I’ve been doing a lot of thinking recently about gender.
I’ve been thinking about gender because I’m writing a series of books in which it plays an important role. But it’s also on my mind because it’s very much a part of the global conversation these days. Issues of women’s rights in general and transsexual men and women’s rights in particular flare regularly in my morning news feed. My wife is teaching an online class in theater and gender that looks at these subjects in depth. The subjects comes up frequently in my conversations with my daughters and with my friends.
I’m just old enough that when I was young we didn’t make any distinction between sex (as defined by one’s physical appearance) and gender (one’s identification and behavior). Certain toys were girl toys and others were boy toys. Some boys were girly and some girls were tomboys. When I reached high school, we were taught that people with XX chromosomes were female while people with XY chromosomes were male.
That’s just the way it was.
Only, even then, the world was more complicated. I knew people growing up who were what we’d now call intersex — their bodies weren’t either male nor female according to the supposedly clear rules I’d learned. When I was 10, a girl successfully sued in the US Supreme Court to be allowed to play baseball with boys.
So “the way it was” wasn’t actually how things actually were.
Gender, we’ve come to see, is something we do, not something we are. It’s what my wife would describe to her class as a social construct — a concept a group of people decide to treat a particular way. Like race, social class, and numerous other ideas that many cultures treat as real and fixed, gender is less a matter of science and more a matter of agreed-on moral standards of behavior. One society’s ideas of masculine or feminine — and whether those ideas mark distinct states or points on a spectrum — don’t necessarily match another society’s.
In Shakespeare’s England, for example, men wore corsets and nail polish, and put on high-heeled shoes to show off their calves. They were applauded for showing emotion and expressing affection. They were also expected to defend their honor with a blade if need be. Trust me: you would not want to call one of them girly. Especially to his face.
Gender in Risuko’s Japan
In the medieval Japan I’m writing about in Seasons of the Sword, men and women are much more constrained in their behavior, and Japanese society (then as to a lesser extent now) expected men and women’s lives to be completely separate and completely different — especially in the samurai and daimyo classes. Men were held to high standards of personal and family honor, even more so than their counterparts in England. Women were expected to be decorous and soft — and yet samurai women were trained to defend their homes, their families, and themselves as onna-bugeisha.
To this day, men and women speak slightly different dialects of Japanese. Gender difference is built into Japanese culture in a way that even traditional European culture can’t quite equal.
It’s that tension that attracted me to the story of Mochizuki Chiyome and her kunoichi in the first place. The strain between women seen as “delicate flowers” yet acting as warriors and killers intrigued me. I was fascinated by the historical account of a war widow training a group of young girls — orphans and misfits — to do things well beyond the gender norms not only of Japanese Sengoku society, but of modern society as well.
So if gender — male, female, and whatever other designations a culture happens to embrace — is ultimately based not in something as seemingly immutable as biological sex, but in a kind of agreed-on performance in which men behave one way and women another, why do we still get so uncomfortable at the idea of people not sticking to those standards?
Because folks behaving outside of expectations still makes folks wildly uncomfortable.
Why is this so — and why does that discomfort bother me?
Again, I’ve been thinking about this a lot.
Granny Weatherwax tells it like it is
My best answer is to quote from one of my favorite authors, the wonderful late master of satirical fantasy, Terry Pratchett.
Here’s a conversation between a character who holds to a view of right and wrong not far from that espoused by many Western traditions and one of the most unsentimental, clear-eyed characters ever written, Granny Weatherwax:
“There is a very interesting debate raging at the moment on the nature of sin. for example.”
“And what do they think? Against it, are they?”
“It’s not as simple as that. It’s not a black and white issue. There are so many shades of gray.”
“There’s no grays, only white that’s got grubby. I’m surprised you don’t know that. And sin, young man, is when you treat people like things. Including yourself. That’s what sin is.”
“It’s a lot more complicated than that—”
“No. It ain’t. When people say things are a lot more complicated than that, they means they’re getting worried that they won’t like the truth. People as things, that’s where it starts.”
“Oh, I’m sure there are worse crimes—”
“But they starts with thinking about people as things.”—Terry Pratchett, Carpe Jugulum (emphasis mine)
What does that have to do with gender?
Everything, I think.
When we choose to see a person as a man or a woman (or whatever other social constructs we choose to brand them with) before we see them as a person, we’ve taken the first step down a road that, I agree with Granny, is paved with sin.