Worldbuilding Gender Roles

Your Hosts: Brandon, Mary Robinette, Margaret, and Howard

Let’s talk about worldbuilding with gender roles. Most of us have grown up with a very strongly defined binary, that distinction need not be how we craft the worlds in which we set our stories. In this episode we discuss the resources we have to help us, and the approaches we’ve taken to worldbuild with gender in our own work. We drill down pretty deeply on some worldbuilding with Brandon, and yes, we run quite long.

Credits: This episode was recorded by Dan Thompson, and mastered by Alex Jackson

Liner Notes


Apply the axes of power deliberately to character gender, and determine how gender and gender identity affects the various axes

Autonomous, by Annalee Newitz

23 thoughts on “Worldbuilding Gender Roles”

  1. Brandon, if you’re really going to be write this alien species, you need to watch Steven Universe, or at least learn about the Gems and Fusion–they avoid many of the pitfalls that your co-hosts are pointing out. (For a quick rundown, Gems are an alien species created artificially in the ground and they can Fuse together with other Gems to create a bigger Gem. There isn’t a hard limit on the number of Gems in a Fusion, but having disparate personalities in one Fusion can make it unstable. Societally speaking, having different types of Gems in the same Fusion is taboo since each Gem has a defined role that it must never break away from–which is the main reason why the Rebellion ends up starting on Earth).

    Some extra questions:
    Can the merged Left and Right choose how long they stay merged or do they have to wait it out? If the former, could they be merged indefinitely? What incentives would there be to stop or start a merger at any given time?
    Is there a taboo or incentive to merge with Lefts/Rights of the same familial line as you?
    Can a merger involve more than two members of the species at the same time?
    If a pairing merges and fails to have a child, can they try again later on?
    Do Lefts and Rights with wildly different personalities end up with children that we might consider having bipolar or DID?
    Who decides who merges? Individuals, families, governments, etc.?
    Do Lefts or Rights have more societal power or are they balanced?
    Is the trend of this society to create children with a wide range of talents or to have them become over-specialized?
    Can the same Left and Right have multiple children together? How similar would those children be to one another?
    If this species eats food, would it be more energy efficient to exist in a merger than separately? If so, would merging be common in times of food scarcity?
    Can a merger be forced between a Left and Right if one or both of them do not want it to happen?
    Do children have to relearn how to be in their new body when they are no longer as big as the Left and Right combined?
    Are there courtship rituals prior to the merger?
    Are multiple births or conjoined twins possible results of a merger?
    Are there familial lines that are so interbred that they are essentially personality clones?

    1. I agree with Klimpaloon.

      I would also add that the Left/Right merge dynamic sounds very similar to Isaac Asimov’s The Gods Themselves. The book is split into three parts and the middle section is from the POV of an alien race. This race has three main types of “Soft Ones”: a Left Rational, a Mid-Emotional, and a Right Parental. There are also “Hard Ones” that do not reproduce and do not appear to have gender or gender roles. The story is from the POV of three “Soft Ones” who actively question the genderlessness (and even the authority) of the “Hard Ones”, but I’ll touch on that later.

      In this society, all three of the “Soft Ones” have fixed roles. The Left Rational is meant to devote themselves to study and spends a lot of the time out of the home as a result. The Mid-Emotionals are expected to stay near the home, but still devote a lot of their time to socializing with each other. The Right Parentals are meant to stay at home and raise the children. Instead of “couples”, there are “triads” composed of one of each type. All three are needed to mate successfully. It’s a little weird here because their mating ritual involves “melting” or literally melding the three into one for short bursts of time, which also has ties to the story you are working on. And the triad gives birth to one of each (a left, a mid, and a right) before mysteriously disappearing. The three children then grow up and form triads with others. One of the triad, the Emotional is constantly teased for not being “Emotional” enough, for not following the role assigned to her closely enough in the opinions of her fellow Emotionals as well as her mates within the triad. She gets nicknamed “Left-Emotional” as almost a slur and is very ashamed about it in the beginning. As the story progresses, she eventually comes to accept the “more Rational” parts of herself and feels proud of her differences.

      *SPOILER* The triad that we spend the most time with in the book discovers that, once the triads produce the three offspring they need to continue the population of “Soft Ones”, they permanently fuse personalities and memories into a “Hard One” that has a denser molecular structure. So the earlier confusion the triad has about how new “Hard Ones” are born or even reproduce is revealed to be completely different than traditional reproductuon even by this world’s standards. And the secrecy around this process is treated a bit like how adults in our world use metaphors and euphemisms before going their children “the talk”. */SPOILER*

      The two tiers (“Hard Ones” versus “Soft Ones”) and the three types within the triad (Left, Mid, and Right) introduce a lot of interpersonal conflict to the story because there are a lot of assumptions and strict rules that define the role of each. Not to mention, the “othering” of the Emotional because of her desire to learn and to be “more Rational” very much so impacts how she interacts with the other characters and how she sees herself. This dynamic, for me, brought up a lot of interesting parallels to our own world and how our culture “others” people that don’t clearly conform to the gender binary. It’s a much more nuanced portrayal than I expected from a book published in 1972 America.

