Friday, February 7, 2014

OPINION: On Passing The Buck (*Updated: 7/7 4:50pm*)

UPDATE: I would just like to point out that myself and the blogger in question have discussed this and I think it's - as I perhaps thought after writing this - a case of working at cross-purposes to the same end. The post in question (and my comment deleted) was edited in response to my post, and a lot of the tone/comments were made in response to something that wasn't put into context. I will still leave my post up, because whilst the context has changed, one could argue it's a piece that shows how important making sure the context is there is. I'd like to publicly offer my apologies to Sarah at Bookworm Blues if I've implied she has unsavoury beliefs or thoughts, and for assuming the worst.

Last night a post by an established and well-respected blogger, Bookworm Blues, appeared in my feed, with a topic related to the recent discussions on gender within genre works. I decided to check it out because, hey, you never know, someone might actually talk about things other than Men and Women, or at least raise awareness of other genders/trans* identities. Yeah. I was disappointed, but also outraged. And in a late-night fit of anger, I left a comment. Woke up, the comment had gone and the post had been altered. A victory? No, not really. I'd been silenced, and it left the author to essentially claim to their followers they'd been the victim of an offensive comment.

Wow. Really? Is that what we're playing at? She Said, She Said? Just because you've got a group of people who will defend you without knowing what happened, and because you can present a one-sided view of affairs that don't *at all* say what you've done - after all, you've edited the post, they probably won't have seen the original - it's easy to put the other person into the shoes of 'bad guy'. Well, hey, I'm that bad guy, and I gotta say your shoes ain't so clean either.

I'm going to start out by quoting the content written by Bookworm Blues in its entire form from a Google cache of the post, taken from around 10:30pm GMT on Thurs 6th Feb. I have provided a link, but with all such things, the links tend to be very inconsistent and may not be around for long. I've taken out the quote from Kameron Hurley's AMA, and also the picture of the blogger 'cos there's no real need for it. Without further ado, here it is.
Hey guys, I want to break some important news to you.

I am a woman.

That’s me, looking like a female because I am one.

Astounding, right?

I’m not exactly sure when it happened, but somewhere along the way books became genderfied. Or something. I’m saying this because yesterday I received an email from someone who was talking about a book and said, “but you’d probably not enjoy it because you’re a woman.” The sad thing is, this isn’t even the twentieth letter or comment I’ve read that said something like that. Not even the thirtieth.

Generally speaking I don’t think people even realize how something like that comes across, but it really rubs me the wrong way and makes me ask a few important questions. Can woman write a masculine book and can a man write a feminine book? And just what the hell is the definition of a masculine a masculine and feminine book? Are there rules in place that authors and readers need to be aware of so they write and read only books that appeal to their gender? Does a female book have female parts? I don’t get it. Honestly, I wonder what these beliefs and viewpoints automatically make people infer about my reviewing.

I enjoy books for a lot of different reasons, but one of the primary reasons is because books don’t tell me what to enjoy or how to enjoy it. I can read whatever I want, and I can enjoy it to whatever level I desire. It doesn’t matter that I’m a woman. A book doesn’t do physical exam and refuse to open if my plumbing isn’t right. It doesn’t care.

I’m not sure why people apply these gender rules to books, because they don’t make any sense to me at all. Books transcend gender. I know some male reviewers who enjoy urban fantasy (a subgenre that is often referred to as a “chick” genre by lots of people) far more than I do (and I’m a “chick”). I tend to enjoy darker, bloodier, and grittier epics than a lot of men I know whom I review with. Does that mean I need gender identification therapy? Maybe I’m the outlier, but when I talk books with people, I don’t really care what gender the person is, as long as they have something to contribute to the conversation.

The thing that really gets me about these viewpoints is how absolutely limiting they are. If I only read books that were considered “girl books” then I’d be so stunted (that’s if anyone even agreed on a definition of what a “girl book” was). It’s not just limiting reading material that bothers me, though. That sort of segregation stunts on so many levels. However, It’s the fight that so many authors have to put up just to write the stories they want to tell without any assumptions from readers that gets me. Saying things like, “you probably wouldn’t like that book because you’re a girl” just continues the trend and feeds into the stereotypes, slamming readers and careers into cookie-cutter boxes without even realizing it.

Believe it or not, women can write gritty fantasy and SciFi. Women can also write male characters, fight scenes, and cursing. And on the flip side, all you need to do is talk to this guy to know that men can write some pretty touching, emotional books featuring female characters and steamy scenes. Maybe we all need gender identification therapy.

