Gender & cultural analysis paralysis

Listening to podcasts such as Galactic Suburbia has elevated the profile of speculative fiction gender issues in my thinking recently. I never considered myself to be particularly biased in my reading or writing, but it has been very confronting listening to commentary making the point that if you’re not actively supporting gender and cultural diversity in the genre in your purchasing, reading and writing habits, you are effectively engaging in passive discrimination.

I’m not intending to deconstruct the wide range of diversity arguments in this posting. Many clever people have done so much more eloquently than I ever could. Suffice to say that I have probably been guilty of not paying enough attention to who I’m reading and I do agree that you should attempt to read more widely than the traditional white, middle class male science fiction writers of yore. As mentioned in a previous post, my foray into writing has helped me expand my reading range and that has included paying more attention to the authors that I am reading. At the end of the day you will like what you like, but at least you’ll be making an informed choice knowing better the full range of work that is out there.

Of course all this commitment to diverse reading habits is predicated on the assumption that no one is going to make me read the Twilight series. I think that’s fair.

(As an aside, if you are wanting to read some excellent Australian female speculative fiction authors then can I suggest the Twelve Planets series coming out of Twelfth Planet Press, a small Australian publisher. Three of the planned twelve books out so far, all excellent. I believe the fourth book, Bad Power by Deborah Biancotti, has just been released and is hopefully making its way to me in the mail now – can’t wait).

However, I have found one unexpected impact of all this enlightenment. Recently I’ve found myself a bit paralysed in my writing when it comes to representing female characters, or characters from different cultures. I’ve been told that so many things are wrong/insulting/biased that I can’t keep them all in my head. For example every time I put in even the smallest physical description of a female character I worry that I’m sexualising or stereotyping when I don’t mean to. When you get beyond the basics, some of the arguments about what is and isn’t offensive are sometimes a little esoteric (I keep having to look up the “stuffed into the fridge” (1) concept for instance) and don’t come to mind naturally – especially those that talk to unconscious biases that can be deeply ingrained in the culture you grow up in.

I got to the point where I became so concerned that I would end up offending someone that I haven’t wanted to write anything at all.  Then I started getting concerned that by not writing I was committing horrendous sins of omission.

So, I’ve been giving this some thought over the last few weeks and I’ve come to some conclusions.

  • Conclusion 1: I’ll start from a position that a broader perspective is not only good in and of itself, but will improve my ability to tell a story

Yes I know, the road to hell and all that. But I think it is important to acknowledge up front that your intention is to take all this stuff into account because…

  • Conclusion 2: It’s highly likely that I’m going to offend someone at some time

I have accepted that I’m unlikely to write the perfect culturally and gender aware novel/story. I’m likely to get things wrong and despite my best efforts, someone is going to get cranky with me. That leads me onto…

  • Conclusion 3: Don’t worry about it too much in the first draft

In the same way that I gave myself permission to write crap in order to get writing at all, I’ve decided that while I’ll always try to keep gender/cultural issues in mind when writing, I’m not going to worry about my unconscious biases too much in the first draft stage because…

  • Conclusion 4: The second and subsequent drafts are my friends

This, I’ve decided, is where the self editing/polishing phases need to come into their own. As well as other editing tasks, I’ll be looking at my own work with a specific gender/cultural awareness perspective and also asking my inner circle of readers to do the same and then trying to rework any problematic parts. But despite all that excellent effort…

  • Conclusion 5: Something will slip through the net

Whether because it wasn’t caught by me in the writing process, or it is a bias that no one in my reading circle had recognised and brought to the surface, or I’m misunderstood somewhere down the line or because I’m just plain stupid, something will get out there written by me that genuinely and legitimately offends a group. I’m not talking about people just disagreeing with an opinion of mine – fortunately the world is too diverse a place to have everyone agree on pretty much anything. No, I mean I’ll represent a culture in a way that wasn’t meant to be offensive but is or inadvertently say something stupid and stereotyped about a female character.

In that case, I’ll acknowledge I’ve made a mistake, try to learn from it and not do it again in future work.

Re-reading this post, most of my conclusions seem like simple common sense. But there are a lot of well meaning people out there making valid observations about the biases and injustices that exist in the writing world, and it is easy to let it all overwhelm you.

So that is all. No great insights or worthy additions to the conversations on diversity in writing. Just some fairly simple musings on how these issues have impacted my writing process.

Have you had any paralysing moments in your writing or reading? I’d love to hear about them in the comments below.


(1) “Stuffed into a fridge” – just so you don’t have to look it up (it can be disturbing what you find in Google when you type in something like “stuffed into a fridge”), the term refers to a plot device where a female character is killed off solely to further the journey of the male hero.

This one is of particular concern to me, because at the start of one of my stories the male character does indeed lose his wife to the bad guys (I was trying to think of the worst possible thing that could happen to him to send him into a downward spiral with little to no support – that was it). And 60,000 words in it is kind of a key element of the plot. And I’m struggling to think of a different way of achieving the same effect…

Author: mark

A writer of speculative fiction and all round good egg. Well, mostly good. OK, sometimes good.

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