Ria Bridges is a speculative fiction reviewer I pay a lot of attention to. Ria’s reviews are very thoughtful and she reads a ton of books that catch my interest. However, the one of the main reasons why she interests me so much is because of her openness regarding gender and sexuality, and her struggles with conforming to a rather binary society when she isn’t really, well, binary. Ria has opened my eyes regarding gender and sexuality, and made me realize just how incredibly ignorant I really am regarding this.
I asked Ria if she would be willing to write something about gender and the genre for my website, because I think it is an incredibly important issue. I was absolutely beyond thrilled when she didn’t laugh me out of the park, and instead jumped on it and sent me this absolutely fantastic, completely thought provoking post.
Thank you, Ria.
About the Author
Ria Bridges is an ex-pat Brit currently living on the east coast of Canada, along with 5 cats and a glorified budgie named Albert. When not reading and reviewing books on bibliotropic.net, Ria can often be found obsessively playing video games, being an amateur photographer, or experimenting with various fibre arts. Ria dreams of someday writing something of publishable quality, and then finding the courage to actually follow through and try to get it published.
Genre and Gender
By Ria Bridges
When Sarah first asked me to write a post for Bookworm Blues about my views of gender identity and its relation to SFF, I was thrilled. My gender identity is something that’s very important to me, a bone of contention and something that I’ve struggled to discover and name and finally work to carve out for myself, and I have no problems talking about it. I leapt at the chance to talk. But how it relates to SFF? What could I possibly say that hasn’t been said a dozen times or more, and by people with far more reach and influence than myself?
On the other hand, I continually run into people who, while they may understand the idea of being transgendered, don’t understand that the story is much more varied than it looks at first glance. So maybe I do have something worth saying.
When most people think of gender, we think of male and female, the binary, opposite ends of a spectrum. Most people fall happily into those categorizations, for they are quite broad. Being female, for example, doesn’t have to mean that you always wear dresses and enjoy cooking and makeup and are attracted to males, and all the other stereotypical traits that we attach to that one identifying word. Ditto for men. Men don’t have to be macho and watch sports and play with power tools all day in order to still feel comfortable being called men.
But just as black and white are on opposite ends of the spectrum, with many shades and colours in between, so too is gender. The world isn’t as simple as black and white, male and female.
Years ago, I used to joke that I was a nonentity. I stopped this, largely at the request of friends who felt that I was devaluing myself by saying that. But in a weird way, that was part of my point. By most of the labels we can give ourselves to help identify who we are and thus how we relate to others, I didn’t exist. There wasn’t a label that I knew of at the time that applied to me. I couldn’t say, “Hi, I’m Ria, I’m straight, and I’m okay with being a woman.” Nor could I say, “I’m Ria, my DNA says I’m female but my mind and heart tell me I’m male, so I’m a transman.” The ways that people tended to self-identify didn’t apply to me. There were no check boxes for “none of the above.” How do you give a value to something that, for all the signs you see, doesn’t actually exist?
When I read genre fiction, I read it for 2 reasons. First, I read it because I love sinking into new worlds, new settings, letting them wash over me and wrap around me and just bury me in the wonder of a world that isn’t this one, a life that isn’t my life. And second, I read it because genre fiction has a unique opportunity to explore so many issues in so many ways that not only bring to life what could be but also serve to expand on what already is. It’s fertile ground for exploration, for experimentation, for taking a look at the hard-hitting issues of today in unexpected ways.
And what hits harder than personal identification? There’s something powerful about reading a book and seeing yourself reflected in a character. It lends legitimacy to a personal issue. It might lead to that “a-ha!” moment when someone struggling with their identity discovers that somebody else out there has thought the same things they have, wondered the same things about themselves, wrestled with the same questions and came out the other side.
When we don’t get that chance, we feel like nonentities. When we look into the mirror of media and see only people unlike ourselves staring back, it starts to feel like we really don’t have a presence, like we’re islands, disconnected and alone. When the rest of the world tells us we’re invisible, it sounds an awful lot like we’re wrong, like we’re abnormal and freakish and that to have any connection, we need to change our fundamental identities.
Honestly, I’m still hearing that from many sources. Many people have accepted that there are genders other than simply male and female. Third gender, fourth gender, dual gender. There are options. But for me, I don’t identify with any gender. I’ve given it a lot of thought, tried to call myself an androgyne, which felt wrong because that’s a mix of male and female by its very literal meaning, or third gendered, which seems to have nebulous definitions last time I checked and seems most often applied to those who don’t identify with male or female but still feel like they have a gender. Me, I don’t. Assigning a gender to myself just feels incorrect, like I’m doing what I did when I was a teenager and just grasping for the closest word that defines what I feel even when it’s not accurate.
It took years for me to discover the term “agendered.” No gender. And it was a revelation, a validation that what I felt was something that other people also felt, that I wasn’t unique and therefore incomprehensible. There wasn’t something wrong with me.
Genre fiction is doing wonders to promote the spectrum of sexuality. It’s starting to do more in regard to gender, too, which is awesome to see. But where I see it fall down is in the expression of non-binary gender when it comes to humans. Most characters who are neither male nor female are often non-humans, some other species in both science fiction and fantasy. There’s still that subtle message being passed across that those who identify as non-binary gendered are not human. It’s probably not intentional. It’s not malicious. But it still results in looking into the mirror and seeing nothing that resembles us. There’s a gap that still needs to be filled.
And I understand why it’s hard to fill that gap. If someone asked me to list the defining characteristics of being agendered, I really wouldn’t be able to give a concrete answer. Most of all it’s a feeling that other gender identities don’t apply. I don’t identify with being female, nor male, nor a mix of both, nor some as-of-yet unnamed third or fourth of fifth gender. On multiple tests for personality, perspective, gendered traits, multi-tasking versus spatial relations, I come out firmly in the middle, sometimes with a slight leaning toward the female side of the spectrum. But even that would be a flawed way of describing it, since everyone’s different and tests like that are biased upon the binary to start with. A trait is either male or female, and no two ways about it.
So how best to write about something that’s so hard to describe? How do you create a realistic character who identifies with a non-binary gender when so much of our way of thinking is geared toward as a default, even when we’re not consciously aware of it?
My body is never going to look the way I want it too. I might be able to come close by shelling out a bunch of money out-of-pocket for some cosmetic surgery and sitting through a lecture about how changing my chest will ruin my self-esteem and make me feel like less of a woman (which is kind of the point…), but that’s not happening any time soon. Gender reassignment treatments do exist, but it can still be difficult enough to find a doctor who will take the idea of transitioning seriously when it’s a male-to-female or female-to-male switch. We’re living at a time where increasingly we’re allowed and encouraged to live outside traditional gender roles if that’s what suits us, but those roles are still prevalent and still make their presence known. It’s fine to go from A to B or B to A. But there’s still no check box for “None of the above.”
But the joy of genre is that there’s a greater hope here than just about anywhere else that I’m going to see someone very much like myself looking back at me from the pages someday. I experienced this once in regard to my sexual preferences (Tori, in R J Anderson’s Quicksilver, is asexual, and it’s presented there as a legitimate preference rather than the result of trauma or religious vows), and it was an amazing feeling. Someday it’ll happen with my gender. The thought that I and many others like me will be able to look into that mirror and see ourselves and so many others staring back, so many positive representations of that fundamental identifier we attach to ourselves… That is an encouraging thought.