Showing posts with label gender. Show all posts
Showing posts with label gender. Show all posts

28 October 2016

We are what we write?

By Art Taylor

C.L. Pirkis's Loveday Brooke
My "Women of Mystery" class at George Mason University has been examining the ways in which 19th- and early 20th-century women mystery writers have challenged contemporary attitudes about gender roles and gender relations. In a Victorian Era when men and women were assigned to "separate spheres" based on their "natural" characteristics (to quote a brief essay by Kathryn Hughes at the British Library), it was likely refreshing to see fictional female detectives taking the lead on investigations and besting men in the process. And even in our class's short sampling of work from the era, it's been fun to watch how the implied quickly gave way to the explicit. In C.L. Pirkis's "Drawn Daggers" (1894), for example, Loveday Brooke holds her own in conversations with her employer, Mr. Dyer—not backing down in disagreements about how to approach a case or where the truth might be found, and eventually proved right about her plans. Two decades later, Baroness Orczy could be much more direct in the first of her Lady Molly tales, "The Ninescore Mystery" (1912), where the narrator—a member of Scotland Yard's "Female Department"—states from the start: "We of the Female Department are dreadfully snubbed by the men, though don't tell me that women have not ten times as much intuition as the blundering and sterner sex; my firm belief is that we should haven't half so many undetected crimes if some of the so-called mysteries were put to the test of feminine investigation."

Even in 1912: You've come a long way, baby—right? Toss us a pack of Virginia Slims—from 1968.

Pauline Hopkins
With most texts, we've been zeroing in on the progressive elements—the ways in which these writers have conceived of their protagonists both within and then in opposition to prevailing feminine ideals, the ways in which the texts have commented on and subtly (or not) criticized the values of their eras. In the case of Pauline Hopkins' "Talma Gordon" (1900), generally considered the first mystery story by an African American writer, we've looked at how a writer can address racial issues as well as gender issues—two perhaps not unrelated parts of a more progressive agenda—both through the story that's told (the plot that unfolds, the racial themes within the story) and through a strategic awareness of the publication venue, its specific audience, and that audience's values and concerns.

What's interesting about Hopkins, however, is that even as she explores racial attitudes and gender issues with a progressive's eye, her story is more conservative on other issues, somewhere at the intersection of class, intellect, and morality—and Hopkins herself seemed to be so as well, advocating elsewhere the "amalgamation" of the races as a way to bring down racial barriers, but also stressing that it was the "worthy" blacks and white intermingling which would improve civilization, while those unworthy ones... well, as critic Sigrid Anderson Cordell explained it in a fascinating 2006 essay on Hopkins' work, those unworthy ones would be "'civilized' or removed from the gene pool."

Even in texts without the racial elements, my student saw that attention to gender equality often parted ways quickly with concerns about class inequality. Lady Molly and her companion in the Female Department were quick to dismiss men's attitudes and achievements, but the story was equally quick to villainize women of the lower-classes for greed and for sexual promiscuity—"slut shaming" them, as one of my students put it.

Much of this discussion came to a head this week as we discussed Nancy Drew—everyone's favorite girl sleuth (or nearly everyone's; see SleuthSayer B.K. Stevens' terrific dissent here).

As an icon perhaps even more than as a character, Nancy can—and certainly has—been celebrated from a number of feminist perspectives, from her first appearance still in the shadow of the 19th Amendment's ratification (just a decade before) and right up til today. As Priya Jain writes in her 2005 Salon essay "The Mystery of a Feminist Icon," Nancy was "a model citizen with a perfect balance of toughness and femininity, an icon of independence and poise. As such, she has provided a connective thread between the six generations of girls she has ushered into adulthood." And Jain links Nancy's "smarts, pluck and independence" to the passions of the first Carolyn Keene, ghost-writer Mildred Wirt, "a young college graduate filled with the ideals of suffrage and the women’s movement."

As a class discussing The Mystery at Lilac Inn, we worked through the ways in which Nancy could be considered a valuable role model (and, Bonnie, you'll be pleased to know that one student did ask, "But isn't that a lot of pressure to put on the girls reading this?"), and we circled again around that word "progressive" in terms of the images and messages in the text. But at the same time, we couldn't help but be aware of the hints of conservatism lurking at the book's core—those parallel messages about upper-middle-class values, nostalgia for the past (look what's being done to the Lilac Inn!), about respectability and social grace and unerring etiquette.

