The Big Idea: Lauren McLaughlin

Every teenage girl has “that time of month,” as it is so euphemistically referred to, but in Cycler, the totally inventive and fun debut novel from Lauren McLaughlin, Jill McTeague discovers that during her time, her body goes through entirely different changes than most girls — specifically, four days a month, she becomes Jack, right down to all the appropriate plumbing.

As you might expect, an idea like this is fertile ground for an examination of gender politics, particularly the teenage division, but as McLaughlin notes in this Big Idea, once she started in on the writing, the book went places she never expected it to regarding gender concepts — because of the characters themselves. Where does it go? Well, here’s the author herself to explain it all.

LAUREN McLAUGHLIN:

Gender is a prison. That was the Big Idea behind Cycler. I actually wrote it in sharpie on a piece of white paper and taped it above my desk as I worked. I wanted this story, about a girl who turns into a boy four days out of every month, to be an examination of gender as a cultural construct. I wanted to explore the ways in which gender identity constrains us, shapes us, limits is. But a strange thing happened.

Once I set my characters in motion, they immediately adapted to their bizarre circumstances and made the best of it. The girl persona, Jill, strategizes to hide her alter ego so that she can blend in with the rest of her high school peers. The male persona, Jack, who spends his four days hidden from view, develops a powerful memory so that he can scour Jill’s life and live vicariously through her.

Neither of them confronts the issue of gender directly. And why would they? They have no control over the powerful transformations that rule their lives. I think in some ways this reflects our experiences of puberty. Our bodies change, our interests change, and we begin thinking as sexual beings. We are not in control of the process; rather it feels as if the process is controlling us. We are subject to its whims and ever on the cusp of heartbreak and humiliation.

And it is in this crucible of thwarted longings and desperate fumblings that we lay the foundation for our sexual identities. No wonder, then, that a great many of us get it dreadfully wrong, our bodies hungering for one thing while our fragile egos lead us to seek conformity at all cost. The obvious example, of course, is the gay or lesbian teen rebelling against desire to begin a journey of self-denial and self-loathing.

But I think this disconnect between what we carnally desire and what we seek to conform to is more broadly applicable. Think of the popular girl who finds herself uncomfortably smitten with the class nerd or the purple-haired rebel secretly pining for the quarterback in defiance of the misfit code. In our desperate attempts to find a box to fit into, we betray our own desires. We do it to ourselves.

But we don’t keep the damage to ourselves. We inflict it on everyone. One of the strangest things about gender conformity in our society is the way we have become addicted to the bloodsport of it all. Think of the Mommy Wars, the Hillary Wars, “Iron my shirts.” All of these are examples of people trying to enforce their version of femininity on all women. To celebrate their favored brand of femininity, they must demonize all others. What the soldiers in this pointless battle fail to realize is that gender is not binary. There is no one correct expression of femininity and no one correct expression of masculinity. Nor is gender timeless. Even the most “traditional” or “conservative” fighter in the culture wars will hold opinions on gender that his or her great grandmother would find radical. Gender changes through time, through place, and from person to person. It is a fluid and creative construct. But oh, how we love to shape it into a blunt instrument and bash at each other.

In Cycler, I represent what I call the Binary Theory of Gender through Jack and Jill’s mother, Helen. Go to your local bookstore and you will find countless books promising to decode the opposite sex by reducing them to a set of stereotyped characteristics. The Rules, Why Men Marry Bitches, and, of course, Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus are just a few examples.

A Rules girl through and through, Helen encourages her daughter to nurture the most stereotypical feminine traits. Because she’s willing to try anything to achieve her twin goals of safeguarding her secret and landing the perfect prom date, Jill jumps right on board.

The problem with this approach is that it presents the opposite sex as, at worst, the enemy and, at best, a dim-witted booby prize. How can you love someone you have basically manipulated into a relationship? Anyone who’s actually been in love knows that love is a wild and lawless thing. Attempts to decode the endeavor with comforting gender stereotypes might sell a lot of self-help books, but they won’t guarantee smooth sailing. Just ask The Rules co-author, Ellen Fein. After “capturing the heart of Mr. Right” by putting her own rules into action, she wound up divorced.

But one thing I wanted to avoid in Cycler, was replacing one Theory of Gender with another. While it’s all well and good to poke fun at girlie girls and macho boys, the truth is, I’d miss them if they were gone. In fact, some of my best friends are Rules girls, bless them. While I consider myself fairly androgynous (psychologically, if not physically), I would hate to live in a world where that became the official prescribed gender identity. What I hope to accomplish with Cycler, other than telling a sexy, thrilling and hilarious story, is to poke holes into everyone’s conception of gender, including my own. I want to destabilize the notion of gender as a stable category. Because it isn’t stable. Whatever feels right to you now will seem quaint and ridiculous to your great grandchildren. And that is exactly as it should be.

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Cycler: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Powell’s

Visit Lauren McLaughlin’s blog here. Read an excerpt from Cycler here.

38 thoughts on “The Big Idea: Lauren McLaughlin

  1. I haven’t read the book yet (added to the pile, though), but I wonder if Ms. McLaughlin addresses the role of religion in creating and maintaining society’s (or hell, civilization’s) gender roles.

