Elizabeth Barrette (ysabetwordsmith) wrote,
Elizabeth Barrette

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Gender Studies in Fantasy

I've been having a ball with the discussions about the set of high fantasy gender studies ballads that came out of the April 7, 2009 Poetry Fishbowl. Each of the poems presents, supports, and/or challenges a different set of ideas regarding sexuality, gender expression, identity, and life choices.

"A Doe in Velvet" -- If you don't want to get married, you don't have to. You can be happy living and working alone. Not every identity requires another person to complete it. If your assigned gender role doesn't suit you, it's okay to pick a different one that does. You can modify your body within your ability; it's your body to manage as you wish. Sometimes the place you grew up is not right for you, and you outgrow it and move on.

"Whistling Girls and Crowing Hens" -- It's okay for women to be strong, assertive, adventurous people. Heras can save the day and still find men who will love them and not feel threatened by them. Strong women can be wives and mothers if they want to. You don't have to be a lesbian or a loner just because you aren't quite conventional housewife material. Even if you didn't hear what you needed to hear growing up, sometimes you can figure out how to do a better job for your own children.

"Where Have All the Heroes Gone?/Different Gifts" -- Some men and women enjoy traditional roles, and that's okay too. Some flavors of gender expression do require a particular matching component for completion and happiness. If that's you, it's okay for you to declare what you want and go looking for your other half, trusting that somewhere out there will be someone who's looking for you too. It's okay for a woman to be passive, if that's her nature and she's comfortable with it. It's okay for a man to be strong and protective, if that's his nature and he's comfortable with it. And if people try to make you be something you're not, you have the same right as everyone else to tell them to shove off.

Further discussions of this poem may be found in the background posts where haikujaguar called for cosponsors, I relayed it, and then she posted the followup sketch.

"Gentleman in Distress" -- It's okay for men to be gentle; they don't all have to be warriors. Being gentle does not mean that nobody will want them. Not all gentle men are gay, although some of them are. If you're in trouble and you can't get out on your own, it's okay to ask for help; doing that doesn't make you weak or mean that you're a bad person. Two people can be thrown together in a nasty situation and wind up as friends instead of lovers. And heroes can work together to save the day and not get into an ego-fight before, during, or afterwards.

Taken together, these poems convey a fairly good summary of my opinions about gender expression and identity: Be yourself. As long as you aren't harming anyone, what you choose to do is okay. Don't try to force anyone to be something they're not, because that isn't good for you or them or society. Whatever combination of traits and skills you have contributes to your personal worth, and it's good that people have different combinations. You are responsible for your own life and happiness and choices. One person's choice does not have to be everyone's choice or even affect anyone else's choice. There IS no one true right and only way.

Taken separately ... not so accurate. Each individual poem focuses on a particular type of character and situation. That doesn't mean everybody has to do things that way. It just means this is how this character responded to a certain challenge. One individual piece rarely reflects an author's entire opinion of any issue.

I really am enjoying the discussions, but some of them incline me to repeat some basic rules of literature:

  • I am not my characters. Some of them are a lot like me, some of them are moderately like me, some of them are totally different. I like exploring that whole range; I don't want to be limited to writing about people like me. They aren't even like each other.

  • I do not necessarily agree with, support, and/or practice everything my characters do. Some things yes, some things no. There are some things I choose not to write about, but for the most part, I like having a wide range to explore.

  • It's not always easy to identify my personal beliefs by reading my poetry and fiction. Sometimes my own voice comes through quite clearly; other times, I'm exploring a different worldview through a character whose perspective may obscure mine. If you read a lot of my writing, however, the prevailing patterns should show you what kind of things interest me and what are some of the principles I hold.

  • Fiction is fiction; it's not intended to be applied directly to real life. The same is true of narrative poetry. These types of writing may deal with real issues, inspire valid realizations about how you think or treat people or what societies are like ... but they aren't the same kind of "real" as nonfiction and shouldn't be confused with it.

  • What you get out of a piece is not necessarily what I put into it. A reader's interpretation and a writer's interpretation are equally valid, for different and complimentary reasons. Different readers may also get quite different things out of the same piece, and that's okay too. A well-crafted piece of literature should convey the author's intent; but if it conveys some other things to some readers, that doesn't make it bad literature, just flexible and thought-provoking. (See "Shakespeare in the Bush" for an example of the latter.)

  • And that's okay. Literature has many purposes. It can make you laugh, or cry, or squeal in fear, or think. I generally aim both to entertain and to make people think. If you're talking about a piece and what it means, I figure I've done my job.

In case the general subject area has intrigued you, these resources might be useful:

"Sexual Identity and Gender Identity Glossary"
"Gender Roles"
"GLBTQ Science Fiction and Fantasy"
"Images of Masculinity in Fantasy Fiction"
"Gender in Speculative Fiction"
"Famous Feminists and the History of Feminism"
"Gaylactic Spectrum Awards"
James Tiptree, Jr. Award

If you didn't already know this about me ... I took a minor in Women's Studies in college, back before gender studies became available. I'm a feminist, more or less; more precisely, I believe that people have a right to their own choices and expressions of gender and sexuality, and that those should not affect their ability to survive, hold a job, or have a family. These are not always popular opinions, but I stand by them. This kind of discussion is familiar for me -- some of this is stuff that came up in heated discussions during various classes I've taken.

So now that you've seen the set of poems together, does it change your impressions? What does it make you think about cyberfunded creativity, the power of community, and the opportunity to enshrine a favorite topic in literary form? What does it mean for literature and culture that we can do this -- swap ideas, write poetry, fund each other's endeavors, then sit down under a virtual shade tree and discuss the results?
Tags: cyberfunded creativity, fantasy, fishbowl, gender studies, networking, poetry, reading, writing

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