(I'm not saying none of this is due to baby. Babies are *stressful*, yo.)
But now I a lot more suspicious that there's a serotonin deficiency. You see, when I started considering going to the doctor,
my brain automatically said "It's too much work to set up an appointment and they probably wouldn't be able to help you anyway and you're a whiner for being upset about being tired and depressed when you're a new parent."
Yeah, okay, brain. Doctor time.
Also: if you are someone who I haven't seen in a while, please consider this an invitation to set up some time to spend together with me. I'm actually severely underpeopled right now.
One of the thing that’s really interesting to me about being femme is the investment of time (and money) it requires. Speaking as a femme, let me tell you that the amount of effort that women are expected to put into their appearance is frankly ludicrous. But then, in SF/F, that effort seems to largely disappear. Now; it’s a fair to say that much of genre happens in places where appearance and gender presentation are simply not an issue. However, I’m interested in looking at the works that do discuss it.
There are not a lot of folks talking about the costs and benefits of presenting as femme, or the work that goes into it. (That’s true inside and outside of fiction; FYI. The effort women put into their appearance is largely invisible.) In SF/F, there are a lot of women who are effortlessly beautiful. (See: every fairy ever.) However, there are not many women who are doing the mental calculus between wearing higher heels or a shorter skirt because it will bring in extra tips versus the aggravation and back pain it will bring them. There are very few women who are trying to get their makeup routine down to a bare 90 seconds in between training and work, because otherwise they aren't considered to be dressing professionally. I have never seen a woman paint her nails and then have to actually avoid touching anything for the next 20 minutes. Part of this is because the hows of being beautiful are not the interesting part of the story, but part of it is that our cultural narrative around beauty is that you need to be effortlessly, naturally beautiful, and no one should ever see how the magic is made.
The Alanna books, which I love to death, portray presenting as femme to be pretty straightforward. You just buy yourself a dress and some eye kohl and you're good, right? Okay, but why doesn’t she have to practice putting on makeup without looking like a clown? She's been hanging out exclusively with boys, but she doesn't have to practice moving like a girl? What about acting or talking in a contextually-appropriately feminine manner? There is a lot more that goes into gender presentation than the clothes, folks. Frankly, the first time she dresses up, she really ought to come off as a boy in drag, because training-wise, that's exactly what she is.
Some women may go to the trouble of presenting as femme purely for the joy of it, but the truth is, that's not the big reason to do so. In our culture, women are expected to display a certain minimum of femininity in order to look professional; in some cases wearing makeup may actually be in the work dress code. In the past, being beautiful literally added to your monetary value, and unfortunately, that's still pretty close to true; there's research indicating that women who wear a moderate amount of makeup in the workplace are treated as being more competent than those who don't. We see variations on these standards of beauty and the effort it takes to achieve them across cultures and through time. What they look like tells us a lot about the world.
There's also social pressure outside of the workplace to look femme; frankly, in most areas, women who don't do femme to some extent are seen as weird, or perhaps as not having very good grooming. You also get different kinds of harassment depending on how femme you present, or how well-groomed you appear. There's calculus that goes into that, too. (I'm much less comfortable being out at night alone when I'm femmed up than when I'm in my standard jeans-and-tshirt daily uniform.)
So, writers, consider your characters’ gender presentations, and what the costs and benefits are. You don't have to make your story all about it, but I guarantee that thinking about that context will make your world more realistic. Obviously, your world doesn’t have to mirror our current society, but you can learn a lot about how societies treat gender presentation by looking at ours.
I want to mention Seanan McGuire as an author who gets this right; in particular, Verity Price does several different levels of femininity very intentionally, and although the work is not always shown, it is acknowledged. When she has an asshole boss who requires them to dress in Lolita cheerleader outfits, it's called out as being a distasteful requirement of the job, and she shows some of the ways that customers react to it, ranging from higher tips to harassment. When she dresses in ballroom dancing costumes, she discusses how many weapons she can hide under them and how she's learned to fight in heels. But when she's going out with the expectation of a fight? She wears her functional fighting clothes.
I’m certainly not saying that all genre books should be talking about gender presentation all the time; far from it. But when it’s relevant to the work, I really appreciate someone who has taken the time to show some of the work that goes into gender presentation, partially because it helps the work feel more real to me, and partly because I believe it’s really helpful for gender equality to expose the work that women are expected to do just as the price of being female.
Here's (part of) the haul:
Today, I am making 2 gluten-free, dairy-free chocolate cakes, jamming a bunch of plums, and then going to a party. Life is good. I make things and I have good company.
Here's another installment of Gender in Genre! The first post is here.
It's not that I wish to complain that femmes are, on the whole, a put upon or oppressed group. We get our fair share of sexism, certainly, but there's a lot of privilege that goes along with being femme.
