Posted tagged ‘gender assumptions’

Doing Feminism Wrong

April 24, 2014

Lately I have been haunted by the feeling that I am doing feminism wrong.Dismantling the Patriarchy

As readers of this blog assuredly already know, I’m writing a fantasy series. In the early books, there is only one female point-of-view character out of four—and she’s a weak person. Not a weak character, I hope, but definitely a person who doesn’t measure up to the current feminist ideal. If this character of mine, who is the ruler of a country (however inept she may be at that job) were male, there would be no need to discuss issues of feminism, internalized misogyny, etc. She—he—would simply have been a character with a particular set of flaws and challenges.

Not all male characters, even PoVs, are expected to be heroic. To write a weak man is not a crime against the male race. Why should it be a crime against feminism for a female character to be real?

Did you see what I did there? It is still a transgression for a woman to be real; to be anything less than the embodiment of the current ideal. I believe this set of limitations hampers us as writers—and it diminishes the experience of readers. It should be a question, not a foregone conclusion, my female PoV’s somehow rising into heroism. It should not be unacceptable if she does not: because as writers we tell stories about humans, even when our characters are of other species.

This is one example of the ongoing problems of feminism. By defining and enforcing rules regarding what constitutes acceptable femininity, we again confine ourselves within expectations. I think it’s time to recognize and reject those limitations, and for those of us who write women to do those characters—and our readers—the honor of reflecting them as fully human, in all humanity’s wonderful and awful variation.

You can click this link to my contribution to Fantasy Book Café’s Women in SFF Month, where I expand on these thoughts. While you’re there, you might do yourself the favor of reading some of the other posts in this month-long feature: a true reflection of the diversity of thoughts and activities and contributions of women in SFF. I’m inexpressibly proud to be a part of it.

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Writing About Sex: Love Through Other Eyes

April 16, 2013

This week, as part of Week 3 of the The Shadow of the Sun Read-Along, nrlymrtl posed me this question:

As we get to know Ellion more and more, we definitely are not spared from his private thoughts, including his romantic thoughts. In making your main character the opposite sex of yourself, what came easy and what came hard? How did you overcome obstacles of those nature?

As always, nrlymrtl asks questions that go down to the center of the earth; and also as usual, my keyboard runneth over. After driling down into the question of  how a woman can write  man’s sexual experience with any sort of confidence, I’m looking at the issue from a broader perspective: how can we as writers write anybody‘s sexual experience, and what can we do with it from a storytelling point of view?

I don’t write erotica, and I suspect much of what I’ll say here does not apply in that venue. As a writer I don’t shy away from intimate sexual detail, but I’m not writing to arouse: when I follow characters past the bedroom door, it’s because what will happen there advances the story, develops character, or–hopefully–both.

First of all, what is sex good for in terms of building story? First, and maybe most importantly, conflict. As writers we know conflict is the engine that drives stories and scenes: internal conflict, external conflict; there are dozens of different types. The writer who takes time to think about it can find endless sources of conflict in a character’s sexual impulses and actions, starting from conflict between what he desires and what he thinks he should desire and spanning the distance to a character whose sexual desires puts him in conflict with society itself.

In The Shadow of the Sun, Ellion’s sexual impulses create sticky situations for a variety of reasons: his philandering has been the cause of a high percentage of the duels he’s fought and his attendant reputation as a man prone to slice others up; in the Tanaan lands, he brings his cultural assumptions about the loose morality of Tanaan women along with him and must constantly talk himself out of his culturally-entrained assumption that any woman who gives him any notice whatsoever is actually coming on to him, whether or not it’s true; he maps his culture’s near-mythologicization of the sexual charms of Tanaan women onto Letitia, rapidly muddling the person who simply needs protection with his culturally-etnrained sexual fantasies. Which, of course, generates further conflict between Ellion, Letitia’s father, and Letitia’s intended consort: not least because she’s got her own reasons for responding in kind.

Another source of conflict that arises from sex: there are well-documented biochemical changes that take place in people who have sex together: biochemical processes that create emotional bonds. A character who might not otherwise have allowed himself to become fully embroiled in a conflict can’t help but respond when his lover is involved. Once they’ve made love, he’s all in, even if his mind knows it’s stupid. Even, sometimes, if their sexual reltionship is over.

Sexual encounters are also a terrific way of revealing character: it is during those periods when humans are at their most open and vulnerable. The private time after sex is likely to be a time when people are fully honest, or as honest as they ever get. And how a character thinks about a sexual partner and about the act itself arise from whatever other emotional baggage they’re bringing along.

A character of a romantic bent, which oddly enough my philandering Ellion is, filters his perceptions far differently from a person of shallower thinking. When I write sexual encounters through his lens, what he sees and thinks arises naturally from how he sees and responds to his partner: a brief dalliance with someone he has just met shifts from a conversation between professionals (in this case, he has just met a female bard, and their meeting begins as shop-talk) to a nearly clinical comparison of the experience to what the stories he’s heard had led him to expect: there’s no emotional involvement to speak of.

