kaigou: And now I, chaos butterfly, shall flap my wings and destroy the world! (2 chaos butterfly)
[personal profile] kaigou
I'm going to keep writing, but before I dig back into the current wip, I've been contemplating the treatment of intersexed characters in fantasy/alt-history (setting aside strict SF where we get into advanced tech that allows for gender-switching, surgical changes, and various other jazz not applicable to my wip and thus kind of outside my focus right now). First of all, there do seem to be a growing number (if still very, very tiny overall, but more than twenty years ago) of transgender and crossdressing characters, though it's much harder to find self-identified intersexed characters.

By "crossdressing" I mean the plot device whererin our hero/ine must dress/hide via clothes (or, in at least one case, via magic) as the opposite sex, in order to achieve some goal or escape some evil. (Incidentally, all the crossdressing I can think of are female-to-male, not the other way around, but it's not like I've read everything.) However, in 99% of that kind, so far, that I've read (excepting one lesbian historical fantasy work wherein the lead simply preferred to dress/act along masculine gender lines, but made no attempt to hide or lie about being a woman), the cross-dressing character is quick to return to original gender roles as soon as the evil is passed. Or alternately, as soon as the character's decloaked and forced to find a way forward despite the handicap of appearing-as-original-gender.

And in most cases, 'transgender' doesn't get used as a phrase in fantasy, probably because it's a very modern, relatively recent, notion, so its use does feel somewhat anachronistic. But authors with some sensitivity do seem to be somewhat good at signaling in many other ways that a character -- if moved to our day and age -- would effectively consider hieself 'transgender'.

So far I've only been able to find two alt-history/fantasy works with intersexed main characters, and... I'm a little bothered by something. Both Raptor and Ilario (the latter of which was, iirc, sold as a duology in the US) have intersexed characters who are... quite significantly rapacious when it comes to sex. I mean, within a chapter of meeting Ilario, the young pseudohermaphrodite who's the first-person narrator of the eponymous story, he's hopping into bed with a stranger and quite blunt not only about having both kinds of sexual organs, but also about offering them. (And then he ends up drugged, robbed, and sold as a slave -- and is somehow surprised by this -- but opening-chapter TSTL acts are for another post.)

I'd had Raptor on my wishlist for a long time, since it's print-only, but when I happened across the wiki entry, that undid any interest I had, right there. The main character, Thorn, chooses his surname as a riff on "a being uninhibited by conscience, compassion, remorse- a being as implacably amoral as the juika-bloth and every other raptor on this earth", where 'raptor' is code for 'rapacious'. And, too, it's saying something when even a wiki entry bluntly says, "the story not only spans virtually the central character's entire life but also has a recurring theme: those whom Thorn loves, die."

Uhm, okay. I'm kinda over the "marginalized person (almost) has chance at love, but it ends in murder, madness, or suicide" schtick. Where are the happy endings, where the character doesn't just fuck hir way through life, leaving behind a string of dead bodies, but gets to have love and win the day?

My brain keeps going back to the nonfiction reading I've been doing, like Gender Pluralism, which is about Southeast Asia gender roles (including a considerable bit on non-binary systems, like the five genders of the Bugis). The book posits a certain tension, historically, for intersexed (not transgender) peoples; many of the gods were innately a mix of male/female, and to some degree, divinity by definition was seen as a male/female-in-one kind of state. But that's gods; for humans, this was, well, not quite right. Although the reasoning is slightly different -- that intersexed indicates a touch of the divine and the divine shouldn't make its home among everyday world -- the marginalization is still there. Does it count for anything at all, that there was the temple as refuge/home for those so touched by the divine? I'm not convinced.

Setting aside intersexed for a bit, transgender shows up more. In the Eon/Eona duology (I think the US title was Eon: Rise of the Dragoneye or maybe that was the UK title and why don't they keep the same title for all English-speaking countries, seriously), there's a supporting character who was a tribute bride to the Emperor. It seems, though, that the emperor wasn't quite sure what to do with a transgendered, somewhat-shamanistic, tribute bride, so the character ends up more a protocol/diplomacy expert/advisor (and close friend to the main character). Incidentally, just when it seems like that character will get a happy ending, well. Let me just remind you of my annoyance as stated in paragraph six.

