Genre and gender

Paul Raven @ 05-05-2011

One of the things that interests me most about the genre fiction community is its politics of race, sex and gender. While only a fool would call it a utopia of enlightened equality (far from it), I’ve long suspected that the frequent flarings-up around these sorts of issues are actually a sign of subcultural health; to make a brief comparison with one of my other favourite cultural spheres, to even attempt to discuss the objectification of women or the undercurrents of homophobia in rock and metal music is an exercise in futility that does little more than remind you of the sheer extent of the problems you’re trying to address*.

I suspect that genre’s status as a comparatively safe harbour for alternative politics is due at least in part to the fact that it’s always been a group that identified as non-mainstream (which brings certain counter-compensatory problems with it, but that’s a discussion for another time). Another important component is that genre fiction itself provides a toolkit for creating thought experiments where alternative politics can be played out, and Kyle Munkittrick of Discover‘s Science Not Fiction blog has come to a similar conclusion with respect to sex, gender and sexuality:

Sci-fi sex is fun to talk about, of course, but how can all of that help us understand the actual future of humanity? Simply put: we imagine what we hope to see. So the question is: what is it we imagine and hope for? An utter free-for-all of alien-cyborg-A.I. bacchanalia? I don’t think so. Instead, sci-fi is teaching the diversity of our own human sexuality back to us.

It’s an interesting piece, though I think it could be accused of taking the most optimistic reading possible of the genre as a whole, and of individual texts. Munkittrick sees The Fifth Element‘s Ruby Rhod as “perfectly and outrageously androgynous”, for example, while the same character crops up at io9 in a top ten list of embarrassingly terrible racial stereotypes; the reader’s perspective holds primacy in their own world, and for every player who finds playing a female character in a computer game enlightening for its ability to let them empathise with an unfamiliar sexuality, I suspect there’s rather more than one that does it because they simply like watching a pixellated female form more than a male one.

But Munkittrick’s underlying point is very valid, I think; by setting itself in worlds different to the one of our daily experience, non-mimetic media – especially science fiction, but by no means exclusively – gives artists a chance to sneak issues of gender and sexuality “under the wire” to an audience that might well baulk at the same ideas presented in a more everyday context. The battle for understanding and empathy is far from won – in the genre community and the wider world alike – but genre remains an important theatre for it, and that’s something to be proud of, I think.

[ * The persistent misogyny, homophobia and playground-grade discourse of mainstream metal may well explain my continued drift toward its fringes. That, and the fact that I get bored easily. ]


Regendering corporations

Paul Raven @ 30-03-2011

Here’s a blog-post transcription of a recent “tweet-lecture” by Jess Nevins about a paper titled “An Organizational Approach to Undoing Gender: The Unlikely Case of Offshore Oil Platforms”, which looks at the dangers of performative maleness (and ways of countering such) in “High Risk Organisations”such as oil drilling rigs. In short, the oil companies wanted to reduce the number of worker injuries, and did so by switching the cultural attitudes that ruled the workplace from rugged individualist machismo to a more cautious collectivism… which didn’t just change the company culture and safety record, but the emotional attitudes of the workers themselves:

Employees became comfortable sharing their problems at home with supervisors, as a way to help maintain group safety. One worker, first thing one morning, told his coworkers about his sick child and said: “This is what I’m dealing with at home. If you all would please keep me focused and understand if I’m a little distracted, I’d appreciate it.”

The authors: “Workers displayed raw fears in our presence, with no indication of shame.”

One inexperienced worker precipitated a shut-down because he followed the advice of his physically intimidating coworker. After error analysis “this exchange led to a larger team discussion about the need to guard against one’s potential to intimidate, however unwittingly, or to be intimidated.” Production goals on the rigs “were stated in relative terms rather than absolute numbers,” which workers saw as concrete evidence of the company’s concern with safety over profit and the bottom line.

One of the oil rigs made light of the mistakes by establishing the “Millionaires Club,” made up of workers whose mistake cost the company millions of dollars. “To become a member was not a source of shame, but rather a mark of being human.”

