J. K. Rowling and the Complex Gender Narrative

So, J. K. Rowling wrote an extremely weird and rambly essay about how people shouldn’t call her transphobic, just because she doesn’t support trans people’s rights to have a public space to safely pee. She said she’s been cyberbullied for liking the posts of some TERFs, which, for the record, is awful. You shouldn’t handle transphobes by calling them cunts and bitches who should die in a gutter. You should handle them by accurately labeling their statements as misinformed and bigoted… which J. K. Rowling finds equally upsetting.

Sigh.

I’m not going to go over the issues that people have already covered. Here’s a post that unpacks the emotional manipulation and transphobic dogwhistling in J. K. Rowling’s essay. Here’s some more resources for people who want accurate information to counteract the misinformation in her piece, either for themselves or to share with others.

Have fun!

I have inserted a Creative Commons transgender symbol, because people like blog posts that have pictures in them

The most interesting thing about the essay, at least for me, is that J. K. Rowling claims to have done her research and listened, and is still very transphobic in her overall stances on gender. This is a perfect illustration of a human flaw that we don’t discuss often enough, when we talk about education. It’s easy to change somebody’s mind when you share a fundamental narrative, and just disagree on a few details. It’s harder when a new set of facts forces someone to analyze the story of their life. Sometimes the education works, when people are willing to do the inner work to accept a more complicated worldview. Sometimes, people just cherry pick the fragments of information that they like, and close their minds to the rest.

Feminism contains many narratives. Some feminist narratives are compatible with trans activism and some are not. This internal conflict is making it difficult for people to figure out how to be good feminist allies and good trans allies at the same time. Hopefully J. K. Rowling’s work will help people understand this, and talk about it more openly.

I’m going to start with Simone de Beauvoir, who J. K. Rowling specifically mentions as an important influence on her own gender identity. Simone de Beauvoir was an important feminist thinker who drew people’s attention to the distinction between biological sex and gender as a social construction. She called women “the second sex,” defined in opposition to men. Her philosophy is often summed up by her statement that “one is not born but rather becomes a woman.”

This doesn’t fit well with the idea of gender identities; that someone can have an internal sense of their own gender that aligns with neither social norms nor their biological sex. I don’t understand the neurological basis for gender identities. We are still trying to figure out what causes gender identities and gender dysphoria. There might be several overlapping causes, some of which are purely biological and some of which are more cultural. All I know is that, if you’re a cis woman who is more complex than the Victorian Ideal of Womanhood, Simone de Beauvoir’s philosophy is a fantastic guide to self-actualization. But, if you’re like me (born with female biology, not particularly “tomboyish” as a child, but plagued with a persistent sense that you were supposed to be born a boy) it doesn’t work. I don’t invalidate the personal journey of women like J. K. Rowling, but I complicate the narrative, by indicating that there might be more dimensions to the world of gender.

Trans people also complicate the narrative by sharing information. Sometimes I feel like an undercover agent; a shy, sensitive boy sent to see what women experience, from birth to the age of twenty, and share my stories with both sides of the battle-of-the-sexes. I bring stories of sexual harassment, sexist gaslighting and menstruation to spaces where cis men didn’t expect to have their sexist assumptions called out. At the same time, I bring to feminist spaces an uncomfortable look at the weird privileges of being “the weaker sex.”

Being male isn’t like being white. Racists don’t tell white people that they can’t cry or dance or learn to care for a baby because “that’s what Black people do.” But that’s exactly what happens to men, and it takes a psychological toll.

The patriarchy is less like the Dursleys, spoiling one child and sticking the other under the stairs. It’s more like Thanos, pitting two siblings against each other and torturing them both for any failure to conform to his expectations. Gamora might have privilege and favoritism over Nebula, but he’s a monster to both of them, and if either is going to fully recover they need to put aside their battle and escape together. I guess in my Guardians of the Galaxy metaphor, trans people are the whole rest of the crew; we can’t have the conversation between the two for them, but we create a third space, full of so many complicated narratives and personal journeys that escape from the conflict is possible.

Ok, abandoning the gender diversity – Guardians of the Galaxy metaphor now, because I need to get into a third way that trans people complicate the narrative around gender, and it relates directly to bathrooms.

