March 9, 2013

NaCreSoMo #8: Gender Swappery and the Creative Process

I didn't do that much substantive creative stuff yesterday, unless you count the creative cursing I came up with after being trapped in a smoking subway car underground for an hour and subsequently having to drag my suitcase around in the slush and snow trying to catch a cab to make it to the airport in time.

Maybe I can be excused from one day of NaCreSoMo for having spent literally all of that day in transit. But instead I'm going to talk a little bit about inspiration today.

One of the questions that writers get asked the most (not that people ask me that many questions about writing) is something along the lines of, "How do you get your ideas?" Or, "Where do you find inspiration?" It's a tough question to answer, so today I'll take you through a string of creative thoughts I found myself pondering yesterday. Keep in mind that these are still rough thoughts that may never amount to anything--it's just what happened when I started pulling on this particular thread.

Secret machinations of the creative mind, here we come!

1. The initial spark. I saw the movie Jack the Giant Slayer on Thursday. Without getting into the particulars, I'll just say that I was disappointed. My friend and I dissected the plot on the drive home and immediately came up with several ways in which the story could have been improved, not least of which was the treatment of the princess, Isabelle. I don't think it's ruining much at all to note that Isabelle, for all her adventurous posturing at the beginning of the movie, failed to do anything other than stand around while Jack did all the heavy lifting. To say that we, fervent feminist story-crafters, were anything less than appalled would be selling it short.

It would be easy to say, "Make a stronger princess, you dummies!" And it would be a valid thing to say, and to contemplate, and to write. But what I found myself thinking about afterward, from a writer's perspective, was the relationship between Jack and Isabelle. It reminded me a lot of the fantasy trope of the noble girl and her long-suffering, pining-away peasant friend/servant--especially of the relationship between Buttercup and Westley in The Princess Bride. While exact details don't match, I think Jack and Isabelle's relationship plays out in much the same way--the unattainable princess, her loyal subject, sparks fly, etc. So I started thinking--what is it about this trope that makes it attractive? And--what would happen if the genders were swapped?

2. Playing it out. Gender swapping fascinates me. Fascinates. On a micro-level, I've found that there's no better way to expose the societal underpinnings of sex and gender than to literally swap out pronouns in books, movies, television, etc. (I also have this secret desire to one day write a gender-swapped version of Les Miserables.) So when I was considering the noble blood/loyal servant dynamic, I immediately wanted to know what would happen when I swapped the genders.

What do we think about when we think about the loyal servant boy eying a princess in the wings? A man who would wait a hundred years for his beloved to glance his way? He is in love but he would never dare step above his station. Think Westley here, or better yet, think Lancelot. And then think, whose fantasy is this? Is it a man's fantasy to think that loyalty to a woman far above his class might in time win her love? Is it a woman's fantasy to command the attention of her loyal servants?

While you think about those, now consider this: What happens when it's a prince or a duke and his long-suffering, silent, yearning servant girl. Here, think Eponine. (I wonder why I couldn't come up with more than one example for this dynamic?)

3. Further considerations. Swapping genders changes the dynamic. When a woman is in the subservient role I am afraid for her. Afraid that the person with the upper hand, the man, will abuse this relationship. I am afraid that this will only end in tragedy (as with Eponine). But I am not so afraid for a man. Does this have to do with the gender roles ingrained in my head? That because society paints women as initially more vulnerable than men, an unequal relationship like this only serves to make her more vulnerable? (And does that mean that a man in a subservient role reads as closer to equal to his superior than a woman in that same role?)

I think that given this situation, most people would expect a man to find a way to make it work. To prove his worth. In this dynamic, a man fighting for his love is read as romantic. A woman? Desperate.

4. Another viewpoint. If we shift sideways (just a step), let's consider what happens when Edward Cullen stares at Bella. He watches her sleep. He follows her around without her knowledge or permission. He is, quite literally, a stalker. But for a lot of people, his actions read as romantic.

Would those same actions be read the same way if Edward were a woman, and Bella a man? I would argue that no. People would read Edwardia as a stalker, period. They would want to know why Bellarus hasn't gotten a restraining order against this crazy b#$%*.

That's all I've got so far. I'm not sure where it's going. I don't have answers to all the questions I've posed. But that's where my head went yesterday...


  1. I'll probably come back and comment more later, but you did see Patricia's Day 4 post, yes?

    1. I hadn't! Hoping to get through everyone's posts today, so she's (almost) my next stop...

    2. Haha, Jordy, you beat me here! LOL. How funny!

  2. Haha, ohhh Twilight, when will you cease to be an example of how not to write romance? Or maybe how to get people in a tizzy over a romance no matter how horrible it is?

