Posted by: kshayes513 | June 25, 2010

Defining Gender in New Ways

"Adam and Eve" by Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1533

Virtually every culture in our world defines individual identity at least partly on the basis of gender. (If any anthropological scholar knows of a present or historical culture where this is not the case, please let us know!)

But how often do worldbuilders think deeply about this?  Most authors take familiar human gender paradigms and drop these into the world they are writing about, with little variation apart from occasional reversals of traditional roles and expectations, or taking a specific cultural norm to some extreme. They never seem to get away from the traditional ways we define gender identity most strongly:  who sleeps with whom; who does the domestic work; who does the fighting; who is the head of the household; who controls the money or the government; who can hold what kind of job or wear what kind of clothing?

I’d love to hear of some examples where an author/worldbuilder has assigned completely different sets of values and definitions to gender identity.  What if all the thinking up of ideas, inventions, management plans and artistic endeavors, was the work of women, and all the building, making and doing was the work of men? How different would a world be where men and women had distinctly different sensory abilities? If women could see far into the infrared spectrum, would the men have to stay in at night while women did all the night jobs and the stealth combat assignments?

Or, of course, there’s always the possibility of creating additional genders. I know that some SF writers have done this, but haven’t yet come across any variations that seemed really eye-opening or even particularly convincing. Recommendations, anyone?

Traditional fantasy often makes a distinction between the kinds of magic practiced by men and by women. Pratchett in the Discworld and LeGuin in Earthsea both pull this theme, but not in expected ways.  In both worlds, sooner or later, the distinction is revealed as culturally imposed. This in itself is an aspect of worldbuilding: what kind of culture separates the use of magic according to biological gender? And we, the reading audience, are so accustomed to the subliminal gender definitions permeating even our post-feminist culture, that many readers of these novels probably accept the men’s magic/women’s magic distinction without question when it is introduced.

Thanks to these subliminal values, even a small tweak in the standard relationships can open up whole new landscapes. For example, we humans are accustomed to the idea of a husband having several wives. Polygamy has been around for millennia and surely has its roots in primate family organization. However, polyandry, a wife with a lot of husbands, shakes up our gender definitions, because it’s rare in human society. It challenges the almost universal cultural value that accepts a man having multiple partners, but insists that a woman should have only one partner at a time.

Now take that one step further: my favorite cultural concept in Star Trek: Enterprise is the marriage practices on Dr. Phlox’s home world. There, each man has 3 wives, and each woman has 3 husbands. Just think of the complex interrelationships between spouses, step-spouses, step children, and half siblings! What would your relationship be with the other husbands of each of your 3 wives, and with their children? Think of the child custody arrangements! Think of the property and inheritance laws!

Alas, Enterprise spent very little time exploring this concept. The only place I’ve seen anything similar explored in depth, is in a few of Ursula K. LeGuin’s Hainish stories. In her world called O, a marriage consists of 2 men and 2 women, and a very specific array of hetero- and homosexual relationships within the marriage.

So the next time you’re building a society from scratch, take a second look at your genders and see what happens if you shake up the paradigm.

A few SF and fantasy novels that focus specifically on gender and cultural identity:

The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K LeGuin. Probably the most famous SF novel about gender identity, and still a classic 40 years on. Yet virtually all of LeGuin’s subsequent work is more subversive of traditional gender definitions and expectations.

Ethan of Athos, Lois McMaster Bujold; Glory Season, David Brin. These two make gender-themed bookends, with Bujold writing of a men-only world, and Brin of a women-only world.

The Gate to Women’s Country, Sherri S Tepper. Everything I’ve read by Tepper has gender as its theme in one way or another; I’ve found her perspective on the issue to be almost invariably downbeat.

Walk to the End of the World, Suzy McKee Charnas. And presumably its sequels, which I haven’t yet read; this one was so grim that I haven’t wanted to!

Equal Rites; Monstrous Regiment, Terry Pratchett. The only books on this list that are actually fun rather than serious or depressing!

If you have more suggestions for books and stories on differently gendered worldbuilding, post them!


  1. Heart of Gold by Sharon Shinn is a good example of a fictional world where women and men have their roles mostly reversed. The women are the intellectuals and the men are the laborers. I enjoyed the book, she is a good writer (imo).

  2. Another title to add to the list. Thanks for taking the time to post.

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