Bye bye, intergalactic gender metaphor

The hot-button issue around trans people is about bathrooms and changing areas. What is rarely questioned in these debates is why we separate bathrooms by gender in the first place. It wasn’t like a support group or activist organization. The bathroom is not where people are rallying to subvert the patriarchy. It’s just where you go to pee or poop, which everybody needs to do regardless of politics or activism. We separate bathrooms by gender because we’re sexist.

In Victorian times, around the invention of modern plumbing, bathrooms in public places were exclusively for men, which was an obstacle to women in the workplace. Gradually, as factories began to employ more and more women, smaller bathrooms for women were set up as a compromise. At the time they were a step forward, but there’s still a lot of institutional discrimination built in. For example, according to modern codes you can still just assume there will be less women working at your cool laboratory of sciences, make a smaller women’s room, and inconvenience your female workers for decades to come. Here are some articles if you want to read more of the history. Each article all has its own slant, but they all agree that the separation started with an ideological belief that men and women should be in separate spheres, because they aren’t equal. One is strong but predatory, the other is virtuous but weak, and the two must be kept separate and unequal. Sex segregated bathrooms were not a goal of feminists, but a compromise with an unflinchingly sexist society.

Doesn’t it strike anyone else as weird that trans-exclusionary feminists and far right-wing conservative men (many of whom have personally been accused of sexual assault) are agreeing that men will use gender neutral or trans-inclusive bathrooms to abuse women? Essentially, they are both agreeing that men are inherently predatory and women are right to be scared of them. This is a deeply rooted narrative in our society. Men are strong, but dangerous. Women are innocent, but weak and vulnerable. This is the patriarchy talking.

The reality is that men are perfectly capable of self-control and moral behavior. Furthermore, sexual violence is not as gendered an act as we thought; research has shown that for years we have been under-counting both male victims and female perpetrators of sexual assault. Again, the root of this undercounting is a patriarchal narrative about sex and power that was designed to control the behavior of women. Sexual abuse is not a normal male behavior. It is the abnormal behavior of certain violent and abusive humans. I don’t think pointing that out sets gender equality back.

On the contrary, it strips away the excuse that Donald Trumps, Harvey Weinsteins and Bill Cosbys have hidden behind for generations. I love that the response of so many men to the pussy-grabbing statement was, “no, that isn’t locker room talk. I’ve been in plenty of locker rooms and I didn’t talk like that with my male friends, because that’s a shitty way to talk about women.” Normalizing abuse encourages abuse. Shifting the narrative from “boys will be boys” to “most boys are not like that, you have no excuse” is good.

I also get how it’s scary, especially for an older generation of women. But scary isn’t the same thing as harmful. Holding onto ideas that normalize abuse and marginalize gender minorities is harmful.

Mulan and Masculinity

I’m at the Philadelphia Trans Health Conference, and I’ve got that song from Mulan running through my head. You know the one. On the surface, the lyrics of this song reinforce many of our most problematic ideas about masculinity, including;

  • A person’s ability to perform masculine ideals define their gender identity
  • Masculine ideals are so lofty as to be nigh superhuman (“you must be swift as a coursing river, with all the force of a great typhoon, with all the strength of a raging fire, mysterious as the dark side of the moon.”)
  • Being womanly and being weak are practically synonymous, which is why the most humiliating thing is to be defeated by a woman

Yet everyone who hears this song knows it is from a movie where the protagonist is a woman.* We know the joke is on the singer, even before we see the film, but one of my favorite things about this movie is that it goes a step further than the standard gender-bending woman power stories. All too often, those stories challenge the first idea, by having a woman successfully perform masculinity, but leave the second untouched and sort of whistle awkwardly past the third. Sometimes the men are the butt of the joke for being outdone by a woman, and very often the only person worthy of her affection is the one man who really can best her. In Mulan, on the other hand, everything is taken a step further.