    More to the point... there is something of an expectation that the man works for his love, puts in the extra effort to prove himself. The woman, meanwhile, just... sits there and fends off everyone's advances until a man proves himself worthy of her attention? Western culture doesn't quite know what to do with a woman, hence the "girl is the White Mage" tendency. Of all places for that dynamic to be most obvious, try Online Dating Sites. Male to Female ratio is horrifically unbalanced on each one, and it's rarely the ladies who initiate (and those who do are often eyed with suspicion).

    I might point to Brave as an example of it pervading even some of the most forward thinking story-tellers of this era. When the movie came out, I gave Pixar props for basically one-uping Disney's "Tangled" - here were incredible, lush medieval environments, a horse that acted like a horse, absolutely insane hair and fur rendering, and a girl who fought with real weapons, not a symbol of domesticity. And yet, what happens when she rejects her arranged suitors? Why, they're essentially told, "Woo the girl and work for her love," and she can sit back and do the picking herself. And this is greatly more powerful than her sitting back and having a suitor picked for her... how?

    It's interesting to think about. Part of me thinks it'd be so much better if that inequity in pursuit were rectified, but another part accepts that inequity, and just wants to "win" by those rules (the fact that our language talks about love like a contest from the male perspective is pretty telling).

    ~ Ferrard

  3. Starting with (4)… I'm not sure I buy the argument that a female stalker is better than a male stalker. For me, the stereotype of a female stalker is obsessed, creepy, whatever. The stereotype of a male stalker is a rapist. I think that's worse.

    On the flip side, people manage to find romance in Twilight, and I think a different set of people would find romance in a gender-reversed Twilight, actually for similar reasons. Consider a hypothetical lonely guy with low romantic/sexual self-esteem: to have a girl (woman?) pursue you would be quite flattering, and you might overlook quite a few deficiencies in their romantic approach under the enchantment.

    On the less crazy (2) and (3), well…

    Taking (2), I see both as pretty equal. Really. Maybe that's not the usual opinion, though. (Also, I don't see Eponine/Marius as a class difference issue, even though there is one. It's just friend-zone. Note that Cosette is also working-class.)

    (Don't take that as a criticism of Eponine or her story! She's still a much more interesting character and person than grown-up Cosette.)

    Also, our opinions on devoted undying love aren't always positive, cf. HPMoR's take on Snape's story. (If you just want to read that chapter, it's Chapter 27. I don't think it majorly spoils anything, though it might be confusing to jump into rational!Harry's world.)

    (3) is more interesting. While there are certainly a few cases of women fighting for their loves, it's not the standard fare. But the "afraid for the woman when the man has the upper hand"'re right. I'e felt that same feeling sometimes. When you reverse it, the situation can be read as emasculating ("why does that man let a woman be over him?"), which is entirely based in sexism and gender roles.

    I may have had something else but I forgot, so instead I'll post a link to Dinosaur comics: gender rolls!

    1. (4) I wouldn't say that a male stalker is better than a female stalker, but I do get how that might have been implied in the post. I think what really makes Edward's actions "romantic" is the fact that Bella is interested in him too, thus painting pretty much everything he does in a rosy light of "isn't that so cute/devoted" instead of "GAH CREEPY STALKER."

      (2) Yeah, I honestly couldn't come up with a good example of the prince/female servant dynamic. (Anyone have one in mind?) Although I thought that Cosette, while born working class, essentially grew up as gentry. (In my head I remember Valjean just having enough money to take care of them both as opposed to anyone needing to work, but that could just be how I remember it...) Not that it's particularly relevant.

      (3) I have nothing to add here. Just more interest and thought-provoking-ness.

  4. +JMJ+

    Hi, Rebecca! I came to your blog today, wondered what NaCreSoMo was, and ended up reading a bunch of your March posts while in pursuit of the answer. One of them, obviously, is this one! =)

    Swapping the male and female roles in a story (especially a well-known story) is a favourite thought-experiment of mine. I started as a teenager with Shakespeare plays, but of late, I only "litmus test" Romance novels and RomCom movies this way. This new direction was inspired by a time I had some misgivings about a certain very popular Romance novel (the female lead was cheating on her husband with the male lead) and couldn't believe that its biggest fans were overlooking it. I pointed out, "You wouldn't love it so much if the sexes were reversed!"--at which they admitted I was right, but that they were going to excuse it anyway. Which, of course, is their personal right; everyone appreciates art differently; etc.

    As you've pointed out in your example with Bella and Edward, some things might not be so romantic if the sexes were reversed. They might even be downright creepy! =P And whether or not something holds up in that situation has become one of my standards for evaluating a romantic story. There are some behaviours or attitudes that may they look "cute" or "hot" coming from one sex but are obvious red flags coming from another--and my point is that what's a red flag for the goose should also be a red flag for the gander.

    But I'll admit that I only use this to evaluate bad behaviour. On the other hand, I think there are some romantic gestures that one sex really will find more appealing than the other; and to say that these are not "really" romantic because they're not universal is applying a fake Marxist standard to something much bigger than it.