Quite regularly, I find myself beta-reading for other writers. That’s a given if you want to improve your own writing (yeah, and if you want to guilt-trip other people into beta-reading for you). Over the past years, I’ve read everything from epic fantasy to murder most foul, from paranormal romance to superheroism, from women’s literature to children’s books.
Usually, I don’t give a damn about whether the characters are male or female, or if there’s a healthy power balance between them. As long as they’re well written, believable, and necessary to the story, their gender is the last thing on my mind. Recently, though, I’ve come across a couple of books that made me question my stance in that respect. All of them by the same author (nope, I’m not naming), they were all written from the perspective of a male main character. And here’s the thing: While throughout every story, said male occasionally bumbled along quite charmingly and needed a female to rescue him, in the end, it was always him who saved the day, and the girl who needed a strong pair of arms to pull her out of the final disaster. It was like they were keeping records, with the boy constantly one-upping the girl until she finally, however tough she was, had to admit defeat.
Now, I’m not much of a feminist and I find no pleasure in raising my own gender by putting the other gender down, but I still couldn’t help thinking that this wasn’t a message I could condone. On the one hand, because that little detail wasn’t necessary to the story – it’s of no importance who ultimately saves the day, as long as the day is saved – on the other, because the books were aimed at a teenage audience. Aim a book at adults and you can write whatever you want, in my opinion, but if your target group is children or teenagers, you have a responsibility. Any message you constantly repeat might sooner or later be believed.
While I was busy ranting at that author about his unresponsible ways, a nagging little voice at the back of my head kept asking, Are you any better? So he’s a man writing from a male perspective and always letting his boy win. What about me? I’m a woman, and the one series I have aimed at teenagers has a female narrator. Did I make the same mistake, only the other way round, without even noticing? I went and checked.
And the oddest thing happened.
I realized that the cast of characters in my Resident Witch series is completely balanced. Exactly as many males as there are females, the same number of people with or without magic talent, of seriously clever or moderately intelligent, of cunning and useful or plain comic relief, of evil or good, on either side of the gender gap.
I was completely stunned. Why? Because I hadn’t planned any of that. I didn’t go and say to myself, if you have a clever girl, you need a clever boy as well. If two females can do magic, you need two males who can do the same. Oh, and you’ll need a bastard for every bitch. I just wrote the stories and it happened of its own accord.
That got me thinking, because seriously, where did that come from? Is it representative of the little bubble I call my world, my personal echo chamber? Is it how I want to perceive the world as a whole? Is there a moral in any of this rambling here or am I just showing off what a liberal, balanced person I am?
There might be a little moral. A rather obvious one, but I guess repeating this message until someone finally believes it isn’t the worst thing I could possibly do. Imagine a world where we still are males and females, but we no longer label each other with all the prejudices and preconceptions those two words are loaded with. Imagine we stop judging each other for the things we do that others perceive we do because of our gender. Imagine a girl crying over a sad movie – is she just ‘acting like a girl’? Or an empath and too good for her own good at relating to someone else’s pain? Or the guy who keeps lecturing other people on things they really know themselves, thank you very much – is he ‘mansplaining’? Or just an arrogant idiot and someone should tell him to shut up? And yes, I know those weren’t the most balanced examples, but I thought I’d go with the most stereotypical ones the better to drive the point home.
Long story short, it’s up to you. If you can imagine a world that’s not filled with men and women, but with people, and you can judge people by their words and actions, not by their gender, hey, what a world this could be.