I Would Ride a Unicorn (Maybe Even in a Dress)(Or, Hey, Gender Paradigms in SF/F!)

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Fantasy Book Cafe has been releasing some fascinating articles in celebration of its “Women in SF/F” month (thing, event?).  One such article by the always-compelling N. K. Jemisin, entitled “Don’t Fear the Unicorn,” concerns Jemisin’s personal struggle with the culturally-imposed gender paradigms in genre fiction.  Specifically, girly unicorns of girly-ness on the cover of Steven R. Boyett’s Ariel.  I recommend you read the entire article, but for the sake of context, here’s a juicy quote:

So I wasn’t going to pick up Ariel because OMG unicorn no. But there was something else on the cover of that book next to the unicorn: a boy. 

I remember staring at that book for several seconds of full, total “does not compute” shutdown. My brain just couldn’t handle the paradox. Unicorns equalled girliness. Boys, however, signalled action and adventure and toughness and purpose. Boys don’t do unicorns. Girliness =/= purpose. Danger, Will Robinson, danger. 

Then I clearly remember thinking, but I’m a girl. 

And that was it. It wasn’t an especially shocking realization, but it was a profound one. In that moment I began to understand: the problem wasn’t that some books were infested with girl cooties; the real problem was my irrational fear of girliness. And myself.

Hopefully that explains why the title of this post involves the willing emasculation of my male self  both by unicorn riding and cross-dressing.  Not that I would ever do either (we live in the real world, folks, so this whole cross-dressing unicorn rider of doom nonsense is just a fantasy I will never see fulfilled).

But the point is that I too find these paradigms rather disconcerting, except in retrospect.  While Jemisin seems to have discovered the idiocy of the girl/boy split and the wickedness of girl cooties at a young age, I didn’t discover such a thing until maybe my early twenties.  I blame part of that on the culture around me, wherein being an RPG-playing, video-game-loving, Magic-the-Gathering-obsessed super geek (we drank Citra by the box — you remember Citra, right?) constituted some kind of penis-wearing female surrogate monster (like an android without genitalia, or, maybe, with male genitalia, since we menfolk have this odd obsession with feeling inadequate to the task of “mating”).  Growing up, then, put me in a bizarre position of trying to pretend that I was “man enough” to be considered a “man” (or young man, depending on my age), thereby legitimizing my hard rejection of anything associated with the female species (even when such things are, in fact, gender neutral — dancing, for example, is only “girly” because men are too damned stupid to realize that most forms of dancing don’t actually work without a partner; partners could very well be of the same sex or either sex — such is the silliness of girl cooties).

Today, I’ve thankfully set a lot of this crap aside.  Perhaps it has something to do with recognizing (and learning) patriarchy in our culture.  Perhaps it has something to do with a desire to access “girly things” because I happen to like them (hey, a good romance is, well, good, and I’m going to cry at the end of a tragedy or whatever because it’s sad; so bite me).  It might also have something to do with my semi-bi-sexual-ness (yeah, I’m admitting that in public on a blog; I’m as confused as you).

Whatever led me to this conclusion — to the desire to ride a unicorn in the dress because I should be able to do so without getting ridiculed for being “a girl” (because it ain’t a girl thing; it’s a human thing) — I am thankful to see people like Jemisin challenging the assumptions of gendered identity.  There’s no such thing as a “domain of *insert sex here.*”  Women like sports; men like sports.  Men like cooking; women do too (and on that front, I have to ask:  has anyone else found it utterly absurd that the most sexist of us all can say “women belong in the kitchen” without recognizing the irony that some of the best cooks are men?  Some are women too, of course, but anyway…).

Jemisin, of course, is right.  We’re all sexists.  We’re raised in a sexist society.  And we should challenge those behaviors when we become aware of them, not because it will suddenly make us non-sexist, but because it will help us make a fairer world.  That applies to our reading practices.  If a book has a unicorn on it, give it a shot.  You never know.  It might be the most amazing book you’ve ever read.  But you’ll never know if you don’t pick up that book, look at the blurb, and give it a shot.

That’s what I’ve got to say on that.  The comments are yours.

About the Author:

Shaun Duke is an aspiring writer, a reviewer, and an academic. He is currently an Assistant Professor of Digital Rhetoric and Writing at Bemidji State University. He received his PhD in English from the University of Florida and studies science fiction, postcolonialism, digital fan cultures, and digital rhetoric.

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