Writing equal genders – some pitfalls

I cannot remember how long ago I invented Ragaris, the medieval continent with equal rights for women – it was before I met my husband, so maybe about thirty years ago. And I certainly can’t remember why.

You would think that by now I’d have sorted out the issues of trying to write gender-neutral fiction.

On Ragaris, women can fight and judge and paint and commit murder; men can weep and wash dishes and wipe away the blood and forgive their enemies. But women remain on the whole physically weaker and smaller, and they are the ones who get pregnant and have children, who (it’s still medieval) need to be suckled. Childbirth remains dangerous. There are women in the army, but fewer women than men, and there will be other jobs that also tend to be male-dominated, such as lumber-jack; or female-dominated, such as midwife. I have postulated the existence of “childpens”, ie primitive daycare, in towns and on rural estates – I don’t think this is impossible.

You can also see that I have cheated somewhat in allowing the use of herbs as a not-very-reliable method of contraception. This has some basis in history, even if not European history.

But problems remain, some for the society and some for the author.

Of the first kind are:

  • Can we believe in a traditional army, or indeed a lord/lady of the manor, that allows paid maternity leave; and if not, how do families survive in a subsistence economy?
  • What would such a society’s attitude be to abortion, or to responsibility for illegitimate children? Whatever laws we make, it will always be easier for the man to walk away from the bump.
  • People with power tend sometimes to abuse it, and there are physiological reasons why it’s easier for a man to insist on sex than for a woman. I’m therefore assuming that rape and sexual abuse of subordinates exist, although these are in theory regarded as serious matters. A woman in “The Tenth Province of Jaryar” feels guilty for seducing her male servant. In “The Servant’s Voice” (work in progress) a female servant’s backstory includes rape by a visitor to the household. I don’t think these events invalidate my central premise. Not all victims get justice, because no society manages to punish all criminals.

(I’m hoping to look further at some of the practical issues above in a later book, maybe the Fourth Tale.)

Since I cannot completely divorce myself from my heritage and environment, there are also problems of the second kind, in my writing and inventing.

  • It remains terrifyingly easy, even with strong intentions not to, to “default to male.” Over and over I have had to stop and think, “why should all these soldiers be men?” “Why have I made X’s employer a man?” “Why have I described the wife as cooking supper, not the husband?”
  • It would be possible to invent a society in which both sexes are equally “liberated”. This has been done, I think, quite often. However, Ragaris is in theory Christian. I’ve tried, but found it very hard, to imagine a world where sex outside marriage is regarded as sinful, but equally sinful for both sexes – where, for example, virginity on marriage isn’t more valued and celebrated in the bride than in the groom. (Among the rich on Ragaris, engagements are six months in length, precisely to ensure the bride isn’t pregnant by someone else. I think this is reasonable, given the desire of aristocratic families and men in general to know who their heirs are.) But I’m not sure that I’ve accomplished this equality as well as I should – so far, I have an uncomfortable feeling that the majority of my unchaste characters are men, especially the likeable ones. Arvill in We Do Not Kill Children” is not likeable.
  • Just as chastity should be equally valued in men as in women, the (usually but not invariably female) prostitute should be of no lower social or moral status than the (usually male) customer. I am trying to maintain this, but it’s possible that I’ve slipped; for example that characters may use “whore” as a generic insult for a woman, irrespective of her actual sexual ethics, which should not be the case. I haven’t yet found or invented a convenient casual single-syllable insult for the man who pays her.
  • People have families, and wives are not relegated to the kitchen. So any given character’s wife or husband (or servant or adult child) in theory could have an opinion on the plot and plausibly want to get involved, as Hassdan’s wife does in “We Do Not Kill Children.” But I already have a lot of characters, and don’t always want to introduce two for the price of one, as it were. I fear that the Third Tale may contain a largish number of widows and widowers, for this reason. (The first two Tales were easier in this respect, because many or most of the characters were away from home most of the time.)
  • An early draft of “We Do Not Kill Children” was criticised as confusing, because in addition to men and women not being distinguishable by role, they were also indistinguishable by name, all the names being invented. I tried to amend this before publication, by standardising the format of names, as mentioned in a previous post. All names ending in “ai” are male (because I didn’t want to change Kai), so his sibling who was originally Soumai had to become Soumaki. A woman called Makken became Makkam for similar reasons. You may not think this is much help.

And there are doubtless other issues that I haven’t even noticed.

Love from the PPI Blogger

  • Clint Redwood

    8th June 2018 at 4:15 pm Reply

    Interesting analysis. One of the things that often happens in literature, and I suspect to some extent yours is not exempt, is that when trying to create gender equal characters, what is actually written is a “male character” in a “female body”. It may just be the readers assumed stereotypes, but at least one of the high ranking characters in TSV turned out to be female when I’d assumed they were male for quite some of the book. (I can’t remember which character now unfortunately.)

    It turns out that equality is much harder than we might assume… https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kp-R1o753pM

  • Penelope Wallace

    9th June 2018 at 10:36 pm Reply

    Intriguing comment. When Ursula K Le Guin wrote her ground-breaking “The Left Hand of Darkness”, some feminists complained that the supposedly non-gendered hero Estraven was portrayed as a man. (It doubtless didn’t help that Estraven was referred to as “he”.)
    I wonder which of my characters you mean (Narrim?) and what about them, or about any of them, makes you think they’re male? What is the difference between “well, men are actually like this,” and stereotyping?
    Thank you for the Monty Python!

