(This post originated as “Ruminations Part 3 – Sensitivity Readers, Part 5 – I can’t talk to women anymore”, but I’m tired of the sensitivity reader thread, aren’t you?)
My first rumination can be found at Ruminations Part I – “Your eyes are completely healed”
My second at Ruminations Part 2 – Numbers lead to informed decisions
Rumination Part 3-1 is Ruminations Part 3 – Sensitivity Readers, Part 1
Rumination Part 3-2 is Ruminations Part 3 – Sensitivity Readers, Part 2
Rumination Part 3-3 is Ruminations Part 3 – Sensitivity Readers, Part 3 – I Take a “Writing the Other” class
Rumination Part 3-4 is Ruminations Part 3 – Sensitivity Readers, Part 4 – Is your character POC or POM?
It started long ago, I’m sure. A slow dawning, a creeping awareness.
I’ve thought about it for a while. It started innocuously; a character in one of my works-in-progress knows what other characters think, how they’ll respond, what they’ll do.
Study consciousness and this ability shows up as Theory of Mind. The literature is full of it. While not calling it telepathy or mind-reading or whatever, most people do it automatically because it’s part of how we function in society; we hear something in someone’s voice and know they’re having a bad day. The truth is we’re assuming they’re having a bad day because having a bad day would cause our voices to sound the way theirs does (if you’re ravenously interested in exploring this, read my Reading Virtual Minds Volume I: Science and History. It’s rife with this stuff).
This works pretty well as long as you’re in the same cultural group as the other person.
Fails miserably when you’re from different cultural groups, which is why well done First Contact stories are wonderful reads.
The Foreigner, the Other, the Stranger
I mention off and on about the technology Susan and I created (it’s documented in that Reading Virtual Minds book I mention above). Give it a some digital communication – an email, a company organ, a business brief, whatever – and it can determine how psycho-emotively close the author feels to their reader (just one of its many abilities). One thing we discovered quick was lots of business communications authors viewed their audiences adversarially at best and as completely alien at worst (the technology provided suggestions for both tightening and loosening that bond).
The technology broke social distance – the bond between author and audience – into five degrees of separation: Otherness, Strangerness, Difference, Sameness, and Selfness. Phrasically these would be:
- Selfness – I/me
- Sameness – We/us
- Difference – I/we, you/them
- Strangerness – Us, Not-Us
- Otherness – I/we/us, WTF?
Most fictional aliens are variants of recognizable earth lifeforms. That’s why most StarTrekTM aliens had two arms, two legs, a head, eyes, ears, nose, mouth… Didn’t matter where the aliens originated, they pretty much had the same bilateral symmetry humans have. Want to indicate the alien was nasty? Make him bilaterally non-symmetric. No Borg (except the Queen Mum and 7of9) had bilateral symmetry. They all had some kind of projection coming out of them somewhere or a huge prosthetic attached somewhere (simply put, they were out-of-balance). The Queen Mum and 7of9 were exceptions because their purpose (scriptwise) was to interact with and/or seduce humans (a different kind of assimilation, if you will).
Remember the Gorn? How about the Medusan? The Horta? Or the Old Ones from the Catspaw episode?
What you have are Gorn-Strangerness, Medusan-Otherness, Horta-Otherness, Old Ones-Strangerness.
Note 1 – Make an alien completely and utterly alien by either a) never showing it on camera or 2) make it an energy (or something similar) being.
Note 2 – The Old Ones were terrifying until we see them in their true form; bilaterally symmetrical and tiny. Want to make an alien terrifying? Make it big. Make it “Other” but interactionable? Make it small.
Or, when you’re just hitting puberty, make them female (in western culture, anyway). Females go from Sameness to WTF? in seconds and, as males mature, get through Strangerness and Difference. Lucky males meet females who interact as Sameness.
But never Selfness. Susan tells a great joke about why guys can’t trust women. The punchline is “Would you trust something that bleeds every month and never dies?”
