Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Writer Will Take Your Questions Now (#122) -- Genders & Benders

You've written several characters who have switched genders (Fishnet Angel in particular) or can shapeshift back and forth. What's the deal with that? 

I've always been fascinated by the way members of different genders (a) perceive themselves and their "roles" in society and culture and (b) perceive each others' role in society and culture. And I've enjoyed books and movies that explored that dynamic for years.

My only regret when my mention that fascination to other people is that the prevailing attitude is one of comedy, a la the breast jokes in All of Me or the comedy of errors that is Thorne Smith's Turnabout. Or the works tend to oversexualize the content as in Zerophilia (which is otherwise an intriguing study in what a world -- or at least a group within it -- with no true gender divide might be like and the emotional/psychological dynamics therein) and Heinlein's I Will Fear No Evil.

Perhaps the best (one recently and one not so recent) works to really explore that setting and the fall out of it are Ursula Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness (perhaps the best of the books to enter that setting) and the teen comedy (enjoyable but still falls prey to the "Oh, I've got boobs" frat-boy humor in the second act) It's a Boy Girl Thing.

And in defense of those who create such work, although the immediate assumption is often one of "they must be transgendered" or " it's a fetish" or "s/he is some wacko pervert," in many (I daresay most) cases that's equivalent of saying that all sporting events are designed for brain dead jocks who don't appreciate higher culture (again, a knee-jerk reaction not based in truth).

I admire Le Guin's determination to explore her characters and pondered what a world without gender politics would be like. I admire Thorne Smith's ability to find the humor in a couple's switch, particularly in that it leveled the playing field between the sexes in the time period in which it was written.

My own interest, to get back to the actual question, is in mastering the knack for writing all kinds of characters and personalities and gender. As a writer, IT'S MY JOB to learn to write women, men, straight, gay, black, white, green aliens, monsters from the chasm, etc. Being able to enter another person's shoes, whether they be flip flops, dominatrix boots, snowshoes, or hi-tops, is what makes us better, more marketable creators.

The work of mine that most people reference when they ask me the question at the top of this post is my Fishnet Angel stories and comics (and upcoming manga). "Why the gender change?" they ask. I always give the same answer.

It's about what makes a hero heroic.

It's not powers. It's not costumes. It's not even the urge to fight when others choose to run. It's about sacrifice.

A hero is the person who chooses self-sacrifice over the innate, born-and-bred selfishness that we all possess. A hero gives up whatever is on the line in order to accomplish the greater good.

And that's the dynamic I explored with Fishnet Angel. What I wanted to know when I created the concept was not any of the gender dynamic stuff I mention in the first part of this post. It was much simpler, and so subtle that only a few people picked up on it at first. It is this: Is Mark Williams heroic enough to sacrifice his very identity for the good of strangers? Or will his selfish desire to have his old life back make him one day choose selfishly when confronted with that choice?