Hi, book geeks! Just a reminder that this Thursday we’ll be discussing the first volume of Gail Simone’s Batgirl run. Looking forward to it!
How do you know that volunteer work you’re doing to encourage women to enter technology is effective? I get asked fairly often to volunteer from programs such as technology summer camps, mentoring, promotional websites and science fairs, and I’ve often wondered whether they are worthwhile.
While I like to think that every little bit helps, the fact is that programs targeted towards youth often have unintended consequences. Take the example of “girls in technology summer camp”. Maybe girls that attend technology summer camp would rather spend their vacation doing other things, and walk away annoyed and less inclined towards careers in technology than they were before. Maybe the girls that choose to attend are all girls that were planning to enter [science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM)] careers in the first place, and it has no effect. Even worse, maybe summer camps cause girls to make poorly-informed decisions to go into technical careers. Maybe they present an incomplete view which causes attendees to pursue STEM degrees, only to drop out when they realize what the degree is really about. Maybe they don’t realistically present the aptitudes required, and encourage attendees who are unlikely to succeed to pursue certain careers.
While the outcomes above might not be likely, they are possible, and as I do more of this type of work, I’d like to better understand its impact. As a minimum, I’d like to make sure that my work isn’t actually discouraging girls from entering the field, and at best I’d like to figure out what type of activity, per hour spent, has the most impact.
Does anyone know of any research on this subject, or have any thoughts in general?
Firstly, kudos for getting involved in outreach work – it’s great that you’re so committed to helping encourage the next generation of women into exciting and rewarding STEM careers!
Secondly, this is an interesting question. One of my favourite things about science in general and scientists in particular is the desire for evidence to support their stances. It’s perfectly reasonable to inquire about effective outreach and indeed, any outreach programme worth its salt should be asking the questions ‘is this effective?’ and ‘how do we make it more so?’. Unfortunately, those questions then lead to the meta-questions of ‘how do we define effectiveness?’ and ‘how do we measure it?’, which are far more woolly and hard to pin down.
From your question it seems like you have several different criteria for what could make a programme effective, and none of these are invalid. It could be that it provides an accurate, well-rounded view of what a particular degree is like in order to appeal to the ‘right kind’ of person, or it encourages everybody regardless of pre-existing interest to consider STEM subjects. These of course are two different aims, and it’s important to consider which we want our outreach to achieve when we’re planning and executing it. Is one necessarily better than the other?
Add to the mix the fact that there are so many types of outreach you could be doing and that they all link to different intended outcomes and it becomes very hard to measure them all to one standard. An outreach programme for a particular engineering school within a university may consider ‘success’ to be an increase in women applying for their school, whereas a wider-reaching, more generalised outreach programme may measure success in the number of woman who tick ‘I am more interested in science than I was before’ after attending an activity. The outcomes are also rather self-selecting; a summer camp may look more successful at recruiting young people into STEM subjects, but usually because the people who choose to attend them are already interested in those subjects to begin with. So unfortunately the question about which activity has the most impact per hour spent is nearly impossible to answer, at least when considering the wide range of possible outreach activities and the huge range of audiences and goals.
It is possible to reflect a little on why women choose to study STEM subjects and reverse-engineer the sort of outreach which would provide those influences. In this article a variety of factors are highlighted that show things like spending time outdoors and doing math problems and logic games were more positively influential for girls than boys. These are things that could possibly be worked into an outreach programme to make STEM subjects even more enticing to women. An even bigger influence seems to be classes and teachers – something I will touch upon a little later.
The good news is that even without rigorous data it’s possible to make sure your work is not in vain; instead of worrying about trying to find the most effective outreach activity, I’d recommend instead maximising effectiveness with the outreach you’re already doing by following these steps:
Remember what drew you to STEM in the first place and share your passion and enthusiasm.
The best spokespeople for STEM subjects will always be the people who are passionate about what they do and are able to share that with the people around them. Make sure you communicate that passion well, also — work on your presentation and communication skills so you can get your message across clearly and enjoyably for your audience.
Work with a programme whose methods and aims you agree with/enjoy.
