Gender Neutral

I’m behind on the blogs; somehow I completely missed RJ on gender politics, or more specifically on the lack of strong female characters in Tolkien and C. S. Lewis.

I was about twenty-four years old the first time this fiction gap was pointed out to me. I had just watched “Lawrence of Arabia” with a guy, and during the credits he pointed out that there were no women in the entire movie, except for one non-speaking figure seen from a distance.

I hadn’t noticed.

In the case of “Lawrence of Arabia,” there are historical reasons for the omission (about which, as far as I could recall, my friend was right). You could say the same of Tolkien because he’s depicting a medieval culture, but that’s not the source of my not noticing.

Male characters are the neuter pronoun of fiction. Frodo, Legolas and Gimli aren’t male in any way that alienates me as a female reader - they’re generic hobbit, elf and dwarf. Aragorn is an exception if you know about Arwen, but if you don’t (and Tolkien, unlike Peter Jackson, was kind enough to hide her in an appendix), even he’s relatively neuter.

Female characters can also be neuter, like Galadriel, or completely subsumed by their gender role, like Arwen, or struggling in-between the two, like Eowyn. It’s an easier thing to do with men, though - Everyman characters are always men like Tom Paris, despite B’Elanna Torres’ very similar background.

This is where the feminists chime in and say that I’m merely describing the dominance of men in society, not explaining it away in literature. I’m always interested in reading about new societies that differ on such basic points of human nature, but you have to make it believable. Show me the technobabble. Until you do, I’ll assume I’m reading about human society as it has been in all documented cases - patriarchal, with man as the neuter character.

In fanfiction I’m restricted to the genders as given, but in original stories I assign gender according to a specific and, until now, unconscious process. If the destiny of the character is to fall in love, reproduce, leave home for love like Ruth, or otherwise be noticably gendered, I make her female. If their destiny is to commit genocide, immolate themselves in a folding singularity, disappear over the horizon, discover a new world like an old-time Everyman pulp adventurer, or otherwise be gender-neutral, I make him male.

Yes, I could write neuter females, but I’m not a feminist writer. I am not revolted by the neuter pronoun he, even though I prefer they for clarity. I have no stake in balancing gender representation in my writing. Literature is not about literal representation, but about symbolism. Male and female have symbolic meanings, even for those who don’t believe they are biologically based. The male as neuter is only one of those symbols, and I see no point in criticizing or abandoning it.

5 Responses to “Gender Neutral”

  1. A.J.Hall Says:

    I always enjoy reading your blog, partly because we come (it would appear) from such very different positions that your views often cast an angle of light on subjects in which I am interested from an angle which it would not occur to me to look. And that often leads to me evaluating my opinions more carefully, to accommodate a wider spectrum of possibilities. Which has to be a good thing.

    I can’t, however, agree with your position about male being the gender-neutral choice for narrative. Indeed, one of the problems is that literature imposes its own narrative structure on reality. If you look at history - social history - there are hundreds of different narrative possibilities. Even Ruth - whom you mentioned - leaves her country for love, but for the love of her mother-in-law, and the great declaration “Whither thou goest I will go ….thy gods will be my gods …where thou diest I will die, and there will I be buried …the Lord do all this to me, and more also, if aught but death part thee and me” is made to her mother-in-law. Caterina Sforza, in the Renaissance, pioneered biological warfare in her great defence of her castle by sending papers impregnated with plague germs to Alexander VI. I once saw a Cape Horn medal (awarded to those who round the Horn under sail) that had been awarded to someone who went round the Horn while being born. No-one appeared to remark on where the medal was which her mother should have had.

