Writing Excuses 14.32: Worldbuilding Gender Roles
Key points: How do you worldbuild different gender roles for science fiction and fantasy stories? Start by recognizing that most fiction has a clearly defined binary, male and female. But… Until you have words and categories, you may have trouble perceiving things. Blue, or nonbinary genders. Try reading some things written by different genders. Listen to conversations. Avoid simply reversing roles. Beware exoticizing, objectifying, or fetishizing the unfamiliar. First, do no harm. Don’t use changes in gender roles or identity as sprinkles on your sundae. Have you built a society, have you considered the effects, the ramifications? Remember story purpose, and ask yourself if removing this piece will break your purpose for writing the story. Sometimes background affects how we perceive foreground elements, too.
[Mary Robinette] Season 14, Episode 32.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Gender Roles.
[Mary Robinette] 15 minutes long.
[Margaret] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.
[Margaret] I’m Margaret.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Brandon] We’re talking about how to worldbuild gender roles. How to approach this topic, which can be a little tricky. You can veer into some problematic areas in this direction. So we want to touch this very carefully, but very sincerely, and talk about how you might go about worldbuilding different gender roles for your science fiction and fantasy stories.
[Mary Robinette] So, one of the first things that I think we should acknowledge is that most of us have grown up reading fiction with a very clearly defined binary, male and female. There’s some fiction, like Sheri Tepper’s Gate to Women’s Country or The Left Hand of Darkness where there are things that are being played with. But as we become more aware in the 21st century, we realize that gender is a spectrum. I’m going to use an analogy here that is a visually-based analogy. So bear with me. There’s… I listen to Radio Lab and they had this episode on color.
[Margaret] I remember the show.
[Mary Robinette] Yes. This is amazing. The question was why doesn’t the word blue appear in Homer’s… In the Odyssey, or the Iliad? It’s the wine dark sea. The answer is because the word blue doesn’t exist yet. At all. There’s just no word for blue. It’s such a basic color that it’s difficult for us to imagine a world in which the word blue doesn’t exist. What becomes more difficult to grasp is that the reason it doesn’t exist yet is because people weren’t perceiving that color as blue. It turns out that when you start analyzing all of the languages, that the order in which words come into the language for color relates to when we begin to be able to reproduce them. So everybody starts off with kind of red and black and white and kind of…
[Mary Robinette] And kind of a brownish-green and a greenish-brown. So, anyway. So, they reference this video which I then went and tracked down, where they talked to a tribal people who still do not have the word for blue. Show them this color wheel. To my eye, it’s like all of these greens that are exactly the same green and one blue that is very, very clearly blue. They’re like, “Which square is different?” Everyone sits down and goes, “Um, that one?” and points to the bottom right or “This one?” And points to the upper left. “That one?” It’s like getting the one that is totally blue is totally by chance. Then they show them another wheel which, to my eye, is all this kind of olive green all the way around. They say, “Which one is different?” They all go, “That one.” With no hesitation at all, to a square that, to me, looks identical to the others. What they have discovered through all of this is that once you have a word for something, that you’re able to define that and put things in that category. Until then, you don’t see it. What I’ve realized is that gender is basically the same thing. We’ve got… We talk about a spectrum. But it’s really kind of an umbrella. It’s sort of messy. But there’s no… The delineations are delineations that we have created because of language. So what’s happening now is that because language has expanded, we have more things we can talk about. Which means that when you are approaching that in your fiction, that starting with a binary is very limiting, and not necessarily as interesting and representative as you can be with your fiction.
[Brandon] Well, where would you go… Where someone’s starting off with this, what would you suggest? They’re just like, “All right, I don’t want to represent a binary, I want to do something that is exploring this direction.” Where do you go?
[Howard] The simplest path for me was reading things that are written by genders that are not me and that perceive and describe genders differently. My first experience with this not gender who isn’t me was David Brin’s Glory Season in which he reverses the gender roles that I was familiar with, and does so for biological reasons. I look at that now and I’m able to say oh, he is… He’s still making assumptions about the biological determination of gender roles, which is in and of itself inherently problematic in our culture, but by reversing things, he allowed me to see… He helped me to see things completely differently. That was my first step. Are there things that you guys have read that do this well?
