Sunday, March 13, 2011

He said/She said: Writing YA Across Gender Lines

My newest, favorite twitter feed is Transgender Hulk (avatar pictured here). Just as her inspiration, Feminist Hulk, promises to "Smash patriarchy" in 140 characters or less, transgender hulk tweets me to "Smash the sex and gender binary."

And in some ways, I have been recently.

No, I'm not talking about my work in feminist science studies, or my teaching of gender and sexuality in the context of health and social justice. I'm talking (as I usually am on this blog) about my fores into the world of YA novel writing.

Yup, in my latest WIP, I've decided to cross the gender line, and write from the first person male point of view.

Which of course, feminist hulk in mind, I'd like to do without falling into stereotypical gender binarisms. Which, sometimes, I, uh, have been. For instance, on re-reading a scene in which my main character is upset, I had originally written tears welling up in his eyes (stereotypical girl reaction). On second thought, I went back and scratched the tears and made my character furious and frustrated, yelling and eventually, itching for a fight (stereotypical boy reaction).

I actually think the physical, confrontational reaction WAS more true to the character - he's a warrior, someone who's been born with certain gifts and seeks to develop his physical skills further. And yet, I also felt absurd for falling into such an obvious trope - girl main character gets upset, she cries; boy main character gets upset, he punches a wall. Yikes. If I stick to such obvious binaries, I'm going to be at serious risk of either feminist hulk or transgender hulk coming by and smashing me.

So what do I do?

There's a secondary character in the same novel who is a teenage girl but, for various complicated reasons, must dress like a boy. Now, this gender bending is in line with a long tradition of such switcheroos in many mythic traditions - including Hindu epics (my WIP is inspired by one particular Indian epic - see post here for most on gender bending in Hindu myth). I feel like I can challenge simplistic girl/boy dualities more thoroughly with this character, who actually does skate the edge between traditional masculinity and femininity, making room for a spectrum of gender performance, embodiment and behavior.

But I'm still struggling with my main character. Not his voice, not even his personality or world view. Those I think I've got down. I know where this guy is coming from - in a sense he's closer to me than my female main character of my previous novel. Perhaps it was easier to infuse him inner life with my own because he's of a different gender, and because he has a very different external life than my own.

I was looking to other kidlit writers who write across gender. Sarwat Chadda's Billi San Greal in his Devil's Kiss books is a girl, Libba Bray's Don Quixote-esque main character in Going Bovine is a boy. I'm sure there are other fabulous examples that I'm not thinking of.

Anyone else struggling with writing across gender lines? Any other authors you admire who do so?


  1. I love writing in Boy. It's natural for me, more so than writing females. What can I say. I'm in the same boat as you.

  2. How early do you feel like you need to do a gender "reveal"? I'm realizing that Sarwat Chadda writes in third person with a girl MC, as does JK Rowling the other way - so I guess the "reveal" doesn't matter. It's only in first person cross gender that the gender "reveal" is really important, I guess, lest the reader assume the I voice is the presumed gender of the writer?

  3. Gender should be revealed by 'showing' the characters action. Usually, it's obvious if the piece is well done, however, it's always best to clue the reader in a bit earlier.

  4. agreed! :) thanks for your blog post too - full of great advice on writing across gender!