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

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


Key Points: There's a bigger spectrum of gender than most of us ever imagine. And sexual orientations. Be wary of the big reveal -- that's not the only thing in a person's life. Transformation stories should be more than peep shows. Gender roles and social expectations should be solidly grounded. Gender roles are not just abstractions -- they play out everyday in homes near you! Whatever you do -- think about it.

[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Season Six, Episode WorldCon Three, gender roles, black, white, and gray.
[Howard] 15 minutes long.
[Mary] Because you're in a hurry.
[Brandon] And we're not that smart. I'm Brandon.
[Howard] I'm Howard.
[Mary] I'm Mary.
[Brandon] And we have special guest star Keffy.

[Mary] This is Keffy Kehrli. Keffy is a Writers of the Future winner. You can find his work in Writers of the Future 27. Also a Clarion graduate, in Apex, and... Oh, for crying out loud, I did not write down the last of the... Where else have you been, Keffy?
[Keffy] I've had stories in Fantasy magazine and Orson Scott Card's Intergalactic Medicine Show, as well as several small press publications.
[Mary] One of the things that I invited Keffy to come talk with us about is Keffy is a female-to-male transsexual and write really interesting fiction dealing with gender roles. One of the things that I particularly enjoy is that it makes me think about the fact that gender is not always male, female, particularly when you are dealing not just with people but also with alien races. That there are a lot of other ways to think about it. It's a much, much broader spectrum than most fiction tends to deal with. So I wanted to start by asking you if you could talk to us a little bit about the spectrum.
[Keffy] Oh, my gosh.
[Mary] I know.
[Keffy] The spectrum is much wider than even I can imagine, basically, because there's... Yeah. I mean, usually, a lot of people will break it down into... They'll look at just people who are transitioning from one sex to the other, and then act as if that's pretty much the whole thing. But there are people who transition from one sex to the other, there are people who don't feel like they're either sex at all. And then there are people who identify as... Oh, my gosh. Yeah, who... Who... I mean, there's none and other also involved. Basically... Yes.
[Brandon] People don't normally think about this. Like, for instance, when I started reading up on asexual as a sexual orientation, I was fascinated to read about this because... You're right, we kind of fall into the same stereotypes. Even though... Even when we think we're covering all our bases, we really just falling into a few... We add a few more pegs that we have. There's a broad spectrum out there.
[Mary] Right. Like I was just reading about Bert and Ernie on Sesame Street. People want them to either... People want them to be gay. As if it's impossible for two men living together to be just friends. It's interesting that people have this urge even with puppets who do not have lower body parts [munchkin giggling] to fit them into some form of... Some hole... Some spot... That came out really wrong.
[Howard] Well, the lower body part...
[Brandon] Clean rating, Mary!
[Howard] The lower body part is typically an elbow.

[Keffy] I mean... That's actually... So that's... I mean, I feel bad that I'm so tongue tied. So I'm like, wow, I'm going to define the undefinable now. But the gay issue is actually one that comes up because a lot of people get the impression that someone is going to transition from one sex to the other and therefore they will then be only attracted to what is now the quote unquote opposite sex. Whereas that usually has nothing to do with it, because gender and sexual orientation are related but separate issues.
[Brandon] Yeah.

[Mary] When you're writing this... Like in the Writers of the Future story, you were... The main character is a transsexual. One of the things that I thought was interesting about it was the way you signal that in the book... In the story. Can you talk a little bit about how you get us past that perception of, "Well, this character is going to be male" or "this character is going to be female?" Like, what was your approach when you were going into that?
[Keffy] Well, I'm going to give a little bit of backstory on my writing of the story, which is probably more just me talking about myself a little bit, but... I actually didn't realize that it was possible to be female-to-male transsexual until I was 20. So I have a lot of background of thinking of things as being very binary. So when I decided that I was going to start writing about people who were like myself, I actually realized that I had to deconstruct it and think about gender in different ways even then I was used to thinking about myself. Because not only did I have to figure out how the character was thinking, but I then had to communicate it to people who are average readers and may not think about these sorts of things on a daily or regular basis. People who like myself, maybe six or seven years ago, hadn't really thought about it. So signaling it was interesting because many people who are transsexual and have... If they have decided to transition in any way, there is a lot of... In a lot of cases, you can't tell, and they don't want you to tell. That's another entire issue when it comes to things like outing people who are transsexual. So signaling it was interesting because I know that the character did not want to be seen that way... He considered himself to be male and was male. So it was more of... Think of him as a person who had a different background than most men who are running around as bounty hunters, because he was also a bounty hunter because bounty hunters are cool.