[Mary Robinette] So one of the things that I found was pronoun.is. This actually came up very recently for me, ’cause I was helping… There’s a game that I very much enjoy, and they had set up a binary and then realized that they shouldn’t have and were trying to figure out… To course correct. So they wanted some non-binary pronouns. Pronoun.is deals with non-binary pronouns. That’s a very useful thing to look at. The other things that I find are looking at Tumblr’s and watching people talk about their own lived experience. Own voices? #ownvoices is also very useful. So if you do #ownvoices and #nonbinary, those two things will bring up conversations that you can listen to. It is important, I want to say, that you’re listening and not inserting yourself into conversations when you’re first trying to kind of understand stuff. But those are places where you can kind of watch people interact. Most of the information that I know has come from people who have been very patient with me to explain things. Which is not the best way to learn things, because it involves emotional labor on someone else’s part. Which is why I suggest doing some listening before you sit down and start asking questions.
[Margaret] Doing your basic research to get the 101 questions.
[Mary Robinette] Yes.
[Margaret] Before you do your more advanced field research, in a way. I think it’s… It’s one of those things where if you’re setting out to tell a story, and you deliberately don’t want to replicate gender roles as they are found in whatever your home culture is. For everyone at this table, gender roles in…
[Mary Robinette] 21st-century America.
[Margaret] 21st-century America.
[Mary Robinette] Actually, 21st-century white America.
[Margaret] White America, yeah. If you’re trying to break away from whatever feels home, normal to you, I think the point that Mary has really made, and what Brandon started us out with is, the temptation is like, “Well, I’ll take what we have and I’ll flop it. Men will stay home and raise children, and women won’t.” But right there, you’ve just replicated the binary and turned it on its head. Taking the opportunity to step into… To put yourself… As we were saying in the earlier episode, into sort of our unknown unknowns. It’s not just the opposite of what we have. It’s probably closer to your normal then you might want to think it is. What’s 90° different from your normal?
[Howard] You have to start somewhere. As I said, talking about the Brin novel, which was thankfully a little more complex than simply reversing it. It was pretty cool what he did. But you acknowledge that there is a first step. Then you want to do more research, and as Mary has said and as I would reiterate over and over and over again, listen to people and listen nonjudgmentally.
[Howard] Listen to their experience and try to understand how their experiences different from yours, and why their experiences different than yours. Not whether their experiences good or bad in relation to yours.
[Margaret] Yeah. I do want to stress, when I say your normal, I’m using your normal… Because it is subjective, whatever normal is to you.
[Brandon] I’m not sure if I have the language to even ask this question correctly, but is there a danger in exoticizing the unfamiliar and then going that direction and falling into clichés and tropes?
[Mary Robinette] Absolutely. Which is why it’s important to do the research and to understand why you’re making the choices and also to know… This is why I recommend listening in on Tumblr or Twitter conversations, because this is where people are going to complain about times that they have been objectified or fetishized or exoticized. Where people are, just like doing things that are harmful. That’s where people will be complaining about it. Where your least likely to see some of the complaining in a published work, partly just because it’s gonna necessarily be behind the times. It’s not ideal, but it is useful.
[Margaret] I think that… going into recording this episode, that we were a little sort of all kind of sidling up to this topic a bit. In part, some of that probably comes from the fact that the four of us at this table, we have what, from a classical standpoint, is, we have a good gender balance at this table. But we do all identified as either male or female, as far as I’m aware.
[Howard] We recognize that the entire topic is inherently fraught.
[Howard] Because of how deeply it affects everyone, and how, to borrow a phrase from Mary, how if we write things incorrectly, it’s not just that we offend, it’s that by reinforcing a stereotype, we can do harm.
[Howard] I like that. I like the stated goal that as we write things, we want to represent things well, I want to tell a story that is interesting, but above all, I don’t want to hurt anyone by telling it wrong.
[Margaret] I think, you don’t want to use changes in gender roles or changes in gender identity… You don’t want to use that as the sprinkles on top of your sundae.
[Brandon] I was just about to kind of ask that question. Actually, because…
[Margaret] I’ll make this exciting, by having five genders! It’s like…
[Brandon] Let’s stop for our book of the week. Then I’ll have hopefully an interesting question along those lines.
[Mary Robinette] So, the book of the week is Autonomous by Annalee Newitz. This is really… So, first of all, it’s a good book and you should just read it. But the main character is a robot… Is a cyborg. In the net… No, it’s a robot. The character has a brain, a human brain, that does some visual processing. That’s the only thing that the brain does. There are no memories attached to it, there’s nothing. The character gets to choose what pronoun is being used. Most people, because it’s this in normal battle robot, use he at the beginning. Someone asks, “Is that what you want?” The robot realizes, “Oh. Actually, I can choose that.” By choosing she part way through the novel, it changes the relationship that she has with the other main character. It’s very interesting and an interesting exploration of the fact that as humans, we desperately want to put things into boxes. Like, a robot has no need of a gender at all. A robot is a robot. But our need to do that, and then the perceptions that we have about the role that that robot then fulfills based on the gender assignment… Or assigning the gender based on roles. It’s very interesting what that does, the things that happen to your brain, especially when the gender switch happens. Or the pronoun switch happens. Because… Robot, there is no gender.