We read the 1961 edition of the book, but I also brought in the original 1930 text—almost completely different. (In case readers here don't know, the original books were rewritten beginning in 1959, so for most of us, the Nancy Drew books we grew up on were not the original Nancy Drews.) In that 1930 version, not only are class issues more evident but—perhaps hand in hand—so are some unpalatable references to race and ethnicity. When Nancy is tasked with hiring a new housekeeper to temporarily replace Hannah Gruen (called away by a sister's illness), Nancy first interviews a "colored woman" ("dirty and slovenly in appearance and [with] an unpleasant way of shuffling her feet"), then the next morning an Irish woman ("even worse than the one that came yesterday") and a "Scotch lassie" ("she hadn't a particle of experience and knew little about cooking"). Later in that edition, the villains are revealed to be working class, uneducated, and mostly dark-complexioned; one is distinguished by a "hooked nose."

What's most interesting here isn't necessarily the racial/ethnic prejudices—signs of those times, one might argue—or the fact that these were revised away in the 1961 edition, there already in the midst of the Civil Rights Era (and the Cold War too, my students pointed out, noting that Nancy in 1961 also keeps criminals from selling secrets to enemy agents). Instead, what's possibly most interesting is that Wirt in 1994, in an introduction to a reprint of the original Mystery at Lilac Inn, stressed that "judging from reader letters, [Nancy] never was offensive" in the same paragraph where she talks—without explanation—about the books being rewritten beginning in the late 1950s.

...all of which brought us back to our earlier discussions of C.L. Pirkis and Baroness Orczy and Pauline Hopkins and to the assumptions underlying those discussions that the authors were intentionally or strategically challenging gender stereotypes. But were they always? And even where statements about gender issues seemed explicit—as with Lady Molly and the assertions about the Female Department's superiority—was the author aware of the negative attitudes toward lower classes crying out from elsewhere in the text? Were those latter messages explicitly intended as commentary on class, or was the author simply blind to how her views (and prejudices) had snuck into the writing?

In short, I guess, how can you tell when a writer is commenting on the values of her era—and when she's simply reflecting them?

And to flip this around, how many of us writing today are explicitly championing certain values in our work—and how many of us are unaware of the values we're revealing in those same works?

A good discussion in class on these topics—and I hope maybe a good discussion ahead here.

02 October 2016

Gender Blender

by Leigh Lundin

An over-hyped Business Insider headline caught my eye:
A major newspaper is doing something that could change the English language forever.
If you guessed this has something to do with political correctness, two points for you. That newspaper’s new policy I’ll explain below, but first some background.

Two Bits

Working as a software designer, I specialized in operating systems bits & bytes stuff. Most programmers worked on applications– invoicing, payroll, perhaps tracking the speed of an electron. Some records such as personnel files might require a designation of gender. In computer languages that could address the bit level, that assignment required only one ‘bit’, one binary digit.

See, a binary digit represents either of two mutually exclusive states decided by the developer: 1 or 0, on or off, true or false, yes or no, black or white, yin and yang, day or night, male or female. What could be simpler?

bin dec sym
00 0
01 1
10 2
11 3
A long-ago story in the industry press brought to light a programmer in Asia who didn’t quite understand the concept of binary and assigned two binary digits, one for male and the other for female. Observers realized two additional possibilities could some day be programmed, hermaphrodite (all bits on) and morphodite (all bits off).

Ranching and farming communities use ‘morphodite’ or its older form ‘morphrodite’ to refer to livestock born without either sexual characteristic, the opposite of hermaphrodite, in which both male and female characteristics appear. One of the cruelest bullying insults is to call someone a ‘morph’, i.e, sexless.

Historically, a sense of sexuality is more deeply important to people than its seeming superficiality suggests. Most given names not merely denote masculinity and femininity, an actual meaning may further signify manly and womanly. Two such examples are Charles and Carla.

The importance of sexual awareness naturally provides a rich vocabulary of ridicule and rejection. We apply the term ‘limp-wristed’ only to a small number of males. We’re not complimentary when we call someone a swish or a dyke, and people have been known to use worse, far worse.