  2. Lauren, considering what happens to the kid, have you looked into transexuality? A good person to get you started is Zoe Brain of Australia, who has found herself a prominent promoter and defender of transexual and intersexual rights since she started transitioning back in 2005.

    As you make the journey be none too surprised that gender and gender roles are not as culture defined as you think. Nor are they as simple, as clearly delineated as you think.

  3. I think Justine or somebody else mentioned this on their blog as well, and I meant to put it into the pile of to-be-reads but forgot, partly because I don’t think it was out at the time. Thanks for the reminder….this definitely looks like an interesting read.

  4. Hi Alex, I didn’t get into religion in this book because there was no room. But, yes, religion plays a very big role in gender identity and would make for a very interesting book, indeed.

    Alan, I would never describe gender as simple or clearly delineated. I would describe it as virtually indescribable. Transexuality is a fascinating topic that only serves to underscore the malleable nature of gender. When someone self-identifies as the “other” gender he or she is inventing his or her own concept of what the “other” gender means. Gender is not merely culturally determined; it’s individually determined.

  5. And to think that a certain SF author had the bigger idea of treating the entire subject in a way where gender became meaningless and thus a springboard of speculation of what that meant, instead of the hinge point of a plot device.

    This doesn’t even include Varley’s take(s) on the subject.

    As a question of curiousity, have you read much of that essentially 70s SF where considerations of gender play a major role (Le Guin is a fine starting place), including the awareness that gender is not exactly the constant that most Americans seem to assume it is?

  6. Hi PixelFish, I hope you enjoy it!

    Not_scottbot, I’ve read Leguin and lots of stuff on gender but was less interested in broad cultural experiments with gender and more interested in the small-scale psychology of one girl/boy’s dealings with it.

  7. The people who know most about gender are those with 5alpha-reductase-2 deficiency (5alpha-RD-2) or 17beta-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase-3 deficiency (17beta-HSD-3)

    They’re born looking female, and are usually raised that way.

    At (usually late) puberty, they masculinise.

    The psychological issues they face are immense, especially for the 1/3 who are *not* initially transsexual, but become so.

    May I suggest you read http://aebrain.blogspot.com/2008/06/bigender-and-brain.html before deciding on the malleability or otherwise of gender? So much of what we call “gender” is a social construct, and varies between societies. Perhaps 70%, perhaps 90%. But a substantial proportion is not. And some people don’t fit the Binary Gender Model. Transsexuals do, at least psychologically, or they wouldn’t feel compelled to transition. They are more strongly gendered than most, it’s just that the gender doesn’t match the body, and that’s most uncomfortable.

    My own transition was unusual, most natural ones are FtoM. Mine was the opposite. It cured the Gender Dysphoria I’d had since childhood.

    It was also *extremely* educational!

  8. Yeah, definitely drop in at Zoe’s blog. “Started transitioning” might be more accurately phrased as: started having serious medical issues which puzzled him and his physician–as in “the lab sent back your bloodwork report but these numbers can’t possibly be right, so let’s take another sample”, and later “Your case is very interesting…possibly publishable”, which is not what you want to hear when you’re the patient. After some weeks of this, they realized that Alan Brain was, spontaneously, in the process of becoming Zoe.

  9. I never cared for the euphemism of “That Time of the Month”, although that still beats “My Monthly Bill Has Arrived,” “Aunt Flo,” and the even worse “On the Rag.” *shudder*

    I prefer “Experiencing Technical Difficulties”. *snort*

    Sounds like you’ve got an intriguing concept and theme…

  10. My girlfriend and I were talking about our potential future kids last night and we had a good laugh about how unorthodox their views of gender roles will be: I cook and garden, she goes to work in jeans and a hard hat. And we wouldn’t have it any other way.

  11. not_scottbot: There are also a bunch of 70s SF novels, such as Five to Twelve and Sex and the High Command, that were anti-feminist dystopias along the lines of “OMG women are going to take over the world”! If you treat them as windows into the mindset of (certain) men of that generation, they make for interesting light reading.

    I’m a sucker for Weird Gender Shit SF. (Even when it’s badly done.)

  12. Zoe, I’ve been dropping in on your wonderful blog. I think you’re right that gender is an alchemy of biology, psychology, and culture. We’re all alchemists but I think we vary the proportions of the ingredients. And, while some of us may feel more in control of the proceedings, I think to a large extent we are controlled by them. Thanks for sharing.

  13. A great idea, and one I used in my story “My Two Best Friends,” THIRTEENTH MOON MAGAZINE, 1996, reprinted in my collection LITTLE DOORS, 2002.

    Just saying…..

  14. I shall now scoop the “Shallow Git 2008″ award by saying I’d put up with the girl on the cover peeing standing up four days a month.

    What. Why are you all looking at me like that?

  15. Alex B., its good to see you – I’m looking forward to the sequel to The Sword-Edged Blonde!

    I think the key difference that not_scottbot and Zoe are “missing” is that, while gender the concept may or may not be malleable/constant/whatever, the book is about one person’s experience with gender the reality.