[Mary Robinette] When the pronoun switch happens. So, it’s a wonderful book. It’s also just… Let’s say there’s a lot of ecological terrorism and stuff going on. There’s lots of rollicking adventure and explosions. So it’s not just hello, gender studies.
[Mary Robinette] It’s really good.
[Brandon] That sounds fascinating.
[Margaret] It reminds me a little bit of… There’s a thread in some of the later books in the Parasitology trilogy by Mira Grant where… Spoilers if anybody hasn’t read these… Intelligent tapeworms are basically taking over their human hosts. They’re tapeworms. Tapeworms do not have a binary gender. There is one of these characters who does not identify with the gender of their current human host. There’s another tapeworm who’s like, “What is your problem with this? You are a tapeworm. You shouldn’t be identifying as male or female and being bothered by whether or not that matches the human body you are in.”
[Brandon] So I have a question for you. We’re going to try this out, we’ll see if this works. I am writing a science fiction book which has alien races who don’t reproduce or view reproduction in the way that humans do. So I’m going to say what I’m doing here, and I’m going to ask you to point out directions I could go that would be bad or directions I could go that would be good.
[Mary Robinette] It’s only 15 minutes long, Brandon.
[Brandon] Yes, I know.
[Mary Robinette] People are in a hurry.
[Brandon] We’ll see if this works. If it doesn’t work…
[Howard] I’m definitely not that smart.
[Brandon] You guys won’t even hear this.
[Brandon] So, umm… All right. So what I’m writing right now is an alien species where their sexes are Lefts and Rights. They are Left and they are Right. A Left and a Right will combine together and create a new trial personality, that, if they end up liking, and their family ends up liking, they will give birth to that person who will have the memories of those, of that event of being this person for a while. If it is not, they will break the coupling, and it will not. So, for a period of several months, they are one individual together as one. Walking around and interacting, accessing some of the memory and knowledge of the two parents. I have humans interacting with this and really struggling to wrap their brains around it. Where could I go wrong? How would you approach something like this? Any suggestions for me?
[Mary Robinette] Well, I mean, the obvious question is what happens when two Lefts are compatible?
[Mary Robinette] Like…
[Howard] No. Two Lefts are compatible. Right?
[Brandon] Was that two… Yeah.
[Mary Robinette] No.
[Howard] Who’s on first. Sorry.
[Margaret] It’s… In a weird way, when you describe it to me, it almost doesn’t feel like a stand-in for gender or the biological sexes. It’s… You have two halves that are coming together and potentially creating a third being, but it seems like it’s not necessarily reading as reproduction, unless I’m misunderstanding what you’re saying.
[Brandon] I intended it to be their reproductive cycle. This is how they… This is how new individuals are born. [Garbled]
[Howard] So the two of them combine, and if they decide that they like what has been created here…
[Brandon] They will split and a baby will be born.
[Howard] Okay. That… The newborn… How do we determine if it’s Left or Right? Is that random, is that…
[Brandon] I think that is random.
[Mary Robinette] Which… Does the newborn come out of the Left or the Right?
[Brandon] I think they both have…
[Mary Robinette] They have to connect…
[Margaret] Is it… Just like what… I don’t want to ask biologic sort of plumbing related questions here, but why is there a difference between Lefts and Rights?
[Brandon] Lefts and Rights… Hum. Um. Maybe because I’m just going with a binary because I’m used to it?
[Mary Robinette] Yeah.
[Brandon] Would be my guess. I did want, when this individual is made, you can tell that there’s… They are larger than a normal individual and they have…
[Howard] There’s a seam.
[Brandon] There’s a seam. I’m probably shading… the only sexual dimorphism, if that’s the right term you would have, as kind of a red shade and a blue shade, so that we have kind of this alien different skin color that is kind of a trope in science fiction that I’m trying to play with.
[Margaret] But, I mean, why not have it be being and being, like Mary said, two beings are designated as Right, but why shouldn’t they be compatible, or why not have red, blue, yellow, green, aqua? Sort of like, oh, an orange and an aqua have gotten together.