      All that being said, there was a lot of alien sex going on. A LOT. I probably could have gotten the point without all of that

      There are a lot of interesting parallels between what you want to do with this alien race and what has been done in the past by other writers. I think you all brought up a good point about how we never want to play with gender roles in our writing just to “add sprinkles”, we should always endevor to actually flesh out what this means for our characters and the cultures that they live in. I would add that using some of these differences to engender conflict for your characters whether it be internal, external, or a combination can really help these decisions be better motivated. Because what is great science or speculative fiction without a little social commentary? And how best can we point out the flaws of our current patriarchal, heteronormative culture than by holding a mirror up to it and showing how this really impacts our character’s relationships, societal status, and individual choices?

      That’s just my two cents though. Thanks for a great episode!

  2. First, thank you so much for the blog. I stalled 250k words into a series and various episodes have broken a whole series of logjams for me, so many thanks!

    Second, I have to recommend Ancillary Justice by Anne Leckie. It’s a phenomenal story, but the main culture in the story simply do not have a binary construct or two pronouns. Thus, every character is “she” regardless of gender and really the reader can’t escape the awareness of the mind trying to place characters into genders. There is almost no “telling” but it brings forward gender in a fascinatingly oblique way that at least made me consider that problem of bringing gender assumptions to characters even without any indications in the text

    Thanks. This was helpful.

  3. Fascinating episode, but I think the discussion over the “left and right” alien species was actually about defining sex and reproduction, not gender. It felt like it was the “left vs right” being analogous to “two x chromosomes vs an x and y chromosome”. But none of that was a discussion on gender: what are the roles of rights vs left in the alien society? Or do “left” and “right” only define why type of role they play in reproduction (like “male vs female”), but they have tens or hundreds of different names for their gender roles in society? I think that if it were for a YA novel, having the “left vs right” isomers” being analogous to the binary “male vs female” would be appropriate. If you want to add a third sex/isomer, I think that would be no problem, but I don’t think that would cover what you’re going for. Do they have assigned colors that distinguish them as warriors or housekeepers? Are there genders that are seen as weaker or stronger? Who can cry in public, or who can be angry in public? What defines their assumed place in society?

    You guys started touching on the idea of gender when you started asking “what if everyone is not comfortable with the body that you are born into?” Or the idea that an alien race may not have body dysmorphia…however, that doesn’t mean that they can’t have gender dysmorphia (maybe they can alter their isomer configuration, but not their societal role. It doesn’t fix the “planet of hats” issue that Mary mentioned, but maybe it can be food for thought). Anyway, great episode guys!

    1. That’s exactly what I thought: we were talking about reproduction and regardless of the gender spectrum discussion, we still reproduce under a binary sexual system. I think Mary and Margaret got a little distracted there.

      Perhaps lefts and rights don’t always seek each other or are compatible or feel like a right or a left…but that is how they reproduce, which was the point under discussion. And for what its worth, I thought Brandon’s concept was just fine as it was.

  4. Can you link the axis of power that was mentioned toward the end of this episode? Thanks!

  5. I was hoping for exploration of gender roles in history, suggestions of good societies to look at for inspiration, talk about stories that did it well or poorly, and perhaps even how to handle cultural dissonance when you’re writing in historical or near-historical settings. Instead the podcast got derailed trying to get the non-binary thing right. That Brandon’s experience with wheel of time or storm-light archive and Mary’s near historical works never came up is a sad symptom of this. I hope this topic can get revisited covering world-building gender roles using history as a base. I feel like the hosts sold themselves short as never having worked with this, when in fact they’ve done a lot in working with non-modern-american gender roles.

  6. Guys, you’re overlooking SO MANY THINGS that shape roles in a society, I don’t even know where to start. I’m just going to focus on what I believe to be the biggest determining factor: Food.

    Unless you have the means to acquire and/or produce food on a large scale and still have some amount of free time, and unless preparing a meal takes less than an hour (each,) a society cannot have many gender roles. I doubt they would even see roles as “gendered.” It would probably be “the role that makes the best use of your physical attributes so we don’t starve to death.”

    My point is that the only societies that can have more than a couple gender roles are the ones that can bypass the obstacles that restricted us to two FOR THE VAST MAJORITY OF HUMAN HISTORY. We have the luxury of thinking about having more gender roles. The people of the past didn’t. They had MUCH bigger problems to sort out, like not starving, not freezing, etc.

