Writing Excuses 6.16: Gender Roles–Black, White, and Gray

Keffy Kehrli joins Brandon, Mary, and Howard in front of a live audience at WorldCon 69 in Reno. He’s a Writers of the Future winner, a few votes short of being a Campbell Award nominee, and a female-to-male transsexual.

Mary leads us into this discussion, starting with how gender roles and gender identity lie along a continuum, defying the convenient descriptors that people typically employ, and how this can inform our writing. Keffy offers valuable tips, talking about what gets done wrong, and how to write it correctly.

We also talk about how this can apply to world-building, especially in fantasy where extended gender identities usually are not a consideration.

Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: The Lies of Locke Lamora, by Scott Lynch, narrated by Michael Page

Writing Prompt: Take something that you do, something unique to you (and perhaps to your gender), and hand it to somebody in your book who appears unqualified for that task. Then qualify them for it.

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43 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 6.16: Gender Roles–Black, White, and Gray”

  1. Interesting topic! I’ve never incorporated transgender characters in my book, mostly because I think if I did I would inevitably make the transgender characteristic bigger than it should be. I’m not familiar enough with the culture and lifestyle to, honestly, write it without being stereotypic. But, then again, that can be with any culture that’s different. But as writers, I think part of our job is to be able to convey all parts of humanity, so it’s important to explore the topics we’ve never thought about exploring before.

    On the topic of gender roles in world-building, my first book was a fantasy that I’ve put aside for a while, and when I go back to revise it, I’m going to try and remember that gender roles shouldn’t just be automatic. They should be formed around specific rules just like everything else.

    Again, enjoyed the podcast. Can’t wait for next week’s!

    -Justin C. Key

  2. I’ve been curious to play with gender roles and expectations in my writing before, but I think now, I’d really like to throw out the traditional binary notions and build something else, something very different.

    Thanks gang for such a great podcast!

  3. This is the sort of topic that haunts me. Well, this and any kind of ‘writing the ‘other” thing. Because suddenly I realise…. I haven’t thought of anything for my book that covers XYZ topic.

    MUST INCLUDE! Somehow.

    …. but that could lead to tokenism…. hmmm. And if I just shoehorn stuff in, I run the risk of derailing my plot, and it could come out even more offensive than not representing, and… and…

    … and I’m taking a break….

  4. I haven’t even listened to this yet, and I’m excited. I’m genderqueer myself and can’t help but put that perspective into my characters, even when I don’t mean to. Looking forward to hearing what Keffy’s got to say!

  5. Some resources and things to consider.


    Challenging Gender Norms: Five Genders Among Bugis in Indonesia (Case Studies in Cultural Anthropology)

    I’d also consider trying The Raw and the Cooked by Levi-Strauss, though not directly about gender, it can help to free your mindset from the dichotomy that our culture tends to teach.

    Beyond the binary, there can be multiple genders defined by the society. Gender is not physiological. Sex is physiological.

    There is a tribe in Papua New Guinea that has wars where the men put in featers, do their make up. One war was recorded to stop because it was raining and the men didn’t want their make up to run. That same tribe tends to compare themselves with birds.

    Women? They do the hard labor, such as lift children, tend pigs, tend the garden. A good woman looks like a pig.

    The mistake I see often is that fantasy writers and Sci-fi writers thinks that gender must be like their society because gender is 100% scientifically proven to be a certain way. But if you look at the world different aspects are often assigned to different genders over time. It is true that in agricultural societies the amount of rights for women (rather than feminine) tend to go down. But other than that, people should play more.

    The opposite of a woman is a tree in one culture. Women in Japan are in charge of the money. Sometimes in Japan, the man takes the woman’s last name if she has more prestige (the children would, then take the mother’s name). In Korea, the woman never takes the man’s name, but keeps her own.

    Our culture has a tendency to say things such as gender are “scientifically” proven to be one way or the other or put things in binary. Look at the Bible. Opposite of man is woman. Dark or light… there is rarely a third way. (Our culture also tends to do that with socializations too–how to raise children and teach them language.) Because of hard science often trying to substitute soft science, we often take things like gender for granted as part of nature.

    Anthropology is a good way to free yourself from what you expect Gender norms to be. And also to free yourself of the notion that sexuality and gender are the same thing.

  6. One thing that annoys me is the complete LACK of gender roles in some sci-fi and fantasy stories. People don’t work that way. There are differences.

    No culture is going to be 100% gender blind, especially that species of giant insects you’re using. 😉 Any higher level life form is going to have sexual reproduction. You can’t have amoeba’s that build spaceships. Well you could since it’s your story but it’s not realistic.

    Anyway good podcast.