One worker described “how he had become less blaming and more attentive to others’ feelings” from the emphasis on learning from mistakes. “You realize you need to change when you see a look on someone’s face after they made a mistake like that–and you see the hurt. Because that’s something you don’t want to cause.”

[…]

The money quote:

“A man is a man when he can think like a woman,” which means “being sensitive, compassionate, in touch with my feelings; knowing when to laugh and when to cry.” The authors add that “several interviewees corroborated this view, offering definitions of manhood that similarly emphasized humility, feelings, approachability and compassion.”

Imagine, just for a moment what a country run by a government that had been “regendered”- not by swapping out all the men for women, but by redefining its goals – might look like.

In the final section the authors provide a theoretical how-to for undoing corporate gender. “By consistently putting collectivistic goals front and center, cultural practices anchor men to work goals that connect them to others. Men’s sense that others’ well-being is at stake in how they perform their jobs gives them a compelling reason to deviate from conventional masculinity when the work requires it.”

(Emphasis mine.)

I dare say there’ll be more than a few guys reading this and thinking it’s some liberal feminist plot to emasculate men. If you’re one of them, I invite you to read it again; the point isn’t that men need to act like women, it’s that there are clear benefits to everyone – at both the personal and organisational levels – when men act less like macho dicks.

And if that’s still sticking in your craw and making you want to shout at someone, then I think you’ve just provided your own confirmatory data-point.


Why isn’t there a gender-neutral pronoun?

Paul Raven @ 30-08-2010

Actually, there are dozens of gender-neutral pronouns, and that’s  true even if you limit your search to the science fiction canon. But calls for a gender-neutral pronoun are much older than you might have thought, as the Oxford University Press blog explains, and we still haven’t managed to adopt one [via TheBigThink]:

Such discussions in the 1880s and 90s did nothing to shake up the pronoun paradigm, and nothing came of subsequent proposals for heer, hie, ha, hesh, thir, she (together with shis and shim), himorher, se, heesh, hse, kin, ve, ta, tey, fm, z, ze, shem, se, j/e, jee, ey, ho, po, ae, et, heshe, hann, herm, ala, de, ghach, han, he, mef, ws, and ze [a list with dates and sources for many of these pronouns can be found here].

Flash forward to 1978, when The Times (of London) prints a letter in response to yet another call for a new “unisex” pronoun set, advocating le, lim, ler, and lers. (And another correspondent tersely suggests it.)

Despite this wealth of coinage, there is still no widely-accepted gender-neutral pronoun. In part, that’s because pronoun systems are slow to change, and when change comes, it is typically natural rather than engineered.

For those of us who work with words, of course, there are canonical rulesets to which we are supposed to adhere. But it’s the ruleset of grammar that long forbade the use of the singular they:

… despite the almost universal condemnation of the coordinate he or she by supporters of gender-neutral pronouns, the rule books now opt for he or she and not an invented word to replace the generic he. Students who once were taught that the masculine pronoun must always be used in cases of mixed or doubtful gender are now taught instead to use coordinate forms, not for gender balance or grammatical precision, but simply because that’s the new rule. Those writers who question the rule, who realize that multiple he-or-she’s just don’t make for readable prose, won’t seek out a new gender-neutral pronoun. Instead they’ll recast some sentences as plural, and for the rest they’ll just take their chances with singular they. After all, if you, which is also gender neutral, can serve both for singular and plural, why can’t they do the same? In any case, after more than 100 attempts to coin a gender-neutral pronoun over the course of more than 150 years, thon and its competitors will remain what they always have been, the words that failed.

Regular readers may have noticed that I tend to use the singular they wherever possible – indeed, I’ve been called out on it in the comments here once or twice, so that grammatical rule dies hard. I really can’t remember when I started doing it, either; I’m not sure whether I was taught that way at school (though I doubt it, given the conservatism of my education).

All this, I suppose, makes gender-neutral pronouns a case study in the seemingly universal human urge to create multiple new rules in order to fix a problem that could be obviated by dropping or loosening a single old rule…


Tearing down the walls between “boy” and “girl”

Paul Raven @ 20-07-2010

Well, this is heartening: an opinion piece in New Scientist arguing in favour of dismantling the gender divide.

