kaigou: this is what I do, darling (Default)
[personal profile] kaigou
Continuation of yesterday's ruminations, because you had to know they wouldn't end there.

For starters, I'm well-aware that the previous post may have sounded like I was arguing for a gender binary (masculine/feminine), but I ended up going with that for the first go-round of thoughts, with intentions to address the underlying parts (the binary) in a second post. Go easier on you folks who aren't up to dissertation-length in one go, y'know.

Thing is, gender isn't always the means by which we 'position' a person, upon first meeting. I get the impression that in our Western/anglo so-called egalitarian society (where according to some people, we're post-class and post-race) it's just one of the easier ways to pigeonhole other people into expected behaviors, dress, manners, reactions, what-have-you. But there are instances where we use other means -- like whether someone is an officer or enlisted, an academic doctor or a medical doctor, or blue-collar versus white-collar. Or, it could be a caste-system, such as picking up the clues on whether someone is Brahman, Kshatria, Vaisia, Sudra, or untouchable. When you get into fiction, there's no reason you have to remain within a gender binary. You could sort people based on profession (academic, military, medical, craftswork, service, etc), whereby a military man and a military woman are more likely to have similar behaviors and dress (genders, if you will) than between a military man and a medical man. Or by religion, or musical style, or whatever else. Gender doesn't have to be the baseline.

For that matter, gender itself could be (and if you ask me, should be, at least minimum) tripartite -- male, female, third. Me, I prefer 'third' rather than 'other', because 'other' acts /reads as though it encapsulates 'all that is not male or female'. Third leaves the door open to a fourth, fifth, or sixth, whatever form those may take. There are indigenous societies which include a third sex (I'm thinking specifically of the Navajo, but there are many others), except that it seems to me that even these conflate the sex/physiology with the gender/construct. In other words, a woman who's just fine being sexed-female but prefers a masculine-coded dress or behavior is third sex, same as a man who feels distinctly at-odds with a male body and adopts a feminine gender-construct as a way to re-balance herself. In fiction, the author can have the freedom to make one third-sex and the other fourth-sex. Or give them, idk, directions (north, south, east, west, up, down) instead of implied hierarchy via cardinal order. But anyway.

The language is a lot of the problem, since English doesn't really have a non-offensive pronoun to use when you're speaking of a human being but don't know the person's sex or can't draw conclusions on the person's outward preferred-gender. The pronoun 'it' is for non-humans, really, and 'that person' is an awkward non-English construction that works but is, well, awkward. I've seen constructions like 'zie', 'sie', and... what was the possessive version? Oh, 'hir'. For me, 'zie' and 'sie' sound too much like hollywood/bad-comedy attempts at French accents attempting the 'th' sound: ze girl, and so on. In my head it sounds like the way people would make fun of me when they knew I was fluent in French, and would 'pretend' to speak French, by making all 'th' sounds into 'ze' sounds.

Which means I'm probably in a very very tiny minority by preferring to adopt an existing language's version of non-gendered (spoken, at least) pronouns, using the Mandarin ta -- he, she, it. And I'd even go so far as to follow the Mandarin pattern of not changing it for possessive: ta likes ta work. Though maybe ta likes tas work meshes, because then it'd follow the its/it's pattern, as ta likes tas work, ta's fun.

But then I'd probably end up with twice as much risk of apoplexy, seeing how often people wreck the whole its/it's construction. Hunh.

Note: this ignores the fact that in written Mandarin, second-person and third-person are gendered and neutral. Male 'you' 你, female 'you' 妳; he, 他, she, 她. (See the change in the left-hand part of the character.) In speaking, the context is expected to be obvious -- or at least, that any ambiguity about the person's gender/sex is okay since it's still obvious who you're talking about -- such that all you hear is 'ni' or 'ta'. In written, the different characters are used, because it's not always quite so clear who gets that 'you' or 's/he'. So technically, 'ta' is really only a verbal suggestion, and we're back to binary with written, using something like ta or tae to signal male/female.

Anyway, without introducing a story-based grammatical construct and expecting readers to go along with it, one way or another we're back to that encoded binary system. It's a limitation of the language, further complicated by the writer's skill. I admit, some of the stories that have tried have been very hard to read despite my wish to applaud the author's ambitious and honest intentions, but it's also possible that the author's skill makes a difference -- I can see Ursula Le Guin, for instance, going smooth sailing while less-capable writers just make hash of it.

