Discussing Gender

(this is a long one. Pack a lunch.) So, I was having a conversation with some friends over on Facebook recently about writing and genders. I mentioned that if I had changed the gender of my main character (from male to female) it changes everything in the story.

First, there's the backstory involving Charlie's murderous brother. This relationship has some heft to it because, in Western culture, the turbulent relationship of brothers is well-explored. Even I, an only child, have an idea of what the ideal brothers are to be. Our literary history is filled with fraternal bonds, and you can see them go awry in everything from Cain and Abel to "Johnny Dangerously".

If Charlie is female, however, that estrangement loses some of its potency because we, as a society, find more tragedy in the "brother vs. brother" scenario.

However, if I were to change both Charlie and his brother into female characters, the relationship changes yet again. In a story of two brothers fighting one another, there is an undercurrent of sadness... these men were friends, brothers, sharing a special bond. However, looking at Cinderella on up through Gregory Macguire's "Wicked", you'll see that when the relationship between sisters fails it is because of jealousy.

By changing the gender of a character, you are changing the lenses the reader is using to see the story based on that common societal language.

Another plot device that changes dramatically if I alter Charlie's gender is his grief. Charlie mourns the death of his fiancee, and that pain colors his actions throughout most of the book. However, if Charlie is a woman, the mourning takes a different tone, again, because of societal psychology.

"Ah," said a friend, "she would be pining for her husband, then?"

I found that interesting. That knee-jerk reaction said so much in just one word: Pining. Again, the lenses of the reader are changed. (Go watch "Sleepless in Seattle" and then something like "Practical Magic" and see how differently the grief is treated.)

This conversation then took a turn into writers working with protagonists outside of their own gender. When you're in a character's head for most of a book, how do you write the opposite gender?

One friend said, "The nuances of gender are such an ingrained part of who I am that I don't know if I could authentically project 'guyness' on a male character."

This gets into an interesting area of that societal consciousness I was talking about: gender identity.

Oh, do I love breaking down gender identity.

Let me 'splain, for those who may not have thought about this. Gender is different than your sex, and both are different than your sexuality. To put it simply:

Sex = Male or female on a genetic level. XY or XX Chromosomes... this is what your genetics have to say on the matter. You can't change this, no matter how much surgery you have. Gender = Your psyhological alignment (masculine/feminine, boyish/girly) and includes your behaviour. Sexuality = What rocks your boat (this can be broken down to hetero/homo/bisexuality, potential fetishes or even personal preferences).

Now, some people are born with a road map that tells them they are genetically male, their actions should be male and their sexuality should lean towards missionary sex with female while watching televised football and drinking American beer. We call these people "fictional". For the rest of us, there is (hopefully) some journey of self-understanding/discovery.

However, there seems to be something taboo about all of this stuff, so we don't talk about it.

Back to the topic of writing... when my friend made the comment about not being able to project authentic "guyness" onto a character I had to step back a moment. She had pegged something at the heart of my frustrations! Someone had recently said that Charlie's first impressions were a bit "artificial". For some reason, I took this commentary to be about gender.

Why did this frustrate me so much?

Because of my own gender identity.

Growing up, I was taller and heavier than other girls my age. I was not this small, petite thing in dresses and skirts all the time. I didn't like to play princess and my Barbie dolls usually ended up just going out together and leaving Ken at home. I won't say that I was a tom boy, but I have always felt more masculine. I've always been "one of the guys", the girl that can walk freely among the tribes of men with little fear of being objectified. It's just always been part of me. For the first twenty years of my life, most of my friends were guys and my relationships with women were often superficial. In high school, I was 5'10'', 190 and marching drumline while wearing baggy clothes. I now understand that a lot of my angst was a confused kid trying to reconcile her masculine tendencies and larger build with the societal model of a woman.

And I'm not talking about fat vs thin here.. I'm talking about the fact that girls are supposed to get all stupid and squeeful over teen heart-throbs and put their posters on their walls. So I did that. I'm talking about how girls are supposed to want to wear make up and do their hair... that wasn't me for much of my life. Even now, I only do these on special occasions--although I do enjoy it a lot!

I got made fun of a lot as a kid. I was really self-conscious. When I went to college, I let my girl flag fly for a while, ditching my baggy jeans and t-shirts for more form-fitting clothing. Then, more turbulence as I tried to figure me out.

Over the course of time, thankfully, I've settled into a very comfortable place where my gender identity is concerned. Is it because I finally admitted to myself and the world that I am bisexual? That it's okay to be an Amazon in a society that glamourizes the waif? That while I'm swarthy I can also rock some MAC make-up? Is it that society is becoming more accepting of different gender ideals? *snort* Okay, so maybe not that last one, but, it's probably a combination of factors.

I've come to a point where I can embrace both the masculine AND the feminine aspects of myself, and rather than see either of them as a hinderance, I can see them as boons. Can a woman effectively write a man? Yes. Can men effectively write women? Yes.

The trick, I think, is keeping those characters true to themselves and not pandering to societal roles.

One friend said to me that maybe I could change Charlie into a woman, but when s/he dies and arrives in the dreamworld, s/he self-visualizes a man. (Think of it like the Matrix... Neo's digital self representation being female.) And this idea left a bad taste in my mouth. What does that say about my character? That she can't handle things as a woman? It's like that line in Chasing Amy: "Darth Vadar takes off his mask to reveal a crusty old white guy? That's saying that deep down we all want to be white!" Does that say that at her heart, my strong female protagonist would want to be a man?

That's not the book I want to write. Someone needs to fight this self-masochistic rhetoric out there spewing forth from Twilight.

So for now, Charlie remains male, because that's the character that spoke to me.

What about you? Writers: Do you prefer to write in your own gender?