Yes, boys and girls, men and women, are different. But most of those differences are far smaller than the Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus stereotypes suggest. Nor are the reasoning, speaking, computing, empathising, navigating and other cognitive differences fixed in the genetic architecture of our brains. All such skills are learned, and neuro-plasticity – the modification of neurons and their connections in response to experience – trumps hard-wiring every time. If men and women tend towards different strengths and interests, it is due to a complex developmental dance between nature and nurture that leaves ample room to promote non-traditional skills in both sexes.

The obvious place to start looking for behavioural differences between the sexes is infancy. Yet even here they are often in the eye of the beholder. In a classic experiment, researchers cross-dress babies to fool people that they are interacting with a child of the opposite sex. Volunteers tend to comment more on the physical strength and negative emotions of babies they believe to be boys, and on the beauty and positive emotions of babies they believe to be girls.

[…]

So should we abandon our search for the “real” differences between the sexes? Yes. There is almost nothing we do with our brains that is hard-wired: every skill, attribute, and personality trait is moulded by experience. At no time are children’s brains more malleable than in early life – the time when parents are so eager to learn the baby’s sex, project it to others and unconsciously express stereotyped impressions of their child.

It’s a timely topic, brought into the public eye by celebrity gossip (what else?): Angelina Jolie’s decision to let her four year old daughter dress as she pleases – short haircut, traditionally “male” clothes – is a pretty good barometer for comparing the opinions of different demographics. For example, compare the Feministing headline for this story (“Angelina Jolie responds to gender policing of Shiloh“) with that from FOX Nation (“Angelina Jolie Lets Daughter Gender-Bend?“).

Sadly, essentialist views of gender differences are deeply entrenched in the conservative and fundamentalist worldviews, both of which tend to place adherence to tradition above and beyond the well-being and freedom of the individual; regular readers of this site probably don’t need reminding that I tend to see things quite the other way round. Nonetheless, it’s great to see this topic becoming a matter for public discussion; sure, it’ll stir up a whole lot of dumb uninformed invective (from extremist positions on both sides of the debate, sadly), but cultural change comes with friction as standard.

And who knows – maybe we’ll end up with a society that finds the notion of applying experimental hormone treatments to your unborn child in the hope of nipping any potential gender ambiguity in the bud to be a repugnant act of cultural eugenics. Fingers crossed, eh?


Walk a mile in another (wo)man’s virtual shoes

Paul Raven @ 09-07-2010

I’ve often thought the world would be a fairer place if we could all spend a month living as someone of a different gender, race or level of physical ability. Until the gene-mod folks get us to the level of Iain M Banks’ Culture and provide complete plasticity of embodiment (c’mon, people – get a move on with that!), the next best thing is the Metaverse. New World Notes reports on the experience of a Second Life clothing designer who spent some time in a male avatar:

… Rebecca came away with a lot of insights, besides how to better make male fashion: “I learned that you can’t really trust anyone, male or female,” she tells me now. “People in Second Life can tell the truth as easily as they can tell a lie.”

(Lying about oneself is not exactly a thing unique to SL, but the ability to present visually and conversationally as something you are not adds all sorts of layers of complexity into the equation.)

By being a virtual male, “I learned about some of my own weaknesses at the time, such as my tendency to believe what every male avatar told me, especially if they had a good looking avatar. I think the visual aspect of Second Life somehow tricks the brain into taking our past experiences and cultural expectations and placing these experiences and expectations onto others within Second Life… I think a lot of women have the same type of thinking when they go into Second Life and tend to become attracted to good looking avatars, and overlook the avatars who are not particularly attractive.”

It’s hardly a rigorous feminist interrogation of the SL social space, but there’s some value there nonetheless. It’s interesting to note that Rebecca found herself falling back on the default “player” behaviour of male avatars who’d hit on her in the past; score another point for gender as a social construction.

I really wish more people could be encouraged to try this sort of thing out; most of my own (admittedly shallow) revelations about the actual experience of othering has come from spending time in female avatars, as well as observing the persecution of friends who embody as furries or other anthropomorphs. Nothing brings home the casual (and often unintentional) misogyny and privilege of baseline male behaviour quite like being on the receiving end of it.


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