    I’ve experienced many gender issues that seem fairly constant – I’ve not had many surprises. However, I’ve only skimmed water that others swim in, and I can see how they would experience a completely different set of gender issues that would be confusing to me. Like most other life experiences, gender is an individual thing, definitely influenced by society on a grand scale, maybe or maybe not influenced by society on an individual scale.

    Zor, unfortunately I am most others like myself cannot relate to your experience – we can read about it but that’s about the extent of our understanding. That doesn’t mean you know more about gender than me – that means you know more about YOUR gender than me.

    not_scottbot, I found your comment slightly rude – apparently Lauren is much more gracious than I would have been – but also missing the point. Are we not to write about issues other, more “revered” authors have written about? Goodbye Old Man’s War, for a start. Goodbye any new writing, for that matter. Tackling well-trod issues with a new slant is the whole point of the next generation of writers. If they are constantly going to be derided for discovering new ways to travel well-worn paths, they won’t put pen to paper – what would be the point?

    Lauren, I am really looking forward to reading this book. It sounds fascinating. (My stack is pretty high right now, so it may be a little while, unfortunately, but I will pick it up before too long.)

  16. Wait, Alex B is “The Sword-Edged Blonde” Alex B.?? And there will be more? Truly?

    Excellent!

    (Jeeze, it can be so disconcerting realizing who I’m talking to/reading sometimes. I’ll just stand over here and behave myself.)

  17. Mac,

    If you’re not on that cover, step away ;)

    Being fleetingly serious – just to prove that I can – I’m really looking forward to this one. I had a very odd upbringing (all-boys catholic boarding school. Guh), and consequently had virtually nothing to do with women until I was well past puberty. Ha-ha, how much fun that was. I’m better now.

    This is definately on my to-read list, and I’m intrigued as to see how you’ve defined the issues, as well as their resolutions (or catastrophes, as I’m guessing the case will often be).

  18. Hm. Some interesting similarities to Zerophilia, but with what appears to be a decidedly different take.

    To be perfectly honest though, I am having Chalker flashbacks.

  19. Dave@26:To be perfectly honest though, I am having Chalker flashbacks.

    Watch some Ranma 1/2, maybe that can displace the the Chalker with something sillier and more lighthearted.

  20. This has definitely been the most interesting ‘big idea’ for me so far, since I am greatly interested in gender issues as well. So I’m very glad to have seen this and will certainly keep an eye out for the book.

  21. It’s an interesting idea, and in fiction one does not have to be, and in fact, one sometimes *should* not be, bound by minor inconveniences like laws of physics, biology etc. Not if it gets in the way of the story.

    I’m intrigued by the concepts presented, though my disbelief-suspenders may get a bit more stretched than most people’s. Been there, done that, so to speak. As far as is biologically possible, anyway.

    I’ve found over a dozen cases of “idiopathic” partial sex reversals – apart from the well-know 5ARD and 17BHDD syndromes. I’ve not found any other case where the process didn’t take years though, not just 3 months. Evolution is a process, not an event, and it hasn’t finished playing around with us.

    But enough of me, this is about Jack and Jill, and the peculiar hill they ascend and descend every 4 weeks.

    “Once I set my characters in motion, they immediately adapted to their bizarre circumstances and made the best of it.”

    Been there and done that too, I guess. So I’m pre-disposed to like them both. And if John Scalzi thinks this is a good debut novel, that’s a good enough recommendation for me.

    Good Luck, Lauren. Not just for the success of this work, but for future ones. I say that out of pure self-interest, I like reading really good works by excellent authors.

  22. I was wondering if there was a WordPress category or tag for Big Idea posts? Sometimes I find myself hankering for new reading, and I know that a lot of Big Idea posts I’ve read in the past sound very intriguing. I’d really love it if Big Idea posts were in an easily accessible category or labeled with a tag. Same with the books received posts! I’ve been looking for the tag or category but haven’t found it, so if it exists, I’d love for it to be pointed out to me!

  23. Rose Fox, I just read your review. While I respect your personal feelings on the subject of queer acceptance, I find it unusual, to say the least, that you would demand of this or any book that it be a balm custom-tailored to your psychological needs. Are you suggesting that any book with a bisexual character must be set in the utopia of queer acceptance you describe? If that’s the book you so desperately need to read, may I suggest you write it?

  24. The best example I can think of of the difference between male brain chemistry and female brain chemistry appeared in one Of Zoe’s posts about her experience transitioning. In it she relates how she now reacts to chocolate. Where once, as a man, chocolate was nice and all that, as a woman it’s become the next best thing to a quarter ounce orgasm.

  25. Is bigger shittier.?I thimnk mostly yes. I have been trying to option your books for the movies for some time now,and now the agent tells me some “big dude” is doing it.

    All I know is that I ran the most urgent excellent and creative foundation that singlehandedly created the modern field of biologicall reseach in autism, and then the guy who ran G&E took it over in a hostile takeover. We make three times as much money and we fund shite, last years ideas in triplicate. Ro fire, no insiration.I would trade my hand made 12 for thier mass produced sixty any day.

    It’s late, and I’m loaded, but I have a lot of soul and I should be getting these books done.JS

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