Writing Non-Sexist Fiction

BlackWidowHawkeye
“The Hawkeye Initiative” replaces female characters in comic book art with male superhero “Hawkeye” in order to expose the unequal portrayal of the sexes in comics.

A friend of mine recently reviewed one of my stories from a feminist and minority perspective. I won’t go into the details as they’re frankly rather embarrassing save to say that my story did not hold up.  It was difficult to hear some of the feedback, but I was pleased overall because much of it aligned with some of my own concerns. My third person limited perspective from two white male main characters as well as my own identity and personal experience being male make it a little more difficult for me to be appropriately feminist, but that’s no excuse. My reader and I discussed at length what a white heterosexual male fiction writer can do to make his work fairer to other life experiences, particularly those of women.

One suggestion my reader brought up was a gender swapping thought experiment. The theory is that characters not built around gender roles can have their sex reversed with relatively little change to the story. (Gender swapping in fiction is not a new concept: see “The Hawkeye Initiative” above). For instance, if my story starts out with a woman in high heels falling and being abducted by an enormous beast, I should consider making the woman a man and the effect that would have on the story (The first effect would likely involve the removing of the high heels). My reader had a particularly radical view on this that I could invert the sex of any character, including both my male main characters, with little change to the story at all. He said this would always be the case unless something in the story specifically hinged on the physical nature of their biological sex.

At this point we decided that perhaps my friend’s identity as a homosexual man whose life experience includes relatively little of the adult american gender dynamic is what leads him to underestimate the real significance of gender in who a person is in a story or in real life. Women have proven time and time again they can do almost anything a man can do and more and men likewise, with the differences between the groups outweighed dramatically by the variety present within each, but the difference between men and women still exists, especially where societal roles are concerned. However, the perspective of someone with much less of this experience permits me to check my assumptions as to the significance of the differences genetics and society impose on men and women and become aware of whether my work challenges or is complicit in the exaggeration of such differences that have the potential to alienate people with different life experiences.

Plus, I happen to have learned through this experiment that a number of my characters may actually be much better as the other sex. A gossipy southern mother who knows the proper way to entertain could now become a indiscreet southern father who is particularly concerned with appearances. In a later story I’m thinking a garrulous ten-year-old and natural leader might be better cast as a loquacious tomboy with a knack for collecting small gangs of elementary school boys to do her bidding.

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One thought on “Writing Non-Sexist Fiction”

  1. Sam,
    I admire the sensitivity and the humane attitude you bring to this. I still disagree that the story requires these revisions for a lot of reasons. The tropes your story references link directly to monster movies, so I would argue that a female abducted by a monster fits more than a man being abducted, even if it is unfair. It’s referencing something that was made in an earlier time, and it has to be faithful to that even if it’s outmoded now. As for the comics, while I take the point being made with the above image, in my opinion it is far from a pressing societal issue. The female bodies in comics are accentuated in unobtainable and overly sexualized ways, but the men aren’t much better. I believe in fairness and equality, but I also believe in respecting the audience. Part of that is knowing that the audience doesn’t need the author to make things fair by giving proportional time to each nationality, gender, sexual orientation, etc.

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