I came across reviews for another book, The Bone Palace, which I haven't yet read, but a review of the story got me thinking. (Thus I make no attempt to critique the book itself; you could consider this a critique instead of the review.) Here's the commentary that I'm twigging on:
The plotline with the transgendered assassin is a prêt-à-porter love triangle with some Sins of the Father thrown in for good measure, and the intersex identity turns out to be the kind we have here in Poughkeepsie: Sevedra is simply a man dressing like a woman, and the phrase “a woman trapped in a man's body” is used, and other phrases that come out of the very modern understanding of the transgendered. This intersex identity is not magic, not fantasy, not dangerous in any way other than it is here on earth. Her intersex identity has no bearing on the plot, except as a structurally confounding force. She is not an archetype - a third way, a question about gender that is neither he nor she – but a curiosity, a trinket. Something can be said for fictions in which non-heteronormative relationships are played out - and pretty much everyone here has slept with or will sleep with everyone else, regardless of gender - but I find it frustrating when this sort of thing is confined to the playset. This is back-story, not identity. [from Ceridwen's review]

A commenter asked, "does [the transgendered character] have to be an archetype or some awesome third gender to justify her inclusion in the plot?" The OP replied:
In the world in this book, it seems like it is taken for granted that people have lovers of both genders, and there are so many trans people that they have a name and a guild. And apparently even though there seems to be this broad cultural acceptance of this, there's this constant reference by the characters to Sevedra's being a weirdo. Some of this is because she is the king's mistress, instead of just a regular person, and I completely grant that in a monarchy, king's gotta breed.

Anyway, the real trouble I had was when a [child character says sie's trans] and is all upset about her options when she matriculates. I was like, hold up, let's get into this a bit. If being trans is such a pain in the ass, if it isn't something that is written on the body but felt, like it is here on earth, then there would be an enormous closet like there is here on earth. If a trans person is denied the option of marriage and family - and it seems to me that they are here, at least mostly - then many of them would closet and marry, wear men's clothing when they had men's bodies, etc. It is dissonant to me to have this broad acceptance, on the one hand, and trans ghetto, on the other. [emph. added

Now, I'm stopping the quote there because although this was actually part of the reviewer's larger theme (that the story lacked overall fantastical notes, a la an Ursula LeGuin essay about writing fantasy) -- that last sentence is where my brain started going into other channels. (Read the full review & comments to see where else the reviewer was going, critique-wise.) Specifically, the notion of a ghetto against the idea of broad acceptance.

Let's posit a world in which transgender people are broadly accepted; by definition this seems to me like that means transgender people would be incorporated into, and indelibly a part of, every inch of the fabric of everyday life. Unless we're turning the entire world into a shared ghetto, that broad acceptance means no ghetto. Unless, unless, by "broad acceptance" we mean "acceptance of the existence of people of type Other, who are perfectly accepted as long as they stay Over There." Which would be the Separate But Equal notion, and to me, that's a ghetto.

At the same time (because I am thinking out loud on this, and haven't a destination in mind, just trying to grapple with it to better understand my own story and stories in general) -- it seems to me that if we posit a culture in which we're not a binary system but a, hrm, quad-nary? What would a four-sided gender system be? Quadnary until someone tells me a better phrase, but anyway, using the Bugis model, that would be Male Man, Female Woman, Male Woman, Female Man, and then the Man-Woman-Divine of the intersexed/androgyne (a little like the general notion of Two Spirit, but not an exact analogue). In which case, as long as you fulfill your chosen gender-part according to the social rules -- if you're a Male Man, you don't go about dressing like a Female Woman or trying to do a Female Man's job -- then you're broadly accepted. If you're a Female Woman, then people are going to ask you why you don't just admit you're a Male Woman if you start dressing in men's clothing and wanting to do a man's job. There's a gender-role for that, and it's called a Male Woman. It's someone who's known to be biologically female, but living a set of male-based gender roles (including speech, head-of-household, work, and dress).