    This episode was the biggest disappointment I have had in a while from you guys. Please refrain from delving into subjects like this in the future. A society is shaped primarily around staying alive. That includes gender roles.

    1. Interesting. It seems the gender spectrum grows in response to increase of education & social class…?

  7. I second the previous comment. The best part of The Gods Themselves was exploring the aliens and their genders. And if I recall correctly, they were defined and Lefts, Rights, and Middles.

    As I writer, I fear writing non-standard gender or orientation more than any other subject. I am sure I would be unintentionally offensive if I tried. That makes me feel bad sometimes because I’m not including certain people, but I tell myself that I can’t do everything or explore every issue.

  8. Three of the original foursome, Brandon, Mary Robinette, and Howard, got together with Margaret, running away from Los Angeles, to talk about gender roles in worldbuilding. From the default binary through perceiving blue, sprinkles on your sundae, and into helping Brandon write an alien species of Lefts and Rights for a YA science fiction novel, there’s a lot covered in this episode! Go ahead, read all about it in the transcript available now in the archives.

  9. For me, the “alien” species that this cast reminded me of was the dwarves of Discworld. While they have a concept of male and female, they only have a male gender and all appear to be male as well. However, in the latter part of the series, the desire for dwarf women to have their own gender becomes a major plot point.

  10. Fun fact: There’s a programming language called Scala that has Left and Right data types. What precedes a Left or Right is an Either data type. In other words, an Either resolves to either a Left or Right. It’s the way that coders use Eithers that gets a little interesting. Although Lefts and Rights are only arbitrarily different (other than the name, there’s no functional difference), Eithers are typically coded so that they resolve to a Left if a function errors/fails or a Right if it’s successful. It’s a convention, or part of the Scala culture. Naturally, this drives my left-handed coworker nuts.

    This makes me think that if Brandon’s Lefts and Rights have roles that are unjustly (and arbitrarily) unequal, that could be something worth exploring. In my humble opinion, if an idea creates tension and is well informed, then it’s worth writing about.

    Regarding the discussion, I was surprised to hear the hosts conflate sex and gender throughout. What I find fascinating is how little the two actually have in common with each other… but you have to separate the two concepts clearly and discretely before you can really explore the nuances of either.

  11. It might be more interesting if gender in this society were purely a mental thing. Anatomically everyone is the same (cept some cosmetic differences or slight difference in proportion) but mentally their are certain types of mind which are compatible (say left and right) and others which aren’t. If compatible minds join, they produce a baby. Otherwise, they won’t.
    If you break the binary you can add a lot more uncertainty as to what mind type one identifies with and whether they’ll be compatible.
    As for those who aren’t compatible, maybe they can still join they just won’t produce a baby. this brings a host of possibly.
    Do they join for the pleasure of it?
    Are they more powerful joined (in which case is society ruled by perpetually joined individuals)? Can you force join with someone to steal their memories (bit dark for YA but it’s a possibility)? And then all the mechanics mentioned above about how long you can go unjoined and whether you can rejoin again with the same person or have to swap, and what does this do to society?
    And of course, for all the above, you’ll have different opinions about what is right or wrong, accepted or not. there are cultural laws as well as purely mechanical ones.

    A lot to think about. and looking above a lot to read already.

  12. Reading these comments, there’s already a lot of exploration into genders out there.

    In Brandon’s scenario, it could be interesting to consider gender as purely a psychological affair. Anatomically everyone is the same (cept some cosmetic differences or slight difference in proportion) but mentally their are certain types of mind which are compatible (say left and right) and others which aren’t. If compatible minds join, they produce a baby. Otherwise, they won’t.
    If you break the binary (by adding more possibilities besides left and right) you can add a lot more uncertainty as to which mind type an individual identifies with, or wether someone will be compatible with someone else. You can add a lot of cultural aspects as to how society guesses or predetermines who should first attempt to mate with who.
    As for couples who aren’t compatible, maybe they can still join they just won’t produce a baby. This itself also brings a host of possibly:
    Do the aliens join for the pleasure of it?
    Are they more powerful joined (in which case is society ruled by perpetually joined individuals)? Can you force join with someone to steal their memories (bit dark for YA but it’s a possibility)? And then all the mechanics mentioned in the comments above about how long you can go unjoined and whether you can rejoin again with the same person or have to swap, and what does this do to society?
    And of course, for all these possibilities, you’ll have different opinions about what is right or wrong, accepted or not. There are cultural laws as well as purely mechanical ones.

    It’s interesting how a simple concept actually comes quite complex when you extend it’s ramifications out to a whole society.

  13. My immediate thought when I heard this one was that Left and Right referred to halves of the body, then when I got further in, I started thinking about Left and Right halves of the brain. And then, yes, I got to thinking about that Asimov story, the Gods Themselves.