Li Shang and Ping

First, Mulan is, initially, terrible at fulfilling Li-Shang’s expectations… and so is everyone else. The cisgender men are all overwhelmed and struggling. The film has introduced Mulan as someone who struggles with femininity, which makes her feel inadequate, but then it dares suggest that people of all genders can struggle to live up to the idealized expectations of masculinity and femininity. When Mulan succeeds, it is celebrated because it marks a turning point for all of them. They ultimately live up to Li-Shang’s standards, not because of the inherent gifts of testosterone, but because of teamwork, persistence and loads of practice. It’s like the “masculine” ideals of strength and bravado can be fulfilled by anyone sufficiently dedicated to master them, regardless of their hormones or chromosomes. What a novel concept.

Speaking of which, I love the three soldiers who become her friends. Initially, they bully her. This is… honest. Brutally honest. In my experience, the worst gender bullies are always the ones who are insecure about their own presentation. From the Republican senator who bemoans gay rights only to be caught with a rentboy, to the scrawny nerd who trolls anyone who dares identify as both geek and woman, hypocrisy is the classic defense of the man who can neither live up to standards of masculinity, nor work up the courage to rebel against it. Because toxic masculinity is so hierarchical, it’s easy for them to decide that, if they can’t climb the ranks, at least they can make sure everyone below them stays down.

This is what her friends initially do. They are failing Li-Shang’s tests, so they make sure those around them won’t succeed and make them look bad. But Mulan refuses to play this game. Instead, she persists and, through her success, inspires them to work on themselves rather than keep putting down anyone weaker. I love that this is addressed. I love that children get to see how shitty that bullying is, and cheer for the discovery of a better way. I love the reminder that masculinity doesn’t have to be about being better than everyone else. It can be about collaborating and being better together.

Yao Ling Chien-Po

Second, the love story isn’t about Mulan finally finding a man who can defeat her, or some such sexist bullshit. In fact, Mulan never fixates on or pursues him. It’s Li-Shang’s character arc that drives the romance. He learns that his rigid concepts of gender roles are stopping him from finding true love with someone whose best traits are best recognized outside of the gender binary. Mulan is not the “Girl Worth Fighting For” they sing about (another song where sexist lyrics are deftly skewered by the context). She doesn’t need to be. Everything she is is wonderful enough.

Finally, and here’s my favorite part, Mulan never comes to perfectly embody masculinity, or femininity. She does become a much, much better warrior, but so does everyone else, and throughout the story she is more likely to use creativity and intellect to solve her problems than brute force. In the end, she returns to feminine clothing, albeit in a more subdued, gender neutral way.** The story isn’t about how she’s awesome because she’s masculine, unlike all those awful feminine women. It’s about how she’s brave, smart, resourceful and loyal; heroic traits that can go with any gender presentation.

Mulan

I want to do many more reviews of stories that explore gender, and especially explore how we tell stories about masculinity; how we spread toxic messages, and how we can do better. But for now, I’m off to hang out with awesome trans-spectrum type folk. If you have any requests for gender-centric stories that you want me to review, please leave a comment. Films are preferred, because it’s easier for me to find the time to watch and rewatch them, but if there are books or TV shows or anything else I’ll do my best. As always, thanks for reading!

*Her portrayal is consistent with just about any gender identity, including trans male and nonbinary. That is to say, she never says anything about who she feels she is, but rather about her sense of duty to her family, so you can read into the story what you want. I’ll refer to her with female pronouns, because that’s what she uses in-story, but I support all headcanons.

**Okay, okay, my personal headcanon is that today she would label herself genderfluid or a gender non-conforming woman. This is largely because she seems clearly uncomfortable with her initial attempts at performing extreme femininity, but not at the end when she is presenting as a woman again. I don’t think she would have looked as happy if she didn’t feel that “woman” was at least partially true to who she was. But that’s just my interpretation.

How to Write Gender; a Trans Man’s Perspective

As someone who has lived on both sides of the gender binary, and mucked about in the murky swamp of the genderqueer, here is my carefully considered, foolproof, all-encompassing and patent-pending method for writing a character who is not your own gender; write a well rounded character, and then supply the appropriate pronouns.

Yeah, on second thoughts I can’t actually patent that, now can I?

