Friday, December 7, 2012

Gender and Feminism (or the lack thereof) in Legacy of the Zendari

Thank you to everyone for all the comments on all of the reviews, and especially on my own post-mortem for Legacy of the Zendari. Much appreciated! (I can't believe I've finished all the reviews!)

Anyway, while it's still fresh in my readers' minds, I'd like to bring up one response I got to Legacy of the Zendari which I did not include in my previous post about it: an accusation of sexism.

I was a bit taken aback by this. I consider myself a feminist, to the extent that I firmly believe all people are fundamentally equal. Do I think anybody should get special rights? No, on either side of that equation. That said, if there is an imbalance, effort must be exerted to correct that imbalance. It won't happen on it's own.

While this principle of equality is one that I firmly believe, and want to layer into all of my writing, my goal is not to hit the reader over the head with it every time. Nor do I even think that would be effective.

So I wrote Legacy of the Zendari like I write any piece, by coming up with some characters that seemed both natural and to fit the story and throwing them in.

It never even occurred to me that these characters might add together to create a world view that seemed sexist. Maybe that's my bad for not looking out for it?

I mean, ignorance is not an excuse, but at the same time... you take a character like the Geo-Cure girl (who I believe I named Jenny...). She's not a strong woman--but she's not a strong character. She's existed as a conscious being for like, two and a half hours, tops, by the end of the story. She was born (effectively) fully fledged, a brand new consciousness in the body of a young adult, with all the experiences and feelings that come with that body. Totally unprepared to be rescued by a dashing, heroic RADF agent of the gender she is sexually attracted to.

Is this an adolescent fantasy? Sure, to some extent. You open the case to find a beautiful, naked girl, who immediately latches on to you. But part of my message there was not just to say, "hey dude, hot times on the horizon!" It's to, hopefully, if I did my job right, raise some very valid moral questions about whether doing anything with her would be morally acceptable. Though she has the body of an adult, she's in spirit more like a child. And you're her only guardian.

Though in the story, one route is to embrace your relationship with her, and there's definitely an implication of where that relationship is going, that's not the only route, nor (do I think), there's any moral implication that that's the correct route.

From my perspective, I certainly wasn't intending that to be "degrading to women." The premise is, well, science fiction, and maybe a little bit of wish-fulfillment, but everything after that, though perhaps a bit cliche, is both realistic within the terms of the world, and consistent to the characters themselves. It seems natural to me that someone who just woke up would latch on to the nearest strong personality.

The other complaint this reader lodged was that every woman in the show was "there to be a romantic interest for a male."

Well, every character is there for a reason. For the Rick and Lisa romance, for example, it's true that Lisa is there "just" to be a romantic interest for Rick--but it's equally true that Rick is there "just" to be a romantic interest for Lisa. I don't see either statement as being relevant. (In fact, neither is there "just" for their relationship with the other, they also flesh out the roles of some of the minor characters in the base, serving functions on the base and presenting minor interactions with the main character.)

The main characters has two potential love interests, but love triangles and the difficult choices those create are a common literary theme, both in high literature and pulp fiction. Any dating game takes this to extremes--are those sexist?

There are only a couple of characters that *aren't* involved in any romance. None of them happen to be women, but that's just because I happened to choose male for the gender of those characters. There was no social statement intended by that decision. It's a military setting, and most military settings today are dominated by men. If anything, I personally am impressed by Minna for being intelligent, successful, and unintimidated by her gruff coworkers and commanding officer.

So, those are my thoughts, but maybe I missed something.

Here's the question I put to you, is this work degrading to women? Does it represent women in a degrading or insensitive light, or relegate them to an inferior position with relation to men, in any way? 

Though a feminist, it is not my goal to wave the feminist flag high and proud with every single piece I write--any more than it's my goal to wave the atheist or gay rights flag high and proud with every single piece I write, even though those are also beliefs I happen to hold. I don't think shoving your morals down the reader's throat does anybody any good. If you want to share your opinions, do it subtly; just raise the question and let the reader decide for him- or herself.

That said, I also don't want to accidentally wave a sexist flag! 

When I tried to express these thoughts to this reader (someone I do know in person), I was advised to seek a "more enlightened male" who could explain it to me. So, here I am, asking for help. What do you all think?

(Though responses from male readers are highly valued, given the subject matter, I would be especially interested to hear responses from any female readers out there!)


  1. I don't believe there is anything inherently sexist regarding the characters in your adventure. But any creative work (movie, fiction etc.), is open to the interpretations of whomever happens to view it. So when someone fires off such an accusation, it often says more about their own state of mind than anything else.

    There is no standard or universal definition of what makes a creative work "sexist". So there is therefore usually not a simple "yes" or "no" answer to your question "is the work sexist"- the closest you could come would be to take a survey of readers and see how many consider it sexist. I would guess not many, in this case. Unfortunately, there are simply some people that have an extremely low threshhold for what they consider sexist (or racist, or whatever).