But a later sexual encounter, with someone he has developed real romantic feelings for, is almost entirely about the emotions: even his perceptions of her beauty and of the sex act itself are filtered through intense emotion. One of my early readers said, after reading that scene (and no, I’m not telling you who his partner there is: that would constitute a spoiler) that she finally felt she understood Ellion. Because in the course of opening himself up in that encounter, he finally let the reader in far enough for her to understand all the little mysteries he carries around.

What comes hard? nrlymrtl asks. For me, what’s hard is writing sex without throwing the reader out of the moment. There’s no time when it’s more important for the writer to disappear into the cracks of a scene: every word must connect the reader intimately with the character. I work intensely to choose words and images that reflect how the character would experience what’s happening: to stay true to his voice rather than allowing embarrassment to make me reach for euphemisms or a desire to titillate make me reach for detail that doesn’t serve the story. I have to pretend no one but me will ever read the scene, and concentrate on getting it right–and then just move on to the next, to the conflicts whose stakes I have strived to raise while the characters involved forgot to notice the longer-term meaning of what they were doing.

In general, I write sex scenes like I write fight scenes: at their best, I believe, neither is about the physical stuff, but rather about what it means to the characters involved. It’s important to write believable, so as not to distract the reader from the important work we’re doing in these scenes; but if I’ve done my job correctly, at the end of such a scene you know a little more about the character than you did before–and he’s a little deeper in trouble.

The Sex Lives of Male Characters: Our Cultural Assumptions in Action

April 15, 2013

Today, as part of Week 3 of the The Shadow of the Sun Read-Along, nrlymrtl posed me this question:

As we get to know Ellion more and more, we definitely are not spared from his private thoughts, including his romantic thoughts. In making your main character the opposite sex of yourself, what came easy and what came hard? How did you overcome obstacles of those nature?

My editor for The Shadow of the Sun was my dear friend Brett Shanley. We’d worked together on a number of projects by the time we came around to this one, though this was the first time he had edited me. One of his first observations, made in his usual quietly introspective fashion, was,

“Um, Ellion’s kind of a whore, isn’t he?”

Which made me laugh, and which I had to admit was true–but which I found an intriguing reaction to a male character, particularly from a male reader. Brett’s response was a valid one, and shared in prticular by women–but it stood in opposition to our cultural norms. That sort of deep thought and ability to look past our assumptions were among the things that gave Brett power as an editor, of course.

I find writing the sexual life of a male character surprisingly easy. It’s true that I am and always have been female (at least within the confines of this particular incarnation*), but I’ve got plenty to work from when it comes to the inner sexual lives of male characters. I believe, rightly or wrongly (and research does tend to bear this out, for what that’s worth) that the internal lives of men and women are largely the same: that where we differ stems partly from inborn traits but mostly from socialization. And, perhaps surprisingly, it is in the area of sex that the most data about the inner lives of the male of the species is most available. We need only look at 99% of what we receive through popular culture for clues.

Entire volumes and thousands of blog posts have been written on the male gaze and its effect on the way women perceive themselves; it’s not my intent to recapitulate that here. But if you want a broad sampling of what arouses men and how they process sex and female beauty, you need only watch movies, particularly those made to appeal to the male demographic. I don’t mean to assert that all men see women the same way, think the same things, etc.–but movies written and filmed by men for other men, which is most movies that are not romantic comedies, give us a good window into the areas of general agreement among that half of the species in Western culture.

Further, as a woman who has absorbed those images, I have absorbed, whether consciously or not, the same set of ideas about what is arousing. All women, whether conscious of it or not, who participate in popular culture have learned to see other women as sexual. Most heterosexual women map those images onto their psyches as things to be achievedthings we want to look at rather than people we want to touch, but we still know what is considered sexy: i.e., what men as a demographic want to look at and experience in their sexual lives. Most of us spend our lifetimes trying to measure up to those things. That, of course, is a somewhat different topic.

So, to drag this back around to the original question, I find it surprisingly easy to write a male character, even when it comes to his sex life, because I have access to an entire cultural heritage, have absorbed it as fully as any man. It’s actually far more difficult for me to stretch my brain around the rest of the experience of being male, because the clues popular culture gives us for those things are harder to access. Those are the areas where I must do the most research and extrapolation.

As usual, nrlymrtl has tossed me a question worth intense unpacking, because I still haven’t touched on how I write another person’s sexual experience. And that trick (no pun intended) is one of endless interest to writers (and readers, it seems!)–so I’ll roll that question over to another post tomorrow.

* I don’t believe in reincarnation. I don’t disbelieve in reincarnation. Neither truth would surprise me. As Alice said to Dorothy, “I’ve seen some weird shit.”