There are lots of different outreach approaches out there run by a variety of groups and people*. Find the one you enjoy most; as above, you’re going to be most effective when you’re having fun. It’s better to have a positive impact on a smaller group (for example) than to force yourself to work with large crowds and to be miserable the whole time.
Evaluate your programme and look for ways to improve it.
Good outreach programmes should always have a clearly-defined evaluation programme to monitor effectiveness and give means for improvement. If the programme you’re working with doesn’t have this, work with them to create one!
Talk to the people you’re working with and ask their opinions.
The best way of figuring out how effective you’re being is to ask the people you’re communicating with, right then and there. Talk to them about what they find interesting about science (or maths, or engineering, or technology) and how you can help them explore that. Ask them what they feel the barriers are, what sort of support would help them, and what sort of things they’d like to see or do in the future. Feedback like that can be immediate and very helpful, especially when paired with effective formal evaluation.
Outreach can be effective on an individual level; aim for that as much as a general effectiveness.
While there’s a lot to be said about raising the awareness of the importance of STEM with the general public, when it comes down to it you’re really trying to affect individuals. Try and connect with the people you’re working with, find out what makes them tick and share your experiences. If someone is swithering or unsure about their options all it might take is one good personal experience to encourage them to pursue technology over another option.
Consider other options you might not have thought of.
We all know that working with young people is an effective way of encouraging more people into STEM, but think about other ways you might be able to positively influence their experiences. It’s been shown that good classroom experiences positively affect the uptake of STEM subjects later in life, so providing science and technology teachers with training which gives them more confidence in the classroom might actually positively affect a whole class. Providing equipment for clubs or access to journals for students can also contribute to a better experience in schools and an increased likelihood of STEM uptake.
Lastly, all the outreach in the world is only worth so much if the environment that recruits are entering is unwelcoming or toxic to them.
Therefore it’s also incredibly important to improve the STEM environment for women in order to retain them after they’ve entered. Work with your company or university to support women entering the area and make sure your voice is heard on important matters of monitoring and equality!
- Center for Advancement of Informal Science Education, an NSF-funded coordinating site
- American Association for the Advancement of Science
- National Association for Interpretation
- Journal of STEM Education
- Forssen, Anna; Tonya Lauriski-Karriker; Alka Harriger; and Barbara Moskal. (2011) Surprising possibilities imagined and realized through Information Technology: encouraging high school girls’ interests in Information Technology in Journal of STEM Education
- Landgraf, Lisa; Pamela Peters; and Tammy Salmon-Stephens. (2008) Recruitment and Retention of Women in STEM: Effectiveness of Current Outreach Programs at University of Wisconsin – Platteville, a review of various literature sources and some outreach programmes.
One of the things I’ve been trying to work on recently is being more accepting and supportive of trans people (although this specific question can relate to several other contexts). I have heard a trans person say they’ve been hurt by being called “unnatural,” and I’ve heard coworkers make similar remarks. Would it be a good defensive for me to say to those coworkers, if the opportunity arises, “So are computers.”* ?
I wonder if that would resonate with the tech people I spend most of my time around – oh, yeah, we live and love things that are “unnatural” all the time, so maybe we shouldn’t look down on others for something else “unnatural” – but I’m worried about potentially causing more hurt to anyone listening by implying they are unnatural.
I personally just despise framing things as “natural” and “unnatural”, myself, but I don’t know if that response helps or not.
* or cars. or antibiotics. or sewage systems. really, most things.
There are always multiple ways to respond to any given microaggression, and some will work better or worse in different situations and with different people. It’s also great when allies stand up for us and point out when certain words or phrases or jokes are unacceptable, since we get tired of doing it all the time, and also because sometimes a cis ally — or a trans person who isn’t known to be trans in the particular situation they’re in — will be listened to whereas a person who is known to be trans won’t.
