On gender and worldbuilding

This is not a review of Everina Maxwell’s Winter’s Orbit, or at least I don’t intend to tag it as one. That said, it’s as close as I’m going to come, and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what I thought about the book by the time I’m done writing anyway. And we should definitely take a moment and stare at that outstanding cover, which is the best thing about the book.

Also, note that the two silhouettes at the top are both pretty gender-neutral, as that’s gonna be a thing.

Let’s talk for a second about how we assign gender to people we haven’t met. Typically this is a thing that happens so fast as to be nearly automatic, to the point where if we aren’t able to immediately assign someone to “male” or “female” it’s immediately noticeable and, for a lot of people quite stressful. (I’m leaving the discussion of whether that’s okay aside, for the record.) But here’s what we do: a quick visual scan for secondary sexual characteristics, right? Prominent breasts, facial hair, hips, then things like clothes and hair length, and sometimes we’re in situations where one thing will trump another. I can’t be the only guy in the world who used to have long hair and has been addressed as “ma’am” by someone behind me who hadn’t seen my face yet, and not one of those people didn’t immediately change their mind and get apologetic the second I turned around and they saw my beard. Never-not-once did anyone think “Wow, that lady has a beard!” Similarly, as a fat guy, while I’m not exactly proud of this, the fact is I’ve dated women with smaller breasts than me. Nobody’s ever looked at my chest and decided I was a woman.

Transgender and nonbinary people have become a lot more broadly socially accepted in the last few years, and the notion of asking people what their pronouns are (or explicitly noting them in, say, an email signature, or a sticker on a name badge) has become something that people are much more likely to do now. This is what happens when those secondary sexual characteristics fail us; sometimes we misgender people, and people making their pronouns clear from the jump has become a good way to avoid making that mistake. There’s still no good way to visually identify someone as nonbinary, though, because people who are nonbinary may still initially scan as feminine or masculine (and people who do present as ambiguous aren’t always nonbinary) so if someone uses they/them as their pronouns (or anything, really, other than he/him/she/her) there’s no immediate way to find that out other than asking, if the person doesn’t do something to make it clear to other people.

In my Benevolence Archives, elves are nonbinary, to the point where displaying visible secondary sex characteristics is viewed as a birth defect. Elves use xe/xir as pronouns, and everyone just knows that, because that’s how elves work. How do elves reproduce? Dunno, I haven’t decided yet. But I decided early on in building the universe that each of the major races would approach gender roles and gender differences a little differently as a culture. For elves, it’s irrelevant. Other cultures range from dwarves, which are a strict matriarchy, to the strict patriarchy of the ogres, to the slightly softer gender role differences of gnomes and humans.

One more side path, and then I’ll circle back to Winter’s Orbit. Feel free to pop over to this post about Sarah Gailey’s novella Taste of Marrow real quick. In short, my main issue with Gailey’s book was one character, named Hero, who uses they/them pronouns, and it becomes very clear over the course of reading the book that Hero is not so much a character as a little game that Gailey is playing with their (Gailey also uses they/them pronouns, although I don’t think they were doing that when Marrow came out, which makes me wonder if I should go back and edit it) readers. Hero is never physically described at all, either by their clothing or their body, and Gailey goes so far as to make sure that Hero never has to talk to anyone other than the core group of characters so that there is never a situation where someone might meet them and guess at their gender. Making things somewhat more annoying is that the book is set 100 or so years ago, making everyone’s open acceptance of whatever is actually going on there slightly less realistic than the central story tenet of the book, which is cowboys riding hippos.

I’m happy to read books with trans or nonbinary characters. And this isn’t so much a complaint about “I don’t know what’s in this person’s pants!” as I have no idea at all what this character might look like, and that’s annoying. Give us something! Nonbinary characters shouldn’t be in your book just so that you can have one character that your audience is endlessly digging for clues about just to figure out how to picture them.

(This can be tricky, of course, and I’ve also read books that made sure you knew characters were trans by doing things like having scenes where a trans woman character more or less loudly announces I SHALL NOW GO URINATE WITH MY PENIS IN THE LADIES’ ROOM, which also sucks because it’s character development via bludgeon. I have a minor side character in BA who I have known was gay since the jump but it’s never made it on the page because I’ve not been able to come up with a way to make it not sound forced in. But that’s a separate conversation.)

So. This book.

Winter’s Orbit began in a way that caught my attention immediately. The book begins with the Emperor (note: male form of the word) summoning her grandson and commanding him to marry a man whose husband has just died, because it is essential that this bond of marriage between the two families be maintained. In going over the grandson’s qualifications for said marriage, he is described as “not gender-exclusive.”