[Brandon] Do you mind if I jump in here and ask a question? Mary? We're having Mary drive this one because she kind of brought this podcast together, but I have a question. Our last podcast was on writing the other, about writing the other culture specifically. But do you see things... This ever done wrong? Are there hints and advice you can give to writers who are listening? They're like, "I want to do this the right way." Is there advice you can give us?
[Keffy] Oh, let's get into the juicy stuff. I think the biggest thing I see people doing wrong is they jump immediately into the most obvious stereotype. That's because transgender and transsexual people are a mostly invisible minority, so all people have ever seen is one or two stereotypes and maybe a Jerry Springer episode. The stereotype I see most often is the idea that it's some kind of a big reveal. This is sort of a Crying Game type of story, where you don't know, and then at the end, someone is puking in a shower. It's... Usually the stories are fairly disrespectful, and it's kind of at odds with... I take it... I don't know. Now, how do I say this?
[Mary] Well, in many ways, I think it's what we were talking about in the writing the other, it's that it can't be... That can't be the only thing about the person.
[Keffy] Yeah, that's not the only story. It's usually not the only thing that happens in someone's life. I have never had a situation in my life in which I shocked someone with some sort of a big reveal because usually it's... Yeah...
[Brandon] Okay. I get that.

[Howard] I want to come back to something you said earlier that I think is critically important to us as writers. You decided to write about a character who had some of the same attributes that you have. In beginning that process, you realized that you hadn't answered, much less asked, some critical questions of yourself about who you really were. I mean you had to... Suddenly you were on a voyage of discovery. Before you could write about this character, you had to learn some things about yourself. I think whether or not members of our audience, members of our... People who want to write, whether or not you're transgendered or gay or straight or whatever, if you're going to write about people, you're going to go on a voyage of discovery yourself to figure out who you are so that the people you're writing about feel real.
[Mary] Or at least you should go on one.
[Howard] Or at least you darn well better.

[Brandon] Let's go ahead and stop for our book of the week. I'm actually going to pitch this one at Keffy. You were going to pitch a book for us?
[Keffy] Yeah. I recently read, although it's been out for a couple of years, The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch. I absolutely loved it. It's basically take an epic fantasy setting and then throw a heist story in on top of it. The book is long, but felt really short, because I just flew through it. It's... I also like that Scott does not pull any punches with this one. If you've got mobsters, they're going to be brutal. They are in this book. I like that feeling that really bad things can happen to characters I care deeply about, so I was really... I was on the edge of my seat for that one.
[Brandon] I'll throw in a slight content warning for that one. Just... Listeners, so you know. But Lies of Locke Lamora is a great book. It's interesting because I actually... My second novel was a heist novel in a fantasy world. I wrote it because I was like, "Nobody's doing these. I want to do it." Then we both kind of came out with our books at the same time, and it's interesting to see the completely different takes. Because I couldn't leave epic fantasy alone. Mine starts as a heist novel, but it just kind of turns into an epic fantasy because I love epic fantasy. Lies of Locke Lamora stays a heist novel. It's a great heist novel.
[Howard] Head on out to You can kick off a 14 day free trial membership and download The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch for free.

[Mary] So what are some of the other really, really horrible stereotypes that make you want to claw your eyes out?
[Mary] Because we love those!
[Keffy] Well... Oh, my gosh. One of the things is when someone decides to write about a transsexual character and then completely is using it as an analog for another type of character. Usually this happens in things that I like to call transformation stories. Where the character is a boy at the beginning of the story, and then through some magical means gets turned into a girl. Then we have wacky hijinks. The thing with these stories is they could be a really interesting way to examine gender and gender expectations, like the expectation that someone who's lived as a young man might have when he suddenly confronted with the way that women are viewed in society. But usually what we end up getting is a lot of stereotypes that are even just about women. So suddenly it's like, "Oh, my goodness, I have boobs. I must play with them in front of the mirror for the reader's amusement." It's that sort of thing. I hope that's not going too far for your content.

[Brandon] No, we're good. Howard has gone far further. Okay. I actually have something I want to kind of toss at this podcast. It's the idea that as you're world building, gender roles seem to be something that a lot of fantasy writers ignore. Science fiction writers don't as much, but even still, a lot of science fiction writers... I think it's actually a fascinating method of world building... A fascinating aspect of world building that largely gets ignored. People will focus on the physical world building. They'll make interesting races. They'll make interesting geologic formations or whatever. But they ignore some of these things. I think you can approach gender roles in a really interesting way. Do we have any advice... Any of us... For listeners about approaching gender roles? What to do if you're going to write a fantasy world that's going to have a different style of gender role?
[Mary] Well, I think one thing is to always think about the groundwork. If you have a matriarchal society, why is it matriarchal? How does that play out? Like, I wrote a story where I made the terrible mistake... I had... It was an all alien, all the time story and I had... It was a matriarchal society, but I had all of my girls... All of my females behaving like girls. That's not the role that they would have in a society where they... They are the people in power.
[Brandon] Yet if you just switch it, and they all act like men, you've accomplished nothing also.
[Mary] Exactly.
[Brandon] That's also kind of the other way to not go, is we're going to write a matriarchal society, but the women are just going to be men, and the men are just going to be women.
[Mary] Yeah. You have to think about it. Almost like rules of magic. If this happens, then this is going to happen, and where is the cause and effect? Where does that chain happen? What happens next? If I change this one piece, what happens because of that?
[Keffy] Well, any society that you create in a fantasy world, no matter how many gender roles you end up creating... Every gender role, if it's defined by the society, will have some important function in the society. That is probably what the society is going to use to define those people. There is a group of people in, I believe Papua New Guinea called the Gerai people. One of the ways that they define women is their ability to sort rice. Because sorting rice is really important in their society, and that's what women do. So if you decide that you... If you learn how to sort rice really well, then you are a woman. That's how society defines you.
[Mary] My husband grew up in Hawaii, and it is interesting because the gender roles are little bit more fluid there. So you'll have these great big hulking construction worker guys, and they wear flowers in their hair because they like flowers. They'll dance. They're very soft in a lot of ways, and yet they could kill you.