Personally (and I’m just speaking for myself here), I don’t think your hypothetical response is bad, or unwittingly transphobic, but it’s not my favorite possible response. There are trans people who champion transhumanism (putting the trans in transhumanism?) — for an example of what such a worldview might look like, see Donna Haraway’s “The Cyborg Manifesto” (Haraway’s student Sandy Stone — worthy of a geek woman profile herself — wrote “The Empire Strikes Back: A Posttranssexual Manifesto”, a deeply flawed but historically influential essay in which she encouraged trans people to aspire to more than just fitting in as someone who’s typically read as a cis woman or cis man). Some of them see hormone replacement therapy and surgery as sought by some trans people as radical body modifications, and see themselves as being part of a cyborg movement.
Moreover, both your co-workers and your hypothetical response assume that trans people, by definition, seek medical intervention to bring their external body into congruence with their neurological or subconscious sex. I assume that what is being thought of as “unnatural” is the use of medication or surgery. However, many trans people do not undergo any medical interventions, whether by choice or due to the many economic and social injustices that make this type of health care especially difficult to access for many people. So really, the people being tarred with the “unnatural” brush are actually a subset of trans people.
In the rest of this answer, though, I’ll show how the accusation of ‘unnatural’ is only used to protect the power structure as-is: people accept all sorts of things that were once considered unnatural if those things prove to help white heterosexual cis men. Specifically, they accept medical technology, beautifications and body modifications usually used by women (so long as they jibe with the male gaze), and (since it’s become economically beneficial for white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, at least to some extent) women working outside the home and in professional jobs.
Medical technology. Since not all trans people (myself included) want to see themselves as better than human, or beyond human, I think there are better answers. Like you said in your question, antibiotics are unnatural. So are hip replacements, cochlear implants, anti-depressants, insulin, thyroid replacement hormone, breast reductions and augmentations, artificial legs, organ transplants, crutches, wheelchairs, and pacemakers. These are all medications, procedures, devices that are used by both cis people and trans people. I think very few people would want to go back in time to a world without medical technology. For trans people who avail themselves of them (or want to), medication (that is, exogeneous hormones) and surgeries are treatments for a medical condition. It’s not that being trans is a disease or a disorder — or that being the sex we’re born as (for example, the sex I was born as is male although I was coercively assigned female at birth) is a delusion or a problem — it’s that some of us have brains and bodies that function best when testosterone is our primary sex hormone even though we were born with gonads that primarily produce estrogen, and some have brains and bodies that function best when estrogen is our primary sex hormone even though we were born with gonads that primarily produce testosterone. And some of us have, deeply wired into our brain, a mental map of an external body that has different genitals (or other features) than the body we were born with. In the latter case, surgery to make our bodies the shape that our brain expects is treating a medical condition, which is a body that didn’t form in the way that our brain expects. And in the former case, hormone replacement is just a matter of supplementing a hormone our bodies don’t make enough of, much like taking synthetic thyroid hormone for someone with hypothyroidism.
None of this is “natural”, but again, if “natural” means going back to a world where nearsighted people get eaten by wolves because there are no eyeglasses, don’t sign me up. There’s something very ableist about wanting to live in a world where medical interventions aren’t available: it basically means you want to live in a world where disabled people are all left to die. Since most of my friends and I would be dead in that world, no thanks.
Alternatively, you could certainly argue that anything that exists is natural, in the sense of occurring in nature. Human beings have developed technology because we evolved brains that made us capable of developing it. That’s 100% natural. So is anything that we’ve created using natural materials. Like the health food store that tries to sell you “100% chemical-free” food, people who talk about what’s “natural” and “unnatural” are using clichés to fool you into accepting a category that’s actually semantically empty. Trans people are natural because we are trans, and we exist; full stop. We’re not confused cis people or flawed versions of cis people, but rather, individuals in our own right.
Sometimes claims that trans people are “unnatural” are really claims that trans people are some sort of modern creation of medical technology, as if we didn’t exist before medical interventions that sometimes make our lives easier existed. This argument gets it backwards and erases our agency — it’s not like cis male doctors were dying to treat trans people; rather, we had to fight tooth and nail to get some small modicum of access to treatment (and that access has always been easier to get for white trans people who can at least act like they conform to the stereotypes for their self-identified gender). And anyway, gender-variant people exist in every culture and have been noted throughout history.
