Article: Quick thoughts on gender roles and gender flip

(collated and expanded from twitter because I feel this should be saved somewhere)

Having a think on stories that question gender roles. There’s two tactics: one is to define different ones: frequently inverting the existing ones, i.e. women fight! men take care of babies! The other is to have societies where gender divisions are much less sharp, or non existent (or where gender itself is fluid).

They both have their attendant issues: inverting roles, I feel, just reinforces the notion that the gender divide exists. Though you can push this to absurd limits; or hope that flip makes people question assumptions, I worry that it simply doesn’t work that way, and that people simply think: “oh, same things, except we’ve inverted roles!” Different roles with the same boundaries just keep boundaries in place: if you’re saying, for instance, “look, in this book women are warriors/cool badass assassins/magicians and they’re the heroes”, you’re unconsciously (or less unconsciously) reinforcing the stereotype that only fighting is worth writing about: i.e. in our world what matters are “male” coded values, and you’re effectively saying that a woman is only worth talking about if she behaves like a man. It’s subtle (or not so subtle), but in our societies you can see it in the value we put on work: women who work (and thus do “traditional male” stuff) have more value than women who stay at home and raise babies (and thus do “traditional female” stuff). [1]

Also, when inverting roles, one can easily invert clichés rather than actual gender roles. See; women don’t fight! Of course they do. Of course they’ve always fought (see Kameron Hurley’s brilliant takedown), and history erases that because it’s written a certain way.
(and let’s not even get into different cultures having different gender expectations: for instance, Confucian society frowns on men fighting because it thinks that it’s puerile and that the true value is being learned. Though there tends to be a constant in all societies that raising children is not really work at all *sigh*).

The approach with less sharp/non-existent gender divisions (which includes fluid gender and non-binary gendered people who aren’t gender fluid) is more difficult, and runs the risk of presenting an idealistic society, and erasing stuff that goes on. No gender prejudice at all in the future, for instance, though I hope we do get there eventually, feels very far off in the sense that history has shown that we’re very good and very sneaky at maintaining prejudice.

All in all though, would rather plump for less sharp gender divisions? Call me idealistic but I want a future/an imagined society that’s pleasant, that speaks to me, and that has women/genderfluid people doing all sort of kickass things without gender divisions (and men doing the kickass things they want too, whether that is raising babies, crying or having typically “female” coded behaviours).  In House of Shattered WingsI tried very hard to have little gender prejudice and few gender roles: the soldiers in the war are indifferently male or female, and same with the heads of Houses, who are split half and half, roughly. Arguably the most ruthless and talented head of House is Claire, who’s a woman (the others have a definite tendency for over-confidence and schemes that blow up in their faces).

ETA: about having completely different genders (invented ones that are neither male nor female), something I haven’t tackled here: I feel it can work, but that it’s tricky to do well? If you don’t differentiate your genders enough from the existing ones, people will still fall back to the existing gender boundaries? (and also, of course, it still presents a society with sharply defined gender boundaries, which reinforces the notion of “proper” gender roles, which I’m personally not a fan of).

Yeah, I know, this isn’t really a post. More like me working out things, and I feel like there’s tons of other things that really need to be said on the subject! I would love to hear other people’s take on this?

[1] While, of course, not being worth as much as men. Because.


  1. Great musings. I’ve been a bit guilty of giving women character equality, but sometimes with too much emphasis on the amount of suffering they dish out/take on. A lot of that, I think, I due to how we see power in our culture – e.g., Hilary Clinton is seen as a powerful woman because she can behave like a privileged middle-aged male. We so easily confuse conformity with the dominant paradigm with equality. We do it globally too – countries are seen as free and liberated in proportion to how much they adopt western (white, male, capitalist) thinking.

    I posted the piece at the Boudicca page:

  2. Yeah, I feel pretty much the same about genderflipped stories. I like to see stories where characters are valued for not following the norms at all.

  3. One thing I tried doing once with some aliens was having the gender roles divided orthogonally to how we do it. Essentially they recognised that people of any sex (they had three) *could* do pretty anything not actually biologically determined (because of course in fact people do) but believed that their *motivations* differed based on sex. So for example the [gender that doesn’t pass on any DNA-equivalent to a marriage’s offspring, though there is mitochondria-equivalent] is said to be motivated by the interest of tira birth family. Which is why many of their cultures have a tradition of this gender going with tira brother or sister into marriage, and whereas in these more civilised times this practice is disappearing and people recognise that tir can transfer tira loyalties from birth family to marriage family, it’s still assumed that tir is interested primarily in the domestic sphere, and tira interests are thus often subordinated to those of tira husband and wife.

    This seemed to me to in some ways allows more flexibility in what is accepted for people to do, but is in some ways be more insidious / impervious to counterexamples because people can literally always say “Well you *say* you did it because Y, but clearly subconsciously you were actually driven by [convoluted justification because Teh Biologies].”

  4. You’ve summed up a lot of things that I look for in books but never articulated quite that way. Which is good! I do prefer characters that don’t ascribe to a particular partisan line, so to speak, regarding gender. I like to see all the characters behaving as the complex, sometimes contradictory personalities that compose real people.

    Gender and gender roles in books are probably my biggest sticking point when it comes to finding something that I devour from cover to cover. That just doesn’t happen often enough.

  5. @Neal: “We so easily confuse conformity with the dominant paradigm with equality” yes, very true! Thanks for sharing those thoughts.
    @Joe: hahaha yes. I’m all “let’s smash gender roles” 🙂 🙂
    @Zeborah: oooh that sounds really interesting. I think the biology thing gets mentioned as part of the male/female differentiation today already though? There’s all sorts of speculation on the fact that having babies leads women to behave a certain way, so it’s already an existing excuse (but the “do what you want” RE gender roles approach sounds fascinating, and is one I wish people would try more often).
    @Zen: He, thanks! It’s really hard not to follow gender expectations, I find–even when you think you’re going for complex and contradictory, you find a cliché somewhere at the back of a drawer…

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