    And going either of the routes I thought of above could be problematic in a number of ways, but they could be interesting too. I mean, if you have a Left and Right half of the body, what happens if two Lefts want to get together? Can you do that without something being on backwards? Is being on backwards actually a “problem” or just a “lifestyle choice?”

    The Gods Themselves looked at “well what if you have a society where ‘right brained’ and ‘left brained’ people are expected to come together into a single person” a fair amount, but you could take it as a jumping off point and look harder at what happens if you just don’t want to join a triad or if you want to triad with a couple of other mids or other ways people might not fit into their expected boxes.

  14. Thanks for this episode! This is a very important topic to address in a nuanced way, and even I, a nonbinary person myself, don’t always find myself doing that as much as I should. This episode made me realize that my own experience in distancing myself from the traditional gender roles of the US meant that it hadn’t even occurred to me to define what traditional gender roles mean to the societies in the story I’m writing. I still want to stick to the minimum of the nonsense that can come along with gender roles, but if I’m not careful, I could still wind up subconsciously recreating things from the society I grew up in where I don’t want to.

    Also, and I hope this isn’t presumptuous of me, but I wanted to give a little constructive criticism from the perspective of a nonbinary person. You spend a lot of this episode talking about aliens and robots in science fiction, and while it is important to make sure that when you are writing aliens and robots and fantasy peoples that you make sure you’re not always giving them the gender binary/roles you’re used to, etc., there is some baggage tied up with centering the discussion of nonbinary characters on them that you might not be aware of.
    There’s this trope in sci-fi (and to a lesser degree fantasy, but it’s wildly more commin in sci-fi) where there are loads of aliens and robots with various approaches to gender, but all the humans are cisgender (and usually straight, often also majority white). What this says to people like me is, “Sure, okay, maybe you exist. But you’re still not like us. You don’t get to be a normal person living your best life in space, you will always be Not Human. Other.” And it hurts to hear that, thrown at you every day from all directions, and then again when you pick up a book or turn on the TV to get away from it all. And I know you don’t mean to, but you are kind of reproducing that trope with this episode.

    I hope you don’t feel like I’m attacking you with any of that. Quite the contrary, it’s rare to find people who seem willing to listen, and not only that, but do the work of allyship in educating others as well, so all I want to do is raise awareness of these things. I appreciate everything you all do in broadening your minds and others’!

    P.S. A minor terminological note–many trans people (myself included) don’t like the phrase “born in the wrong body”. There’s nothing wrong with my body, it’s the assumptions people make about me because of it that I object to. I wasn’t “born in a man’s body”, I was born in a nonbinary person’s body, whatever some doctor decided before I could even talk. When the idea comes up, many of us prefer talking about things in terms of “assigned gender at birth (AGAB)”. So people are generally assigned male at birth (AMAB) or assigned female at birth (AFAB). Though it’s very rude to talk about someones assigned gender unless it’s really relevant, and defining someone by it when you could say “trans man”, “trans woman”, or “nonbinary person” is a definite no-no.
    Though of course there are people who are perfectly fine with the phrase “born in the wrong body”, or even prefer it. Not everyone agrees. It might be partly generational, though I couldn’t say for certain.

  15. Having listened to 14:30 (Eating Your Way To Better World Building) right after this one, I hope both topics get revisited in a mashup episode. It sounded like there’s some very interesting intersections.

    In that episode, one of the things Maurice noted was how science fiction seems like a gastronomical wasteland, with flavorless pastes and food-pills. I wonder how much of sci-fi being like that is the result of our society’s gendered assumptions: our culture has traditionally seen space as a very male-dominated area, and our culture has also often portrayed men as being uninterested in cooking (this was lampooned a bit in Futurama’s “Bachelor Chow”).

    If I recall correctly, Mary Robinette briefly addressed this in her “Fated Sky”: I think there was a scene where Parker suggested that the women were better at kitchen duty, and another where Emma noted that one of the men cooked the exact same simple thing every time it was their turn to prep meals.

    I’ve known many men, gleefully immersed in gendered expectations, who are downright proud of how utilitarian their eating habits are: their idealized future would be either food pills or replicators (replicators as a replacement for domestic life are themselves loaded with expectations).

  16. A very interesting discussion. I started my book project with a matriarchal society where the women live in the village with the children and the men live in their own village on the other side of the river. They only came together to mate when the husband perceived that his wife was again fertile. When a boy child reached five years old he joined his father across the river. The story has now morphed into, there are no genders and reproduction is done by cloning by means of laying an egg. The individual who lays the egg is chosen at a meeting of the entire village by means of pheromone signals. Because all people are identical twins their occupations are signaled by their hats.
    BTW, I want to mention this because I have recently made certain changes myself. I am astonished that the realization took so long. Why do you store the cereal where you cannot reach it?

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