Joe Sherry, the blogger who wrote yesterday’s lovely review of Ammonite, has today reprinted (with my permission) my Author’s Note, written in 1992:
“Are women human?” That question forms the subtext of more speculative fiction novels – fantasy, SF, horror, utopia and dystopia – than I can count. I intended Ammonite as a body blow to those who feel the question has any relevance in today’s world.
I am tired of token women being strong in a man’s world by taking on male attributes: strutting around in black leather, spike heels and wraparound shades, killing people; or riding a horse, swearing a lot, carrying a big sword, and killing people; or piloting a ship through hyperspace, drinking whatever pours, slapping boys on the back, and killing people. I am equally tired of women-only worlds where all the characters are wise, kind, beautiful, stern, seven-feet-tall vegetarian amazons who would never dream of killing anyone. I am tired of reading about aliens who are really women, or women who are really aliens.
Women are not aliens. Take away men and we do not automatically lose our fire and intelligence and sex drive; we do not form hierarchical, static, insectlike societies that are dreadfully inefficient. We do not turn into a homogeneous Thought Police culture where meat-eating is banned and men are burned in effigy every full moon. Women are not inherently passive or dominant, maternal or vicious. We are all different. We are people.
A woman-only world, it seems to me, would shine with the entire spectrum of human behavior: there would be capitalists and collectivists, hermits and clan members, sailors and cooks, idealists and tyrants; they would be generous and mean, smart and stupid, strong and weak; they would approach life bravely, fearfully and thoughtlessly. Some might still engage in fights, wars and territorial squabbles; individuals and cultures would still display insanity and greed and indifference. And they would change and grow, just like anyone else. Because women are anyone else. We are more than half of humanity. We are not imitation people, or chameleons taking on protective male coloration, longing for the day when men go away and we can return to being our true, insectlike, static, vacuous selves. We are here, now. We are just like you.
But Ammonite is much more than an attempt to redress the balance. It’s a novel. One about people – how they look at the world and how the world makes them change; one that attempts to look at biology, and wonder What If… ; one that shows readers different ways to be; one that takes them to other places, where the air and the temperature and the myths are not the same. If, a week after reading Ammonite, you pause over lunch, fork halfway to your mouth, and remember the scent of Jeep’s night air, or on your way to work daydream about the endless snow of Tehuantepec, or wonder for a moment as you climb into bed whether or not a virus could enhance our senses – then I’ve done my job.
I wrote this seventeen years ago–as a combination rant, explanation, and PR exercise. I read it again today for the first time in years and wondered if I would write it now–wondered if I would need to.
I decided that, yes, I might, because, in a way, this piece is a potted history of the way women-only worlds have been represented in science fiction, from E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith’s Lyranians, to John Wyndham‘s Consider Her Ways…, to Edmund Cooper (shudder). Women have played this game, too: Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Daphne du Maurier, Marge Piercy, Joanna Russ, Sheri Tepper, James Tiptree Jr, Sally Miller Gearheart (shudder). (This is not nearly an inclusive list. There are many books on the subject. See, for example, Larbalestier’s The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction.) A couple of brave souls have tried even tried boys-only worlds (the most recent being, I think, Lois McMaster Bujold’s Ethan of Athos).
I don’t think anyone’s tried a single-sex world for a few years, but women are still Othered. And women are still deemed uninteresting enough in our own right, particularly in genre fiction (and doubly so in YA): we still must disguise ourselves as boys, take on boy attributes and boy roles in order to carry a Good Story.
Why is that? Why are there no templates for exciting women-as-women stories? Romances, of course, are prototypical Women’s Stories, but they’re largely concerned with finding, charming, landing a man. Are there any women-as-women-whose-sole-purpose-is-something-other-than-finding-a-mate stories?
In the last twenty years there’s been an explosion of crime novels with female protagonists. It took a long time for them to get past the whine-about-being-a-woman-in-a-man’s-world stance and just start being human in the world. But I think they’re getting there. As women. (Admittedly, in a traditionally male occupation.)
Ever since I started working on Hild I’ve been struggling with what I think of as The Woman Question: how to write a truly stirring, exciting, provacative tale of a woman of her time and place who is truly a woman, doing womanish things–not learning the sword, not leading battles, not casting spells: a woman, plain and simple. Now isn’t the time for that essay (too many things to do today) but I think it’s coming soon.
Meanwhile, what do you think? Are women (and men) portrayed more human(e)ly and less stereotypically these days, or just differently–or has there been no significant change at all?
12 thoughts on “are women human?”
I think that these days, the gender lines are so blurred for women that I don't see it as women taking on “boy roles”. I guess I just expect to see women kicking ass and yet still be feminine. I think women are more capable of adapting to various roles. The concept of the guy only world is more controversial for me because I guess I see men as having a harder time adapting to traditionally female roles.
I think the boy role/girl role thing is much less distinct than it used to be in mainstream fiction and f/sf. But I've been unsettled recently by some f/sf YA I've read and the obvious essentialist underpinnings (ugh).
Given that the traditional female role is doormat, I don't doubt men would dislike adapting to it. But 'harder'? I'm not sure.
There again, when women/girls take on traditional boy roles, it's almost always the fun part–swangin' that sword, ridin' that pony!–and not the hard bits (working like a dog at a dangerous job; always having to appear confident and in charge; never being supposed to ask for help or a hug).
I'd love to see some *real* exploration going on…
Hmmmm. This is pretty interesting considering the “conversation” I just carried on with a friend of mine that recently read Ammonite.
