Tor.com reposted an article from USA Today (or was it vice versa?) regarding new discoveries from the Viking age. By inspecting the bones rather than grave artifacts, the scientific community has adjusted its theory to speculate that the number of females-to-males who went a-viking was somewhere between a third to roughly equal.
Similarly, 11 months prior, LiveScience put out an article saying that an Etruscan warrior prince was actually a princess. Again — looking at the bones rather than the artifacts.
It made me wonder why this is surprising. It made me wonder why, in 2013, at a Science Fiction and Fantasy convention — at a panel discussing how fantasy elements impact warfare — a professional with an extensive military history background can say, in no uncertain terms, “we romanticize this idea of a woman warrior. We have no evidence for it. They did not exist.”
If this is a matter of erasure, I wondered when the erasure happened. As the steampunk fashion movement has grown to include literary and scientific interests, there’s been a greater focus on alternative history. What if we had gone with Tesla’s model rather than Edison’s? Further investigation (with rabid enthusiasm, a limitless resource of fandom) revealed a plethora of women soldiers, scientists, and spies. The Victorian era seems stuffy at first glance, but women were there. They were working.
If erasure began earlier, how early? Was it Perrault in the late 17th century, who couched fairy tales like Red Riding Hood into warnings about the dangers of blossoming female sexuality? Probably not. For a book to prosper, it needs an audience with whose work it will resonate.
Kameron Hurley’s award-winning article, “We Have Always Fought: Challenging the Women, Cattle and Slaves Narrative” captures nearly all of these arguments as they apply to writing female characters. The gendered approach to role and identity is lazy. The idea that We Have Always Fought doesn’t only refer to women who feel comfortable in danger, conflict, and innovation; it also refers to the idea that men and women, both, have always wrestled with the idea of identity. We have always fought because there is always someone else trying to tell you who you are. These stories perpetuated by many to define the individual continue for generations — especially when you will be punished, from ostracism to execution, for proving them wrong.
Nevermind looking at the Victorian era, or the Age of Reason for the source of this divide. Go back to Hippocrates, Aretaeus and Galen, who blamed the womb for nearly all diseases in women. The underlying idea was that the womb moved around the body, putting pressure on the organs and causing blockages. The cure? Pregnancy, at least, sex leading to pregnancy. Taoist texts recommend that men should sleep with as many young women as possible to maintain their health, but women would suffer the adverse effect if they used the same treatment.
The media’s portrayal of gender roles (frustrated mom, incompetent dad) affects us. Louder and more prolific voices tell us our identity. They tell us that women have long hair, men have short hair. They tell us men are buried with swords, and women with brooches. They tell us who we should be and how we should think. Imagine a world where pink was a manly color. It’s not any kind of color — it’s just a color. Flowers are pink. Guts are pink. Blood is blue, and so are flowers.
Our perception tends to narrow based on our environment. As a little kid, before I learned about Barbie and He-Man toys (products marketed and sold to specific demographics), I believed the defining characteristic in gender was that boys had green eyes and girls had blue eyes. In my family that was true, but what does it mean for brown eyes? Or blue-eyed men? It’s important to consider new data as it arises, rather than insist on the current narrative. This may be difficult and uncomfortable, especially if your language has gender woven all the way through it. The gender of a table, knife, or factory also indicate that dividing the world into feminine/masculine qualities is an old, OLD fight; but it’s up to you if you accept it as is.
If you were to disregard what voices from above tell you, what would you observe? Beautiful men and mighty women surround us. Calculating women and nurturing men surround us. Patient humans surround us. Cruel humans surround us. We are them. They are us.
The contents of your backpack might be misleading. Marketing is misleading. To understand someone, look to the core of them — down to their bones.