Boy or Girl?

6 March 2001 (again)

Goals for the day: finish typing and editing a story I did over my crazy week. Give/send it to my writers' group for critique. Write another thousand words on the new novel, in addition to the thousand I've done this morning. Get a good chunk of research done on the freelance contract projects.

Yeah. Now look what I'm actually doing.

The thing is, I got a letter from a professional editor -- is it okay if I say which one it is? I'm really not sure -- pointing out some things he'd like to have changed about "Irena's Roses" and inviting me to resubmit it if I made those changes. Which is pretty cool, you know, better than a kick in the head, but one of the things he noticed was that the narrator character's first name was not specified until page 15 (out of 35) -- leaving him assuming that she was actually a he. Now, nobody else had a problem with this. Nobody else even noticed this, and that included Rick Wilber at Galaxy, who agreed to buy this story before Galaxy proved that they didn't deserve him or really much of anything else. I've had at least a dozen people read this story, and not a single one of them had a problem discerning that the main character was female.

Problem is, I have no idea how. I would like to say that the editor in question would not have noticed, either, if the name on page 15 had been "Dave," that he had a bias for doctor characters being male, and that that bias caused him to miss the subtle cues other readers picked up on. Thing is, I have no idea what subtle cues those might be. I don't think it matters a bit what sex the narrator is, in the context of this story. What makes it worse is that her first name is Jean, and her last name could be French in origin. So is it an American or other English-speaking female, or a French-speaking male? Have we even solved the problem by having someone call her "Jean" on the second page?

I carefully structured this story so that it was not making a statement about Gender And Power. Seriously. I remember when I was thinking about the boss character, thinking, "All right, Dr. Chen has to be a woman, because I don't want this to be Plucky Young Woman Goes Up Against Male Establishment." Women can be just as stodgy, just as blind, and just as entrenched as men -- and when they are, nobody says, "Ah ha, it's a feminist story!" This is not a feminist story. It's a humanist story. And I think it's important that the most powerless character in the story not be the only woman. That's not the point I'm trying to make either, it's not an anti-feminist story. So what I ended up with was pretty balanced as far as the supporting characters, but I really don't think the main character would throw it off significantly one way or another. By the way, I hated having to think about that sort of thing while I was doing it, but I had enough stories interpreted that way to be wary of it. (When you're writing a near-future story with a physicist, it is realistic to have most of the older physicists be male. The odds are just not on your side that it'll be a balanced group. Nor are the odds on your side that it'll be a racially balanced group. Physics departments don't look like a McDonald's commercial. That doesn't make any disagreement between a student and his or her advisor automatically a statement about Gender, Race, and Power.)

So then I started thinking about what does indicate the first-person narrator's gender to the reader, right off the bat. I don't wear make-up or paint my nails. Lots of guys these days are messing around with those things at least, and it's getting to be less "freakish" for them to do so. I have long hair -- so does Mark. I really hate most first-person self-description, so as far as appearance stuff, I'm kind of stuck with action items. I don't really want my narrator to be scratching various gender-specifying places in the first scenes of every first-person story, nor should everybody have to enter a gender-segregated restroom right off the bat. Finally, I write science fiction -- I don't want the reader to assume that the culture he or she is reading about means the same things by terms like "husband, "wife," "boyfriend," or "girlfriend," unless it's clear that I'm writing in a specific past, contemporary, or near-future setting. Part of the fun of writing SF is being able to play with cultures -- I don't want to give that up just to make it clear what plumbing a character has.

So...the only reasonable gender indicator I came up with, the only one I like for a far-future setting, besides the ever-popular gender-specific first name, is family relationships. Telling the reader that the main character has a wife may not be helpful, but that the main character is a mother, daughter, or sister probably still will be. I think. Hmm. Any other suggestions?

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