Another thing that bugged me with some of the stories mentioned in the last review was how... hmm. How to put it. Some of them turned the romance into a political statement. I don't mean necessarily in a geo-political sense (although some of the stories have that, too), but in a personal=political kind of way. Or maybe I should put it that the revelation of liking someone of the same sex (regardless of gender) meant a complete paradigm shift for the character in terms of self-identity. It's not expressed as "I like girls" but as "I am a ___sexual."

Don't get me wrong, I know exactly where this Western/anglo process sprang, and the reasons for enculturating it, but still. It strikes me as, frankly, wrongheaded. Or shortsighted. Or maybe just awfully limiting. I mean, if I grew up accepting the cultural notion that the best pet is a dog or a cat, and then I'm introduced to snakes and realize I like snakes best, I simply say, I like snakes. I don't have to revise my entire concept of myself to now be summed up in a new label of being a snake-lover. It's not something that consumes my entire persona and becomes a defining factor of my self-identity, and I guess in that respect I start eye-rolling when someone does it on the basis of what kind of physical body-parts turn them on.

Not to mention it's further sub-sets and sub-sub-sets when seems to me the breakdown is a lot simpler. Instead of "men who like men, men who like women, women who like men, women who like women, etc," it's simply "people who like men, people who like women, people who like some specific combination of the two, people who like just about anyone, etc". Okay, I admit I also like this construct better because it places "people who like men" and "people who like women" as subsets of "people who like both", rather than framing bisexuality as some kind of aberrant non-position between "heterosexual" and "homosexual" identities.

By that last sentence, I mean: the ultimate assumption one can make is "I like [read: I have the potential to love/be attracted to] people." As one awakens to sexual feelings, the move isn't a flip or reversal or whatever of previous assumptions (from "of course I'll fall in love with a girl" to "oh I fell in love with a guy what do I do now") but simply a distillation of it ("I actually mostly like this subset of all people"). There's no total negation of one's identity, only an affirmation of part of one's identity that had already been accepted. I grew up believing that dogs, cats, and snakes are all reasonable pets, but now I know I like snakes best.

The thing is, when it's fiction, we can do this. The world as it is now, a lot of people aren't willing or ready or aware of the option to see gender trumping sex -- but one of fiction's most powerful weapons is positing a world as it could be (for better or dystopic worse). So why not a world in which there's no earth-shattering, identity-cracking, soul-searching, angst-ridden, "keep those lovers apart for the middle of the story" emoing -- but instead just a moment's clarity that distills the previous breadth of "I like anyone" to "I like this particular subset of anyones"?

(Although such a concept would pretty much utterly end the GFY genre, by removing that not-gay-for-anyone default position. It'd become a one-two from "I could like anyone" to "I like only you".)

That brings me back to something that's of crucial importance to the standard romance line: the point where boy/girl loses boy/girl. The big divide. The darkest part. The emo and the angst, or whatever romance authors/readers call it. The point where, upon expressing undying love and all that jazz, something breaks the two lovers apart, that they must overcome in order to be together and get their Happily Ever After.

Now, for a large part of the world, there's bigotry and prejudice and laws engendered by both, that permit same-sex partners to be imprisoned, tortured, put to death, or in the West, simply denied many of our basic human rights. In a contemporary or real-world-historical story, 'marriage' comes with a lot of baggage, including the whole "man-and-woman" part. In that kind of story, like in Backwards to Oregon, the barrier that marriage can only be man-and-woman makes sense. (Branded Ann skirts this by never even raising the question of marriage.)

But in fantasy settings, it feels like the author just got lazy. Frex, in Sword of the Guardian, there's no mention of the world's attitude towards same-sex relationships until near the end of the story, when it's suddenly raised just as the author needed a reason to divide the lovers a second time. Before then, that bias-attitude is only referenced when Talon reflects on his impulsive generosity to a travelling troupe-performer, by bringing her to the princess' quarters (which are also Talon's, effectively). Talon notes that if the King knew and thought Talon a boy, that's bad, but the King's aware Talon is sex-female, and thus it looks even worse.

The logic seems to be that this means Talon may have potential/actual sexual feelings for another woman, and thus raises the question of whether it'd be wise for Talon and the princess to continue sharing quarters. But seems to me, if the world sees "boy in girl's room" as dangerous but "girl in girl's room" as harmless, then it's a world that wouldn't assume "girl with girl" is even remote a possibility. Sort of like Queen Victoria not outlawing lesbianism because she couldn't even fathom two women having sexual relations. [note: apparently a myth. obviously I've been slacking on snopes.]