Some people disbelieve this reality because they believe in an oversimplified, fifth-grade-biology view of evolution in which reproduction is all-important and features that seem to discourage reproduction can’t possibly survive. As Joan Roughgarden showed in Evolution’s Rainbow and Bruce Bagemihl showed in Biological Exuberance, it ain’t necessarily so. Understanding evolutionary theory does not entail believing in some sort of “invisible hand” that directs all organisms’ behavior so as to maximize reproduction; it also doesn’t require attaching moral value to reproducing. Those last two are about ideology, not science. If anything is unnatural, it’s the belief system that nothing in nature has any purpose besides reproduction (or indeed, that there are purposes aside from what people and perhaps other conscious beings ascribe to it). Bagemihl, in particular, outlines an alternative framework (at the end of Biological Exuberance) in which we view pleasure and abundance, rather than reproduction, as what living beings optimize for. In this framework, there’s nothing strange about animals (human and otherwise) who engage in homosexual, bisexual, and pansexual behavior, or who are gender-fluid or intersex or occupy genders besides the two that most Western humans recognize. Since we have a choice about the ideas we use to give meaning to raw data, we might as well pick ones that don’t come pre-bundled with a whole lot of social hierarchy implying that cis men and women are better than others, or that people who procreate are better than people who don’t — eh? There’s nothing natural about attaching moral connotations to the ability to reproduce.
Closely related to the “natural” microaggression is the microaggression of referring to both cis men and trans women as “biologically male” and trans men and cis women as “biologically female”. The sexes most of us get assigned at birth are better characterized as “sociological sex” than “biological sex”. When a baby is born in an industrialized, medicalized setting in the Western world, typically what happens is that a doctor (or midwife, or other medical worker or in some cases, a parent or family member) inspects the baby’s genitals and determines whether, as an adult, the baby will be able to play the penetrative role in heterosexual intercourse between two cis people. If the doctor decides that the baby’s phalloclitoris is large enough that, scaled up, it’ll be big enough to accomplish this task, the doctor assigns a male sex to the baby. Otherwise — defining maleness by the presence of a penis and femaleness by the absence of a penis — the doctor assigns the baby as female. Nowadays, of course, especially for people who can afford it, this ascertainment gets made before birth using modern imaging technology (that is, using imaging technology to enhance the same old heteronormative criterion). In either case, this is absolutely subjective — less than a few decades ago, it was completely routine for 46,XY newborns (most of who would presumably grow up to assert themselves as male) to have genital reconstruction performed on them soon after birth to turn their “abnormally small” penises and scrota into a vulva. This is no longer routine, but still happens. The reasons have to do with a bag of social assumptions most of us are inculcated with involving the ideas that everyone is heterosexual — or if not, at least that not being heterosexual is undesirable — that everyone is sexual, and that the correct way for two people to interact sexually is missionary-position, penis-in-vagina intercourse. That’s why I call it sociological sex and not biological sex. If we went by biology and not sociology, we wouldn’t assign infants a sex until they were old enough to affirm one for themselves, since the only reliable indicator of one’s sex is the brain, and the only way to determine someone’s innate, subconscious sex is to ask them what it is.
Gender expression (not just for trans people). I want to take a couple of steps back and point out that what I’ve outlined is a version of the medical model of transsexuality. It’s still not the version that gatekeepers such as the World Professional Association for Transgender Health like to purvey, but regardless, some trans and genderqueer people reject the idea of medicalizing transness at all. I don’t, however, see the existence of such people as evidence for “unnatural”ness either. Regardless of what you’re doing or not doing with your body, there’s nothing unnatural about modifying your body, appearance, and behavior to communicate who you are and how you’d like to be treated. It’s possible to view gender as a language, and language is one of the most basic things about being human. Using symbols to convey meanings is natural.
