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Monday, January 20, 2014

Gender Essentialism, Genre, and Me

I'm late to the party.  The first major SF/F controversy party.  And while this post won't be about Kemp's argument specifically, it does come out of the discussions about his post -- most particularly the criticisms.[1]

Part of the problem I have with traditional gender roles is the way they assume what manhood (or womanhood) is based on behaviors which are definitively not gendered.  There's nothing explicitly masculine about aggression or nobility.  There's nothing explicitly feminine about child rearing, except insofar as it is currently required for women to be the carriers of unborn children.  Gender essentalism, however, assumes there are definitely gendered behaviors, such that chivalry is read as "male/masculine" and cowardice is read as "female/feminine."  If this association sounds negative, that's because the construction of male/female or masculine/feminine is frequently a negative.  These associations are also oriented around agency, where masculine behaviors are active and feminine behaviors are passive.  There are all manner of gendered constructions, and each is based on arbitrary, culturally-determined factors.

The impact of gender essentialism in this particular context is often unintended, but, by the nature of a culture's ability to transmit its behavioral modes, it is also pervasive.  We are all coded by our
gender without ever having a say in the matter.  My culture tells me I should behave in certain ways because that is what men do; it tells me there is a true form of manhood; and it tells me that I am deviant, even in an innocuous sense, if I do not conform to these standards.  It's that absence of agency which should make all of us pause.  In effect, I am, as Louis Althusser might argue, interpellated by/into my culture's gender paradigms as it codes my identify for me and I, as all children do, react by internalizing these values.[2]  As I grew older, it became clear how pervasive and abusive these standards and values were.  When I was told as a young man that I was not masculine (i.e., male enough) because I did not engage in feats of strength, it was implied that I must acquire that masculine behavior to properly assert my manhood.  If I wasn't into sports, I was naturally feminine.  If I shared my emotions, I was more woman than man.  In other words, my youth was a process of cultural assault, by which my behaviors had to be coded along gender lines, interpreted, and then rejected if they did not conform to the norm.  This is not exactly a unique experience, either, though my examples above are certainly reductive.

Women are told all manner of similar things, too, so I imagine I'm not wrong in asserting that the psychological impact of gender essentialism is rarely positive for any gender.  It reinforces gender roles as fixed, when in fact they are anything but, and it shames those who do not conform by implicitly stripping them of their gender and assigning a new one.  Thus, women who are aggressive are "manly."  A great genre example is Grace Jones' performance of Zula in Conan the Destroyer (1984).
Here, we're presented with a woman who is every bit as aggressive and noble (or not) as Conan (Schwarzenegger).  She wields spears and screams warcries as she cuts into enemies.  She doesn't shy from battle or give in to injury or the intimacy of others.[3]  But she is definitively a woman, and expresses that behavior in ways particular to herself, not to her gender.[4]  That she is the female opposite of Conan is not insignificant:  she isn't an enigma, but the embodiment of an anti-essentialist stance on gender (incomplete though that stance may be).  Women can be warriors without becoming "men."  Women can be brutal and limited in their emotional expression without sacrificing their gender association.

In other words, this idea that there are "gendered behaviors" in any pure or stable sense should seem absurd to all of us.  We can easily point to examples whereat someone behaves contrary to their assigned gender, and yet in doing so, they do not cease to be whatever gender they so choose.[5]  That's the point I think more of us need to grasp in the SF/F/H community.  If you want to write characters who behave like chivalrous knights, then do so.  But there's no reason to assume those characters must be male, or that their behaviors are masculine by nature.  We can do without thinking in those terms.  We'd certainly be better without it...


[1]:  Based on my interactions with Mr. Kemp, I think I am correct in saying that his post was ill-considered in certain respects.  I understand what he is trying to say, but his methods for making that point were unintentionally sexist.  Instead of saying "I like writing masculine stories because men," he might have said "I like writing stories that feature these virtues and behaviors."  He might even have said he is most comfortable writing men, which is hardly an offense in my opinion.  I, for example, am only semi-comfortable writing men, which might explain why many of my protagonists (in written, not published fiction) are women (or sometimes something other than straight white guys); whether my writing is good is a whole different question.  In any case, it's the fact that his post reinforces traditional gender roles and applies certain virtuous actions specifically to male behavior which poses the problem for most.

[2]:  This is a horrible reduction of Althusser's work.  I hope you'll forgive me.

[3]:  In all fairness, she is perhaps naturally distrustful of others because she is treated quite poorly by the people of her world.  I wish she had appeared in more Conan films, though.  Zula is such a fascinating character, and easily one of my favorites.

[4]:  I should note that Zula was actually a man in the comic books.  She may not be the best example to make my point, but I love her, so I'm sticking to it...

[5]:  I realize that there is some slipperiness in the terminology here.  I am absolutely not talking about biological sex in the main, but gender as an assignment of identity.  I just don't buy into the idea that there are behaviors that are gender coded outside of those particular to one's sex.  Obviously, these gender assignments are based on sex to some degree in our culture.

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  1. Skiriki1:53 PM

    OMG, Zula was easily my favorite character of that movie. She kicked ass and did as she pleased; she was loyal, pulled her own weight, knew how to fight and had fiery spirit. She was everything I wanted to be. :)

    1. Agreed. I would love to see more of her, though :)