Ika blake at gaudaprime.co.uk
Sat Mar 13 06:11:36 EST 2004

Charles, responding to me:

>> I suppose I think that gender is a
>> dimension of *being* a person: that's why it's very difficult and takes
>> a
>> conscious effort and a great deal of resistance to write a character
>> *without* a gender (I don't think, f'rex, that Ursula K LeGuin quite
>> manages it in The Left Hand Of Darkness). That is, being "a person
>> first"
>> doesn't mean you're not gendered.
> Isn't there a practical distinction, though, between the acknowledged
> impossibility of conceiving of oneself in terms that are wholly free of
> gender assumptions - built-in as they are to our language, etc - and the
> near-as-dammit successful attempt not to prejudge people's personalities
> and
> capabilities in advance according to their sex? Gender ideas are
> pervasive,
> but one of the things I value about DWJ is her refusal to let them swamp
> other things about people that are just as real and important.
> I'm not sure if I'm disagreeing with you or not,

I think probably not. I suppose the thing is that if gender is a
fundamental dimension of the way we understand and experience the world,
then we can't just ignore it: so, for me, trying to account for the
complicated ways in which it works is part of the *same* process as the
effort not to judge people in advance according to their sex. If you see
what I mean. Complicating the dominant or stereotypical binary models of
sex/gender, or producing alternative models, is one way of resisting them.
[God, I'm such a cultural-studies cliche sometimes. "Complication good!
Plurality good!" <g>]

So... yes, one of the things I love about DWJ is that gender is there, but
it's there in a *different way*, not just reducing all her women to
examples of Femaleness and all her men to examples of Maleness... I mean,
on a fairly crude level, there's Polly as the knight in shining armour
rescuing Tom as the damsel in distress: but that relatively simple
reversal isn't the only way in which gender functions in F&H. It's not
like DWJ wrote Polly as a man and Tom as a girl and then changed the names
& pronouns. Polly and Tom's relationship distributes the traditionally
"male" and traditionally "female" characteristics across both of them in
ways which don't line up according to any simple system of reversal or
repetition of stereotypes.

Hmm. I was going to say that Tom is sort of 'dominant' in some ways - he's
the teacher/judge/critic of Polly's writing - but of course the age
difference complicates that, as well. Like you say, it's never just
gender. And although there is something specifically feminine/female about
the female villains in F&H - Polly's dad's girlfriend's housepride,
Laurel's *gloriously* evil manipulation of emotions and cliche, Ivy's
belief that her only hope is to get a man to save her - they never feel
like examples of, like, a Typology of Woman.

But the characters still don't make sense outside an awareness of what
'masculinity' and 'femininity' or 'maleness' and 'femaleness' mean, both
in our culture and in the system the book itself sets up. It's not simply
a choice between (a) subjecting all the characters to a simplistic sexual
grid, or (b) ignoring sex/gender as a dimension of characterization. The
whole of F&H (and all DWJ's novels) is involved in a process of
negotiating and redefining gender in relation to all the other differences
between characters - age, of course, and then class comes into F&H as well
(actually, I think it might be the most class-aware of DWJ's novels), and
then the different characters' differing relationships to the imaginative/
magical/ creative, and everything else... And I find that really exciting
and inspiring. It's not the only thing going on in F&H, by any means, and
it's not the thing the book as a whole encourages you to focus on (as it
is in Black Maria, for example), but it's in there, and it's much more
effective for *not* being made a fuss over. Like the sideways way emotions
often feature in DWJ's plots: Christopher Chant has huge revelations about
his character in a line and a half, which in other writers would be a
five-page screed of inner turmoil...

Eep. Getting carried away. Better do some work.

Love, Ika

"I had no choice but to recognise that the world was suddenly making
itself available for improvement, and it was all Morrissey's fault"
- Andrew O'Hagan
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