I recommend Talia Bettcher’s article “Evil Deceivers and Make Believers” in which she outlines “the natural attitude about gender” — which probably most or all of us have been taught, and many people have rarely questioned — and how it’s used to frame trans people as either deceptive or deluded. I think her argument relates directly to the real meaning of “unnatural” when used as a slur against trans people. If you can suggest that trans people are somehow “fake”, you can suggest that cis people are better than trans people, and thus justified in devaluing and dehumanizing trans people. People often rely on scientific terms they don’t understand, like “chromosome”, to lend false legitimacy to the idea that trans women are somehow less female than cis women or trans men are somehow less male than cis men, but one shouldn’t be fooled by the bogus biological science — it’s social science all the way down. As Bettcher shows, ultimately, the socially inculcated assumption is that outward appearance is an advertisement for what genitals one has. This is a convention I was never asked to consent to participating in, and if I’d been asked, I would have said no — but in any case, there’s no particular scientific or biological reason to assume that everyone is obeying this convention.
I’ve used the phrase “trans people” a couple of times in this answer, but I’ve argued myself that it’s a misleading phrase. It’s really trans women who face the bulk of the scrutiny from the dominant culture about being natural enough. This shouldn’t be too surprising, since it’s essentially the same scrutiny that cis women in sexist society are subject to. Cis women are expected to go to a great deal of effort to make themselves physically attractive (makeup, clothes, shoes, shaving, exercising, hairstyles, cosmetic surgery…) while simultaneously constructing a simulacrum of “natural”ness (that actually resembles nature very little — especially for women who aren’t white, thin and able-bodied, since the normative ideal of femininity in Western culture requires being all three). Trans women face all the same scrutiny, plus a double bind: if they do too much to conform to compulsory femininity, they’re accused of being “artificial” or “unnatural”; if they don’t put in this effort, they’re accused of really being men. They can’t win. Naturalness is a lie, an artifice, a construct made by somebody trying to sell you something.
Gender roles. Moreover, men (and other women) have also hurled the “unnatural” brickbat at cis women who wanted to work outside the home, decline to have children, love other women, go to school, or do science or engineering. That in itself should be a hint that there’s a problem with judging any women, cis or trans, by how “natural” or “unnatural” they are.
I also recommend Natalie Reed’s article “Bilaterally Gynandromorphic Chickens, And Why I’m Not ‘Scientifically’ Male” in case you need further convincing on why there’s nothing “biologically” or “scientifically” female about cis women that isn’t also true about some people who aren’t cis women, and likewise with cis men. “Sex Is Also a Social Construct” is useful as well. In this post, I haven’t even mentioned the dichotomy between sex and gender, which I believe is spurious and unhelpful. If you’ve been taught “sex is between the legs, gender is between the ears”, throw that in the garbage if you want to be a good trans ally. I won’t recommend any general resources specifically about how to be a trans ally, since many of them start with good intentions but end up doing just the opposite; however, familiarity with the articles in the “Trans*” section of the Freenode Feminists’ list of educational resources would be a good start.
Conclusion. I hope this gives you at least two tools with which to confront some language in the future: first, directly attacking the social hierarchies implicit in calling a particular group of people “unnatural” (whether it’s trans people, queer people, disabled people, mixed-race people, or so on); and second, calling attention to the bogus and oversimplified assumptions about science that underlie calling trans people “unnatural” or biologically a sex that they aren’t.
 Thanks to Valerie Aurora for this phrasing.
 Hypatia: A Journal of Feminist Philosophy, vol. 22, no.3 (Summer 2007), 43-65.
Welcome to round 7 of Ask a Geek Feminist! How it works:
- if you’ve got a question you think a geek feminist could answer, post a comment in reply to this post. (Comments will not be publicly visible.)
- about a week from now I’ll distribute questions to my co-bloggers and they can make a post with an answer to a question as they like
- about a week after that I’ll choose some of the remaining questions and open them up to our commenters
Your question, if it appears in a post, will be quoted (possibly edited for length) but not attributed to you, unless you ask us to attribute it. Since we’re not making them publicly visible, questions can be about anything you like; however obviously if you stray too far from our comment policy the chances of ever seeing an answer are pretty slim. Check out previous posts answering questions to see how this worked before.
