I had a lot of these thoughts back when I read Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice in December and they resurfaced when I reread my review before posting it this week.
For those who haven’t read the book, Ancillary Justice deals with an empire that’s subjugated numerous other planets. The main language has no gendered pronouns (he/she) so the protagonist, an ancillary of a formerly powerful AI, has trouble distinguishing between genders when forced to by other languages. The character, therefore, calls everyone ‘she’ unless told otherwise. I want to stress that this is a cultural aspect of the book, rather than the plot (which is about revenge - since some people will read this sentence and avoid the book believing it’s purely didactic), but it was one of the more unusual and therefore thought provoking aspects of the book.
I read an article by Ann Leckie before reading the book about why she chose to use female pronouns for most of the characters. This section of the article hit me:
I could have gone with the old standby, “the masculine embraces the feminine,” and just called everyone “he.” This is, in fact, the choice made by Ursula K LeGuin when she wrote The Left Hand of Darkness (Which is awesome, and if you haven’t read it, it is my considered opinion that you should.) Years later, she expressed some dissatisfaction with having made that choice. It made the Gethenians seem to be all male, which they were not, and failed to convey their non-binary nature.
There was, as I saw it, one more possibility–I could use “she” for everyone. This would have the same disadvantages as using “he” with the advantage of not being the oh-so-common masculine default.
As I said in my review of the book:
The use of ‘she’ in the book for everyone made me question my own preoccupation with gender, as I first tried to figure out what gender all the characters were, with some difficulty. As the book wore on, I finally gave up, even though the correct genders for several characters were stated. Once I got used to the idea that the character’s gender didn’t matter, I found it oddly liberating not caring about what gender everyone was and simply appreciating the characters for their actions.
I want to elaborate on what I said here. Western society is very intent on women being women and men being men despite the fact that men and women are spectrums with differences in behaviours, wants, abilities, etc. It’s easy to generalize and say that all women prefer service oriented jobs, like shopping and want to be thin, just as it’s easy to say all men love sports, drinking and lack commitment. And while some of those things are true they’re not all true for every person who identifies with those genders. Reading Ancillary Justice made me realize just how gender oriented I am, because had the author gone with ‘he’ I wouldn’t have questioned it. I would have pictured every character - every person - in that universe as male and probably not even thought it was odd. I only questioned it because the idea that everyone was a woman was strange, uncomfortable even. I wanted to know what gender everyone was so I could picture them in my mind. But I found that assigning genders based only on the actions of people was hard. Yes, the one who cries is probably a woman - or is it? I’ve seen men cry. Despite how the media likes to portray them, men have ‘softer’ emotions. And women can be angry, vengeful, brilliant, sad, happy, stupid. We’re all spectrums and can be different things at different times.
It was liberating when I stopped trying to put a gender on people and let everyone be who they were without that distinction. We acknowledge that people can be anything they want (or at least pay lip service to this idea) but we still expect, on the whole, that our reflections of the real world (books, movies) obey traditional boundaries.
I recently saw the film The Last Days on Mars. There was a female character who reminded me very strongly of Ripley. Because she was cold in a calm - analytical - way. Ripley in the original Alien movie isn’t someone I’d want to know in real life. Because she’s too cool, too concerned with the rules, too concerned with saving herself rather than helping others (she would have left her facehuggered crew member outside the ship). She’s a survivor, and survivors do what’s necessary, even if it’s not 'morally' right. She’s in stark contrast in the film with the only other female crew member, who is caring (she lets the others back in against Ripley’s orders, facehugger included) and breaks down under pressure.
Ripley’s remembered because she’s the original female SF movie badass.
Ripley’s role was written for a man. But the scriptwriter had an important disclaimer: “The crew is unisex and all parts are interchangeable for men or women.” (It's a great article about making Ripley's character a woman and some of the politics around the decision.)
I personally liked her better in Aliens, when she becomes a bit more caring while remaining badass. That role showed that stereotypically male and female attributes could be combined to create a strong, believable, woman. One I looked up to as a role model growing up.
On a different note it also annoys me when a strong female character is reduced to an element, especially when that element never really comes into play. The whole 'team Gale' and 'team Peeta' campaign for The Hunger Games in my opinion missed the point, that Katniss was, if anything, 'team Prim'. The books aren't about romance but for some reason the marketing around the film reduced it - and her - to that element.
I think the problem with gender is that there are so many MANY expectations of what men and women are (and want from their entertainment) that when someone writes a person without these attributes we cry foul, and when they write someone with too many of them we cry ‘stereotype’ or ‘cliche’.
The right answer, as I’ve heard from several sources, is to write motivations rather than genders. We’re all motivated by things in life, and those motivations determine our actions. What are we willing to do to achieve our goals? What are we willing to sacrifice? Men and women have more in common than society sometimes credits. And people are more complex in their personalities than is generally portrayed.
I think we’re moving in the right direction. I’ve seen a lot more complex characters in books and movies recently and I’m hoping this trend continues.