A Month of Writers, Day Sixteen: Sarah Monette

Sarah Monette and I were nominated for the Campbell Award at the same time, which is why one day we ended up having a sack race down the hall of one of the better hotels in Madison, Wisconsin. Oh, don’t look at me like that. It made perfect sense at the time. And we tied, which I think means we are equally fabulous. Certainly Sarah’s writing is fabulous; her trilogy of fantasy novels, which began with Melusine, went through The Virtu and now concludes with The Mirador, has been getting praise like “extraordinary,” “wonderful” and “fantastic,” with “virtuoso narratives of theatrical, political and magical intrigues.” Which are pretty nice reviews to get.

In addition to writing virtuoso fantasy, Sarah can also break it down on the academic tip: she’s got a PhD in English Literature, and some of that analytic nature comes through in her contribution to A Month of Writers, in which she looks at sex and gender in science fiction, and the importance of defining one’s terms.

SARAH MONETTE: Groundwork for discussions of sexual politics

This past weekend at Penguicon 5.0, I was on a panel called “Limited Female Roles In Fantasy, Comics, and SF” with Elizabeth Bear, John Scalzi, The Ferret, and M. Keaton. It was a good panel–don’t get me wrong about that–but I felt, and I think perhaps other panelists did, too, a certain amount of frustration in trying to define what it was we were talking about.

I know why this is. It’s because sexual politics is incredibly complicated and full of nebulous and subjective ideas. And because in trying to talk about sexual roles we are inevitably stuck in the position of fish trying to talk about water. It’s hard to step back from something so immersive, hard to define things that we’ve been shaped by since we were born.

I’ve had this experience before, at a variety of cons (and, yes, that does include WisCon), and it occurred to me this morning that maybe it would be worthwhile to try to lay out some of the fundamentals in a blog post, just to get all this definitional nonsense in one place.


“Sex” vs. “Gender”

Sex is biology. Gender is culture.

But wait! It’s not that simple. (Of course it isn’t that simple. Nothing about sexual politics is simple.)

“Sex” is talking about the equipment a person is born with. Male. Female.

… Intersexed.

Sex isn’t a binary any more than gender is, although American culture traditionally wants to make it a binary goddammit, thus causing all sorts of problems for those who happen to be born in-between.

But wait! It isn’t even that simple.

Transsexual people, people who choose to go through SRS, are making choices on the level of sex, not gender. Biology is not destiny; sex is neither binary nor immutable.

“Essentialism” in the context of sexual politics refers to the idea that there is some essential, irreducible difference between men and women. As will be obvious from the foregoing, I consider this a deeply problematic stance.

So if “sex” is biology–and all its complications–what is “gender”?

“Gender” is what human societies do with “sex,” how expectations of behavior are influenced by perceptions of biology. Hence the term “gender roles.”

Gender isn’t a binary either. There’s a kind of loose, largely unexamined consensus in middle-class white American society about how men and women behave. (Men are from Mars, remember, and women are from Venus.) And cultural hegemony means that that consensus gets applied widely.

But that doesn’t make the consensus true.

I think it’s misia who pointed out that for an increasing minority of the population, the proper gender tag is “geek” first and “male” or “female” second. I am one of those people myself. There are other sub-cultures in which performance of gender likewise does not map onto the (spurious) binary of sex–hence the terms “butch” and “femme,” just for one example. So when you say men communicate in a particular way, or women are drawn to a particular type of story, my immediate instinct is to make you specify. Which men? Which women? Because generalizations leave a heck of a lot of people out in the cold.

We’re all created equal, but that doesn’t mean we’re created alike.

The Vicious Circle

Women have limited roles in sf (print and media) because:
(a.) That’s what audiences want.
(b.) Women aren’t as interesting as men.
(c.) Artists are products of their culture, and have difficulty thinking outside the box.
(d.) Men are doing it on purpose to keep women oppressed.
(e.) The genre is traditionally male-dominated, and its conventions and tropes leave very little room for telling women’s stories.
(f.) SF is always social allegory, and this trend is an accurate reflection of reality.

All of these answers are wrong.

Some are less wrong than others; b. and d. are both pernicious nonsense; f. is a cop-out, as is a.; c. and e. are partially true, but ignore the work already being done, by both artists and audience members of all genders, to change that.

You’ll also notice that cause and effect are hopelessly jumbled. Individual artistic expressions cannot be separated from the culture at large; artists are influenced by culture, and the culture is in turn influenced by artists. It’s complicated and messy, and it’s impossible, past a certain point, to disentangle the synergistic feedback loop between artists and their culture. Again, generalizations just get you in trouble.

And My Point Is …

If you’re in this kind of discussion, whether on a panel, on the internet, or at the dinner table, do your damnedest to define your terms. (If you’re on a panel, I’d even recommend trying to do this ahead of time.) Try to use words that say what you mean as precisely as possible. Specify what you’re talking about, what you mean by particular overdetermined words. This ensures that everyone’s talking about the same thing and has the happy side-effect of focusing the discussion.