Writers get hung up on gender a lot. Women assume they can’t write men, men assume they can’t write women, and if you even consider writing a non-binary character you’re a very rare breed (a breed so rare I’m going to ignore it for the rest of this post. I do so not without guilt). For the most part, though, concerned writers are over-complicating what they have to do. They’ve heard that men don’t cry, that women can’t stop talking, that one gender is obsessed with cars and the other is obsessed with shoes, and they feel they have to shoehorn every stereotype into this character. At the same time, they don’t want to seem to be writing a stereotype. Their creativity is blocked by these contradictory intents, and as artists they want to be creating compelling, vivid characters, which neither cliches nor social obligations to be PC can inspire them to create.

How many people never defy any gender stereotypes? I can’t think of anyone. The most feminine person I can think of, my mother, likes action movies more than almost anyone else in my family. The most masculine person I can think of is my boyfriend. As the previous sentence indicates, he’s gay. When I think of well written male and characters, the same thing is true. Penny from The Big Bang Theory is a gossipy, emotional shopaholic, who also loves beer and football games and prioritizes her career over romance. Marshall Erikson from How I Met Your Mother is a big softy who harbors a secret love of fruity cocktails. Boys are supposed to be brave and stalwart, particularly around the creepy crawlies, so they can come rescue their girlfriends from the snake on the porch and the spider in the bathroom. Indiana Jones loses his shit around snakes.

As a trans person I tend to think of your gender as your core identity, and not any of the traits or biology conventionally associated with it. I came to this conclusion because for years, I was studying gender, trying to find a way to justify my feeling that I was a boy. I tried doing it by finding a checklist of gendered traits and putting all checks on the male side. The checklist failed because not only couldn’t I do it, but nobody I knew could. Everybody I knew deviated from what men and women were supposed to be by at least one trait. Then I tried making it a game of averages. I was male because I had a crucial level of masculine traits. Again, I failed, because I knew of both women who were more masculine than me, and men who were more feminine than me, none of them uncomfortable with their birth sex. Then I tried to find some cluster of essential traits that made somebody a boy or a girl. Again, I failed. Even biology doesn’t work, and not just because of trans people. Is a woman who has had a double mastectomy less female? Even at the level of hormones and chromosomes, some people have intersex conditions with very subtle external effects, so they live most of their lives unaware they are XXY, or that their bodies produce an unusual amount of estrogen or testosterone. Are you going to tell them they are wrong to keep on considering themselves male or female? As far as I’m concerned, all you need to be male is to say you are male, and all you need to be female is to say you are female. That goes for real people, and fictional characters.

Are there differences between the genders? It’s a controversial question, but I’m going to say yes. Studies show measurable, statistical differences. Are they biological or cultural? I’m not going to touch this one, as scientists contradict each other wildly, and both can produce evidence supporting their claims. What is consistent, however, is that the differences measured, whatever their origin, are overlapping bell curves, not distinct columns. Your aim isn’t to write only characters who exist at the exact peak of the bell curve, but to write human beings, and human beings exist in every gendery combination imaginable. So if you feel like you know about a rough, masculine sort of person, don’t worry about your inability to write convincing dialog about manicures. Write a rough, masculine, wouldn’t be caught dead in a dress girl, and tell an interesting story about what it’s like to be her.

Now, there is one important difference between men and women that is absolutely relevant to your writing. They live with different social expectations. I did once read a draft of a story where a classic “bad boy” type character was given the redeeming excuse of “that’s just how he was socialized. Everybody expected him to be a troublemaker so he was.” Then the writer abruptly decided this character was going to be female, but with the exact same backstory and excuses… you can’t use “male socialization” as the reason for why a female character is the way she is, unless you’re setting it in a world where the gender stereotypes are reversed.

Then again, that story was published and moderately successful, so maybe that’s just me. I also know there are some people who think that shouldn’t

Regardless, the social rules of gender change by time, culture, class and family, and every individual responds differently to their society. Scout Finch is not Scarlett O’Hara. Jane Eyre is not Mina Harker. Dean Winchester is not Sam Winchester. The only advice I can give is to be aware of it. Research if you are writing an environment outside of your experience, and if you are writing in a familiar environment, practice your observational skills. The only tools you need to write a good character of any gender are the ones you need to write any character, and the most essential one is seeing your character not as a collection of traits, but as a person.