It’s a new year of life for this Siren, another turn around the sun, plus yesterday was also Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights. Both traditions involve little flames, and for Diwali, we go through the dark house with a lit oil candle to chase out the shadows of the old year while lighting in the new one. So it seems like as good a time as any to examine some of the shadows in the dusty corners of our minds, yes?
In other words, I’m talking about assumptions today. We all have a lot of them, and it’s good to actually subject them to the light every once in a while. For example, why do we assume a stick figure is male unless it has “female” markers like eyelashes, cleavage, and a triangular skirt, maybe also some hair? (And where do genderqueer people fit into this paradigm?)
Think about that for a second.
In English, we like to talk about being gender neutral, though many other languages have markers for male and female nouns. An example would be actor and actress. We’ve decided that actor can be both. But why is the masculine form the supposed “unmarked” one? Why can’t we call a mixed group actresses?
Why do we generally agree that blue means boy and pink means girl, though colors have no gender beyond what we assign them? And why do we get so angry when people play with that color coding or ignore it altogether by letting a boy play with pink dolls and a girl with a blue truck?
Why do we say a guy is a stud for having a lot of luck with the ladies while a woman who enjoys time with the men is a slut? (And note how very heteronormative this binary is.)
Why, oh, why, do we default to using the male pronoun he whenever we see an animal in the wild? How do we know it’s not a she? Why don’t we stop to consider that?
You might then ask what this has to do with writing, and that’s a very good question. All you have to do is google “gender disparity in literature” to see that even with all that third-wave feminism has managed to achieve, our cultural narrative still assumes the default hero (and see, again, the male is the “unmarked” word) is a straight, white, preferably American, either Christian or atheist, able-bodied, neurotypical man. We’re all supposed to be able to relate to this “everyman.”
But change the gender, change the race, change the country of origin, change any of those other attributes, and suddenly he’s Other—much less relatable. Make him a her, and suddenly it’s women’s fiction/chick lit—oh, that domestic, boring stuff. Make him black or queer, and that’s niche fiction. Why would anyone not belonging to either of those groups read it?
Well, that’s just silly, and upon examination, I think most of us would say we don’t really think that way. But our stories reflect the greater society’s stories, the ones we’re told from birth about who gets to be the hero(ine). About who matters, and who we should find attractive and interesting.
As a writer to other writers, these assumptions are ones we would do well to not only question but to smash with a hammer as we explore and pen our stories. The best stories, after all, are those that truly reflect the world around us and question things, so that we all grow from reading them (as well as being entertained).
As a reader to other readers, I suggest taking a look at the books you choose to read and considering trying some you might have let pass by. After all, what are stories but attempts to understand the human experience? So why wouldn’t we want all facets of that, right?
And the next time you see a squirrel trying to chew its way into someone’s house and call it a “he,” stop and ask yourself—how do you really know? (Well, if you’re an expert on squirrel anatomy, I suppose you would, but otherwise . . . :P)
(both images courtesy Wikipedia)
Happy new year, everyone!