She had mentioned the particular author's note you enclosed here, and that she felt that personally she thinks this isn't neccessarily women taking on male attributes, but that gender roles are blurring more and more and that women are no longer expected to be the sweet homemakers who only take care of the kids.
I have to agree somewhat with that statement, because like I mentioned to my pal, some women will tend to associate sword wielding and cussing like a truck driver to be a “man” sort of thing. But then others will just see it as empowerment and disregard whether it is considered manly or not.
When I was in 7th grade I had my first female crush. She was the bully of the school. Luscious body & held everyone captive with her will to overpower others. I never associated these characteristics with the attributes of a man. I just knew I wanted to be nose deep in her bosom because of her grace. Perhaps others viewed her as “male” for her behaviour. I just saw it as sexy.
Now there are men out there that exhibit what others would deem “female” qualities, but again, I feel that is in the eye of the beholder. If you have been raised to believe that certain roles only belong in particular profiles, that is how you will view everything, even on a subconcious level unless you desire to change it. I don't think that there is neccessarily anything wrong with either view; there will just be some things that piss other people off more than others.
Again, I share some of your (what's the right word here? Frustration? tell me if i'm wrong on that one…) frustration in why women think they need to be like men to feel empowerment; safety; security. They can feel safe all on their own whether there is a man/man attributes present or not. But if they've been raised to believe otherwise it will take alot of readjusting of the cyngulate gyrus to get to that place. Unfortunately this ideal of “captain save a hoe” seemed to be an everpresent phenomenon back in the day. The women of this present time are somewhat fortunate to have this blurring of gender roles to better assist them in finding themselves in the world without the help of popular demand to mold and influence their choices.
I don't know that I had any particular objective in what I've just blathered on here, just wanted to put in my 2 cents. :)
Have you read Y: The Last Man? It protrays a world where everyone with a Y chromosome has died, with the exception of a single man and his monkey. It's a really good read, and I think it does a pretty good job of portraying a single sex world in a balanced and realistic fashion. There are women that are extremists, women that are just trying to get by, women that are strong warriors, women that are weak. Just like the rest of humanity.
I think it is needed; I think people still need to be punched in the face about this.
Also, I echo the “Y: the Last Man” sentiment.
You may not wish to reveal the names of those YA f/sf books, but if you do, I'd love to know what they are. (grin) You also may be interested in Chasing Ray's series over the next few weeks about YA fiction for girls called What a Girl Wants. I think it's attempting to look at YA that is NOT full of stereotypical gender roles.
And, FYI, I too have been shocked by the gender roles in YA fantasy lately. I mean, really disturbed at times. Are we in the dark ages?!
One last thing, I echo Realmcovet here on the gender issue. I do think some things that many folks identify as “boy” attributes could also be understood as human attributes. I don't believe that masculinity is only the province of men, for example (and probably many lesbians don't).
Brilliant, everything, all of it. I love your approach too with Hild, and I don't have time to look up the link, but it made me think of something I read last week: Archaeologists in Spain have discovered that some of the ancient cave paintings there were created by women (based on the analysis of their hand imprints). I was astounded to further read that they were shocked to discover that women had a role in creating some of the paintings…why wouldn't the women be part of that?
Frankly, I really don't get a lot of these discussions; I can’t be bothered. What is it that identifies/defines a woman? Who can say?
There are so many grey areas. As one who grew up with the 'tomboy' label, developed, um, larger than average breasts at an early age, has often been called sir, and was (much to my consternation) identified by others as a lesbian before I did so myself, I never really spent that much time thinking about it. My third girlfriend (I've had three) tried many times to explain to me the whole butch/femme phenomenon. Ok, now I get it – sorta. But, part of me doesn't get what all the fuss is about. I know that I am a woman – I feel that on a fundamental level that I have never questioned; I do what I feel like doing. I get so tired/bored/annoyed with people who want to force me in to some kind of square that I just quit paying attention a long time ago.
Of course you are right, when you say “A woman-only world, it seems to me, would shine with the entire spectrum of human behavior:….” But that doesn’t stop me from wishing that a woman-only world might turn out better. Might get past some of the pettiness, etc. From sometimes thinking that it’s the testosterone imbalance that causes that shit. But I think our problems as humans are bigger than that – bigger than chemical in nature. I like to tell myself that anyway.
Oh, and I know, I'm not really addressing your question (I know I do that a lot), but I'm too out of the loop to really comment. But my sense is – we are in a period of regression in this area in popular culture – in some ways we are losing ground. But in other more fundamental ways, I think the young care less about these roles – just as they care less about ostracizing guiltbag people. And I think we’ve got a long way to go still in changing attitudes. In the meantime, I’m just going to keep being myself.
malinda, I was pretty unhappy with Eon: Dragoneye Reborn.
joyce, mordicai, that's the graphic novel, right? Six or seven years ago? Heard about it, never read it. Is it out in a trade paper/omnibus version yet?
jennifer from p, oh god, it's like those people that talk about 'stone age man and his womenfolk', who will then swear that 'man' mean 'human'. Pah. Ptuh.
jennifer, if we could all be ourselves, wow, the world would be a better place. Keep on keeping on…
Nicola, EON is next on my list, seriously I have it right here. I will be interested to see if I react the same way.
Let me know what you think.
Negative on Omnibus, but all the trades are out & it got a fair amount of critical attention– i.e. your library might have it.
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