[Brandon] I would say my reasoning for that, and it’s totally possible I could have bad reasoning in this. My reasoning for that is it’s a lot to take in in a YA novel, and I need to build on some foundations of quick conversation. I’m introducing like eight alien species in this book, so it felt simpler to say they have two sexes that are not anything like the two sexes you are used to.
[Mary Robinette] I guess the thing is as you’re talking about it, I’m like, “But why did they have sexes? At all?” Like, why isn’t it just these things combine and…
[Howard] The term you may want is the term that we use in chemistry. You have left-handed and right-handed sugars. They’re isomers.
[Brandon] So, let me ask you this. Is it wrong for me to want that? Just because, in the worldbuilding, that is what I like?
[Mary Robinette] It’s not wrong, but it feels like you’re defaulting it. That there are more interesting options. That’s really… Like, I don’t hear anything, as you’re talking, going, oh, there’s a real problem there. What I hear is that it’s not as interesting as I think you could be, and I don’t think it would take that many more words.
[Howard] I think the interest is going to stem from how the humans react to what they’re seeing. Because the humans are going to be our stand-ins for our interaction with this. If there are difficult questions that you want to ask, about how humans… About this, about our understanding about how this alien culture works, about how their rules may be different whether they’re a Left or a Right isomer… I’m already writing your book for you by giving you the word. The way the humans react, I think, is where you can get into the most trouble, because if you have somebody, and you almost certainly will, who is passing judgment, the way in which the narrative treats that person is going to tell the reader how they should feel about non-binary genders. About genders that are different from them.
[Margaret] Well, also, if you have two categories, and in order to have reproduction, two dissimilar categories, individuals of two dissimilar categories get together and create a third, it’s going to… I mean, if I were reading that cold, that to me would read as an allegory or an analogy of a gender binary. It’s sort of the… It’s the thing that eats grass and has long ears and a fluffy tail, goes around and hops. Even if it’s on an alien planet, it’s kind of a rabbit.
Mary Robinette] I feel like that’s kind of what is happening for me is that it still feels like you have a gender binary.
[Brandon] Is it okay, though? Like… I guess okay is the wrong term. If that’s the direction I want to explore…
[Mary Robinette] Yeah. There’s nothing wrong with it. It’s just… I think where I would… What I would say, and this is why I asked what happens if there are two Lefts that want to get together, is the assumption that everyone is comfortable in the body that they are born into?
[Mary Robinette] Which is not the case. It’s not the case with humans. It’s often… I don’t understand why it would be the case with an alien species. We know that…
[Margaret] Not to mention it assumes everyone is… Wishes to be compatible with somebody of the opposite handedness.
[Mary Robinette] Then I’m like, the other parts of my worldbuilding stuff are going, well, obviously… I assume that you are able to do more when you are coupled because there must be an additional advantage there. So therefore is there an advantage to being coupled, and do you have difficulty getting work when you are uncoupled? So these are the questions that I’m like… What happens, and what is the incentive to uncouple? If everybody likes this, this individual? Is it that you can only have the child if you uncouple? Like, what are the… There’s a lot of societal ramifications that are inherent in this that I’m…
[Howard] No, it’s… A concept that gets explored in science fiction a lot is the alien race that shows up and the idea of war or the idea of lying is completely alien to them. A society, a race in which gender… I don’t know what the word would be… Where you’re not happy with the body you’ve been born into or created into. A society in which that never happens would be very alien to us. Our interactions with those people, especially the interaction of someone who isn’t happy with the body they have, and is interacting with these folks, that could be interesting to explore. That path is fraught because you don’t want to say, “See, these aliens are better than us, because they’re just happy the way they’re born.” That’s not the message you want to send at all.
[Mary Robinette] Also, I don’t think that that would actually be… Like, I find that implausible. Anyway.
[Margaret] That’s a planet of hats.
[Mary Robinette] It’s a planet of hats. I mean, just because it’s… When you look at the behavior of… Granted, these are fictional creatures, but when you look at… Margaret already said it better, it’s a planet of hats if everybody’s comfortable.
[Brandon] Like, when it’s… One of the difficulties… I’ll say difficulties you run into when doing this is you can do anything. The question… Like, when you say why can’t it just be to individuals of any sort couple, I could totally do that. Absolutely. So I have to ask myself why am I not, or why do I want to do it this other way. This is the question when… we come into like is it sprinkles. Right? Is it sprinkles on your cake? When are you just adding these things to add flavor and is that… Can simply be reductive of the way that people see the world and using them to exoticize your story. Which is a dangerous path to go down. But at the same time, science fiction’s job, in my opinion, is to start asking some of these questions and say, “Reader, what if we encountered something like this? How do we respond to it?” And this sort of thing. So it’s really an interesting sort of tangled problem that is important to approach. Asking yourself where is it a sprinkle, where is it actually part of your story. Where would you say that line is and… Probably not a line, but that continuum. How do you go one way rather than the other?