As first five pages go … yeah, my attention was captured pretty quickly. And finding out a few pages later that the two main cultures in this book both identify gender by, effectively, clothing accessories was, if nothing else, not something I’d seen before. One planet, if I’m remembering correctly, identifies men with wooden jewelry and women with crystal jewelry, and if you’re not wearing either you’re nonbinary and use they/them. The other planet apparently uses knots in scarves as a gender identifier, to the point where one character doesn’t recognize a knot and has to be corrected by another when he misgenders someone.

At one point the main character is asked about his ancestry, and he names two “primaries,” and then says for the rest of his genetic mixture the person asking would have to go check his records, so while this is the only detail we get about childbearing (and there are no children whatsoever in the book) one can assume that giving birth is no longer something that half the population is expected to do.

You may already see my problem. In this book, use of “he” or “she” tells you absolutely nothing about what someone looks like, and not only that, there’s not any correlation between gender and societal role– the Emperor and at least one general are both “she,” for example, and suddenly “not gender-exclusive” makes more sense than “bisexual” might have, because in this world there’s no connection at all, as far as I can tell, between someone’s body and their gender. So this book is getting a lot of attention for gay representation, but there’s actually nothing to let us know that Kiem and Jainan both have penises, or more to the point, since they both identify as male, that there’s any concept of homosexuality that can be mapped to this world in the first place. In fact, having read the book, I think there are a couple of hints that Jainan has XX chromosomes and a body we’d call a woman’s; he is described several times as smaller than Kiem, has long hair, and– more telling– there is a scene where he takes his shirt off in front of Kiem and Kiem turns around to give him privacy, which seems slightly unlikely if there aren’t female-presenting breasts under that shirt.

The book explicitly talks about their skin color– both are shades of brown, with one darker than the other– and Jainan’s long hair comes up a couple of times, but other than that they are given no physical description at all. They actually have sex at one point in the book without the author giving any details about what they’re actually doing. I don’t expect this book, which is YA, to flirt with being porn or anything like that, but … come on.

For that matter, if you’re going to posit a world where physical characteristics don’t tell you anything about a person’s gender, relegating those to external pieces of jewelry or knots in scarves, for crying out loud, and where different genders don’t have any particular societal role … why are we still bothering in the first place? What, precisely, makes Kiem a “he” other than that the author is calling him that? What does “he” or “she” even mean in this world? Can Kiem change jewelry tomorrow and expect people to start calling him “she”? Is there any societal weight at all to one’s choice of gender? How does nonbinary even make sense as an option when your gender doesn’t actually, like, do anything? In our society, saying that you don’t buy into the male/female dichotomy has some implications. In a world where gender is meaningless, what does nonbinary mean?

How do you tell someone’s gender if that person is naked?

Do people with uteruses still get pregnant? Clearly this one character has tons of different contributors to his genetic makeup, but he’s royalty; is that true for commoners as well? If we’re still doing political marriages, does viability for producing offspring matter, or can any two people create a child?

The book gets into none of this, which I find immensely frustrating, because frankly the implications of this simple decision about how gender works are the single most interesting thing about the book to me. And that’s a damn shame, because if you’re going to make fiddling with gender a part of your worldbuilding, you owe it to your readers to explore the implications of what you’ve decided to do. And that’s before we have to carefully avoid giving any useful description of anyone in the book– it goes without saying that no one ever has facial hair, for example– so that your setup can even work.

I don’t think it’s asking for much to expect authors to put as much thought into their worldbuilding as the reader will within the first fifteen pages. I dunno; this piece is 1800 words or so long so maybe I’m displaying some sort of hangup on my part, but c’mon. Do better.

Published by

Luther M. Siler

The author of SKYLIGHTS, THE BENEVOLENCE ARCHIVES and several other books.

One thought on “On gender and worldbuilding

  1. My favorite treatment of gender is in “Ancillary Justice” and its sequels. The MC comes from a culture where everyone is “she” regardless of penis-having status, which seems to save a lot of trouble but also presents an interesting mental challenge to a reader from a binary culture (ie me). I’ve reread “Justice” several times and can’t stop picturing characters as female no matter how they’re described or what is said about their gender when they do enter a culture where it matters.

    I do particularly enjoy the MC’s inability to read a new culture’s gender tags, ie clothes, hair, makeup, with the result that she constantly misgenders people or stresses about misgendering them. To her, whether or not someone has a penis is irrelevant and trying to figure it out based on appearance is an exercise in frustration. Amusing, thought-provoking, and a very natural and believable way to explore questions about gender in a fiction environment.

    Like

Comments are closed.