Questions do not have to be about feminism or or obviously feminist topics: they could be about geeky interests including pop culture, about careers, about social life and so on. Given the name of this blog though, feminism might appear in the answer…
If you have a 101 (introductory) questions about feminism we suggest that:
- you’ve looked over Finally Feminism 101′s FAQs and the Geek Feminism wiki’s 101 page to see if you can get an answer there first; and
- you explain why you want a geek feminist, in particular, to answer this question. Do you think there’s a particular geek slant on this we might have or that our readers might like to discuss? The series is intended to produce interesting things for our community to think about and talk about, as well as an answer for the questioner.
If your question boils down to “why are there so few women in science/computer science/mathematics/engineering/physics, and what should we do?”, we’re unlikely to answer, please see this list of resources to turn to.
Questions will be accepted until comments on this post close in about a fortnight. (I don’t want to accept them constantly, because of the work of anonymising them.) If you miss out and find comments have already closed, another round will run within about six months… You can also ask questions non-anonymously in Open threads, although they may not be promoted to the front page.
This is an Ask a Geek Feminist question for our readers from Annalee Newitz. Paraphrased:
Do you have examples of or ideas for the “gamification of feminism” – ways that people have turned advocating feminism into a game or fun activity?
Example: KC Crowell printed and distributed sports-style “red cards” and “yellow cards” to give to people being sexist at DEFCON 20 a few weeks ago.
What are your examples, ideas, and thoughts?
This is an Ask a Geek Feminist question for our readers. It’s the last for this round.
This one is actually from me, it’s related to some questions I’ve been asked by various people who will remain anonymous (and who didn’t formally write to Ask a Geek Feminist). I have my own thoughts on this, and I also think it can vary (helpful!)
What do you think people and groups should do about sexism in their “archives”? By this, I mean for example, older stuff on their blog, or Facebook postings from years ago, or similar? A lot of people have sexism in their past, varying from “I used to be a pretty committed sexist actually” to “um, I didn’t really think about it, and I wanted to fit in, and I went through a ‘Your Mom’ phase for a while there”. Things you do on the Internet are pretty long-lived now, and your sexism sticks to your name while it remains visible.
Assuming someone or someones have control of their content, and they have sexism they don’t like in there, and they have reason to think it’s going to hurt someone. Should they remove the content? Should they edit it with warnings and apologies?
Have you seen this in a real situation? What did they do? How did it work for them and for women near them/involved in their community?
At least for systemic stuff, I tend to be on the ‘edit’ side of the fence. There are a few reasons for this:
- even if you’ve totally changed and are ashamed and sorry, being a reformed sexist is something that may make people, women in particular, cautious about you. Living with that is part of the deal. You don’t get to get access to Has Always Been The Best Person Ever cred because you weren’t.
- it also serves as a guide to How To Do It, for other reforming sexists (or How Not To Do It, if you apologise but don’t actually change)
And while writing an apology that is short and not self-serving is a challenge, but that doesn’t mean one shouldn’t try.
On the other hand, I, in general, do wish that much informal discussion on the Internet yellowed and started to curl at the edges and be difficult to read as time passed, sometimes. I realise that the invention of writing was some considerable time ago now, but even so, having to stand by your casual thoughts for years is a big ask. I can’t see that one should make a special effort to preserve evidence of one’s sexism if that same set of archives is going to disappear in its entirety.
This is an Ask a Geek Feminist question for our readers:
I’m a doctoral student in physics, currently writing my thesis and I’m going to be looking for a job come summer. The problem is that I’ve had a long, shitty, depressed time of grad school, and I don’t really want to keep doing physics, at least not right away – I got involved with trans* activism while I was transitioning and didn’t have a bathroom I felt like I could use, and since that I’ve also done safe space trainings, small-scale community organising, and successfully got the university to adopt a trans-inclusive student health plan.
At the moment I’d much rather continue my activism than get a postdoc or whatever, so my question is what sorts of jobs might be available to a geek activist with a doctorate in physics (rather than something more directly applicable), or where should I even start looking?
So, what I did here (or rather, what Valerie Aurora started and we did) was found an entire non-profit from scratch to employ our geek selves as feminist activists. Possibly that wasn’t what you wanted to hear though, it’s not the easy way to a career in activism. If there is one? Can anyone shed light on this that doesn’t involve applying for tax exempt status in the United States?