  7. Back, having listened to the podcast over my lunch break. So much good stuff!

    I liked that Keffy mentioned the Big Reveal mode of outing transgender characters, because it’s pretty unrealistic. Discovering my asexuality didn’t happen with a bang, it just sort of trickled in over the years. First I assumed I was straight, like everyone. Then I wondered if I was gay, but thought, nah, can’t be, I’m not really attracted to women. Then I thought about it and realized that, weirdly enough, I wasn’t really attracted to men either. I complained about my confusion a lot in my journal, and I anxiously asked my friends for their opinions several times, but there wasn’t any “puking in the shower” moment. It was all pretty mellow. Life tends to spin out more organically than the Big Reveal trope would suggest.

    I think if someone had written a story about me, my sexuality wouldn’t be the plot. I’d be a character who is in the middle of an extremely clever plan to take over the world, and oh btw, also happens to be asexual and genderqueer, natch. There are people for whom this isn’t the case, for whom the plot of their life WOULD be mostly or entirely concerned with their sexuality or their gender identity, but I suspect that they are the (vocal) minority. And even for them, it’s definitely not the only part of their identity, just the part that’s biggest and easiest to latch on to.

    I’m reminded of a particular strip from A Softer World: “I like to climb trees, that’s normal, right? I like to play dice. I like to knit. I like to rollerskate. Everyone gets so hung up on me dating a zombie.”

    In general, I think the notion of “other” is the biggest barrier towards being able to actually write the “other”. Gay people are still people, not much different from you. So are asexual people, transgender, etc. The important thing is that they have a different view of themselves and the world than you do. As Keffy said, just say to yourself that this is a person with a different background than yours. Well that’s okay. People write mercenaries and elves and aliens and, hey, people of different or opposing gender, all the time! What’s the difference? You’ve never experienced being an elf either, so how do you write an elf? Well, get inside their culture, get inside their head. Find out what’s important to them, what scares them, how they believe that the world works. Exactly the same as you would do for any other character.

    You can’t assume that you can write a transgender character as just being you with a mask on, saying “I am transgender!”, but you can’t get too caught up in the idea that there’s this weird mystical unattainable “other” that you will never understand, either.

  8. @Matthew

    I don’t understand why sexual reproduction is necessary to have higher levels of life. It’s really just a mechanism to introduce some change every step of the way that could be handled hermaphroditically with a non-sentient additive.

  9. I was so happy to see this, before I even listened to it. I’m also a trans man, and I was excited to see another FtM on Writing Excuses. I really loved this discussion, and I’m especially glad that you guys talked about non-binary genders and people whose orientations don’t quite match what you would expect (I identify as a gay man). Thanks for making my day. You all rock.

    For everyone wanting to write characters outside the binary, or just challenge your conventional thinking, I highly recommend the website genderfork.com for research. Its all about trans and gender variant people expressing themselves, through quotes, profiles, pictures etc. Its fairly clean as well.

  10. @Matthew: I’m going to have to agree with @Duke on this point — while it’s possible you’ve stated a scientific truth, we don’t have any actual information on non-Earth life to test the hypothesis, so there’s not very much support for absolute statements like “any higher level life form is going to have sexual reproduction.”

    Sexual reproduction in conjunction with mutable genetic information and natural selection — the key elements in evolutionary mechanisms for letting Life problem-solve on a grand scale — might not be the only way to accomplish evolutionary problem-solving. Good science fiction can explore that.

    Also, there’s no reason to assume that sexual reproduction requires two distinct sexes. You writers should be able to conjure up hermaphrodites who exchange impregnation, with each member of the pair filling the roles of both inseminator and egg-layer/term-carrier/whatever.

  11. I am reminded briefly of Jackie Kay’s Trumpet…Which has a transgender as its main character, and supposedly was based off a real person.

  12. Addendum to Howard’s post: in Ursula K Le Guin’s ‘Left Hand of Darkness’ there is an alien species who spend much of their time as gender-neutral. They experience sexual urges once a month, and they assume a physiological gender to accommodate their partner. I think they called the gendered state, ‘kemmer’. The main character was an Earth man, and the locals jokingly called him ‘the Pervert’ because he was always the same gender, always in ‘kemmer’. I think there was also something mentioned to do with sibling relationships, but I don’t remember the specifics…. possibly that romance was considered acceptable between siblings, but not a kemmer, or sexual, relationship.

    It’s been a long time since I read any of the book, and I actually never finished it. I was kinda young when I first picked it up, possibly too young to appreciate things like ‘Pervert’. I should look at it again. Wonder where it ended up.

    I know this is probably nothing new to most people here, but I thought it illustrated the point. Gender roles and identities CAN be challenged in sci fi.

    Insect people, for instance, are often depicted as hive-based. The queen produc