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08 July 2013 @ 10:06 pm
Gender in Genre, Part 1: Girl Protagonists Hate Needlework, But They All Shave Their Legs  
mrissa made a very cogent post earlier; in summary, having your female character Strongly Dislike Needlework is an overused and lazy way to make a female genre character interesting. It looks like I have a few posts brewing that have been inspired by that, because apparently I have things to say on the topic. Here's the first:

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?
Marissa Lingenmrissa on July 9th, 2013 12:53 pm (UTC)
So...tact and diplomacy seems like an interesting one to me, because I think it's something that is treated as implicitly feminine (on the small scale, obviously--large scale diplomacy less so) rather than actually taught in most cases. Even related skills of conversation are often not taught directly, they're just something you're "supposed to know" and are shamed if you don't pick up. My mother actively taught me how to talk to people who are ill and/or really elderly and bedridden, how to make conversation keep going in that circumstance, but it is a (predominantly female) skill that most people are not taught and do not have labels for.

So while I don't see heroines who are rebelling by saying, "I will not learn diplomacy or conversation!", I do see a lot of really, really tactless heroines--and many of them do not seem to have authors who realize it. I have quit reading at least half a dozen urban fantasy novels because the protag mouthed off to someone immensely more powerful who would have no qualms about squishing her like a bug--and nothing happened. I consistently see "sassy, snappy comebacks" treated as though the only reason not to use them is that you can't think of them fast enough--not that they can be seen as aggressive and profoundly alienating, with very concrete results. I would like to see this handled a lot more consciously, with protag's lives being a lot more like the female curmudgeons I know rather than getting all the good lines of tactlessness and none of the consequences.
chinderschinders on July 9th, 2013 06:43 pm (UTC)
Yeah, they are taught more passively and through negative reinforcement of tactlessness than through explicit teaching. And I'm not necessarily suggesting that tactlessness be a celebrated trait, because you're totally right, girls get in trouble disproportionately for tactlessness.

That's actually something I liked a lot about the Hunger Games - Katness is tactless and not good with people, and she suffers for it very explicitly. It's not super gendered, but frankly I don't see all that many female characters who aren't at least pretty competent with people.

That said, yes, sass mouth without consequences get old. It's kind of wish fulfillment, I guess, but it's not very nuanced.
zwol on July 10th, 2013 02:33 am (UTC)
I have been reading scanlations of Japanese manga lately, and they've got an interesting variation on this dynamic goin' on. Specifically, shōnen has all of the same problematic broad-stroke gender dynamics we see in Western media, perhaps even moreso: default male gaze, male-oriented fanservice whether or not it makes sense, implicit cultural assumption that women all want to get married and have children, etc. But at the same time it seems to have no hesitation to cast individual women in any career whatsoever.

I'll give a couple examples. In Fullmetal Alchemist, Winry and her grandmother build steampunk prosthetic limbs for a living, which is depicted as a grease-monkey kind of job (but very high skill and status). The army is mostly made up of men but has several women in front-line combat roles and two on the command track. Everyone treats both of these things as completely unexceptional.

In Strongest Disciple Kenichi, almost every named character is a martial artist. The male lead (Kenichi) is not very good at it; everyone, including his teachers, keeps telling him he has absolutely no talent. There are dozens of female characters who are better at combat than he is, and their pursuing the way of the fist is treated as perfectly normal. Notably, the female lead (Miu) pretty regularly defeats adversaries who have just beaten up on Kenichi (he does tend to win the rematch, after compensating some more for his lack of talent with obsessive training). Yet at the same time, Kenichi believes that in order to win Miu's love he must "become strong enough to protect her", in almost exactly those words. (I'd like to think he grows out of this; I'm only a little way into the series.)