Books don’t depend on gender, and authors don’t check the Gender Rule Book before they set down to tell a story. There aren’t “Masculine Story” rules and “Feminine Story Rules” and the fact that some authors and readers out there think that stories are “masculine” and “feminine” actually kind of insults me. That sort of lingo puts rules and stipulations on something that I enjoy purely because it has no real rules. I do not go to a separate section of the library to pick my books out. Are authors like Stina Leicht, Janny Wurts, and Teresa Frohock doing it wrong because they write vibrant, well-developed male characters? Should we send them all a letter saying, “Hey, I’m sorry but your dudes are too dude-ish and you are too woman-ish so you should probably stop now.”

My sarcasm aside, it’s rather humbling to see just how much female authors still have to battle in the genre. While it seems to me that sexism should be a nonissue – it seems so logical that gender just shouldn’t matter – it’s still very much an issue. As I touched on in Kameron Hurley’s AMA:
*Snipped Quote*
I think Hurley’s statement is probably true for a lot of women out there writing and enjoying the genre. Most women don’t dress like video game characters. Just because I am a woman doesn’t mean I automatically go to the romance section of the library, crave alpha males, and love to read about the woman who nurtures the lost and looks to fall in love. There’s nothing wrong with those stories, but I tend to prefer my literature a bit bloodier, and a whole lot darker. And that’s fine. Furthermore, the women authors out there can, and do, write just as well as any man – sometimes even better. The genre is alive and well purely because of diversity. Speculative fiction pushes boundaries and questions the norm. It demands that its readers do the same, so why are so many of us so hooked on these old gender ideals? And has anyone stopped and thought about the effects of these gender-centric viewpoints on authors, readers, and even society?

I want my daughter to go to the library and pick up any book she wants – a book about trucks or a book about dolls. I don’t care. I just want her to read and love reading. I never want her to read what girls are “supposed” to read. I never, ever, want that thought to enter her head. I don’t think that’s too much to ask, but when I’m told that I won’t like a book because I’m a woman, or hear that women can’t write masculine stories, I start wondering if my dream of a gender-less library is too far fetched. What are we doing to ourselves?

To summarize this rambling diatribe:
  1. I can read whatever the hell I want, and I can enjoy it however I so choose.
  2. Authors can write whatever the hell they want, however the hell they want to write it.
  3. So can you.
    1. Regardless of your plumbing.
So yes. I think there are some good points there. I think it's true there's no such thing in a real sense as a Masculine or a Feminine book, because books can be read by everyone, and there's no inherent quality that defines what is or isn't one. Modesitt writes books where his protagonists fall in love - is that something feminine? Not really. I mean we do certainly segregate books in subtle ways - okay, much less subtle if we're talking about romantic or children's fiction - but largely it's a pointless way to describe the content of a book, especially when there's better ways around. We have action books, we have military books, we have cooking books, we've got romance books. Not one of those qualities belongs to Masculinity or Femininity. Women play sports and fight (action), women are in the military (uh, military), men are often the top chefs (cooking) and men try to 'woo' a romantic partner (romance). Books also don't question what you are before you open them, so there's no way to really say This Is For X or These Are For Y.

Anyway. The problems lie in the details of this post, and there's quite a few problems I had. Let's start from the top and work down. Firstly, we have the line "That’s me, looking like a female because I am one." - Well, what to say? You identify as female, therefore you must look like one? A bit nit-picky, sure, but I think this straight away gives a hint that just maybe the author doesn't understand the difference between gender and sex.

Secondly, "Does a female book have female parts?" Well, considering a book is sexless, no. But it's again a mixture of gender and sex. Feminine and Masculine are traits we attach to personalities and behaviour. You can have a masculine woman, and a feminine man. A masculine woman may have 'female parts' (i.e. a vagina), and a feminine man a penis, but their sex organs are irrelevant to the traits of their behaviour. A feminine woman might very well have a penis, okay?

Of course, so far it's taking lines and making them more abstract, but I feel there's at least some misunderstanding of the differences between gender, sex, and how masculinity/femininity tie into that. Let me just expand on that last point. Masculinity and Femininity are two words we use to group together attributes and traits we see in human behaviour, generally linked to the roles we expect men and women to play in society. We see bold, brash, aggressive, war-like, active and even scholarly interests as being terms we associate with masculinity. In the past men were expected to embody masculine traits - they were dominant, they were serious and so on. On the flip side, we see femininity as encompassing things that are more delicate or practical with relation to the house - cooking, cleaning, child-rearing, decorating (e.g. cakes), emotions (especially sadder ones). Of course there were traits that fall into neither category (such as randomness in one's behaviour), and they still largely seem to be outside of these categories. Either way it's an outdated concept, but one that still has a large part to play in our society, and yes - even in our fiction.