[Margaret] To me, I feel like… And not to swerve away from the question here, but I think it is a question that’s difficult to answer in the abstract. Because it depends on the story you’re telling. There’s one thing when you’re constructing a story specifically to explore or make a statement about the role of gender in our society or potentially in alien society. But that’s also… It doesn’t mean that any story that has humans or aliens with other than binary gender has to be a story about that. Every story with a queer person doesn’t have to be about the struggles and agonies of being queer. Sometimes it’s just happening and you’re saving the world and it doesn’t really matter.
[Mary Robinette] For me, the line… When I see it done badly, it’s that they’ve added this thing and it has absolutely no impact on the society at all. Where the world maps exactly the same. It’s like, “No, of course. Women are in charge. This is totally a matriarchy.” And yet, our great leaders are all men. All of the courtship rituals are still the man coming to the woman and proposing. It’s like, no, if the women are in charge…
[Margaret] All the female characters are really obsessed with the men.
[Mary Robinette] These are… So if there’s no effect, that’s when I feel like it’s just a sprinkle. When I say effect, what I mean is not that it becomes a major plot point, as Margaret was saying. But that it affects the way the character moves through the world. The example that I’ve used in previous podcasts is I’m 5 foot seven, my husband is 5′ 11. So that very small difference between us affects the way we move through the world, in that when we go to get cereal down, he can just reach out and get it. I sometimes have to get a footstool or stand on my toes. It’s a small detail. But it does affect the way you move through the world. As someone who is white and a cis woman, I don’t ever have to do any defense about when I go to the store, about where I’m shopping. I don’t have to do any thinking about what bathroom I use. Never will I have to think about those things. So that affects the way I move through the world. I think that if you have… If you’ve introduced genders, that there will be people who have opinions about these genders. The gender roles. It’s going to affect the way the character moves through the world, if you have actually constructed a society around it. If you haven’t, again, it doesn’t have to be the plot point, but if you haven’t done that, then it is just sprinkles.
[Howard] There is story purpose, where your purpose in writing the story is broken if this piece is removed. I come back to that a lot. Is there a story purpose for this thing that I’m including? There’s the concept of the way a background color affects how you perceive the foreground color. You can put things in your story that exist so that we perceive the actual elements differently. Then it’s not just background. It’s background that influences our perception. That’s a… It’s complicated to think about, it’s easier to picture with one of those optical illusion things with the grays or whatever. But that model works well for me, because sometimes I will say a thing and realize, oh, it’s just a background. It doesn’t matter to the story. Except its existence makes the story tell differently. Does that make sense?
[Margaret] Yeah. When Mary was talking, sort of going back to the effect that it has, and I think that also ties to people… Whatever the gender spectrum looks like in the world you’re creating, people will have opinions about it. That said, if everybody’s opinions aligned to the opinions that you would expect to run into in our 21st century American white society, you probably haven’t thought through the ramifications so much. If this is what everyone has grown up with, why is everybody acting like men are in charge… Men are real men, women are real women, people who are neither real men or real women are kind of the auxiliary floating off in the background someplace. That’s the place… That’s something to be worried about, I think.
[Brandon] All right. This has been really interesting. I hope this has been helpful to our listeners. Mary, you’re going to give us some homework.
[Mary Robinette] Right. So, I’m going to send you to a spreadsheet we have used before. Which is a spreadsheet about axes of power. We’ll link to this in the liner notes. Basically, what I want you to do is take a look at your characters, taking a look at their gender, and think about the axes of power. Like, which is the dominant gender, which is the subordinate gender, where do things line up on that spectrum? So, for instance, in 21st century America, a cis man, which is a man who was born into a male body or with male genitalia. So, a cis man is at the top. He’s the dominant. Cis women are farther down. When you get down to the lower end of the spectrum, we have non-binary, trans men, trans women, in terms of the power that they’re able to exert in society and the dangers that they encounter just living in the world. So what I want you to do is I want you to take this idea and look at the characters that you have in your story and decide whether or not you are sticking with the default or if you are shifting it. Whichever choice you make, just do it deliberately. Don’t do it by accident. That’s all I ask. But, as an exercise, break out of your defaults.
[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.