Writing Gender in Historical Context

I started writing this post about societal gendered assumptions after JK Rowling, yet again, showed her TERFy ass to the world on Twitter. (And then JKR did like six other things in the time it took me to compose and polish this). It’s something I want to address, because these are concepts I’ve engaged with in writing Give Way to Night and the Aven Cycle as a whole, and they’re things I look forward to being able to depict from another angle when I write something that isn’t historically-rooted.

To begin: Things like menstruation and giving birth can be powerful manifestations of womanhood. They also don’t have to be. There are many cis women who don’t find value in those manifestations for any number of reasons, there are women who don’t have uteruses and therefore don’t have those experiences, and there are people with uteruses who aren’t women who have their own feelings about the intersection of body and identity. If they are meaningful for you and your relationship to womanhood, great! But these things are complex, and they don’t carry the same meaning for everyone. Sex may be a biological reality, but it has so many more ways of expressing itself than dropping everyone into either a pink or a blue bucket, and gender is a societal construct. (And if you don’t believe me, maybe you’ll believe Bill Nye and his “smoking-hot abacus of sex”).

There are two scenes in Give Way to Night that deal with prominent-but-not-universal aspects of uterus-having life: childbirth and menstruation. My challenge was that the historical setting means I’m writing in a world that does not have the language we do for concepts of gender (or sexuality, for that matter, but that’s its own large topic).

The barrier of conceptual availability is frustrating, in this as in so many other aspects of writing historically-rooted fiction. The cultures of the ancient Mediterranean were rigidly gender essentialist. That manifested differently in different areas (witness Athens versus Sparta), and certain aspects did wax and wane over time, but the dominant paradigm of patriarchy encouraged definition. To the best of my knowledge and research, it would not occur to people living within those cultures that a man could menstruate or that a woman might not have a uterus or that someone (who wasn’t a god) might be neither man nor woman. There are very, very few extant examples of people we would now recognize as nonbinary or transgender in the Roman world. That doesn’t mean they didn’t exist, of course! But it’s impossible to know how they conceived of themselves within the boundaries and the language of their world, because we have so little even written about such people and pretty much nothing in their own words. I say “pretty much nothing;” there is nothing that I’m aware of, but while I am well-researched, I have not read All The Things That Exist. If anyone knows of a first-person account of a transgender or non-binary person from the Roman world, I would love to read it. The language of self-definition is powerful, and it’s something I try to get as close as I can to in all my research — but the silencing of so many voices is one of the great tragedies of history.

Too, the few written records about individuals who may have been outside the gender binary are… not complimentary. The language is that of aberration and transgression, particularly where male bodies adopting feminine traits are concerned. It was a patriarchal world; being seen as “giving up” manhood to adopt the subjugated state of femininity was considered disgraceful and worthy of a punitive response — an attitude our modern world has not entirely escaped, considering the treatment of and frequent violence towards trans women. The Emperor Elagabulus, who expressed the desire to live as a woman, is one of the most vilified, denigrated, and ridiculed figures in Roman history. Wearing the clothing of the opposite gender was permissible as part of Saturnalian revels at least in some periods, but the rest of the time, it was both punishable and punishment. There were some religious rituals, which migrated over from Greece, that involved gender-blurring up to and including self-castration, but those were considered well outside the bounds of everyday life, and the cults involved were not always favorably received. The writer Lucian posits the idea of someone “born a woman” but with “the mind and the desires and everything else of a man” — but Lucian is a satirist, and so it’s difficult to map his joke about the concept onto how people were actually living. Again, we have the dual barriers of conceptual availability in the time and the lack of first-person records.

Mythology doesn’t do any better; the gender-swapping of the prophet Tiresias is a punishment upon him and thus inextricable from misogyny. The tale of Iphis and Ianthe, where the gods transform a girl to a boy so she can marry another girl, might be read as transgender, and some modern interpretations have claimed it as such. Its point within its cultural context, however, is to reinforce heteronormativity and eliminate any transgressive element. (See Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which definitely reads like an anti-lesbian tract; I love Ovid’s way with words, but when it came to gender and sex the man was an absolute nightmare).

Illustrations of Tiresias from Die Verwandlungen des Ovidii (c. 1690) by Johann Ulrich Krauss

While the historical cultures informing the Aven Cycle were gender essentialist, I didn’t want the narrative to be. So I have tried to choose my language carefully, to illustrate that just because a character’s worldview has certain boundaries, that does not mean the boundaries are factual reality. In the opening scene, a female character is giving birth (okay, this isn’t a spoiler since she’s hugely pregnant in From Unseen Fire; it’s Neitin), and I initially informed the reader that, for the Lusetani, “this was the time of a woman’s greatest power”. Even with the Lusetani-specific disclaimer, though, upon reflection I still wanted to put a little more distance between those concepts. I changed the phrasing to “this was a time of great power”. Not the only time, perhaps not even a superlative time for everyone experiencing it, and — though the Lusetani themselves might not recognize it — not something necessarily belonging only to women. Later on, a male character refers to menstruation as a women’s issue, because those are the lines of the world as he knows them — and another character points out, explicitly, that the world is not always so neatly-boxed-up as he may prefer.

I’m anxious about those scenes. I should be anxious about them! This is important stuff, and I need to be mindful. It was important to me to include those aspects of uterus-having life and to frame them as powerful, because they are so often ignored, denigrated, or treated as a weakness, in reality and in fiction. That they are ignored, denigrated, and treated as weakness is inextricably interwoven with misogyny and with cultural perceptions of them as “women’s issues” — but that does not mean they are all women’s issues or women’s issues only.

I may well have gotten something wrong in trying to thread that needle, not least because no group is a monolith and not everyone will respond the same words the same way. I’m still learning how to be a better ally (to say nothing of a better writer), and I will keep trying to do better.

The WIP I’m working on now is in an invented secondworld, and that gives me a lot more freedom. I’m still figuring out exactly how I want that world to conceive gender and sexuality, along with the language they’ll have to express such concepts, but I know it won’t be strictly tied to a binary. It’s going to be a queernorm society, and while that’s so freeing in some ways, it also prompts me to do a lot more work thinking about the implications for everything from domestic life to the economy. Removing the patriarchy removes a lot of assumptions about how the world works. It’s the sort of thing we explore on Worldbuilding for Masochists, and a lot of what I’m trying in that manuscript was informed by topics brought up on the podcast. I’m really looking forward to writing a fantasy story that, while it has a historical aesthetic, will reflect modern understandings and be capable of celebrating more life experiences.

In short: uterus does not necessarily equal woman, trans women are women, trans men are men, non-binary people are non-binary people, and no one gets to invalidate how someone else negotiates their relationship with their own damn body.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.