That’s Not Even a Real Word! How I invent languages for my fiction

April 9, 2013

This week in the continuing (and penetrating) discussion of The Shadow of the Sun on her Week Two readalong post, nrlymrtl posed me this question:

You have used language throughout the book as a way to sew culture clash, create bonding, and swear creatively. How did you go about building the various languages into your story?

The master of the invented language, of course, was J.R.R. Tolkien. I am not fit to dust his dictionaries. But even for those of us whose artistic talent & impulses don’t run towards inventing languages, the development of language is a useful tool for fantasy & SF. Languages both arise from and reflect cultures: words and phrases so commonplace we don’t even hear them are profound indicators of our culture’s assumptions and norms. And the etymology and linguistic underpinnings of a language tell the story of where a culture comes from, what other cultures it has encountered, and what its problems and conflicts are.

You just made that up,
didn’t you?

Nope. A couple examples to get you started thinking about this:

Gender assumptions:

In English, we say “men and women”; where gender is mixed or uncertain, we use male words to cover all the unknowns. When we speak of both, we speak of males first–except when we’re being self-consciously courteous, as in “Ladies and gentlemen”, which embodies reasoning too convoluted to get into here. These habits reflect entrenched patriarchy. In The Heart of Darkness, the sequl to The Shadow of the Sun, some of the point-of-view characters I’m writing come from a matriarchal society. Maleness is not their linguistic default. The choices I make when my matriarchal characters speak about mixed or indefinite gender tell a story about their assumptions: right down to the fact that where my human characters say “priestess” to apply to a member of the Danaan clergy, the Danaan characters say “priest”. Because in their culture all priests are women, so there is no need to specify gender.

Swearing and Insults:

How we swear, what is considered profane or taboo, bespeaks our religious and moral norms. Americans, who as a group tend towards religious fundamentalism and puritanism to a much greater extent than some other cultures, find great shock value in blasphemy against Christian religions, sex, and bodily functions. How we insult others speaks to what our culture values and abhors. Because we tend to be very narrow-minded about sex lives that are in any way different from our own (see also: fundamentalism and puritanism), Americans can be heard using “gay” as an insult.

In other cultures, notably pagan cultures in which magic is mixed in with the religion, there is frequently a strong taboo against speaking the nmes of gods aloud, particularly in the presence of nonbelievers: because the names of the gods confer power. It may also be considered inappropriate to use the names of gods outside the context of prayer and magic, whether in the presence of nonbelievers or not. (That’s a tradition that carries over in modern Christianity as well, at least in the U.S.) I’ve made some use of both of those taboos in The Shadow of the Sun: my Beallan (human) characters, both of whom are deeply religious, rarely speak the names of their gods outside the context of religion, and certainly never in front of the Danaan, who have their own gods; and the Danaan, who believe themselves to be in a collective state of disgrace before their great goddess, no longer invoke her name outside the context of prayer. It’s the lesser goddesses and the great goddess’s consort with whom they feel themselves sufficiently close to swear by their names.

But as nrlymrtl notes, swearing is a bonding activity. People love swearing, and in swearing together we relieve the tension both of whatever made us want to mouth off and of the transgression of swearing itself. Learning one another’s swear words is a moment of cross-cultural bonding, a means of building bridges between our cultures. Kumbaya, baby. We see that in The Shadow of the Sun, too, in the moment when the Danaan mock Ellion because he is unable to pronounce one of the sounds common to their language and he turns around and challenges them to swear in his–and then they all laugh at the results.

So where did you get
those crazy words?

If you’ve been reading along lately, you will be unsurprised to learn that I stole. A lot. To reinforce the cohesiveness of the cultures I had built on a basis of ancient Irish myth as history, I drew heavily on ancient Irish and Gaelic languages and naming traditions, with a bit of Iberian thrown in for development of the Essuvian names and words. Where I could, I lifted words whole; where the word I wanted either didn’t exist or was too hard for someone with my VERY meager command of those languages to track down, I started with the etymological roots of those words in that end of the human language genome and built new ones. I also drew on ancient Greek and Egyptian sources for words that are, in the context of my tale, of yet more ancient vintage. In the course of developing the traders’ culture in The Heart of Darkness I stole from Basque and Romani language and naming traditions. And the ubiquitous profanity fouzh, which Ellion can’t get through an entire page without, was invented out of whole cloth: I wanted something evocative of the “f-bomb”, as it is delicately styled, which would be satisfying in the English-speaking mouth but wouldn’t require me to litter the pages with something that makes a significant percentage of readers flinch, not to mention bringing our cultural norms into an entirely different culture.

I love playing with language, maybe even more than I enjoy playing with the rest of reality. And I adore taking apart the components of our culture, looking at them, and putting them back together in entertaining/disturbing ways. It helps me think, and I hope it gives readers the opportunity to think some thoughts they would not have otherwise. It was probably inevitable that I write speculative fiction.