  • Stephen Sheridan

    12th June 2018 at 5:13 pm Reply

    Clint makes a very good comment. I think it is very much harder for men to write credible female characters than the reverse. Of course the greats like Dickens, Tolstoy and Flaubert were good at it, but I cannot think of many modern male writers to which this applies. It is even worse in SF and fantasy. I love Iain Bank’s books, but his heroines are invariably men slightly adjusted in an original Lara Croft kind of way. I think a lot of the changes in the current SF franchises have this problem – Star Wars and Star Trek being prime examples; which makes their attempts to show equality very superficial – and I bet most of those new scripts were written by men!

    Studio: We need more female and gay characters to make the story more inclusive.
    Screen-writer: Ok.
    Takes out pen and changes sexuality, names, pronouns and costumes slightly, while recycling original plot.

    When it comes to equality, only trying to create equality of opportunity seems worthwhile. To enforce equality of outcomes requires the power and ruthlessness of a totalitarian state and delivers only equality of misery with the accompanying oppression and execution. Stages of the French Revolution, the Bolshevik Terror, Mao’s China and the Khmer Rouge show ample evidence of that. The contradictions of the French Revolutionary are in its three slogans: Liberty, Equality, Fraternity. If you want pure equality you can’t have liberty as it requires enforcement. If you want pure liberty of the individual then equality and fraternity don’t get a look in. The balance is very difficult and has to be made in a pragmatic way that causes the least amount of suffering. Humans don’t seem to have found the way to make that balance yet.

    On the credibility of the society you have created, the military is the most difficult one. Since men on average have significant strength advantages in this field, they are much more likely to be the majority of an army. Female equality’s biggest boost in Europe and the US was arguably the total mobilisation required by two world wars. However, aside from resistance units, only the Soviet Union had front line female fighters in their armed forces. Of particular significance were snipers, pilots of night bombers (the so called “Night Witches” who kept the Germans awake at night flying obsolete aircraft to bomb and strafe them and leave them tired and vulnerable during the day), some fighter pilots and some tank commanders. For all the the theoretical gender equality in the Soviet Union, it actually meant women were expected to do those jobs as well as their traditional roles. This perhaps explains why post communism, feminism is Russia has gone into massive reverse, with the majority of women turning their back on equality in careers and opting to compete manipulatively for the support of wealthy men – a very depressing phenomenon which is well documented.
    Another solution to the army dilemma is to allocate tasks more proportionately to theoretically better gender skills sets. This annoys those who think genders are equal at all skill sets, but to my mind that is demonstrably untrue when you look at the evidence. Any successful army needs good organisers, logistics , medical and communications specialists. Those are areas where any physical strength differences are irrelevant and where women’s better organisational, empathic and language skills can be applied. They are also areas where the real life Israeli Defence Force has the preponderance of the conscript women in its army. In Heinlein’s controversial Starship Troopers the men are the battle-suit-enhanced grunts, while the space fleet seems to be crewed mainly by women. I read once in the Nineties that the ideal fighter pilot was a small woman with high blood pressure, because small size meant less to carry and easier to fit into a small cockpit, while high blood pressure meant being able to cope with the high G forces.
    Leadership is the other key aspect. Boudicca, Elizabeth I, Joan of Arc and Catherine the Great didn’t need to be stronger – just smarter, more charismatic and better orators and often more ruthless. I was actually rather surprised in your first book that the nation was ruled by a King. Obviously you created many powerful women around him (including the Queen); but a Queen with a husband of lesser social status and power makes an interesting combination. The husband might have supportive interests and roles (possibly religious or military), while also sometimes resenting his lesser status and being an object of interest to those who might want to undermine the Queen. Boudicca had lost her husband, Elizabeth never married, Joan was a war leader without social status or husband and Catherine had her husband bumped off – so it is not a tale told much before – except in Game of Thrones, where the male leaders were gradually eliminated leaving the women! Of course our own constitutional monarch has worked the situation successfully, but then she only has to act as political figurehead.
    I loved your first one and gave it a big thumbs ups on Amazon. I am saving your second as a treat for the Summer holidays.

  • Penelope Wallace

    13th June 2018 at 10:57 am Reply

    Thank you, Stephen. You say so much that it’s impossible to comment on all of it. You will find a ruling Queen with a “consort” husband in the second book, but you will also find that he is the more prominent character in the story. I’m not sure what that says.
    Have you read Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s “Scots Quair”, especially the first, “Sunset Song”, for a notable female protagonist (Chris Guthrie) created by a male writer? However, I don’t suppose one can call Gibbon modern.
    I am generally in awe of your varied historical and literary knowledge.

  • Stephen Sheridan

    14th June 2018 at 5:57 pm Reply

    Thanks Penelope. I look forward to reading the second book even more now. Thanks for the other tip – I shall look it up. I am currently experimenting trying to write credible female characters and using my wife and female friends (including a gay ex-colleague) as critics to try and understand why it is so much harder. Please don’t be in awe of the knowledge though – I tend to waffle on like a Ronnie Corbett monologue and soak up too much, what my wife would call, “useless information”. The cliches about male nerds are very true. You, however, have applied your knowledge and insight of religion, history and humanity to a great purpose and done something really amazing and genuinely new with it.

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