Get Bent – The Moral Of The Story

Well, that’s the end of the gender-bending stories. I could keep going for months, but I hope that the point (whatever it is) has been made. But what was the point of this exercise? That old stories are sometimes not quite the classics that we remember? Not quite.

When you tell a story, be you Aesop  or John Norman, what you are doing is commenting on your society. You may be saying “Hey, this is bad; I wish it would stop” or “Gosh, this is good; we should have more of it”, but you are saying something whether you know it or not. And that is good. We need more people exploring how we can make this universe a better place to live.

What isn’t so good is that all of the societies that get explored are more or less the same: Caucasian cis-gendered heterosexual men in the lead, Caucasian cis-gendered heterosexual women and children two steps behind, and the occasional token character who doesn’t fit that mold tossed in as a bone to the remaining 2/3 of the world. Even worse, much of the fiction takes the mores of today, puts a new ribbon on them, and calls them the “wild new mores of tomorrow”; the entire Universe is seen as a rerun of Ozzie and Harriett with the characters in Halloween costumes

Consider Stranger In A Strange Land (SIASL) by Robert Heinlein, widely regarded as one of the most daring science fiction novels of its time and called “a completely free-wheeling look at contemporary human culture” by its author. So what was so “free-wheeling” about the novel? In it, Heinlein suggested that men and women like to have sex but we lie about it. Admittedly, given that Lady Chatterly’s Lover  had been banned in the USA until just three years before SIASL’s publication, talking in public about sex, much less admitting that it was fun, was still somewhat disreputable. Nevertheless, that one point was the basis for a 400 page novel with a cast of sixteen main characters, of which just two (both male) are non-Caucasian and none are anything but cis-gendered heterosexuals. Despite that handicap, the novel does pass the Bechdel test, but just barely; in the entire, sprawling novel, there are two places where female characters actually talk to each other without mentioning the main character.  Other than that, the novel is an exact duplicate of the sexism and “women should be seen but not heard” mores of 1950s middle America, right down to arguments over who should cook dinner [1].

But SIASL was published in 1962. Surely stories today aren’t as limited in their scope? Sadly, they are. Don’t believe me? Here’s an easy way to prove me wrong (call it the John test): Go to any bookstore today and pull down a book at random. Count the number of pages you have to go to read about a male, then count the number of pages before you encounter a female. If you read about a woman before you read about a man, then the book passes the John test [2]. At my last trip to the bookstore, after checking twenty books at random, two passed the test.

Of course, that doesn’t even cover the way that women are described in fiction (or real life). As at least two of the stories showed, terms that we think of as being perfectly acceptable for use with a full-grown woman are more than slightly disgusting when applied to a man – even when the gendered equivalent (e.g., “boy” for “girl”) is used. And the reason that the description and how the characters are treated matters is because those things tell us about the society itself. If it is OK for your characters to call women “girl” but men must be called “sir”, then you are really saying that in that society it is OK for women to be treated as pets or children instead of as people. If it isn’t OK to demand a man go hide when things get dangerous, then why should it be OK to demand that a woman do so? Why can’t a woman come running to the rescue? Why shouldn’t a woman be in charge of a major project? Who is to say that a woman wouldn’t make a perfectly good bank robber?

As real life will cheerfully point out, the answer to those questions is that there is no reason that women cannot be just as good and just as bad as men and often in exactly the same way. But until our stories catch up with real life, we’ll be stuck telling people that the entire universe is exactly like the Ozzie and Harriett show. I don’t know about you, but, amusing as Ricky Nelson was, I want something a little more realistic. I want world where people are allowed to act like people even if they happen to be female. Is that too much to ask?

[1] To be fair, Heinlein is noted as a satirist (though this is often missed by those who read his works). It is entirely possible that he kept the essentials of 1950s middle America in the novel in order to point out how tediously banal they are.

[2] If women are equally represented in fiction, then about half the time you should encounter a woman before you encounter a man.


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