A gender-swapped example

FantasyFigureI’ve been reading if We Wrote Men Like We Write Women and If We Wrote Men Like We Write Women Part II over at Jim C. Hines’ site.

He’s switching the the gender of the men and women in passages from various books.  Robert Heinlen, Issac Asimov, Piers Anthony, Neal Stevenson and his own Libriomancer.

Interesting stuff.

Those of you who have been reading this blog a while might recall that we initially wrote Crown Princess Michelle, from the Linesman series, as a male.  Early on, our agent suggested she would be stronger as a female. She was so right, and we cannot imagine Michelle as anything but a woman now.

There’s another book, a fantasy, we wrote a while back, where our agent did the same.  “Have you considered making Edmund female?”

We’ve put this book aside.  It’s fantasy, for a start, and right now we don’t have time to write any fantasy, we’re enjoying the science fiction. It also needs a lot of work.  (Another suggestion was that we could turn it into a science fiction. That’s a lot more plausible, actually, because that would open the story massively for us. The world building would make a lot more sense.)

Edmund’s the main character in the book.  We’re resisting.  But then, I resisted changing Michelle at first.  We do refer to the story as Edmunda now.  So maybe we’re psyching ourselves into it.

Just for interest, here’s a gender-swapped passage from Edmunda. (This is an early draft, please excuse.)

The bath-house was full, so she went to the food-hall first.

She walked into the middle of a confrontation.  Participants and onlookers alike glanced her way, took in the hair and the faded, crumpled uniform, and promptly ignored her.

The antagonist was a big, muscular woman as tall as Queen Hailie and twice as wide.  She had two cronies who were almost as wide as she was, although considerably shorter.  As Edmunda moved up the antagonist grabbed a handful of hair on a slender dark-haired woman who looked about as old as Hailie had been ten years ago.  “We don’t like your type here.”

“Leave her alone,” a man watching said, and stepped forward to challenge her.  He was the only one.

The two cronies grabbed him.  “Let me go.”  He kicked at one, hard.

Surely this wasn’t the standard of guard they had at headquarters nowadays.

Edmunda checked the room.  There was one officer.  Two stripes.  She watched, doing nothing.

Edmunda helped herself to a slab of fresh bread from what was obviously the antagonist’s plate.  “What is her type?”  She pitched her voice to carry to the whole room.

She got everyone’s attention.

The bread was soft and chewy, and one end of it had soaked into the gravy on the plate. It tasted divine, and her stomach gurgled in anticipation of more.

“Mages,” the antagonist said.

Edmunda dipped more bread into the stew.  The antagonist realised what she was doing.  “Hey.”

“The guard welcomes mages,” Edmunda said.  “What’s your name, guard?”

“Borga.  And you’re eating my dinner.”

“I’ll tell you what we don’t welcome, Borga.”  Edmunda’s voice carried to everyone in the now-silent room.  “We don’t welcome bullies.”

Borga laughed, and tossed the hapless mage onto the long table.  “Are you threatening me?”

“Not at all,” Edmunda said coolly, as Borga turned her full attention on her.  “I’m stating facts.  The guard does not discriminate.  Against anyone,” and she looked at the silent faces watching her.  “Understand.”

Some of them nodded.  Some of them just waited for the beating they were sure she’d get.

Borga laughed and moved forward.  Edmunda stayed where she was, although everyone else moved back.

She was slow for a big woman.  She probably used brute strength most of the time.  Edmunda had time to take another bite of bread as she brought up her night-stick.

Borga laughed.  “As if that’s going to—”

Edmunda jabbed it hard into Borga’s throat.  Borga went down with a gargle.  She hit the floor so hard the plates on the tables jumped.

“If I’ve killed her,” Edmunda said to the nearest guard, “Organise a note of apology to her family.”

Yes, well.  I don’t think it works as a straight gender swap. Somehow it’s not that believable any more. And it’s not Edmunda who’s the problem, but the soldiers fighting.

Here’s the original.

The bath-house was full, so he went to the food-hall first.

He walked into the middle of a confrontation.  Participants and onlookers alike glanced his way, took in the hair and the faded, crumpled uniform, and promptly ignored him.

The antagonist was a big, muscular man as tall as King Harald and twice as wide.  He had two cronies who were almost as wide as he was, although considerably shorter.  As Edmund moved up the antagonist grabbed a handful of hair on a slender dark-haired youth who looked about as old as Harald had been ten years ago.  “We don’t like your type here.”

“Leave him alone,” a woman watching said, and stepped forward to challenge him.  She was the only one.

The two cronies grabbed her.  “Let me go.”  She kicked at one, hard.

Surely this wasn’t the standard of guard they had at headquarters nowadays.

Edmund checked the room.  There was one officer.  Two stripes.  He watched, doing nothing.

Edmund helped himself to a slab of fresh bread from what was obviously the antagonist’s plate.  “What is his type?”  He pitched his voice to carry to the whole room.

He got everyone’s attention.

The bread was soft and chewy, and one end of it had soaked into the gravy on the plate. It tasted divine, and his stomach gurgled in anticipation of more.

“Mages,” the antagonist said.

Edmund dipped more bread into the stew.  The antagonist realised what he was doing.  “Hey.”

“The guard welcomes mages,” Edmund said.  “What’s your name, guard?”

“Borg.  And you’re eating my dinner.”

“I’ll tell you what we don’t welcome, Borg.”  Edmund’s voice carried to everyone in the now-silent room.  “We don’t welcome bullies.”