Note that I'm not saying this is how it is; this is just the impression I've been able to gather from research. So I may be off in some things, but in general, there seems to be a relatively accepted set of open roles for men and women, where sex and gender aren't perfectly locked-down and inextricable. That is, that one's sex (outside surgery, which was pretty life-threatening up to about sixty years ago) is unchangeable but one's gender can be chosen, and tribal members had that ability.

But note that this fluidity/acceptance seems to be predicated on an understanding that one's sex is one's sex; for the person who genuinely feels hir soul to be a non-match with biological sex, that (in this paradigm, from what I gather) would be 'intersexed'. Hermaphroditic aspects are conflated with one type of modern/western transgender, where physical != psychological. So, for someone who is cis-sex, and okay enough with that to let it be, but just wants something more than being a manly-man or a feminine-damsel, there's the alternate gender role. But for someone who doesn't just want the alternate gender role but feels himself to be 'female-souled' (or vice versa), that would be the intersexed, fifth-type, role. And that, most definitely, does seem to come with a ghetto (if an elevated one of temple priest and/or serving the royal family).

In Eon: Dragoneye Reborn (ah, so the other one is the UK version, sheesh), there's Lady Dela, who at least gets the dignity of being referred to as 'she' even when for her own protection late in the book, she must dress and pass as a man. What I can't recall was whether this bothered Lady Dela; the book is first-person for Eon(a), so it's all filtered, obviously. But if there was momentary discomfort, it seemed to pass rather quickly, and the discomfort seemed to be more Eona's at Dela's abrupt change in terms of her gender presentation. Which I found a bit... discomforting, myself, as it seemed to hint at something in the narration/authorial voice that tweaked me, but subtly so.

All that said, there does seem to be a barrier between Dela and the rest of the court, though (again, thanks to being filtered through Eona's perspective) it's hard to tell whether this is because Dela's gender-crossing is the cause, or the hint of her shamanistic abilities, or just the simple fact that as a tribute bride, she'd a foreigner and therefore suspect.

Which brings me back to the issue of the ghetto: why introduce a ghetto if escaping it or transcending it isn't the character's arc? I mean, if the character in question is a main role, then I'm okay with a ghetto if, in the course of the character's path, they break free and/or break the ghetto and/or start the path to broad acceptance. But if the character's backstory and/or identity is wrapped up in non-acceptance ghetto (which, I should note, is almost always either acceptance or eventual acceptance from the hero), then... oh. Is that what it is? The Magical Transgender?

Hmm, I think it might be. It's race in another guise, whether this be skin color or religion, since both of those (black and Jewish) are two major ghetto analogues we've had in our own reality/history. Making that side character some other ghetto doesn't change the fact that this character is ostracized by the general population except for the main character who has the sense to listen to the ghetto-ized character's advice and wisdom. Tadah, Magical Transgender, whose existence in the story is to assist the main character, and in turn is validated by the main character's acceptance. In Eona's case, there's a twist, in that Eona herself is disabled, so it's more like the marginalized allying with the marginalized, but that kind of outsider+outsider doesn't seem to be the case for some of the other stories I've perused.

Thing is, like I said, there aren't a huge number of stories floating around with transgender characters (let alone intersexed or androgyne in our modern terms), so it's hard to draw distinct conclusions. At the same time, that dearth does make the few present into tokens, and means the inclusion of a transgender character seems to automatically get more attention than if the person had been just some Random Other (cis-everything) Character. But isn't that, too, in a way, what creates the Magical Negro, or the Magical Transgender -- the fact that the side character is the only one present outside the ghetto, to relay knowledge/information to our main character?

The quickest way after all, to get rid of the Magical Negro in a story is to just plain make sure he's not the only one of his kind who makes an appearance. I can't recall precisely, but isn't that usually one of the requirements for determining a Magical anything -- that it be the only one of its kind, stepping away from an implied (but never seen and definitely never heard) mass of Other, to instruct the hero? So, don't make the transgender character the only one of hir kind, and wouldn't that be half the battle of reducing the risk of Magical Transgender?

