Monday, February 9, 2015

My thoughts on genderswapping

On the Absolute Write forums, people have occasionally suggested genderswapping if the story needs more female characters, or if the story needs to be shaken up and viewed in a different way. Though in one particular discussion, people expressed opinions I didn’t agree with.

When a character can work as both a man or women, and be equally compelling either way, that character is probably a damn good character ... a character that happens to be human first, and male/female second.

I can think of any numbers of characters who wouldn’t work if they were completely gender-neutral, and who are still damn good characters. Try making Scarlett O’Hara a sixteen-year-old boy pining for a lady who went off to fight at Gettysburg. Or Tom Robinson a black woman accused of raping a white man.

I don't understand how you can't switch the genders, I really can't. I mean, does the male character constantly check out the females? Are they in the the army or something, are they gruff, do they curse, etc? How wouldn't that work for a woman?

How wouldn’t that work for a woman? I don’t know, I get the impression there weren’t that many women working on Lord Nelson’s flagship or standing guard in a Roman army camp.

It’s not easy to have women playing significant roles under certain circumstances. It can certainly be done, because as Kameron Hurley’s brilliant essay points out, women have fought throughout history. Returning to my original home, there was a corps of female Tamil guerillas in the LTTE.

But some armies were, on the face of it at least, all-male. If some of those soldiers were women in disguise, the story should show how they manage to pass as male during the weeks they spend in, say, the cramped quarters of a German U-boat. Genderswapping after the story is written could involve significant changes to the narrative (readers are likely to expect the character’s secret to be revealed in time, and to have consequences).

Here’s another thing that will only work for women: getting pregnant. Outside of the speculative fiction genres, pregnancy as a plot twist just won’t work for men. I recently submitted a manuscript where, in Victorian England, the antagonist seduced and impregnated the hero’s fiancĂ©e.

Genderswap this. The heroine’s intended was seduced by another woman who now claims to be pregnant. The first question out of the heroine’s mouth will be : how do we even know there is a child, and it’s yours? Plus, there just wasn’t that much of an emphasis on men remaining virgins at that time.

A real or fictional society that has gender differences or bias usually means that the author has taken into account the genders of the characters when writing the story. It’s not as though these were picked by the toss of a coin, such that they can be easily swapped later.

I have a Christmas story coming out from Samhain later this year, where a man living alone opens his door on a freezing night to find a near-naked woman outside. She has an unconvincing story for how she got there, but he lets her stay overnight.

Genderswap this, and a woman who’s living alone will have to let a strange, near-naked man spend the night in her house. I’d be surprised if the possibility of assault didn’t occur to her, putting a damper on the romance.

Makes me wonder if they people who can't gender switch just haven't met enough people or their cultural gender roles are so inundated that they can't separate it from the person.

Or maybe they’re telling a different kind of story from the one you want, which is not in and of itself a bad thing.

Try genderswapping the characters in a Harlequin Presents story and see if Harlequin still wants it. I’ve never read Harlequin Presents, but a lot of readers love the rich sexy alpha males in this imprint’s books.

Ditto for some mainstream romances. I think a romance between a tough, sociopathic female assassin who saves a nervous, clueless, sexually inexperienced man could find a market… but it would be smaller than the number of readers who enjoyed the reverse. I’ll go so far as to say that a mainstream publisher will want the man to be able to hold his own at least sexually, whereas it’s not such a problem if the woman can’t.

This isn’t a matter of the authors not being experienced enough to write differently, or having very traditional gender roles in mind. It’s a matter of them writing to the market, and if that’s what they want to do, it’s their choice. Though it’s great when authors challenge the expectations of that market, as Courtney Milan does in her historicals, but I also think such envelope-pushing has to be done with care. Ditto for genderswapping.

So to summarize…

Genderswapping is like any other tool in an author’s repertoire. No tool works for every situation at every time. There are some stories which will benefit from changing the characters’ genders, and others which won’t, and it’s up to the individual author to know the difference.

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