[Brandon] Right. Yeah. I'll look at... I'm going to bring up two examples at the risk of... I'm going to bring up a pro and a con, just in my personal experience. I really do like... People complain about it... I really like how Robert Jordan handles gender roles. If you read the Wheel of Time books, this is a world where women have been... Can use magic, and if men use magic, they go insane and kill everybody that they love and eventually have to be... They have to be hunted down. So women are in this great position of authority in the world, and yet a lot of traditional gender roles if you're not a woman with this power are not necessarily affected because it's kind of a lot of rural communities. So the clash between the most powerful people in the world are women plus kind of traditional gender roles in small towns adds this really interesting dynamic. If men have the magic... Their new gender role, men are dangerous, adds this entire subtext to the entire books. It makes some people really annoyed by the female characters because female characters start taking on some of... In society, they gain some of the male privilege we have... There's female privilege. It's just a subtle thing. Men who read the book get really annoyed by these women, but it's really they're getting annoyed by the concept of female privilege and not really recognizing it. There is a con, and I hate mentioning names, and I usually don't, but there is a book series out there where an author did something very similar. Where women who use the magic turn evil, and men who use the magic, don't. This was played extremely poorly. It's by Actuation. If you can kind of look at this and see how it was. That could be a really cool thing, but instead, it just has this horrible subtext of women are evil playing into kind of the classic stereotypes of the witch women.
[Mary] It's not just that.
[Howard] It's worse than that, Brandon. It's not that women are evil, it's that women who have power are evil.
[Mary] Yes!
[Brandon] Women who have power are evil. This is actually a feminist... Not only women... Women who have power, they would all turn evil, and they would all turn lesbian. Not because of the magic, that wasn't stated. They just all happened to do this because if they have power, it's what they are going to do. It's an atrocious book. It's insulting in almost every chapter. Yet it's basically the same concept, done extremely poorly on one hand, and done very well in my opinion on the other hand.
[Keffy] Well, you brought up something that I think is really interesting, which is the difference between privilege communities in terms of class and like a small town gender role situation. Because if you look at let's say gender roles in America, it is not the same across all of America because there are a lot of smaller communities within the larger community.
[Mary] And it also differs by age, too.
[Keffy] And it differs by age. So that's also... Especially if you're doing secondary world building, just broaden what you're looking at. Try to think of how you can contrast it within your own world because then you give the characters something to be tense about.
[Brandon] Right. The best way to approach it, I maintain, is to put sympathetic viewpoints on all sides to make it not an easy issue. Because these are not. These... When people are disagreeing on what a gender role should be or things like this, you don't... I think as a writer, you don't want the reader to say, "Well, obviously, this person is right." You want him to say, "Wow, this is really interesting because everybody's kind of talking and it's really muddy and it's real because of that."

[Howard] One of the most interesting gender role experiences I have had recently was when I had to sign the covers of about 1500 books. It had to be my signature because that's what people are paying for. My colorist, Travis, was also there to sign the covers of these 1500 books. So you've got a couple of strapping men in my living room... Me and Travis, we're both strapping men. Our job is to scribble things. My 16-year-old daughter and my petite, lovely wife Sandra were the ones responsible for feeding us 30 pound boxes of books. So Travis and I are sitting and making little movements with our hands, while the women are doing all the heavy schlepping up and down the stairs, into and out of the garage. There's a part of me that screaming and saying, "No, no. I can... I'm big, I should be..." Sandra told me, "No. Sit down and shut up. Your job is to make the little squiggles. I can move these boxes." So she did. We need to recognize that we're not just writing fun fictions when we turn gender roles that we're stereotypically familiar with on their heads. We're writing about real things. This stuff really does happen every day in our own homes.
[Mary] Absolutely. And also that we all come loaded with cultural bias that we have grown up with. That we can't assume that what we think is right is actually appropriate for whatever culture we're writing.

[Brandon] Yeah. All right. I'm going to go ahead... I made the guest do it last time, so I'm going to throw it at Howard.
[Howard] Uh-oh.
[Brandon] Howard, you've got to give us a writing prompt.
[Howard] Okay. Writing prompt. Take something that you do, that you think is unique to you, not only because it's your thing, but because it's maybe gender related to you. Take it, and hand it to somebody, a character in your book who you think is completely unqualified for it, unable to do it. Now define their character around the reasons why they have to accept that task, or that role or whatever. Make that work.
[Brandon] All right. This is been Writing Excuses. You're out of excuses, now go write.
[Brandon] Thank you so much, Keffy. That was great.
Tags: big reveal, gender, gender roles, sexual orientations, social expectations, transformation stories

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