The 3rd, 4th and 5th Gender
Hugo-award winner* Kameron Hurley’s new book The Mirror Empire came out in September, so in the modern author fashion, she did a virtual author tour by guest blogging on many different sites. In one of her posts, “Beyond He-Man and She-Ra,” Hurley talks about the five genders in The Mirror Empire and how she developed them (or let them develop from the cultures she created).
This article resonated with me because my current work in progress (WIP) has southern characters who love, sleep with, and marry whoever they wish, and characters from the restrictive north, where only heterosexual relationships are allowed. I had a lot of fun watching my main character navigate the multicultural, multi-sexual southern city she lives in.
One thing that is not included in my story is any gender other than male and female. Characters are called inflexible if they only have sex with one kind of person, flexible if they are attracted to more types. This was not an accident. I consciously chose not to include a 3rd, 4th, or 5th gender in the story. Part of this is because I identify strongly as a woman and like to tell woman’s stories—how identifying as a woman influences a character (or doesn’t), what it means to be a woman, and the many ways women can be represented in a story.
But the other reason was just plain being worried about how multiple genders might complicate the plot. What would my third gender be? Who becomes this 3rd gender and why? Would my main character, (currently a flexible woman) be this gender? If so, how would it influence the plot? My character’s development? I’ve already had to stretch my writing muscles in new ways during this novel. For example, thinking of non-gendered ways to refer to groups of male and female warriors, rebels, soldier, bandits, etc. Adding another gender would be even more work.
But reading Hurley’s blog changed my mind. She believes fantasy should push boundaries and not fall into the pitfalls of “historical accuracy” or any form of “that’s the way it’s always been done.” Writing, frankly, is not supposed to be easy. If I can dream the difference, I can write it–I can talk to other writers, to people who don’t identify male/female, read more–at the very least, I can try.
So I won’t be changing my current novel, because I’m telling the story I want to tell with it, but next time I won’t be so quick to cut myself off. Instead, I’ll take my writing to the limits of fantasy—much further than I’ve been going.
(* Hurley won a Hugo Award for her blog post “We Have Always Fought,” another excellent read for feminists!)