Sunday, August 18, 2013

Idea Garage Sale: A Barrel of Worms

First of all, Happy Birthday, 19th Amendment. Whose provisions should have been included in the 13th Amendment, whose provisions should have been in the Bill of Rights. What can I say, freedom and equality are scary, especially for people who hold freedom as a privilege and fear their status would be lowered by equality. But that's not what I came to talk to you about, or maybe it is.

My Tumbler throws random stuff at me from people I follow for various reasons and it would be surprising if none of it stuck hard enough to form a story idea. So here's one: the operator of Feminism and Fandom was asked: something cis people never, ever get asked because no one ever tries to tell them their identity isn't real or just based on social constructs or other bs like that, but I'm curious: why do you identify as a girl?

And y'know, when you think about it, that's a fascinating question.

Me, personally, I have always felt completely congruent with my body. I am female; therefore, everything about me is of the feminine gender. This seems to me natural and right, and means that, for instance, if I or any other person of the female sex decides to engage in a behavior - gaming, or cooking, or birdwatching, or fixing a truck - that behavior is gendered feminine by the virtue of a female person undertaking it. The same behaviors undertaken by a male would automatically be gendered masculine.

But if most people felt like that, we wouldn't need a concept of gender at all; or at least, would only require it in the case of physically intersexual people, whose bodies are not distinctly female or male and who might then need the concept of gender as something distinct from their sex. But I'm not sure why they would; only that the people around them would feel a need to force them to choose a gender, whether they as individuals needed it or not.

It depends, you see, on what the gender concept is for. Which is far from clear to me. As human beings, our great unique adaptation is the ability to abstract general concepts from specific data, so we can apply lessons and skills from one experience to new, similar experiences. We often need fixed roles so that everyone knows what their individual job is and all the necessary stuff gets done without a lot of argument and daily negotiation over who is supposed to do what. Anybody who's ever tried to take turns doing chores with someone who never does his chores on time is familiar with that one. ("I'm only supposed to do dishes on Tuesdays and Thursdays. It's Wednesday, so it's your turn!" "But you didn't do any dishes Tuesday so you haven't had your turn so I'm not going to do any dishes." "Okay, I'll do last nights dishes later but the breakfast dishes today are yours." "No they're not!" Will somebody just do the stinking dishes so I have something to cook in!? Um, excuse me, intense flashback.)

And I can see how gender expectations could grow from a sexual division of labor, which - especially in societies without a huge technological base to draw on, such as we have now - does in fact make sense the way most hunter-gatherer societies split the actual labor. Men are less essential to perpetuation of a group than women and the responsibility and resource drain of protecting the fetus limits women's mobility, so giving the people who are most likely to be pregnant the less-risky, more sedentary jobs and the expendable people the high-risk running around makes sense. And once you got used to that division, and organized your society around it, the individual who didn't fit neatly into the schema would become a problem and need to be arbitrarily gendered in order to contribute. But an awful lot of non-practical, counterproductive, and just plain silly baggage that has nothing to do with survival goes into modern gender conceptions, while leaving intersexual people more in the lurch than ever, and none of it was inevitable, anyway.

Gender as a concept is increasingly a handicap, but one which we regard as so essential that we cling to it against all reason. Parents with a sexually ambiguous child are encouraged to assign it a gender and force it into one of two molds, which even adults who aren't sexually ambiguous frequently find poor fits and too confining. People of any age who try to present themselves as androgynous, or who choose a gender identity not congruent with their physical sex, are at best treated with prurient interest, at worst physically and legally persecuted. Even people who are aware of this and don't want to be uncomfortable around people of ambiguous gender often are. And yet, objectively, it shouldn't matter a lick.

So, let's step back and world-build for awhile. What if a society exists, of humanlike people, in which a person's role in society is determined by gender - but gender is not tied to a simple sexual dichotomy?

What if the crucial decisions of development all hinged, not on expressing a predetermined gender, but on figuring out what gender you are?

What if there's more than two genders?

What if all children are considered to be the same gender and the age of gender expression is not the same as puberty?

What else would society base a gender on? What if intellectuals are "feminine" and emotionals are "masculine?"

What if your gender category changed based on your age?

What if magic, or psychic, if you prefer SF to fantasy, ability is the determining factor?

This would require a serious grind of worldbuilding before you even started the story, and of course it's been done, sort of. Ursula K. LeGuin's classic Left Hand of Darkness deals with some of these issues, and feminist SF has done a lot of wrestling with gender roles generally. But it strikes me that at best the subject has been nibbled; and in a time when LBGTQ people are increasingly asserting their right to representation, it strikes me as ripe for serving up in a full-size dish.

No comments:

Post a Comment