I recently had a discussion with a few friends of mine on the relevance of gender in prose. One of said friends is writing a novella in which the main character’s gender isn’t specified; the other is an astrophysicist with very little knowledge of creative writing. To me, gender isn’t important (in literature or the real world, but we’ll stick to literature for the time being) – so long as a character interests me, I have very little need to know what gender they are. The astrophysicist however claims that for him, gender is part of how he as a reader familiarises himself with a character and the setting of the text. I understand where he is coming from; some description of a character is helpful and allows the reader to form a better picture of the scene, however I struggle to see how gender would be the best way to achieve this.
During the conversation my astrophysicist friend made the point that gender allows for the reader to better understand the motives and thoughts of the character. In using gender to describe a character, we must be aware that a reader may press traditional gender roles onto the character. For my astrophysicist friend, this sets up how the character will act; a genderless character therefore would be harder to pin down. He doesn’t like if a character acts outside of how he expected them to, and he claims that a character with a non-specified gender may go against the image he has of them. A counterpoint for this is of course that characters can go against their gender roles just as easily as they can comply with them – in fact, characters can and do behave differently to how we expect regardless of gender.
The astrophysicist’s point is an interesting one, even if I’m not sold on it – say we describe a character as having long hair and wears a bracelet, for example. We discussed this at the time; just saying that would make most people assume that the character is or presents as female. Whilst we were having the conversation, however, both me and the (male) friend who is writing a novella had long hair and were wearing bracelets. For the astrophysicist, this description poses a problem – if it was later revealed that the character was at least biologically male when he’d pictured them female, it would disrupt his reading of the text. Of course, many texts with characters of non-specific gender don’t reveal their character’s biological sex, and we surely shouldn’t expect them to unless it’s relevant to the text. It may be necessary, however if a writer decides not to specify their character’s gender the chances are they won’t specify their biological sex if possible either.
Although I personally believe gender isn’t relevant, it is interesting to consider that readers will have a predisposition to wanting specified genders and traits for the characters they’re expected to relate to. We undeniably still live in a society with clear gender lines. It is ingrained in our minds from a young age that we should fit certain roles and play certain parts depending on what genitalia we are born with. We are given a gender that ‘matches’ our biological sex, which dictates our place in society – boys have blue, adventure, leadership, strength. Girls have pink, domesticity & submission. Despite this, we are moving towards becoming more accepting of the fact that these genders and their predetermined roles are simply outdated and wrong; a person’s gender isn’t equivalent to their biological sex, nor does a person’s gender or sex stop them from doing certain things. I can’t believe that anyone fits into these male or female boxes 100% – everyone has aspects of their personality or enjoys doing things that are traditionally associated with the opposite sex.
Is it societal teaching, then, that makes readers like my astrophysicist friend uncomfortable with the concept of a lack of gender? Gender can be confusing and complicated, especially when adults who have been taught from day one that there are only two genders and everyone fits one of them are now being told that there are a lot of different genders and that gender roles they have been taught to fit from day one aren’t relevant. Even for the most open minded person, it can be a process to reverse the lessons we have been taught throughout our lives, in order to fully understand how gender really works. I myself find that I have to remind myself if someone uses pronouns that don’t match their biological sex, even if they’re a close friend. It’s almost like training your brain to make these corrections as you learn.
In literature, however, gender isn’t necessarily a political thing. It can be beneficial to a text not to reveal a character’s gender, and we don’t always see this as an issue; if a character’s identity is hidden on purpose, for example, we wouldn’t expect to know their gender – especially if they aren’t an active character. I believe that gender is only important in literature if it serves a purpose. If gender doesn’t play a significant role in the text, the character’s personality and the way they are written are more important – so long as a character grips the reader, their pronouns aren’t massively significant. A character’s personality should resonate with readers enough regardless of gender or lack thereof.
Let me know your thoughts – does gender affect the way you read a character?
See you soon,
[PS- I should note that I didn’t refer to my friends by name on purpose, and wasn’t trying to sound smart by referring to one as ‘my astrophysicist friend’… but did I mention I know an astrophysicist?]