Still Neutral

Well, this is getting out of hand. If literary gender politics are your thing, check out the latest entries from RJ, Alara Rogers, and A. J. Hall (with two subsequent entries so far).

The biggest misunderstanding of my Gender Neutral entry and associated comments seems to be the assumption that I have difficulty writing original female characters. I don’t. The majority (though not an overwhelming one) of my lead characters are female. I don’t find them easier or harder to write than males; what I imagine would be hard to do is to write women as gender-neutral characters - that is, as though it didn’t matter in the story, plotwise or symbolically, that the character was a woman.

Of course, that’s just me, and it’s not an aspect of my writing that I’d thought about before writing the blog entry in question. My characters come to me full-grown, so I had to line them up and think about them to see why the women were women and the men were neuter. When I wrote about assigning gender according to the plot, I didn’t mean that the plot came before or after the gender. It’s difficult to talk about the muse, even without people jumping down your throat when you do so. Any analysis of my writing is going to be an after-the-fact reconstruction based on speculations about the realm of the unconscious muse. Looking back on my writing, the pattern is that neuter characters are male.

Alara said, I don’t quite get how any woman could think of the male gender as neutral. Part of it may be that I think of men as the weaker sex, with the broken chromosome and the poor social skills and no womb. For me, they don’t even have their statistical advantage of being more intelligent and more rational. Yes, they still have Tab A and the desire to climb to the top of any hierarchy in sight, and there’s nothing wrong with that - I’m just not impressed. If the story doesn’t involve sex or primate pecking orders, then Frodo is neuter in my book. Genocide, while masculine in that it’s a crime, has more to do with bureaucracy and totalitarianism when my characters do it. Fortunately I don’t need to distinguish very carefully between my many neuter and my few masculine characters, since they all end up male in the end.

I’ve mentioned this before, but I suppose if I don’t emphasize it, my point will go on being unclear. Literature, for me, does not represent reality, it symbolizes reality. A dialogue in a novel is not a real dialogue, it is the essence of such a dialogue. (This was noted in Worlds of Wonder; it’s a standard bit of writing advice.) A real life dialogue is meandering and dull; a dialogue in literature is pithy and artificial. In the same way, a character in literature is not a real person but a carefully constructed abstraction. The gender of that character should not be decided according to notions of fair gender representation or even of the writer’s preference for a particular gender (usually her own, and I’m no exception). The gender is symbolic, not representational, and contributes symbolically to the illusion of a real human being.

Of course if to me man means a neuter human, and to you he means the Other, you’ll create different characters and be more bothered by the gender imbalance in The Lord of the Rings than I will. I didn’t even notice. I didn’t notice it in Foundation or any of the other old sci-fi classics. Even if you point it out to me, I don’t see it as male dominance - I see it as a lack of female symbols and plots. Most sci-fi isn’t Shards of Honor and Barrayar, and I don’t expect it to be.

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