Before anyone gets too excited by the provocative title, I want to point out that I using this definition of the word:
As writers, we are more interested in behaviour dependent on the differences between men and women … and the similarities.
First up, let’s focus on the use of overtly gender-specific words, often used to create differences that do not exist. Examples would be dichotomy words like ‘actor’ and ‘actress’, ‘master’ and ‘mistress’, ‘sir’ and madam’. Acting is something done by both sexes, so the use of the word ‘actor’ could – and lately has been – used to refer to both men and women in the acting profession. In professions that were once seen as strictly masculine arenas, like plumbing, there was no creation of a word like ‘plumbess’. I can’t see why a Steampunk writer couldn’t have a little fun with gendered language to point out this linguistic quirk.
In the Victorian era, these gendered words were strictly segregated. Generally, the feminine version would garner some negative overtones in its meaning: a mistress of the house against a man’s mistress in a illicit relationship. Notice there is no equivalent overtone for ‘master’. A man running a brothel is not referred to as a ‘madam’. Because there is a move away from gender-specific words in our culture, a writer has to take extra care to ensure the correct use of these sort of words.
Then there are the hidden gendered words. The perfect example of this would be the old saying “Pigs sweat, men perspire, women glow”. Really? I wish I only ‘glowed’. Another example is the word ‘grin’ … generally only men grin and women smile in literature. This is creating a gendered difference in behaviour that doesn’t exist. A man can grunt a reply and no one will think anything of it, but a woman grunting a reply is probably going to be seen as rude. This subtly gendered language can be a trap if you don’t watch out for it, unless you are using it deliberately to create a characterization.
Next time you are reading, try to pick out the gendered language in your text. I’m going to use a short excerpt from C S Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
“The White Witch?” said Edmund; “who’s she?”
“She is a perfectly terrible person,” said Lucy. “She calls herself the Queen of Narnia thought she has no right to be queen at all, and all the Fauns and Dryads and Naiads and Dwarfs and Animals—at least all the good ones—simply hate her. And she can turn people into stone and do all kinds of horrible things. And she has made a magic so that it is always winter in Narnia—always winter, but it never gets to Christmas. And she drives about on a sledge, drawn by reindeer, with her wand in her hand and a crown on her head.”
Edmund was already feeling uncomfortable from having eaten too many sweets, and when he heard that the Lady he had made friends with was a dangerous witch he felt even more uncomfortable. But he still wanted to taste that Turkish Delight more than he wanted anything else.
This small quote is just teeming with gendered language: witch, queen, fauns & dwarves (always male), dryads and naiads (mostly female),lady. As well, Lucy uses the word ‘horrible’; male characters hardly ever use this word in fiction. Even the cadence of Lucy’s dialogue is very different to if a boy her age was making the explanation … Lucy is using a gossipy tone. She includes the details of the White Witch’s mode of dress first, and then talks about her mode of transport. Would a boy from that era reverse the order of that description, do you think?
As a challenge to yourself, try rewriting Lucy’s dialogue, but now she is a boy called Lucas. How does that change how you ‘hear’ the dialogue. For those who haven’t read the book or seen the movie, Lucy suffers from an episode where she is considered untruthful by her siblings. Edmund, her brother, knows she is telling the truth, but – with his own agenda – he adds his voice to their older siblings when they tell her to stop telling tales about Narnia. I often wonder how the story would change if Lucy had been a boy, instead of a girl. Girls are often characterised as deceptive; it is a stereotype as old as the bible – think about Eve.
Once you can recognise gendered language, both overt and covert, you will see it everywhere. Then it is up to you, as a writer, to choose whether you use epicene language or gendered language in your narratives.