February 22, 2008
Gendered fiction exploration – gender f*&king with Creative Commons fiction
To further explore the ways in which women are represented within web 2.0 I decided to look at some fiction distributed online with a creative commons license that allowed for remixing, and then reverse the gender pronouns in order to see what effect it has on the story. For this I chose Cory Doctorow’s piece, Scroogled, a speculative fiction story set in the near future, where the Google corporation gains a contract to assist the US government with its border security. Scroogled was released with a creative commons attribution, non commercial, share alike license -meaning that anyone is free to use the work as it is or to create derivatives of that work provided they give proper attribution to the original creator and allow the new derivative product to be used in the same manner. The original story can be viewed here at RadarOnline, and my new remixed version can be downloaded here as an rtf file from MediaFire. I have not included the full text of the story here because it is over 4500 words long, but if you would prefer a browser viewable version rather than a downloadable one please comment and I will create one in a separate entry.
I want to be clear that I have not chosen this story because I feel it is sexist, or in any way needs to be re-written, quite the contrary, on my initial reading it appeared to be quite balanced in terms of gender representation. The lead character is a young/middle-aged, professional, white male and the main supporting character is a female of the same social and professional standing. My aim is not to point out any error in the writing, but rather to use it as a platform to examine the (often hidden) assumptions that we hold for characters (and by extension real life people) of any particular gender.
By exchanging the gender of all the characters in the story small exnominalizations (things left unsaid because they are considered the norm) begin to show themselves in the story’s background, female security guards and corporate heavies fill the scenery in a way that is unusual to regular pop culture texts. Exchanging the gender of characters helps to magnify things that are taken for granted.
At first my plan was to change only the pronouns (i.e. substitute he for she, she for he, girl for boy and so on) however, I decided to change a few more things to make the remixed story as smooth as possible, allowing the reader to concentrate on character differences rather than jarring names. I have replaced the main character names with gender-neutral names (or rather men’s names that are also acceptable as women’s names as is the way with much gender neutrality) – Greg is now Alex and Maya is now Sam. Laurie the girlfriend became Laurie the boyfriend. I changed lesbian to gay, aftershave to perfume, and fella to lass. The most unexpected difficulty was the decision to change the word ‘guy’ – there seemed to be no female or neutral equivalent that did not change the authors intended meaning significantly, which was not my aim at all. In the end, after seeking the opinions of some friends, I decided to leave some instances (such as in ‘catch the bad guys’) and change others where gender was specifically being implied. The fact that there doesn’t seem to be a female equivalent for ‘the bad guys’ that doesn’t end up sounding diminutive and soft-porn-esque was an interesting discovery for me.
The beginning and ends of the story have references to Greg/Alex shaving and the social implications of the amount of stubble resulting from shaving choices. I think these are the only real places in the remixed story that it is hard to accept the gender reassignments. I have decided not to replace these with a more feminine metaphor simply because women do get judged on their shaving habits all the time, just generally not as overtly as the main character in this story.
The effect of the gender exchange will come across differently for different readers, for me, (apart from the shaving and the stubble mentioned above) the remix worked really well. I was definitely able to accept the characters in their new forms. Some of their actions took on new meanings – the Greg/Alex character came across as much more feminine, I started to notice a lot of intuitive behaviour and gut feelings, and found it interesting that these things seemed more natural rather than demonstrating an increasing sense of dis-ease as I inferred in the original story. On the other hand many of the actions of the Maya/Sam character appeared quite natural in the original version, but rather irrational when viewed as the actions of a male character. For example, the scene where Alex first makes contact with Sam, who is taking his dogs for an early morning walk in the park:
Sam reached for his Mace as Alex jogged toward him, then did a double take and threw his arms open, dropping the leashes and trapping them under his sneaker. “Where’s the rest of you? Dude, you look hot!”
And another line further in the story where Sam is trying to convince Alex to leave town with him:
Sam looked like he was going to slug her. Softening, he gave her a ferocious hug.
The second example in particular is interesting to me because it demonstrates the way in which violent actions of women are often seen as acceptable or justifiable, but become more serious when they are the actions of a man. Many would see this as a kind of reverse sexism, but really it is just plain old sexism in disguise – it is a diminishing of women’s power in the same way women’s anger or strong concern is often dismissed as hysteria.
All in all I think the new version works really well. At the very least it is an interesting insight into perceptions of power and gender. I would love to see this gender exchange approach applied to more works, it would be great to start an online library of stories that are either out of copyright or available for remixing under creative commons licenses, to which the pronoun exchange formula has been applied. This would instantly open up a world of strong female characters without the need to write an entire catalogue of new works. Of course changing the pronouns doesn’t really change the way gender is portrayed or perceived in the long run, but it is a fun and thought-provoking place to start.