Though, now that I think of it, every fantasy I've read with a transgender character, there's only ever one. (Not counting eunuchs -- like in Eona's story -- since that's a completely different set of circumstances and issues, related less to non-fitting gender and more to loss of gender en toto. Teal-deer, that's for another post.) So maybe if there were other, named, speaking, transgender characters, that would reduce the sense of magical-ness implied? But it'd also reduce the fantastical of "oooh, someone transgressive in their gender" and make the transgender characters into one more everyday, realistic, non-mythical element in the story. Which, incidentally, is where I differ strongly from the quoted review, because I don't see why a transgender character should be, or should ever be, a fantastical addition to the story -- leave that for the unicorns, wizards, and mermaids that really are the stuff of fantasy.

Hmm. Thoughts?

Date: 19 Sep 2012 02:19 am (UTC)
nagasvoice: lj default (Default)
From: [personal profile] nagasvoice
I should add there's also very unpleasant views of TG folks in sf & f, or freak show versions where they get "othered" and exoticized as hyper-sexy, as you mentioned in your post. (For M-to-F folks, at least, the reality is often quite the reverse, a reduction of sex drive and libido.)
Genderflips and shapechangers actually aren't the same thing as the TG folks in your discussion, but writers conflate them all the time. I recall Jack Chalker's Well World series mingling that with transgender changes all over the place.
I found it oppressive and creepy to read, it is by no means a positive view. More like leering at new sex-objects, as best I recall--although in places it seemed to be trying to do some kinda sorta-feminist logic with claims to having kick-ass women long before Buddy. Erm, maybe... It's been long enough since I read any of the books that I'll defer to folks who've read them more recently for details on why. So I don't know what to point to, exactly, except to warn people i general.
If I reread them, I'm sure I'd would be appalled at very clear and obvious sexism issues, they are embedded in a very SF-macho-boy mindset from that time period.

Date: 19 Sep 2012 10:36 am (UTC)
cyphomandra: boats in Auckland Harbour. Blue, blocky, cheerful (boats)
From: [personal profile] cyphomandra
I like Ilario, but Mary Gentle is a very much hit-or-miss author for me (I hated Grunts with a passion), and I did think the beginning was set up to weed out the nervous reader. I think 1610 had a similar start.

I can't think of any other intersexed leads (well, outside fanfiction), and I agree with the comment above that sf often plays trans* characters (or gender switching) for the purposes of spectacle - the first trans* anything I read about was in Cordwainer Smith's short story The Crime and the Glory of Commander Suzdal, which involves time travel, intelligent cats and a future society where all females have died (animals, birds, humans) and human men have transformed themselves to female, and it's all portrayed as very nasty and dysfunctional, which was not a great start. And in Alan Moore's The Ballad of Halo Jones there's a minor character who changes sex so often that they erase their identity, and everyone around them ignores them.

Men cross-dressing as women - Achilles avoiding Troy? (huh. Actually, now that I think about it, doesn't Thor also dress up as a woman to get revenge on someone in Norse mythology?) There is a private detective in a Dick Francis novel who cross-dresses in order to spy more effectively (and also successfully up the slash quotient of the book, which may not have been the author's intention).

One other example - Gillian Bradshaw's The Beacon at Alexandria is a rather good historical set in the late Roman empire, where the lead is a woman who wants to be a doctor, and disguises herself successfully as a male eunuch in order to do so. What she wants is something she can't have in her society - recognition and respect as a female physician - and it felt different to me from a lot of the other cross-dressing stories.

Date: 19 Sep 2012 03:34 pm (UTC)
mishalak: A fantasy version of myself drawn by Sue Mason (Nice)
From: [personal profile] mishalak
I have not read it, but as I recall a central plot point to The Bone Doll's Twin is the magical disguise of a female heir to a matriarchal throne as a boy by magic.

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kaigou: this is what I do, darling (Default)
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