Playing with gender roles

It really annoys me when fiction beats you over the head with a moral. Even if the moral was the entire reason the author wrote the story, I have never met a reader who came out of a novel going “Wow, have I ever seen the error of my ways!” No, people read for entertainment. Some are entertained by westerns and spy thrillers; some are entertained by ethnographies and theoretical astrophysics. As far as I am aware, no one past their Winnie the Pooh years is entertained by a heaping helping of righteousness. (And even Pooh had compelling characters and gripping plot twists to mitigate the conscience-poking. Spoilers: Tigger is the Masked Offender!)

Thus, it’s tricky for me to come out and say that I strongly oppose the societally-constructed gender stereotypes present in my corner of the world, and that I try to represent that opposition in my writing. I’m hesitant to make that statement, because I don’t want readers to go into my books seeking soapbox proclamations or male-bashing. In fact, I’d like readers to be completely unaware of it while reading, in exactly the same way readers are able to skim over conformity, because it strikes them as natural.

I’m not going to list off the characters I’ve tried to do this with – mostly because, while I’ve tried, I’m as much a product of my culture as anyone, and I probably failed in as many ways as I succeeded. I’m working on it. Changing the world is a step-at-a-time process, and I am a part of the world that needs changing.

the medium bevel title vampire liminal liminality lost knowledge paranormal supernatural fantasy

Let me just plug this here, real quick.

Instead, I’m going to mention Lenny and Kim, because they’re my most recent iterations. (The image links to the Goodreads page, where there’s a nice little book blurb. It doesn’t talk about Kim, but as she’s become a sort of oblique protagonist, I’ll be adding a few lines for her. She’s the one of the wizards mentioned.)

It doesn’t spoil much to say that I cast Lenny as both protagonist and victim. Those two links can summarized thus: a) 10% of rape and sexual assault victims are male; and b) men are three times more likely to be murdered than women and more than three times more likely to be victims of aggravated assault than women.

Fiction hides those statistics. In fiction, in film, in popular media, men do a considerable amount of asskicking, but they never have the crap beaten out of them for no reason, they are never objectified and demeaned, they are never violated, and there is never any kind of emotional scarring left behind by the injuries they do suffer.

Hiding the male victim from the public eye erases him from the public consciousness. When a real man is injured, violated, or damaged, he is ignored, because men cannot be victims. This is damaging to both sexes, because the implication is that victim is a woman’s role. The female is victimized, and the male victim is left to suffer in silence.

Kim was comparatively easier. When fighting sexist stereotypes, a lot more attention is paid to the ‘strong’  female, so I had a lot of examples to work with. The problem is that the ‘strong’ female is usually portrayed as possessing typically male characteristics, while being stripped of typically female characteristics. I won’t go into too much detail about why that is problematic; suffice to say that making women behave ‘like men’ in order to be considered strong does nothing to remove the stigma from typically feminine characteristics. Therefore, I cast Kim as a protector as well as a caregiver. Yes, caregiver is a typically female role. No, that does not make it inherently inferior, and I do not believe Kim is a weaker character for it.

But here’s the point of all this. 

I chose to work from both ends of the problem, the oppression of women and the repression of men, simultaneously. Both ends of it are issues I feel strongly about. Still, they’re not the point of the story. They’re incidental to the story, embedded in it – or at least I hope so. Like religion, feminism (or humanism, if you prefer, though I don’t align with the anti-fideist connotation) is something better demonstrated than preached. Preaching annoys people and puts them off of your cause. Just like I don’t go waving a crucifix in people’s faces, I don’t want to be perceived as waving gender issues in people’s faces, either.

When The Medium comes out (hopefully in October), I would appreciate feedback on this issue. I know I have some reader/author/follower buddies who feel as strongly about gender restriction as I do, and since you’ll all be leaving me reviews anyway (hint hint, nudge nudge), I’d like a few words on my success at portraying these characters, who have been very hard for me to write, and my success at not preaching.

In the mean time, I’d also appreciate it if anyone could point me at some good fiction that allows for male victimhood – preferably without portraying it as pathetic or unmanly.

7 thoughts on “Playing with gender roles

  1. Another awesome, thoughtful post.

    From what I’ve seen of the draft, at least, The Medium seems to convey a world whose characters are so thoroughly embedded in their worldview/individual experiences/personal traits that you don’t notice, at first, the society that they’re a part of. It occurred to me as I was reading this post that I haven’t really thought much about the novel in terms of gender — which is pretty unusual for me, given that it’s my default analysis mode. So in that sense, it looks like you’ve certainly made a ‘natural’ worldview that people can skim over — although, now that I’ve read the post, I can see where you’re coming from with Kim & Lenny. I’ll have to pay more attention with future chapters (and later iterations, of course!).

    • Oh, that’s good. :3 I look forward to your input.
      And of course, the society they’re a part of isn’t necessarily what I want to promote, either. The 80s-90s-early Aughts, realistically, were a lot like now. But then, like now, few real people fit the molds.

  2. Repression of humanity by the ruling elite — both male and female — and the deliberate fostering of behavioral and thinking motifs that create antagonism between the sexes — and between races. The Ruling Elite maintain power as the masses are constantly embroiled in battling one another and not unifying to battle the true evil that the Elite (which is comprised of all genders, races and beliefs) represents. Then again, I could be full of crap…

    • I don’t know. The thing about conspiracy theories is that, while there’s rarely any concrete evidence to support them, no one would really be all that surprised if they turned out to be true.
      I think it would be a stretch to get all the folks in this Elite working together and not chewing each other’s heads off, but maybe that’s exactly what they -want- me to think.
      (The eemees are at work, eh Kenton?)

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