Thursday, 28 April 2016

Writing a gender-neutral character - Clémentine Beauvais

Here's the story of how I wrote a gender-neutral character that everyone now calls 'he'.

(in other words, here's a story about how I failed to create a gender-neutral character.)

The character in question is called Nel, and s/he's the angel driving this flying car, onto which a (nominally dead) grandma called Mamie Paulette is currently attempting to fight off some demons:

the amazing illustrator who drew this is Eglantine Ceulemans

I didn't set out to write the most radical of MG stories, nor to rewrite The Turbulent Term of Tyke Tiler in the clouds, but it was important to me that Nel and other young angels were neither male nor female. It's a relatively popular vision of angels in France, whether or not scripture agrees (which is something that French people care little about anyway).

But let me tell you that gender-neutrality or genderlessness is a very difficult thing to achieve in French. Firstly, and unfortunately for my purposes, the word 'ange' is masculine in French. Secondly, you wouldn't believe the number of words that need to be in the feminine or masculine form when referring even very vaguely to a character mentioned eighteen pages ago. I got to the stage where I started to suspect that even adverbs, which, as I dutifully recited at the age of six, are in-va-ria-ble-in-gen-der-and-num-ber, might be secretly gendered in spite of all.

Such writing is pretty much impossible in the 3rd-person pronoun, for grammatical reasons too boring to explain here, so Nel is the first-person narrator. But whenever s/he talked about other angels (in the third person), life became extremely difficult for me. I avoided those situations like the plague. As a result, Nel has very few angel friends. Poor Nel.

I had to carefully sidestep the verbs that give away the subject's gender, which is extremely convenient because they are all verbs of the first group, which, being the first group, is not illogically the biggest group of verbs. I also had to avoid most verbs of the second and third groups, and eventually developed advanced strategies of writing without verbs, or conjugating only in specific tenses that don't give away the gender of the subject (i.e. not in the passé composé, the recent past tense, which is perhaps the most-used in children's fiction).

But there's a lot you can do with verbless sentences, even though, as I dutifully recited at the age of six, a sentence begins with a capital letter, ends with a full stop and contains at least one conjugated verb. (This book would make my primary-school teachers cry.)

Of course, four out of nine pronouns were out of the question (he/she/he plural/ she plural). Miraculously, possessive pronouns in French work differently than in English - they give away the gender of the possessed rather than the possessor (so 'Linda's brother' would be 'his brother'). This is pretty great as I could refer to Nel's things without any problems. It was more difficult when Mamie Paulette needed to address Nel as 'my' something. So I created a whole battery of things that Nel could be in the eyes of Mamie Paulette, and expressions such as 'my little chou with hazelnut cream filling' proliferated to adequately conceal any evidence.

she's the kind to say that kind of thing, anyway

Trickiest of all were the collective adjectives to refer to Nel and Mamie. In French, the masculine always wins, because history, magic potion, reasons, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, and the Académie; so if you say 'Mamie Paulette, all the women in the world, and Nel are nice', 'nice' will be in the masculine even if only one of those 3 billion characters is male. This was exceedingly difficult to manage in sentences when Nel talks about the two of them. I mined for so-called epicene adjectives, namely adjectives that are spelled the same in the feminine and masculine. There are as many of these in France as there are varieties of cheddar that I would pick over even the chalkiest wheel of supermarket camembert, which means not very many at all. Nel and Mamie could be 'tristes' (sad), 'stupides' or 'difficiles', but they couldn't be happy. As a result, they are nearly always sad, stupid or difficult. It's a great book.

Somehow, I promise you, I managed to make that novel sound normally-written, with the genderlessness of Nel a constitutive but not forced aspect of the story. I liked the fact that such a story would exist in a very gender-divided slice of the market, and that it was not a gimmick, but a logical part of that universe.

We worked a lot on getting that haircut just right 

But as I soon discovered, everyone who's read it, touched it or looked at it immediately refers to Nel as male. Of course, in French, we don't have a singular 'they' - so we do need to pick a pronoun. But never have I heard anyone utter the word 'she', or even 'he or she' to refer to Nel. My editor says 'he', the reviews say 'he', the children say 'he'.

Now, even I say 'he' without even realising.

I don't know if it's because s/he drives a flying car, but I suspect so. I don't know if it's because s/he lives tons of adventures, but I suspect so. And the story appeals to boys much more, so Nel is obviously a he. 

Well, if that's that, then that's that. In spite of all the Alpha Male driving, Nel's main characteristics are, in fact, that s/he is extremely sensitive (sensible, another epicene, yay!), and sincere (another one) and tender (another), and even a little cowardly (another). If the readers have made him a he, that means they take it as self-evident that those attributes are fine for a young male character to have. Silver linings.


Clementine Beauvais writes in French and English. She blogs here about children's literature and academia.


Elen C said...

I love this so much! The nitty-gritty of word/grammar choices make my heart sing. Like taking apart a book's engine to see how it works.
Though....sorry it didn't work in this instance! Sounds like a wonderful book.

Susan Price said...

I agree with Elen - fascinating post. I enjoyed it very much.
But... It confirms my English view that languages which wilfully and often arbitrarily give a gender to innocent and neutral words which would be happier and more useful without it, are just plain daft. :)
(Takes coat and rapidly retreats into distance, singing, 'Oh, English, English, English is best...')

C.J.Busby said...

Very amusing! And I love the wrestling with language you had to do. Sighs all round about gender. Back when I was doing a PhD in social anthropology, gender seemed pretty much wrapped up as a social construct whose last day was fast approaching. Now it seems to have revived in all sorts of ways - in social and cultural divides between 'girl' and 'boy' clothes, books, films and in widespread support for the idea of 'male' and 'female' biology. Interesting about pronouns though. Marge Piercy suggested that in the future, everyone would be 'per' - actually I quite like that 'they' seems to be gaining ground as a gender neutral third person singular.

Catherine Butler said...

I feel your frustration, as you may imagine.

Back when I taught Feminism 101 (not its real name), I used to anticipate the objection that "he" can function as a generic pronoun and that therefore words such as "chairperson" were political-correctness-gone-differently-minded by asking my students to draw a caveman.

No one ever drew a female one.