I consider myself to be pretty thoughtful regarding gender issues. I was the kid in kindergarten who, when asked to draw a doctor, scribbled a woman in a lab coat, not a man (earth-shattering at the time, let me tell you (I’m sure this had nothing
to do with the fact that my doctor was a woman and we watched Dr. Quinn: Medicine Woman
as a family. Nothing.)) I care about feminist issues and try to be considerate of the issues faced by LBGTQ individuals. I made a female lead character for my science fiction dystopia and wrote a genderless novel for my gamebook.
I think about this stuff a lot.
And yet, I still have so much to learn sometimes. Unconscious biases can be a bitch.
Neil Gaiman was my teacher, as he has been so many times previously. And he did it with a children’s book.
You’ve read Fortunately, The Milk by now, right? I mean, I gave it a breathlessly positive review, so you definitely went out and bought it already, right?
Well, if not, you may not want to read the rest of this post, because of spoilers.
Anyway, I read Fortunately, The Milk. (And it’s marvelous. Practically perfect in the most Mary Poppins way.) One of the main characters is a time-traveling stegasaurus named Dr. Steg. (I mean, of course).
I’m as enchanted by the story and the misadventures as the children in the story, and then… everything came to a screeching halt.
90% of the way through the book, you are informed that Dr. Steg is a “madam.”
LADY DINOSAUR ALERT
To be fair, this comes as a surprise to the narrator/father as well, but this really hit me like a ton of bricks. Why did it throw me off so much? Why did I automatically assume Dr. Steg was a Mr. Dr. Steg?
I’ve given this some thought, and I think there are several reasons:
- The drawings include no eyelashes or gaudy bows, cultural codes for “lady cartoon.”
- The drawing depicts a rather heavyset dinosaur. Often, absent other markers, heavyset cartoons are male.
- Dinosaurs are “boy things.”
- Despite my kindergarten drawings, doctors, particularly “sciencey” doctors, are male.
- Time-travelers are male.
— And they all still amount to “you still probably shouldn’t have made that assumption.”
And that’s what triggered me to write this post. Question your assumptions. It doesn’t have to be “that way,” even — especially! — if that is how it has always been done. (I mean, I’d like to see someone write some elves that are not musical, arrow-wielding, thin blond people. (Yes, I’ve just seen The Hobbit…)).
What assumptions did you have squashed by a fiction book?