind of trouble, and plays no role in rescuing them).
  3. The protagonist encounters an overbearing, physically imposing man who invades her personal space while speaking; the hitch is that she needs to remain on good terms with him or else risk losing her only (readily apparent) option for resolving the book’s conflict. He was always her fiance, but in the rewrite I turned up the heat, and changed the circumstances of their original break up, putting the power in her hands. I think the key here is that he is taking advantage of her need for aid in order to stay close enough to woo her, but she retains the power to refuse his advances. At the same time, it is also made very clear that she is not being wooed for his sexual gratification, but for political motives.

Still, taken in combination, the scenes paint a very . . . strange picture, even from my view with all the details filled in. It all sent me back to the drawing board because I couldn’t get over this one question:
Is any harm inflicted upon female characters (by male characters or otherwise) inherently misogynistic?

After all, in our culture, there is an emotional value in the suffering of female characters that is greater than that of male characters, and that it exists across genres and media. There’s a number of terms for it. Disposable Damsels, Women in Refrigerators, and so on. Simply subverting the trope doesn’t negate the underlying gender issue though.

My scholar friend shed some light on this with her response:

. . . consider how the emotional or physical pain of a female character is supposed to function in the course of the story. If it is being used to gratify someone else (even a female protagonist), then she is likely being objectified and made inferior to another.

I’m still left scratching my head, though. How do you handle the issue of objectification in a dramatic scene without intentionally violating a person’s subjecthood? How do you not violate one of Martha Nussbaum’s seven qualities of objectification?

Or the question of the day:

How does one inflict pain (physically or emotionally) on another without violating their subjecthood?

Because right now, I’m looking at that question, and saying: Well, if you’re the villain, and you are overwhelmed by the subjecthood of your victims, then you just stop being the villain. After all, if you suddenly realize their desire not to suffer has intrinsic value, that leaves one of two outcomes:

  1. You proceed anyway, because you just don’t care enough for it to stop you (and we are back to the beginning)
  2. You abandon your pursuit because it would be harmful to someone else.

Somehow, #2 just feels like an impossible quality for an epic villain to have. If their needs (power, glory, or even a misguided desire to help their own side) are not overbearing compared to the  needs of the world they are confronting, then I don’t think they can be called a villain anymore.

In fact, isn’t that precisely why we’re supposed to dislike the villain? Because they violate the subjecthood of a character we identify with? Because they do something we would object to having done to us?

I’m not ready to concede this point just yet, but it certainly seems like the very nature of the story makes my third goal almost unachievable from certain perspectives.

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