  2. You could always counterargue that the "more enlightened" ones have odd priorities. The slaughter of sentient beings (for reader enjoyment) is OK, but we must clamp down on gender portrayal? Maybe we shouldn't even set up a totem of morality because degradation is inherent to fictional characters. I forget who said it, but writers should do horrible things to their characters to increase conflict as they go. According to that advice, characters *should* be seen as mere objects, though typically ones of punishment.

    Characters also need some flaws or else they become unrelatable, maybe even contrived or detested. Being too careful here can lead to androgynous PC cutouts.

    1. I was so amused by your response to Jenny: "I was down to 15 minutes left, no kidding. I threw that little girl at my commanding officer so hard they both almost went to their doom down the elevator. I can't be blamed; it was the fight or flight mechanism."

      Still makes me lol...

      Incidentally, you called it with your votes! You mentioned you would have voted for mine and Final Payment if you hadn't entered the contest yourself. You nailed it.

  3. It's possible to contribute to a problematic societal perception with perfectly good intentions. For example, I highly doubt that the authors of gamebooks with a clear male protagonist (the majority of those I played as a kid) were trying to discourage me or any other girls, but the net effect was there. I came away thinking that apparently women just don't make for compelling heroes, because I rarely read about any. Given that their audience was probably mostly male, this was a perfectly sensical choice, and I certainly wouldn't call the individual authors sexist, but the trend certainly wasn't particularly friendly to all genders, and the accumulation of examples in the trend saddened me.

    I do sort of look askance at Jenny. Deciding whether to sacrifice a human life, especially a young, innocent one, was enough of a problem for me; I didn't see that any sexual tension needed to come into it.

    And just something about this statement:

    There are only a couple of characters that *aren't* involved in any romance. None of them happen to be women, but that's just because I happened to choose male for the gender of those characters. There was no social statement intended by that decision. It's a military setting, and most military settings today are dominated by men.

    In a science fictional work, defaulting to "oh, that's how they do it today" is kind of...well, it lacks the creativity that allowed you to include mechas and aliens, which we don't have in clear evidence in modern times either. It may not have been a social statement by you, but you did choose to reflect a societal attitude that you knew was imbalanced.

    All that said! I didn't come out of this gamebook feeling put-upon as a woman, personally. I enjoyed it for what it was. But I can see where your friend is coming from -- it's just another anti-example of favorably portrayed women in a looooong list of anti-examples.

    1. Thanks for the thoughtful response Karalynn (and everyone!) It sounds like, though I may not notice when I'm portraying gender roles that perpetuate an imbalanced norm, there are people who will notice--especially those on the less advantaged side of that imbalance norm. And of those, some percentage of them will be very offended.

      At the same time, if I were doing this again (or, say... revising it before it goes into publication with Tin Man Games sometime in 2013...) I'm not sure what I would change.

      I mean, the only characters whose gender doesn't really matter to their role in the story are the CO, Bernard, and the gruff mechanic, Sgt. Mac Ross. Now, his name is a play on words (Mac Ross... Macross...) otherwise he would be my first choice for a gender switch. I could change Bernard. That would help make him less cliche, too, which might not be a bad thing. I mean, I kind of like the "old warhorse" vibe I had going from him, but that could possibly be put onto a female character. Could be interesting, actually.

      But what do you think? Would that actually make a difference? Are there any other specific changes you think could be made to improve the story in this regard?

      (Or, honestly, in any regard! I do have the chance to make a few edits before it goes out, I believe...)

      As to Jenny, she's a more complicated topic... it's definitely not an equal relationship in the story, but for some reason I'm reluctant to change it. I'll have to think more about why that is and what I'm really trying to achieve there. Thanks for your feedback, though!

  4. I have a similar example. At one point, in a RPG design, I considered adding in a small mechanical difference between characters based on gender. It was - in terms of the background - justifiable and had no real impact on game balance (if anything, it probably gave female characters a slight advantage). Needless to say, the idea was criticized heavily. The dissonance between what I thought the mechanics were communicating and what people interpreted was staggering.

    I think the key thing to realize as a creator is that you cannot control how people view your work - only guide it. And especially when it comes to gender, you must realize that anytime you move into the realm of distinguishing between the sexes in any way other than the absolutely necessary, you'd better be absolutely crystal-clear about why you are doing this (e.g., historical realism, important plot point, etc). This is true for all kinds of discrimination, of course.

    And you always need to look carefully at the supporting cast. As a writer, it is natural to look for "short-cuts" when describing characters. Especially for non-essential characters where it is important to get across some basic impressions - and that very easily leads to stereotypes, including gender stereotypes.

    An interesting article on the problem in computer games:
    (Fell across it recently after the big #1reasonwhy trend on twitter). I particularly like their suggested list of criteria at the end, because reading it, you realize just how few games would actually pass even three of those minimal criteria:
    1. Pass the Bechdel test (i.e., two females talking to each other about something other than a man).
    2. Diverse set of female characters (i.e., old females, females with non-idealized body types).
    3. Equal numbers. Same amount of characters, same amount of sexuality, same amount of respect and relevance.

    Of course, it's not as if other media (film, comics, etc) would fare particularly well if required to pass those criteria either, but that's no excuse.