    The point, actually, is that women in real life have had a rich, complex, infinitely interesting narrative existence far from limited to (though encompassing) the limited roles you suggest. By assuming the “Male is gender neutral” narrative role, you seem, with respect, to be abandoning many narrative possibilites. And the more writers abandon them, the more that putting non-standard female characters into fiction, such as Mrs Croft from Persuasion who had “crossed the Atlantic 4 times,and have been once to the East Indies and back again; and only once, besides being here and there about home - Cork and Lisbon and Bermuda. But I never went beyond the Streights - and never was in the West Indies. We do not call Bermuda or Bahama, you know, the West Indies” becomes impossible because it looks like such an act of gender politics, when it is simple fact. Smollett and Austen wrote about women at sea in Napoleonic times; Forester, Pope and Kemp never. And when O’Brien does it, it seems often to have the air of self-conscious daring, of cocking a snook, that he has when he writes about sodomy or drug taking.

    And that, I believes, exemplifies why for me, in writing fiction I believe neutrality is impossible, certainly for the author. By adopting one position it assists in making it so. And the historical truth becomes something one can no longer write, because if one did “it would be condemned as an improbable fiction.”

    Longer discussion of the interesting points raised by you at my livejournal.

  2. Jemima Says:

    I certainly didn’t mean that my female characters are restricted to reproducing when they appear, but that if one of my characters is going to reproduce somewhere along the line, she’ll need to be female. If she’s going to follow her mother-in-law to a foreign land or, rather, board a colony ship to give her progeny a better future, that says female to my muse.

    If there’s nothing particularly female (by this very loose definition of female) in the character’s future, he ends up male. That doesn’t mean that he can’t fall in love on the side, or that gender-neutral events won’t happen to a female character in the course of the story. Mrs. Croft served a particular function in Persuasion - she wasn’t just a random proto-feminist tossed in for gender balance.

    Mine is just a gender version of the principle that only the facts vitally important to the story should go in it. Does this scene need to be there? Does this character need to be female? If the answer is no, I’m not going to put in the extra effort to make her so. I write science fiction, so if I want to change the sexual politics of the world I change them explicitly.

  3. Erica Smith Says:

    It may be abandoning my feminist roots to say so, but I can’t quite see committing genocide as a neutral act, particularly a gender-neutral one. Not that women haven’t participated in genocide over the years, but it does seem, in general, a male choice. So, in fact, does discovering new worlds.

    I am waiting to see what AJH has to say about this, and then I will no doubt comment further, but I do question whether you’re really assigning your characters to neutral roles based on gender. What you do seem to be saying is that they have to have sexual relations to be noticeably gendered. Personally, I can’t say I’d ever be able to look at Aragorn as gender-neutral even if he never had a lustful thought regarding Arwen (and Tolkien certainly preferred that he didn’t). But he is born to be King. Not Gender-Neutral Ruler. His approach to life is distinctly male. (And I am not, by the way, referring in any way to the lovely Viggo M. I read the books nigh on thirty years before the movie came out.)

    There is no reason women cannot have adventures in fiction, and I personally think it’s more fun to give them a chance. Each to his own, of course (note gender-neutral pronoun; cannot give it up because of subject not agreeing with verb sort of thing; none of your modern “they” nonsense). I also can’t see how it takes extra effort to write a female character, especially to a female author. Inappropriate sometimes, quite likely. But more difficult?? How? Why?

    Resisting temptation to babble on (probably in very female fashion), I echo AJH’s comment about different angles of light. Thank you, indeed.

  4. Jemima Says:

    As I already said, my non-neutral characters also have adventures. The use of they as neuter pronoun isn’t modern - it has a long history in English. It’s the rule against it that’s modern.

    It’s more difficult for me to write a female character as neuter because I don’t think of her as neuter, so I have to go to the effort to neuter her to my own satisfaction. At least, that’s the theory - I don’t ever actually do it.

  5. Lisa Silver Says:

    I’ll assume I’m reading about human society as it has been in all documented cases - patriarchal, with man as the neuter character.

    Respectfully, many Native Canadian societies are matriarchal with female as the neuter character Miqmaaq and Ojibwa are two that spring to mind. The Cree language has no gendered pronouns whatsoever and the language is structured that one cannot have a male/female distinction.