We then come to this: "It doesn’t matter that I’m a woman. A book doesn’t do physical exam and refuse to open if my plumbing isn’t right." and I believe it's still in the edited post. Right, so firstly we have - again - the conflation of gender and sex. There is no right plumbing for a gender except for what society defines. A woman can be a woman with a penis, a man a man with a vagina. Society tells us this is not right, but society's a bag of issues all on its own. A book doesn't care what gender you identify as, no, nor what sex you are, but your readers do care if you start implying women can only have vaginas, or if gender and sex are two inseparable ideas.

It moves on and there's a good point about books 'transcending' gender... in the sense that some men like urban fantasy more than the blogger (maybe this is because Urban Fantasy =/= Paranormal Romance, two very close and similarly-marketed genres, and UF includes popular authors like Jim Butcher and, I believe, Kevin Hearne, whereas the Harris' and the Carrigers and so-on are all more PNR), and I think it's certainly true a male-identified person could pick up a very woman-centric book as Rachel Pollack's Godmother Night and enjoy it, but I think that's less transcending gender and more... just being a good book. Transcending marketing might be a better way of putting it. But then we hit this absolute stunner. "I tend to enjoy darker, bloodier, and grittier epics than a lot of men I know whom I review with. Does that mean I need gender identification therapy?"




Just no. No. No. No. No. No. Just no. They did not need to bring trans* topics into this, and they certainly did not need to do that again later on in the post. It's not even funny. THIS is the core of what pissed me off, and caused me to leave the comment, and I'm pretty sure this is what most of the defenders did not see. Gender identity dysphoria is no laughing matter, and considering the clumsy approach to gender/sex earlier in the post, this just hit like a hammer blow. There was no need to bring it up, and it's such a trivialising point.

The blogger in question seemed to assume I was offended. I wasn't so much offended as angry. Carelessness and comments born of ignorance can be hurtful, but there was utterly no need to bring issues like gender identity dysphoria into this and then trivialise it as the butt of some terrible joke. We've had that Baen author and his friends jump on us recently, to start with, and many of these gender posts we've seen since that incident a few weeks ago have largely ignored trans* people, we've had this week Piers Morgan acting like an even bigger arsehole than usual to a transperson and then spouting transmisogynistic bullshit when called out, and in general we're spat down upon by those with identities that match their birth sexes (i.e. 'cisgendered' people), and even at times the gay and lesbian communities. 

Look. I am female but I don't look like one. I read "masculine" fiction as well as "feminine" fiction. I try to understand where these descriptions and traits come from, and I accept they're still part of daily life. They are parts of life that negatively affect trans* people every day, from being publicly outed because they might look a bit "masculine", to being abused online with numerous slurs, through to actual violence. Disproportionately so. So really, what I'm saying is fine - I agree that we need to talk about gender in fiction, but also why the feminine/masculine divide is rather stupid. But what we don't need to do is try to define what a woman is, what her genitals may or may not be, and what we certainly don't need to do is trivialise the utter lack of real, genuine help that trans* people find when trying to get support from their doctors, friends, family, etc. by turning it into a repeated punchline. It's all too real.

So, Bookworm Blues - I am not going to stand here and let you imply I'm the bad guy here because I dared say I found what you said insensitive. I'm not going to let you implicate me on Twitter without even having the decency to call me out by name or let me defend myself. You made insensitive, hurtful comments in your post - intentional or otherwise - and by deleting my comment and those aspects of your post you may have repaired that... except you went and played the victim to your followers. There's two sides to every coin. Here's mine.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for your comments. I'm still struggling to understand details.

    When I grew up, you were either a girl or a boy, and society had set broad, but mostly non-overlapping boxes of traits for both - and swept everything else under the rug. Sometimes by killing it. It was worse than here, because countries like Mexico at the time were even more paranoid than the States (and had flourishing gay cultures in certain areas, such as the arts, that were mostly tolerated - I found that out later).

    As we find out about the true biology of humans (and animals), I learn. I had a hard enough time - I wanted a lot of the traits from the boy's box - but I am still finding out how bad it was and continues to be for people like you. For people like me, education is key; acceptance is not the problem. For some others, no amount of education will lead them to acceptance of something that, ultimately, is none of their business to accept or not.

    I hope their number diminishes quickly in time. From the news, it's going to be a while.

    Keep writing.