Borg laughed, and tossed the hapless mage onto the long table.  “Are you threatening me?”

“Not at all,” Edmund said coolly, as Borg turned his full attention on him.  “I’m stating facts.  The guard does not discriminate.  Against anyone,” and he looked at the silent faces watching him.  “Understand.”

Some of them nodded.  Some of them just waited for the beating they were sure he’d get.

Borg laughed and moved forward.  Edmund stayed where he was, although everyone else moved back.

He was slow for a big man.  He probably used brute strength most of the time.  Edmund had time to take another bite of bread as he brought up his night-stick.

Borg laughed.  “As if that’s going to—”

Edmund jabbed it hard into Borg’s throat.  Borg went down with a gargle.  He hit the floor so hard the plates on the tables jumped.

“If I’ve killed him,” Edmund said to the nearest guard, “Organise a note of apology to his family.”

Yes, it does need editing, but … it’s for demonstration purposes.

Even if you think your main character might be strong, what about the other characters around them? The interesting thing with the gender swap here is that in a supposedly-equal society, we’re way too man-heavy in the bullies. And the only woman in the whole scene was the person who spoke up. Stereotypes abound.

14 thoughts on “A gender-swapped example”

  1. I find this gender swapping quite intriguing. Only, why take a blanket approach?

    What happens if you just write the principals here (Borg/Borga and Edmund/Edmunda) as females, but the rest of the characters maintain the original genders? I suspect the Borga vs Edmunda confrontation would be highlighted by the onlookers (guards) being males.

    The gender of Borga’s victim is (in this brief vignette) moot since the description emphasized the comparative frailty of the character. I’ll keep the only “protester” female of course.

  2. I have to agree with ValBooklover. It would work with a gender swapped Edmund/Borg if you kept the cronies and mage as men. It gives a fresh take on the scene and keeps it from feeling cliché (strong guys picking on obviously weak guy).

  3. Totally agree this would work better with just swapping Edmund and Borg.

    One thing we find is that we’re resisting changing Edmund to Edmunda (as per our agent’s suggestion) because Edmund is a hard man. What’s acceptable as hard in a male sometimes doesn’t work in female. It makes her truly unpleasant. We haven’t yet got the distance to the story to work out if that should make Edmund truly unpleasant too.

    1. If it “doesn’t work” in a female character, then that’s because of sexist prejudice.

      I mean, I acknowledge that authors who actually get published have to be careful about such things, but if your agent says it is doable, then it will probably not alienate the audience.

      If the character is unpleasant as a female, then he’s either unpleasant as a male, too, and you just excuse his behaviours, or she’s actually totally okay as female, you just judge her too harshly.

  4. Well, unpleasantness in females can get really unpleasant. There are truly nasty ladies in literature (Lady Macbeth and the likes).
    On the other hand, hard women could be somewhat unpleasant if necessary…but not necesarily nasty.
    There is a boundary there that is more moral than simply behavioral.

    Wow! are we profound or what? LOL

  5. It is an interesting experiment in many ways.

    What I think is often lacking when genders are switched compared to stereotypical roles is the interplay between expectations, motivations and resulting behaviour/actions. Most cases I have seen where genders have been switched for the main characters seems to assume that it is possible to switch only one aspect, while everything else in the individual (and society) stays the same. A believable switch I think would have to go deeper into what happens if we remove (or add) gender based assumptions and expectations, as these are also relative to each other. This assuming of course that the switch is not treated as an anomaly in the setting.

    I also think that we are mostly not used to females being portrayed as unpleasant, while it is kind of the default state for men (assumed as probably unpleasant unless proven otherwise and opposite for women). Switching that kind of assumptions could also be an interesting part of the experiment as it affects how people interact with each other. (Switch genders of Ean, Michelle and Radko in the beginning of Linesman for an example of how actions are perceived differently.)

    1. And that’s an interesting thing, because at the start of the story Michelle did try to kill Ean. In today’s society, I think switching these three would have made the story far less ‘acceptable’ because of that.

      (Michelle trying to kill Ean is something a number of people have commented on as something we passed off too lightly. It’s something we discussed, but didn’t change.)

      1. I agree on the first meeting, but that was actually not what I was thinking about.
        Instead…

        Scene where Ean escapes to the fresher. Imagine same situation with Ean as female and Michelle and Radko as males.

        Scene where Radko beats Ean up. Imagine same situation with Ean as female and Radko as male.

  6. “The interesting thing with the gender swap here is that in a supposedly-equal society, we’re way too man-heavy in the bullies.”

    The men are stronger. Of course they are going to bully more. Unless there’s women who can do magic and use it for the exactly same means (completely legal bullying) as males. OR bullying someone by using your physical strength against them was so strongly taboo and outlawed that men wouldn’t do it.

    1. Actually, I have not seen much difference except that we do not typically call the women bullies when they do it and they tend to use other means than their own physical strength to do the bullying. Same basic pattern though.
      Bullying is not only or even mostly a matter of strength, social position and general attitude seems more correlated.
      I think we tend to assume strength and bullying are correlated since that is the combination where the bullying becomes obvious and hard to deny. It is easier to turn a blind eye to social and psychological bullying as there is typically no overt proof.

    2. Many years ago we had a show here called ‘Prisoner’, set in a women’s prison. There the major bully was the biggest, strongest woman. It was logical that when the male/female part was taken out of the equation the physical bully was still the strongest person in the room.

      1. It probably takes a female-only environment for that to work, and it is safer (less risk of recognition for one) than portraying the common types of psychological bullying and thoughts/values behind them.

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