Thursday, June 13, 2013

Gender Essentialism and Writing in Science Fiction and Fantasy

Those of us who are fans of speculative fiction and don't live under an internet rock are probably aware of the storm that's been raging over at the SFWA this week. I am not a member of SFWA, (though qualifying for membership is a long-term goal of mine) and a lot has been said about the issue. I don't think I can really add much more to the exchange, but if anyone wants to know what I'm talking about or needs access to some links about this controversy, AW has a thread, and this blog also contains some good links. This link also.

But this whole thing got me thinking about sex, gender and writing and how my favorite genres (SF and F) have long been regarded as male bastions. Yet there is an increasing number of women writing in these genres, and there are an awful lot of female fans. It is oh so seductive to think that this means that sexism is behind us, but sadly, it's not true.

I participate in some online writing forums, and now and again someone will comment that they just don't like fantasy or SF books by women writers as a rule. When pressed for an explanation, they state that women "write differently" than men, and will usually couch their arguments in terms of the "men and women are just different" position.

Well, we all have our own tastes, and if you have read the majority of female authors in the genre and the majority of males, then I suppose you may have a basis for making such a judgement. It is certainly possible that there are overall difference in the themes the two sexes prefer to write and in their approach to characterization, conflict, description or narrative or whatever. But it seems to me that there is still going to be a lot of variation within each group and overlap between them. But inevitably, it seems, these threads drift into a discussion about sex and gender differences, and at some point, the specter of gender essentialism will be trotted out.

For the uninitiated, gender essentialism is the notion that most or all of the differences between the sexes are driven by biology and that the biological differences between the sexes are absolute and immutable with no (or only a very small)  area of overlap between the two sexes. It is, in essence, an attempt to refute the concept of gender being a social construct.

In short, gender essentialist seem to purport that most traits that vary by gender look like this:

If you challenge them on this notion, they will usually start talking about sex hormones and brain structures and yin and yang and sociobiology etc., as if there was anything approaching a scientific consensus about these issues and about the relative importance of experience and biological variables in shaping a person's personality, talents and interests.

But to some extent, these arguments can be used as a red herring. Why? Because even traits that do have a very strong biological component almost never fit the pattern depicted in the graph above.

For example: on average, men are physically taller than women.  As a person with biology training, I know that sex hormones play an important role in these differences, and that there is probably a reason that humans (and many, but by no means all, mammal species) evolved with size dimorphism.

But, this does not mean that all men are taller than all women. Nor does it mean that shorter men or taller women are abnormal, unnatural or biologically unfit in most situations.

Height varies around a median. In fact, there is a large area of overlap between the male and female "bell curves" with regards to height.

Like height, very few qualities that we possess as human beings are all or nothing. Traits (assuming they can be reliably and repeatedly quantified at all) nearly always vary around a mean.

So even if one's approach to writing is strongly influenced by biology, making a comment like, "Women just write differently than men" makes about as much sense as saying "Woman are just shorter than men." Even if it's true in a statistical sense, the exceptions are almost as numerous as the rule.

Or to look at it another way: men differ almost as much from one another in height as men and women do. So why wouldn't something like writing style have a similarly large area of overlap? Most writers will fall somewhere in that purple zone in the middle, with only a relatively small number (maybe just a handful) falling in the "tails" of the distribution. You may, in fact, prefer writers who lie in one or another of these tails. But if this is the case, you can't really say you "like male writers" or "like female writers." Rather, you like a fairly extreme and atypical approach to storytelling that is not the norm for either gender.

And if you do, this is fine. I'm not judging your taste. In fact, our personal tastes in fiction are all driven by factors that probably vary around different means, and we probably all like some things that are outliers in some way. I'm just saying that equating the style you prefer with a given gender is simplistic.

So who cares?

Even when it's well intentioned, I think gender essentialism has the potential for serious abuse. One problem is that we often end up pathologizing people who fall away from the mean for their sex/gender in some regard. An example of this is the issue of unusually short men or unusually tall women being perceived as unattractive or poor examples of their sex. Think of all the ways people who deviate "too far" from the perceived median or average for their sex can be ridiculed or marginalized. Especially when the trait in question is regarded as an important determinant of femininity or masculinity in our culture.

In fact, there are very few of us who do not deviate from the mean for our biological sex or social gender with regards to at least some traits. When was the last time you met someone who was right on the median in every possible way?

I think this is something people should keep in mind when they're discussing whether or not they "like" writers of a given gender. If you use the gender the author as a primary criteria for determining who you are going to read, you may be missing some stuff you will like.

In another vein that is beyond the scope of this already too-long entry, I also think it's something to keep in mind when creating characters in fiction.


Iris Vander Pluym,


  1. I, of course, can't help but think of a discussion we had in a certain forum and see how well this argument would have closed that case once and for all.
    But for real, if you're only referring to the extremes, then you're ignoring the meat of the issue.

  2. There's a website floating around (do websites float around?) that purports to tell you if a given passage was written by a man or a woman. My experience with it (which corresponds to what I've heard from others) is that it insists I'm a man if I'm writing about male characters and a woman if I'm writing about female characters. I think that's pretty much what "preferring X gendered authors" comes down to.

    I've never really understood the obsession some people have with gender. I've always bonded with people on the basis of shared interests and character traits (and a few different ones, to spice it up) without any real consideration of gender. I can certainly say I have far more in common with some women than with most men.

    On the origin of gender traits, I don't think anyone would deny that some are gender-based, but it's probably significant that the characteristics men and women are "supposed" to display correspond almost exactly with the skills needed for hunting and gathering respectively. Which, naturally, will be vital next time I go hunting and you go gathering.

  3. I think you must be talking about the gender genii. It uses an algorithm, based on word usage to guess the writer's gender. It's pretty loosy goosy, I think. My blog entries and class handouts always come out "male," while my passages written from Tesk's pov tend to come out neutral to female. Jarrod usually comes out moderately male (the passages where he's getting the snot beaten out of him more strongly so, which isn't terribly "manly" imo), and Ruu is often neutral or weakly male.

    Scratches chin.

    I wonder if they did a control for males writing female characters and females writing male characters, and of course, for topic as well. I mean, do male romance writers write more "like woman" than female hard SF writers do? If so, the program is pretty darned useless imo.

    Also, did they control for narrative style. Filter words like seem and so forth seem to be more on the female list, so a writer of either sex who is trying to avoid filters should come out "less female" than someone who is using them for some reason.

    And yeah, people are really hung up on gender. I've had dear friends of both sexes, and I can say the same thing as you (well in reverse, but yeah).

    I always love it when someone tries to correlate the female love of shopping with a "gathering" instinct. As if even the "manliest" of men don't get all excited in the tool section or game store or whatnot. It really comes down to your interests. I've never really understood the obsession my own gender is supposed to have with shoes, but eh, to each their own :)

  4. YES. Thank you for articulating this in such a clear & eloquent way.