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Guest Post: Kameron Hurley

I have a guest today, the talented Kameron Hurley. Her novels were published to great critical acclaim by a small US press, and have now been picked up by a major house here in the UK as well as being republished in the US. She's a wonderful writer and it's a privilege to have her here today, talking about gender (on which her writing is fascinating).

Over to Kameron:

Women and Gentlemen: On Unmasking the Sobering Reality of Hyper-Masculine Characters
In the movie The Jewel of the Nile, sequel to Romancing the Stone, romance author Joan Wilder has written herself into a corner. Pirates have boarded the ship containing her heroine and the heroine’s lover. First, Wilder writes that the hero sacrifices himself to the pirates, allowing the heroine to get away in a rowboat – women and children first, after all.
But Wilder found herself deeply unsatisfied with this turn of events. It’s pretty cliché, after all, and this was 1985 – women’s lib, all that. So she rewrites it so the heroine sacrifices herself to allow her lover to get away. Stuck now with her heroine in the hands of the pirates and her formerly swashbuckling hero cowering in a rowboat, Wilder, frustrated with her choices, throws her typewriter overboard.
Whatever option she chose, it all felt ridiculous.
After almost twenty years writing fiction, it’s an impulse I can sympathize with.
When I started writing short fiction, I spent a lot of time writing sword-and-sorceress stories. I wrote about women who wielded swords and magic, who sacrificed themselves for greater causes, whose concerns were lovers and children. If I flipped them from women to men, they would be considered, perhaps, softer sorts of heroes – goody-goodies, a little too warm, a little too self-sacrificing. For boys, away.
Odd, I thought, that I would read these characters differently with a gender reversal. Why was that?
There was something that bugged me about how I wrote these women. It was like I put a sword in her hand and it didn’t change her. It’s like I didn’t consider how a life of violence would transform a person. I didn’t consider how training a person to kill, and putting them into violent situations, would badly damage the way the interacted with the rest of the world outside a battlefield.
Like Wilder, I felt like I was writing my characters into situations that simply weren’t satisfying.
I had a deep love of 80’s post-apocalypse movies and science fiction classics. Lone-gun hero types with no attachments; incapable of forming long-term relationships, valorized for their ability to bust down walls and shoot bad guys, but often incapable of living in civilized society. I looked at these male action heroes and wondered if we would cheer and celebrate them, their anti-social behavior wholly unquestioned, just as loudly if they were women.
So I began to write about the sort of heroes I loved – whiskey drinking, gun toting, lone wolf types – and I made them women.
I thought, at first, this was going to be really fun. I’d have these swashbuckling, heroic women who didn’t care about anyone or anything, forging off to do battle. And yeah, for the most part, it was fun. But then something interesting started to happen.
By turning squads of soldiers committing war crimes into women, and invading forces from other shores into women, I started to peel back the “normalcy” we attach to this extreme sort of masculinity, and uncover the rottenness at much of its core – while simultaneously creating more interesting and complex visions of women.
In my novel, God’s War, I created a former government assassin turned bounty hunter who was also a war vet. She could accomplish some insane acts of violence. She was notoriously tough to kill. But becoming a killing machine had taken its toll. For all the blood and glory, achieving this pinnacle of strength and perfection her society encouraged required her to give up being able to function within any kind of settled civilization. She couldn’t have normal relationships. She struggled to have friends. She self-medicated with whiskey and mild narcotics. She found the idea of motherhood suspect at best.
I had, I realized, created a monster. I’d created an 80’s action hero.
By putting women into these hyper-masculine roles, I was simultaneously challenging the portrayal of women in fiction as the people who do (as opposed to the people who have things done to them) and encouraging readers to take another look at both the benefits and severe drawbacks of that type of masculinity.
We toss men into the maw of war and call them weak or shell-shocked or mad for coming back physically changed. We say a man who hits women and children is a bully coward, but call him weak for expressing emotions beyond anger and rage. By putting my female characters into this masculinity trap, where they were expected to perform violence and shut down emotion, it gave me a new view of the expectations we have of many men in this society, expectations that linger in the broader media even as we, as individuals, cry out for change.
Expectations of masculinity can creep up on you, because to some extent we still view “masculine” as normal, the default, and “feminine” behavior as “other.” If you think this is not the case, see what happens when you send your son to school in a dress. We can pretend all we like that women are equal, but as long as men and women are continually encouraged to suppress the broad aspects of their humanity which we decry as “feminine” – we’re all screwed.
Because it’s those things we celebrate as “other” that make us truly human. It’s what we label “soft” or “feminine” that makes civilization possible. It’s our empathy, our ability to care and nurture and connect. It’s our ability to come together. To build. To remake. Asking men to cut away their “feminine” traits asked them to cut away half their humanity, just as asking women to suppress their “masculine” traits could be crippling.
What makes us human is not one or the other – the fist or the open palm – it’s our ability to embrace both, and choose the appropriate action for the situation we’re in. Because to deny one half – to burn down the world or refuse to defend the world from those who would burn it – is to deny our humanity and become something less than human.
When I see other writers celebrating their masculine stories in worlds which are 90% male, I wonder, often, if they’re forgotten the full humanity of the people they’re writing about. If they fail to see and interrogate what happens when they erase half an individual, and half the world, they’re suffering an incredible failure of imagination. A willful blindness. It’s celebrating a broken world that never was.
I, too, grew up on Conan stories and Mad Max. I grew up celebrating dangerous alpha males who fucked and drank and blew shit up with no consequences. But whereas other authors, perhaps, grew up to emulate those sorts of hyper-masculine heroes without question, I started to think about how Conan would actually get along in a world. I started to think about ways that hyper masculinity would affect the quality of their lives. I realized that Conan would never have a happy ending. Whether or not that’s something to celebrate, I don’t know. But it’s something we should talk about.
What I found when I started to explore the full potential of my characters is that my stories got better, too. I wasn’t crippling my characters with lazy stereotypes, expected conflicts, and failures of imagination. I was looking at all the different ways we express our humanity.
I was writing about people. Not caricatures.
When we go forward to forge new worlds – fantastic, science fictional – we could do worse than remember that just as our worlds are constructed, the people within it are constructed, too. We create boxes and toss people into them, regardless of their intrinsic ability to fight or nurture or build or destroy. How your characters navigate those social expectations and responsibilities has less to do with their physical sex than it does the ways they choose to adhere to or fight those expectations.
So maybe it’s your hero who gets the rowboat, or your heroine. Or maybe, in truth, there’s another option – maybe they turn and fight the pirates together. Maybe they skillfully talk them out of plunder with a witty, well-chosen story or clever ruse.
Maybe there’s another way out. Maybe it’s not either/or.
That’s the far more interesting story – what our characters do when they’re allowed to be people, not parodies of our own flawed expectations.