Changing Room

You no doubt heard a hysterical North Carolina put a statute on the books requiring people to use the loo associated with their birth gender. I’m hard pressed to think of a more useless law.

☞ When I was a toddler, my mother took us children into the ladies locker room of the local pool house. A woman fled the scene, aghast to have three- and four-year-olds within view. But other ladies didn’t flee in terror and outrage and back then, it was perfectly legal. Tally: One woman verklempt.

☞ In the 1960s, women attending concerts in Central Park often used men’s rooms when their own became overwhelmed. They needed them. No need to get verklempt.

☞ In the 1970s, feminists took over a few men’s rooms in Manhattan just because they could. To their disappointed, no one got all verklempt.

☞ In the 1980s, I consulted in Europe. Outside the WCs, the janitorial staff didn’t bother with those yellow plastic ‘Piso Mojado’ signs (that don’t mean Mojo peed here), the attendants– male and female– went about their business. Thus in an airport pissoir when a lady swabbed the urinal next to me, I summoned available savoir faire, outwardly blithe to the situation, one that would occur from time to time. There were places we’d both rather visit. No need to get verklempt.

O de Toilette


So to North Carolina that wrote the peculiar legislation: My experience with the Carolina legal system has already made it my least favorite for multiple reasons, but what were you thinking? Who the hell cares?

Apparently a couple of cops (male and female) did: They dragged a woman from a ladies room because she didn’t look feminine enough. Put another way, the cops wanted to force the woman to use the men’s room. (According to Snopes, at least one supposed case was bogus.)

Note that the officers demanded ID, but one of the few civil liberties remaining after the US PATRIOT Acts, except for probable cause, is we don’t have to produce identity papers on demand.

How to Put the Rest in Restroom

female, male
I’m as ham-handed and foot-in-mouth as most guys. When it comes to transgender issues vis-à-vis public toilets, I don’t know if I’m insensitive or not when I say “I… don’t… care.” It’s your business, not mine. Each of us carries our own burden without adding to the woes of others. Come in peace, go in peace, what else matters? Unless you're thinking a ‘family values’ senator in a Minneapolis airport futilely cottaging young men.

On the other side of the argument, a guy standing in line at my local WaWa gas station loudly pontificated, “What if some queer goes into the bathroom with your daughter?” He completely missed the irony of his supposition. (And I'm sure he meant restroom instead of bathroom).

Gender Mender

As mentioned in the opening, Business Insider wrote:
A major newspaper is doing something that could change the English language forever.
The story behind the overheated lede is that The San Francisco Examiner (limited to the American language) has adopted a policy that reporters must ask interviewees their ‘preferred pronoun’: he, she, or they.

boy, girl
My ego is sometimes so large that it could be referred to as ‘they’, but sexually, no question. Surely a sensitive interviewer could figure out a non-offensive term on his/her/their own. Embodying this in official policy makes it difficult to deny accusations of overwrought political correctness.

As children, we were taught to say “Yes, ma’am” and “No, sir.” The US military created their own rule: Personnel are addressed as “sir” unless an officer requests the use of “ma’am”.

Since childhood, my brother Glen cultivated waggish weirdness into a modest industry. The smartass may have come up with a solution in grade school. Back then he addressed his teachers: “Yes ma’am, sir.” God love ’im.

Opinions, yes, opinions please.

05 June 2016

It’s the Little Things

by Leigh Lundin

Getting inside a woman’s head is tricky; some say it's nigh impossible. I like trying though… not to mess with her but to write about her. I know what guys think, at least this one, so how can I resist exploring the world inside my favorite subject… women? Brave and foolish, huh, but I don’t entirely botch it. In my earliest days of writing, I wrote a story of a woman with low self-esteem. A professor singled it out as an example of writing from the viewpoint of the opposite sex. I like the discovery. When in doubt, I'm not afraid to ask.

Last month, Eve Fisher reviewed Janice Law’s Homeward Dove. The article was so good, I bought the book. I can’t compete with Eve’s excellent report, but I want to address the book’s characterization– Consider me gobsmacked.

A lot of women write from a male’s point of view. Many are terrific at it, others– meh. Don’t think this hyperbole, but I’ve never seen anyone pull it off like Janice Law.

