Cullen’s Whiplash Writing Recommendations: Why Are Alternate Universe So Gender-Conformist?

As you’re all well aware, I primarily write in genre fiction. Perhaps it’s just my perspective as an Autistic person, but this has been on my mind a lot recently: why is it that we’ve reached a threshold where there are several thousand permutations of magic with a hundred times that many rules, loopholes, caveats and false limits, but I haven’t seen a single author use sex and gender differently?

I don’t mean your main character is a bisexual halfing or a lesbian dwarf or a polyamorous orc. I mean that every single goddamn book I’ve ever read set in what is ostensibly a completely different universe pulls its gender roles from the same threadbare sack of tropes and angst: the one created in our world. The “default” culture of the world (also, they all have a default culture similar to ours, but that’s another article) always carries over every single preconception we ourselves have. Why?

I know these are extremely sensitive issues and we as writers feel a need to cover them. I respect that. The problem is that we are throwing away one of the golden opportunities of genre fiction: presenting ways that things could be different. The fantasy, sci-fi or space opera novelist would be rather silly to take the same statements made by activists every day and rehash them in a book which features faster-than-light travel and genetic engineering, or an order of mages battling the clockwork legions of some ancient race. If you can get your readers to accept those things, none of which exist for us at present, why is it so hard to envision a world dominated by alternate gender expressions?

Here: a world in which the idea of judging a person’s ability based on their sex or gender is as outlandish as the idea of judging a book based on the font it uses. You might argue that we sometimes do that, but I’d say it only happens when the book has made a conscious effort to draw our attention. In the same vein, think of a world where being male, female or something else is only conspicuous if you decide to make it so. Now, far be it from me, a cis-gender white male from privilege (Asperger’s aside), to claim a proper understanding of the social justice movement. But I’d thought the whole idea was to have a world in which the individual can be whoever they wish without censure. Unless they wish to be a mass-murderer, anyway.

So why do we have not just sexism, but the same form of sexism in every alternate universe we write? Every single time, it’s, “Oh, look, that (obvious protagonist) woman is trying to do things. How cute of the stupid bitch,” et cetera, et cetera. I get it, alright? Sexism is awful and sexists are infuriating and you just want to have a story where they get what’s coming to them!

Well, it’s been done. If you have to do it again, write a realistic fiction piece. Depressing regurgitation of our existing reality is what they excel at. I’m sorry for saying that so forcefully, but if that’s your priority you may want to reconsider whether genre fiction is really your thing. Here’s one of my tiny number of immutable rules: to be a good genre fiction writer, you must care more about the world you’re creating, its characters, and the possibility it offers than themes. Themes are like specialty seasonings: the right ones suggest themselves from the flavor of the food itself. You wouldn’t pan sear a perch and dump raspberry sauce all over it, the flavors just don’t work together. For that matter, you’ll ruin that nice crispy sear with all the extra juice.

Sex and gender, like anything else in a fantasy or futuristic universe, are worldbuilding elements first and foremost. They’re not concrete slabs you have to carry on your back and drop at intersections throughout your work, they’re an intersection in themselves and the thousand roads striking forth from it. If you don’t at least consider doing them differently, you’re letting yourself down. You deserve better from your own writing than the dutiful rehash of the same old, same old social burdens.

Here, let me offer an example:


This is one of my in-progress art projects, a greatsword carefully modeled so that in the real world it would have a hollow-ground 52 inch blade and a grip of 20 inches. These are carefully upscaled from historical models to be appropriate to a character of 6 foot 3 inches in height (this is almost exactly 1.9 meters if you live in any non-‘MURICA sector of the world). As you may have guessed, the character using this weapon is a woman. In the world of books (in which she is a main character), there is nothing odd or exceptional about this. Her instructor does not say, “As a woman, you have lighter bone structure and therefore are weaker,” or anything to this effect. Sexual dimorphism among humans on this world is primarily a matter of a few joints, where we get fat quickest, and whether/where the private parts in question are bulgy or hollow. That’s it.

You may now present me any argument you wish to the effect that people don’t work this way, and my answer will be: literal magic. This world contains literal magic. If the body science isn’t 100% feasible on Earth (although for the most part I believe it is, we just didn’t select for it in the last 200,000 years of discriminating reproduction), that doesn’t goddamn matter. There is actual magic floating around, an infinite cosmic force (thus violating all known laws regarding conservation of energy) which only grows more common the more it’s used.

I get more interesting options all around. There is never any inherent reason why a female character cannot do something in this world, and cultural reasons no longer have to negotiate biological fact because biological fact amounts to a shrugging “eh?” If a female character doesn’t, for example, practice swordfighting, it’s now a purely elective choice that reflects on her as an individual. It’s an element of character, not just a looping “battle of the sexes” shtick. Women are not by default shorter or weaker than men in this world, so they’re not at any form of default combat advantage.

So now, every time I recognize a point where I’d normally end up presenting a copy-pasted sexist episode as a kind of obligate existential baggage, I can do something fun. Or something instructive. Or I can just not address the issue at all because the tonal clash created at that point in the narrative would be counter-productive.

I’m not telling you that you have to write your world this way. That’s the opposite of what I’m getting at. This is just another permutation of those damned trees: if you like oaks and you want to have oaks in your world, that’s fine, but you should have oaks by conscious choice rather than simply because you expect oaks in things. A fantasy world does not need to “be relatable,” it’s a fantasy. Characters we can relate to are one thing (although I’m going to address ones who are a bit too relatable soon), but a reader who picks up a high fantasy book and demands to know why it’s not set in the grungy streets of Glasgow is a total asshole. I’m not going to dignify this hypothetical person by a wittier appellation; they are an asshole. Again, it’s a fantasy. Up to a certain threshold where it stops being alien and becomes incoherent, fantasy should be unrelatable. That’s what gives it its wonder. A fantasy world in which everything is just like ours but with mumbo-jumbo is trash.

I mean, y’know, unless it’s really well executed. I’m not saying your ladies can’t be ladies and your lords lords. All that’s fine. If that’s what you feel works best, you’re probably right. It’s your world. The main thing is that whatever path you choose, you stay on it. No matter how much you want to double back and get tropey, you need to stick to your guns. Or, er, arbalests, as it were. Be true to the world you’ve committed to, and either way your works will be better off for that focus.

But you’ll never know one way or the other if you don’t ask the question: “Well, yes, women are smaller and men are idiots, but what if they weren’t?”

Say something, darn it!

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