Did you know there are female-specific jokes? Not jokes specifically about females but jokes mostly women laugh at and men don’t. Most comedians tell male-specific jokes and get away with it because western culture is male dominant (my apologies to women everywhere). It’s only been since since the 1990s that female comics (oh, how I long for the day when we could call them comediennes and have people understand it was shorthand for “female comic” and not an insult or putdown) told female-specific jokes.
I’m told I write convincing female characters. Probably because most aboriginal groups I’ve worked with consider me either a Contrary or a Sacred Clown and many both (let me know if you need them explained and I’ll add a comment or edit doing so). It gives me insights most males don’t have.
Consider Cymodoce. The first time I workshopped Cymodoce female workshop members wanted to know who really wrote it because a guy couldn’t know enough to write those types of things from a woman’s perspective.
Boobs and Nostrils
Or consider the Zoom chat I took part in with three people while we waited for others to show up. One participant commented on adjusting their camera so it wasn’t “looking up” as all you’d see were boobs and nostrils.
I laughed. “Can I go on the record that I’m okay with boobs and nostrils?”
“Yes, Joseph. I’m sure you are.”
The other two people in the chat laughed politely.
(or was it dismissively?)
What intrigues me about this is that I don’t think of the person making the remark as a woman. She is, yes, definitely, and if someone asked me to describe her I would reference 1) Physicist, 2) Writer, 3) Tap Dancer, 4) Trekker in that order.
Gender is a descriptive element to me, not an identity element. Secondary sexual characteristics can be interesting but I don’t consider them defining. An exception would be needing to identify a single individual from a group of similar individuals, and even then I’d go for some other physical characteristic (height most likely although I’m not sure why).
Now add in that all the other people on above mentioned call were women. Intelligent, beautiful women, all.
What about my comment caused the nervous, polite, possibly dismissive laughter?
Because I’m a male and certain things are expected from males? Because there’s essentially a male-default value and that value defaults to “idiot”?
But to know what they were thinking and why they were thinking it to cause the reactions to my comment?
Back to knowing how people think
So one person in a work-in-progress knows what other people think. The what is significant. How people think is simple(r) to understand; chemically, physiologically, psychologically, socially, … But not what.
Not the exact phrasing of their thoughts.
I interviewed some thirty women of different ages and backgrounds to get insight into how one character would respond in a given situation because I wanted to effectively write what my male mind-reading character would discover in a female character’s mind.
Because anybody saying they know what someone else is thinking is standing on a three legged stool of ignorance, arrogance, and ego and sawing off the legs.
PS) You don’t really want to know what someone else thinks. Most people’s thoughts, regardless of their outward demeanor, aren’t pleasant or joyous or pleasing. There are moments, yes, and they are tough to catch from the outside and tougher to hold onto from the inside. Unless you want to help someone out of their maelstrom and have the tools to do it, best stay away.
I tend not to think of people by their gender unless they insist I do by their words or deeds, and I tend to shy away from those who insist.
But I shy away from anyone who insists I view them through a small, single-element lens. Give me the whole person. Let me decide if their race, ethnicity, or gender is important. If I do, I’ll add it to my descriptive index of them, but only for the purpose of identifying them to others, not to identify them to myself.
My characters are the same way. The moment one aspect of them dominates their appearance in the story they’ve become a lesser character, a minor character, a stage direction character. They’re no longer a person, they’re a stereotype, only in the story to serve some quick purpose then get out of the way so the fully realized characters can be on stage.
So I can’t talk to women anymore
Society and culture have placed a bilateral asymmetry in inter-gender communication. At least between males of my generation and females of any generation (want to see bilaterally asymmetric inter-gender communications made manifest? Watch a traditional Japanese man and woman talk to each other. It’s amazing!)
It’s not that I’d say something to offend, it’s that I’d rather be silent than get lumped into the default.
I tend towards caution when I converse. More so now and with both genders (note: I’m archaic enough to default to biologic versus insisted gender).
Probably because I’m older and have far less to say.