Perhaps it's because of that privilege, and the fact that as nerds we've self-defined as different from the 'pretty people', that we have a femme problem in genre. As kids, a lot of us got picked on people who were prettier than us, and therefore, being pretty was the problem, right? And that would be one thing if it was equally distributed in genre - we have our share of the vain, smug men, admittedly, but the truth is, there are a lot more vain, insipid women. When you see this trope disproportionately applied to women, it becomes clear that this is not really about looking down on being vain, it's about hating on things that are traditionally feminine.
The message you get, reading a lot of genre literature, is very straightforward: if you are doing women's work, and if you are making an effort to present as feminine, you are a waste of time; you are boring; you are useless. You are baggage. (And that's the charitable version; think about all the beautiful-but-deadly female villains out there, from Snow White on down. There's an even better message: being pretty makes you evil.) Conversely, if you are a girl and you would like to be considered interesting, you must set yourself apart from all those other girls. You must be interested in boy things instead, because boy things are the only useful things.
I understand the urge to say "girls don't need to be restricted to girl things!" This is a wonderful thing to say. But it's possible to go too far, to say that only girls who eschew their gender are interesting. Which is what we're saying in genre, every time another author takes cheap shots at a traditionally feminine character.
Now, guess what that means to geek girls? You have to choose between being femme and being a protagonist. You need to apologize for liking feminine things. If someone says that you're girly you need to figure out what you did wrong and backpedal.
It means that if you're beautiful, it negates your interest as a person. Are you pretty? Congratulations, you're an object. A fake geek girl. An outsider. Go away.
You want to know why women tend to be underrepresented in fandom historically? Maybe it's partially because we told them that the very thing their value was being judged on in real life - their appearance - made them unwelcome in fandom. Shockingly, this ties right in with our standard cultural narratives about the objectification of women. Women must be pretty to be taken seriously, but if they're too pretty, they are trying to hard, probably not competent, just eye candy. (Or they are using their Feminine Wiles against you.)
Oh, and when pretty women are just objects in fandom? Suddenly harassment culture at cons makes a great deal more sense. I'm not saying that genre's disdain for femmes is singlehandedly responsible for harassment culture, but if we make anyone who presents as feminine into plot furniture in our work, are we really surprised when people objectify women in fandom?
And, on a personal level: we talk a lot about wanting to see 'people like us' in the media we consume. I'd really like to see people in the books I read who are allowed to be femme without being vapid and useless. I'd like to see girls be interesting, compelling characters without having to be Different From The Other Girls.
On behalf of the other girls, screw that.
One of the main things going on in the Girls Who Do Not Like Needlework trope is really straightforward - it says that girls who like Girl Things are boring; girls must like boy things to be interesting. Aside from the fact that this is wildly problematic, and deserving of its own essay, it also tends to be approached in a pretty uncritical way. These tomboy characters generally dislike some set of girl things (needlework, dressing up, chasing boys, et cetera) that corresponds to gender activities that girls are not currently expected to perform. It is not revolutionary to not like needlepoint. It's not even really revolutionary to not like dressing up and chasing boys.
So where are all the girls who hate shaving their legs? Where are the girls who aren't particularly social or diplomatic? The girls who would rather fix the plow or work at the blacksmith than help run the house? There are still a lot of ways in which girls are still expected to be feminine, and we are largely not examining them in genre. In fact, I think we're not challenging these areas because these are our current set of unexamined truisms about femininity. Girls who don't shave their legs are gross and hairy, obviously. Girls are universally better with people, because evolutionary psychology. Girls don't go into trades, because they'd have to get their hands dirty. Examples of girls breaking these rules exist, but they aren't plentiful, because we're really not quite ready as a society to challenge these rules. I hope that in a decade or so, they'll be tropes, but we aren't ready to let go yet.
The examples that exist are great, and I want to give them credit. Mercy Thompson of Patricia Briggs' series is a mechanic and she is elbow-deep in an engine whenever she isn't out getting into trouble. Also, she does dress up when there's a special occasion, which I appreciate. Katniss from the Hunger Games is not exactly a tomboy, because expectations of gender and appearances are pretty different in her home culture from ours, but she is what I would call very function-oriented. She likes having hair on her legs because it's warm and soft, and also because it means the Capitol is not currently messing with her body.
I do think that Katniss is an interesting example to look at though, because she goes through periodic processes of what I would call forced feminization. And yet she doesn't hate it, except as something that's required by the Capitol, and in fact, there tend to be some tender moments mixed in with the process because it's so closely associated with Cinna. On the other hand, she is never required to be feminized when it would impede her athletic functionality; she doesn't have to go into the arena in heels, and no one ever tells her to remember to smile while she's shooting at people or not to sweat while she's on camera. (I'm going to talk more about the cost benefit analysis of femininity in another post; stay tuned.)
I think it's interesting that both of these examples exist in the more 'chick lit' ghettos of genre- YA and urban fantasy. Maybe I just need to read more explicitly feminist hard SF; I don't know. Maybe there's tons of LeGuin and Butler that does these things. But I see an awful lot of the genre that, when it bothers to address gendered behaviors at all, does it in a pretty uncritical way. If you're going to have female protagonists near-universally eschew the trappings of femininity, at least have them do it in an interesting way, all right?