There Is No Sex

Schroedinger
Art courtesy Lucian

Once again I’ve provided a provocative title to try and get your attention. Is it working? Is it?

Yesterday’s post on females in fiction has generated some feedback, but thoughts from one of my friends got me thinking. He said, “Why not disregard gender entirely? Why not just write characters?” This is something worth consideration. Tyrande, the Baroness, Hit-Girl… they’re characters no more or less valid than Brann Bronzebeard, Destro or Kick-Ass. They all have interesting angles, they all exemplify parts of ourselves and they call can be used and abused at the hands of different writers. There are differences in character much deeper and more nuanced than their disparate gonads. So why do gonads come into it at all?

Is there, in fact, no sex? Or more to the point, no genders?

Proceeding with Lucian‘s intriguing line of thought, consider the following. While this is not a direct quotation from the conversation we had, it’s still thinking outside of myself, hence it gets the blockquote treatment.

The purpose of gender existing is to help us construct schema for social situations. A schema is a semi-conscious pre-evaluation of a situation based on how things are “meant” to work. Driving’s a good example. Driving has a tight schema: we expect people to drive on a certain side of the road, stop at red lights, etc.

Gender works like that for social situations. You see a person, evaluate male/female, and pre-judge how they will act based on gender stereotypes. The problem is, stereotypes hardly ever really hold true,
and they are usually reinforced into place by social expectation. Not to mention, they are harmful and insulting to “both” genders.

That is how gender works and why it exists.

And why it is very, very boring.

From the perspective of the writer, at least when it comes to fiction, the goal should be to write compelling characters, regardless of their gender. Now, this doesn’t mean that the newsboy on the corner should have as much depth or development as John Dillinger. But the characters we do spend time with should have some dimension to them, things for the audience to discover.

Say what you want about the stories in the Mass Effect universe, but many of the characters we encounter have depth and nuance divorced from their gender. Would Wrex be any less interesting if it turned out he was female? How about Tali’s fans – would they still exist in their large numbers (with me among them) if Tali was a male Quarian? I’d still want to hang with Tali if he were a guy, for the record. I’d also like to believe that Miranda would be just as smug and Jack just as caustic if they were men. Sure, their character models would undertake radical changes and Miranda probably wouldn’t be called Miranda, but that’s beside my point.

Under those layers with varying degrees of curvature and color that we call “bodies,” the characters we create that carry our stories should be interesting, thoughtful, compelling – human. “Human” means more than gender. It applies to our lives, and I think it should apply to our fiction as well.

How important is gender, when you get right down to it? When it comes to what’s really important about our characters – motivation, outlook, goals and fears – is there, in fact, no sex?

3 Comments

  1. This is just as important in real life as it is for characters.

    I recently just had an ideological break-up with a site I was writing for. It was supposed to be an all-inclusive “girl gamer” type blog, but within weeks I found myself at odds with the rest of the “girl gamers” because I realized I identified not as a girl, but as a gamer, and that often put me on the opposite side of “girl” issues as the rest of the crew. It was a very disorienting experience.

    I’d like for society in general, not just our media choices, to start moving past gender. Focusing on it outside of personal romantic situations never seems to breed anything good.

    A link you might be interested in: I often check out the Bechdel test now to get a grasp on how little of the popular culture is even comfortable enough with women as people (and not just women). The Bechdel test only requires a movie to: 1) contain more than two women 2) that talk to each other 3) about something other than a man. It’ll shock you how many movies fail that test.

    http://bechdeltest.com/

    If we can’t depict women as being individuals with interests and values beyond how they relate to a male, then I’m not sure society has any hope for it either, but I like to hope anyway.

  2. I see a lot of merit in the idea, but I think that if you disregard gender entirely, you can lose a lot of the character.

    Again, my all-time favorite character is Polgara. If you haven’t, you really should look for “Polgara the Sorceress” by David Eddings.

    She is intelligent, strong, beautiful (albeit after a very awkward, gangly youth), powerful, and yet incredibly female. And without that femininity, she would have lost a great deal of her depth.

    While a character does not have to be a walking stereotype, or developed around their gender, if you deny them their gender, you are denying them a part of themselves.

    We need to get over the idea of making the genders the same. There is a duality within our species, within most species, and within the world. Our differences, beyond the physical, extend into the emotional and psychological realm. There can be no Yin without a Yang, no balance.

    The key is that instead of basing a character off of their gender, and worrying about “Well, if I portray this character like that, I seem sexist, and we can’t have that”, say the hell with it and craft the character as what fits the story. And in developing your character, attend to how their gender will affect how they are treated, how they are perceived, and what their natural instincts are telling them.

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