This is an Ask a Geek Feminist question for our readers:
I’m a geek feminist trying to get into IT, specifically object-oriented programming and Flash/Actionscript. What I’m having the most problems with is practice – I’m taking some Continuing Ed courses because I have a totally different day job, but I still don’t feel like I’m gaining much skill in programming, probably also because I know exactly what I WANT to learn, but I haven’t found anything yet that covers it.
What I’m wondering is, for the typical programmer/developer job path, how do you figure out how to solve programming problems that aren’t covered in your classes? Do you just search through the language documentation (e.g. Java API) looking for relevant code?
This is in many ways closely related to an earlier AAGF question about finding newbie coding problems, but also a little broader: programmers, when you were learning, did you go to the puzzle sites, or work through language docs, or work on open source, or something else?
This is an Ask a Geek Feminist question for our readers:
I am male who wants to write a novel about a female superhero. Since this is a superhero novel there will be violence and at some point my hero will have to lose a fight (though of course she wins in the end).
I am wondering how I should write the scene where the supervillain beats the crap out out of my female hero. Should I just write as if she were a male? Or do I need to take precautions so I don’t end up glorifying violence against women?
A quick thought on this one: there’s no “just” in “write as if she were a male”. A big part of the problem is that this is pretty rare, hence the Women in Refrigerators trope and similar critiques. Your own knowledge that she’s a woman will influence you to write violence specific to her gender and to cultural tropes about male-on-female violence.
So, I think you’ve set up a bit of a false dilemma between “write what comes naturally and it will be just like as if she was a man getting beat up” or “go out of my way to de-glorify the violence against her”. Another thing you need to be careful of is “write what comes naturally and spew your cultural uglies about women and their bodies and violence against them all over the page completely unawares.”
Second thought: you don’t want to “write as if she were a male”, in any case, because she isn’t. You want to write as if she was a person. Your current thinking on this seems to be edging towards “men are the pattern for people, women are special unique cases of people” which is a little concerning for your characterisation of a woman!
Do you have a writing group who review each other’s drafts? Does this group contain women? Obviously the women in your writing group should be reviewing all the work that your male peers do, not just “hey, I have a woman-centric bit here, so now you’re the expert, but I’ll ask John about the rest of my writing.” But you could ask the group in general for feedback on this and since you can show them the actual draft, they may have more specific thoughts.
You could perhaps get some of the way with playing around with reading and writing drafts of your violence scenes gender-switched and with more ambiguous pronouns in order to try and keep the uglies out of it, but I think this is where we need some fiction writers to step in. What think you?
This is an Ask a Geek Feminist question for our readers:
I’m a English-major Geek. You probably knew a dozen or two like me in college. You want conversations on Shakespeare, grammar, early science fiction, or a Fruedian analysis of The Hobbit, I’m your woman. I’m not science or math-phobic, I’m really not. But for the past twenty years, I’ve been getting most of my science from NOVA, science fiction novels, and pizza-and-beer lectures from friends. (I get my math from Vi Hart videos.)
My spouse is similarly situated.
Now, we have a precocious daughter who is exceptionally science-y. Has been since she became fascinated with early hominid evolution when she was three. She once interpreted a Science Museum docent to explain, patiently, that the skeleton he was showing was Homo ergaster, not a Neanderthal. In fact, it was Turkana Boy. She was four and she was right. (He’d grabbed the wrong photo.)
I’ve been scrambling ever since I figured out that I’ve likely got a scientist on my hands. Turns out that Women in Science is THING! (I knew that before but it wasn’t really immediately relevant to my life until that moment.) So I’ve done what I can: she watches NOVA and ViHart with me, I read the Scientific America blog, we practically live at the local Science Museum and Natural History Museums. I try to explain the science of what I’m doing at any moment, as well as I understand it.
I even discovered that most of the scientists doing studies in pediatric brain development are women. So I’ve signed her up for every “brain study” in the city so she can see female scientists at work. (At age 6, she’s had about a dozen MRIs.)
But I feel like, as an English Major Geek, I should be doing something more. Or different. Thoughts? Suggestions? Resources?
What do you think?