(And geez, whether Talon slept with a girl is beside the point. The so-called bodyguard left the princess in someone else's care, and brought an unvetted, unknown, troupe performer to the princess' own quarters. Wouldn't that be a far greater issue than whether anyone's clothes came off? Even if just for a few drinks, it only takes a second to let down your guard, and the bodyguard is disposed of and now a savvy assassin lies in wait. Sex is the least of the possible consequences. Such an easily-plugged plot-hole.)

But skip forward to the big divide -- which I thought was the princess getting over her revised expectations of Talon's sex versus Talon's apparent gender -- and then we have a second big divide. This time, it's that "women together is wrong!" and the usual this-world kind of bias. It just felt so... lazy. Unnecessary, even. Within context, as future Queen, it would make perfect sense that there could be any of twenty other reasons a marriage wouldn't be allowed, regardless of sex. The fact that Talon isn't a citizen, isn't a blue-blood, doesn't have a pedigree, wasn't chosen by some council of retainers, brings no lands nor troops nor alliance to the table: any of these are a much larger barrier, and would've been far more believable than just the flat, oh, women can't marry women. But instead, I got a divide that felt like just one more contemporary Big Issue shoehorned into a story with knights, princesses, and quasi-Medieval politicking.

Of note is that Lady Knight does a sort of two-step with this. Rhiannon's love, a widow, has vast estates and titles, so she's not entirely free to marry who she chooses. If the Queen commands marriage, it's marry or lose those lands to the crown. (Even though 'marry' includes the assumption that then you lose those lands to a new overlord-husband, so it's a lose-lose notion anyway.) Although there's a passing reference to the Queen being unlikely to let two women marry, the larger barrier, the one that gets more attention, is that Rhiannon -- basically a penniless knight with minimal lands -- has no value as an alliance. The Queen's motivation is to secure her alliances, and the widow is merely a pawn with enticing land/titles. Rhiannon has nothing to offer that could prompt the Queen to let Rhiannon capture the widow-pawn.

Hell, the story could've gone in a fascinating place, if Rhiannon being recognized as 'son' meant feasible marriage but the barrier there would be a change in inheritance. Thus, her elder brothers would be against her not for reasons of "women can't marry" but for their own need to protect their inheritance instead of letting it be further sub-divided among a newly-recognized 'male' in the family.

These are all clearly western paradigms for the fantasy stories, but if I shift focus to eastern paradigms, then we could add in filial piety and the importance of offspring. Make the character a second son, with an elder sibling already carrying on the family line, and suddenly there's little to no barrier. The requirements of filial piety -- that someone carry on the family name -- have been satisfied. Or make it a first-born child, but in a culture riven by war, where fostering the orphans of fellow military or land-owners or distant kin is quite common. Japan has long had a tradition that an adoptee (even as an adult) can be named one's heir, and I seem to recall similar in Korea and China, but I'm not sure on the details there. Which means the "you must marry to procreate" is knocked out of the park as barrier, because technically you don't even have to marry to adopt a child as your heir.

Of course, this means the author has to come up with some other reason to keep the two lovers apart. Maybe it's that one is from a dirt-poor family, and the other is titled, and the Emperor won't give permission; maybe it's that one is a foreigner and wouldn't be accepted by the family regardless of sex. Maybe one has a prison record or has children from a previous relationship, or whatever other story-specific barrier. There's tons of possibilities, but they all require the author to, y'know, put some thought into it, instead of just throwing the usual canard at me that "it's unnatural!" and "same-sex is wrong!" and whatever other real-world crap I hear daily in the news, anyway. Come on, be a little more original with the big divide, please.

Date: 5 Apr 2012 01:14 am (UTC)
From: [personal profile] dsgood
There IS a neutral equivalent of "he" or "she" -- "they." Well established in English; though not as pervasive as singular "you" has become.

***Victoria and lesbianism: "The much-cited story about Queen Victoria personally intervening to omit lesbianism from the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885 is a myth...."

Date: 5 Apr 2012 09:17 am (UTC)
From: [personal profile] maire
And yet you cope perfectly happily with the use of the plural 'you' and its plural verbs.

Date: 7 Apr 2012 07:23 am (UTC)
From: [personal profile] maire
Maybe. 'Singular they' has been around for about four hundred years already, though.


kaigou: this is what I do, darling (Default)
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"When you make the finding yourself— even if you're the last person on Earth to see the light— you'll never forget it." —Carl Sagan

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