Never trust a generalization you can’t see the back of.

(Original entry, with comments, is here)

22 Comments on “A Month of Writers, Day Sixteen: Sarah Monette”

  1. Sex and gender are both on gradients. Gender isn’t just culture and nurture – it’s also identity hardwired into the brain.

    And yes, it’s exactly like fish talking to other fish about water.

    When everything about a social interaction is working right, it’s like a dance. The female does the female dance parts, the male does the male dance parts, the whole thing proceeds smoothly along and the dancers can carry on a conversation entirely unrelated to dancing, and nobody has to look at their feet.

    It’s only when the dance goes wrong that anyone has to actually pay attention to dancing. When the two dancers are both trying to dance the female parts, or both the male parts. For everyone else, which is the vast majority of people, the dance is completely invisible. And therefore it’s nearly impossible to explain that there is a dance at all.

  2. Just wanted to point out that Monette’s series is not a trilogy but a quartet, and the fourth book is called Corambis (formerly titled ‘Summerdown’) and will be out in August 2008 in the states.

    Also the series is great. It really surprised me because I expected to not like the books. I don’t usually enjoy fantasy written by women or fantasy written in first-person. Not misogynist, but I usually prefer the gritty, violent stuff. But I am truly enjoying this series, primarily because the characters are really fleshed out well with an interesting plot.

  3. My college Multicultural Studies class (at a relatively conservative cow college, to boot) pretty definitively came to the conclusion that gender is neither socially constructed nor biological, but both. We also decided that anybody that tries to tell you it’s exclusively one or the other is wasting your time and air.

  4. John, I realize this is off topic…

    I just had to say that this month of posting other writer’s blogs is a master stroke of genius. Many of them I have never heard of, or had passed over in the stacks. You are opening up whole new directions of reading for me. Plus the mind sets of these authors is wonderful, your giving my brain lots to munch on in doing this.

    Great work!

    I’ll try to work up an on topic post later, hopefully before the discussion here dies away completely.

  5. Brust is one of those almost-canonical writers (like Gemmell, and Pratchett) that I’ve always meant to read, but have never gotten around to it. It’s hard enough to keep up with all the new releases that have been coming out. But I certainly intend to – someday.

  6. It may well be hard to step back from something that’s immersive, but it’s invaluable to do so, and needs to be encouraged. One true wayism and an inability to look outside of one’s cultural understanding is toxic in dealing with people who’re culturally different, or even from the .

  7. oops. “…or even from the perspective of someone inside the first person’s culture who just doesn’t fit in”

  8. re: #7. Yup, genius. Except it has expanded my list of Books I Must Read Next to ridiculous lengths. Thanks a heap.

  9. re # 13 Yeah, my wish list is growing like crazy, Amazon and/or Visa oughta be giving John a cut of the action…Hey wait! Uhhh…John there something you wanna fess up to?

  10. 9. Scott: If it makes you feel any better, I’ve only just ordered my first Pratchett book last weekend. Finally going to get into his stuff after hearing about it for years. :)

  11. To correct #4 Scott, the final volume has been pushed back to 2009. But don’t let that stop you from reading the series. It am wonderful, it am.

  12. I say the same thing now that I said then: “Y’all got girl cooties all over my genre!”

    Actually, I would add that we did actually determine an absolute male/female demarcation later in the day while discussing military sci-fi and how book endings are constructed. To whit: Guys don’t do afterglow. (Which in turn lead to the “sammich” challenge, causing me to alter the end of “Calamity’s Child” but at some point you have to stop or you rerun the entire convention.)


  13. Scalzi, thank you for posting up other writers’ posts from their blogs up on your blog. (there’s a square dance song in there somewhere)

  14. Now I’m really curious: What gender are you in your dreams?

    I actually find that a lot of the time, it’s totally irrelevant, or that I dream a first-person perspective of a male (with an equal amount in female, but mostly it falls into the irrelevant category.)

    I do find that many of my favorite authors are female, but at least one I thought was male for years. As for “limited roles” I find that many of the books I’m drawn to have a wide variety of female characters, so I wouldn’t necessarily know.

  15. I am always female, and the most disturbing dreams are the ones that threaten that symbolically (e.g. cutting my long hair.) Your dreamage may vary.

  16. To whit: Guys don’t do afterglow.

    That actually annoys me to some degree. I like books and shows that spend at least a little time on the situation post-climax: for instance, I thought the best parts of Vernor Vinge’s Rainbows End were actually in the denouement, in which he discussed what the characters did after that.

    On TV, something I always appreciated about Babylon 5 was that episode climaxes were often sometime between the 45- and 50-minute mark in the hour, with more time than usual devoted afterward to discussing how this might affect the bigger picture; it was in stark contrast to the 1990s Star Trek model in which the crisis gets suddenly resolved in the last few minutes, followed by some narration and a brief scene about how everything went back to normal.

  17. RE 21…One of the more annoying things about Stephenson’s books, “Snowcrash” and “Diamond Age” they both end at the Climax. There is no afterglow so to speak…just done!

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