ABOUT Kameron Hurley
Kameron Hurley is an award-winning writer and freelance copywriter who grew up in Washington State. She is the author of the book God's War, Infidel, and Rapture, and her short fiction has appeared in magazines such Lightspeed, EscapePod, and Strange Horizons, and anthologies such as The Lowest Heaven and Years Best SF.

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Comments

( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
mevennen
Jan. 14th, 2014 12:55 pm (UTC)
I have, oddly, just finished reading one of Laurie King's novels in which the hero and heroine do fight pirates together, but mainly by being devious, applying their intelligence and (at one point) felling a villain with a grand piano.
blitheringpooks
Jan. 14th, 2014 02:36 pm (UTC)
I just happened to read your post yesterday on Juliet McKenna's blog, and then followed Kari's link to this one.

Your blog tour has done its job. I'm buying God's War now.
cathellisen
Jan. 14th, 2014 02:46 pm (UTC)
Fantastic post. Thanks for this insight into writing a "hyper-masculine" woman, and a look at out flawed gender expectations.
al_zorra
Jan. 14th, 2014 05:50 pm (UTC)
It's not as easy to do as one might think, either, at least to do it effectively. The tropes of adventure fiction, or at least fiction that features adventure and action, are so many thousands of years embedded in our creative structuring.

As an example of what I mean by this, look again at Babylon-5, which in its 5 years' run as a prime time, network television science fiction of the future space opera arc story and character development, did more than its share* of working against tropes and for diversity and gender parity.

However, even with Straczynski's very best intentions and objectives, when Delenn becomes a human-Minbari hybrid, and marries Sheridan, they don't quite know what to do with her any longer -- other than make her pregnant. Though it was grand that she did become pregnant -- that part of a woman's life, when a woman is in such tales at all, tends to be glossed over or left out. B-5 tried so hard to integrate the domestic and parity relationships into his stories. It's not something that men in the field then did much or at all -- and it hasn't changed much.

Which brings me to another arc series, but on cable and contemporary, Boardwalk Empire. It's an historical series, beginning in the decade of Women's sufferage, prohibition and women looking desperately for reproductive control. The male viewers just about unanimously loathe all those women's parts in the history of the time dramatized on the series, which they see embodied in one female character, Margaret. She is universally condemned as boring and pointless to the story which is supposed to be gangsters killing as many of each other as bloodily and in as prolonged shoot-'em-ups as possible. To even show sexy women pregnant, and being physiclaly miserable in their pregnancy, as Boardwalk Empire shows often, outrages them. In their minds the only place for females is to be nubile sex objects. Lordessa save us if they are forced to acknowledge the generally inevitable consequences of all that sexy rip off the clothes and banging of mattresses against the wall. The male viewer feels violated by being shown this.

-----------------

* Xena and Buffy in these matters were its only competitors in 1994 - 1998. It's a little odd that 'out there' that by now only Buffy is hailed for this sort of effort, while Xena and B-5 seem to have faded from the general historical memory -- while Buffy is more criticized for its failures in diversity and gender expectations.

Love, C.
anna_wing
Jan. 15th, 2014 03:42 am (UTC)
"Masculine" and "feminine" are socially constructed, and will manifest differently in different societies. Look at how wuxia films treat women who engage in organised violence. A Chinese action heroine is usually quite different from a US one in terms of behaviour and attitude, as well as in the attitude that the film takes towards her.
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( 6 comments — Leave a comment )

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