To be sure, she’s received excellent reviews and awards for her Francis Bacon series. I would find it tricky to get into the head of a gay artist, but Janice pulled it off with aplomb.

In Homeward Dove, she slips into the skin of her main character, Jeff Woodbine. He’s a blue collar 20-something initially drifting and grifting in a big-box electronics store and working in the building trades. Jeff says ‘should of’ instead of ‘should have’ and is better with tools than he is people. He likes beer, sex, sports, and fishing.

At first blush, that doesn’t seem like much characterization but that’s not what we're talking about. A Very Famous Mystery Thriller Author started a series writing from a woman’s viewpoint. For characterization, he stopped the story in places to discuss fashion and to badmouth men. It wasn’t characterization and it wasn’t authentic.

The thing with Janice, her Jeff is so authentic, I can’t see the hand behind the curtain. He’s real. He grows introspective. He matures. She uses setting to her advantage. He lives in New England, so he watches the Red Sox, drinks Rolling Rock, and he doesn’t eat a hoagie, a hero, or a sub– he wolfs down a grinder.

These are minor points, but our boy Jeff knows the intricacies of rebuilding a roof and rebuilding a carburetor better than rebuilding a relationship. He knows his tools and his lumber. More to the point, we feel his fear of heights and fear of relationships.

I can’t discuss a couple of traits without introducing spoilers, but in a way I’m not sure how she pulls off Jeff’s character. Sure, he knows the difference between a rotary and a reciprocating saw and minutiae women aren’t likely to know, but these are like tiles in a floor. We see and admire the tile, but we don't notice the unappreciated grout that supports and enhances the tiles.

Janice understands the need in a male to protect and the craving to be heroic. She also brings out men’s insecurities, not those that women giggle about, but the deeper, little-boy-lost syndromes no man will admit to. In the case of Jeff, he’s the victim of his own quiet desperation.

The novel would make an interesting subject for literary analysis, deconstructing it to see how it works, much like Jeff and the little boy take apart engines to study them.

That brings me to a final point. When Eve summarized the plot, I could not imagine how a little boy might communicate his, well, accusation for lack of a better term. But again, Janice pulls it off.

Who are your favorite cross-boundary authors? What suggestions for writers do you have?

22 November 2014

Personpower! (They let me off my leash again…)

by Melodie Campbell

Apparently, the current hot project for Those Who Don’t Have Enough To Do At City Hall, is making our language completely gender-neutral.  “Harbourmaster” is the latest word to fall under the gender axe.  While I wouldn’t dream of suggesting “Harbour Mistress” (this is a family column) I am not so sure about HarbourPerson either.

No doubt about it, that man in “woman” has got to go.  Probably the first place to be hit will be public washrooms.  Better get used to “Persons” and WoPersons”.

If that isn’t confusing enough, imagine what is going to happen to all of our great tunes?  Are we really going to be singing along to “Hey Mr/Ms Tambourine Person”?  Frankly, “When a Person…loves a Person” just doesn’t do it for me.  “I’m a Solitary Person” might squeak by, but “Pretty Person” doesn’t have a chance.

Not to mention the effect this will have on our great literature.  Hemingway will have won the Pulitzer for “The Old Person and the Sea.”  “Little Persons” will be read by persons of gender everywhere, and “The Person of LaMancha” may sweep Broadway.  My own personal <sic> favourite has got to be Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Persons.”

All this could result in a new branch of philology, with its own name, of course – SEpersonTICS…and since my Canadian government is so insistent on being politically correct, surely Winnipeg deserves to reside in “Personitoba?”

You see, the problem is personifold.  You can’t just draw the line here.  ALL things must be included and made equal.

It’s simple, when you get the hang of it.  Fireplaces will have persontels, the rich can live in personsions, and those of us with long fingernails can go for personicures.  “Manuella” may not be too happy about becoming Personuella, but what the heck.  We’ve got a persondate.


(This is a leash-free day, so go for it, and add your own gender-free word changes in the comments.)

When she is not cracking the whip as Executive Director of Crime Writers of Canada, Melodie Campbell spends her time writing funny novels like The Artful Goddaughter, for Orca Books.