Whose Gender is it Anyway?

When I write first person, I (and I’d wager most authors) think it allows the fantastic opportunity for the reader to insert themselves into the story. Unless you define that gender or that physical representation in some definitive way, the character is whatever the reader says it is! Or, at least, that’s what I thought until Please was published in an anthology.

Please is a first person twitter flash fiction piece that I expanded for it’s debut in Tuplip Tree’s My Favorite Apocalypse. It features a kid named Jordan struggling to survive in the aftermath of the apocalypse. Outside of naming the kid Jordan (a name I see as masculine, mostly because all the Jordans I’ve ever met were male, but can be, in fact gender-neutral) in the expanded version I never identify their age or gender, really. In my head, this kid was male and I didn’t think much past that. And then a reader said “wow, she’s…” and another, and another.

At last I stopped one and said “why did you think the main character is a girl?” They struggled to answer this. I got “Jordan’s a girl’s name” (it’s technically not) and the sudden uncertainty of questioned assumptions. I grappled with some concepts as to why this might be – maybe our society is changing a lot more than I’ve seen and girls are finally allowed to be twisted and tough. Or maybe it’s slipping back into the warped concept that men can’t have any emotional or protective feelings. And then another one hit me.

“Is it because I’m a girl?” I asked at last. The responses were no less certain, but I had a feeling that it was – everyone who thought the gender was female knew me personally. But I didn’t have anything to corroborate the feeling.

Fast forward to my critique group’s last meeting. My dear friend (and amazing blogger) Victor had written a really cool short story to share. I’d read it, before, and paid attention to certain details in the non-gender specific writing and knew that the character was meant to be a female. So we’re sitting there, talking, and the other writers kept referring to the main character as a ‘he.’ Finally, I couldn’t contain my curiosity anymore and asked for a show of hands on the gender. This sensitive, caring character – with a daughter and matriarchal lineage of magic – was male to them.

When asked why, they also couldn’t put it into words. I noted the kind of panicky glances my friend’s way, and the near despair when he admitted that he had seen his character as female gendered, but they still couldn’t ascertain why they thought it was a man when written as a female.

Common logic says that first person allows others to insert their own gender but I’m beginning to suspect gender perception can be skewed, especially in situations where the behavior may be outside of the norm (aka, kick ass lady lead or careative male lead).. When faced with the unknown, readers appear to lean towards assuming that the gender will match the  authors. While my observations are in no way scientifically sound, it has made me consider how I approach a work I’m reading and how my concepts of gender and social identify effect my imagination – especially in my own work.