NaCreSoMo #8: Gender Swappery and the Creative Process

I didn't do that much substantive creative stuff yesterday, unless you count the creative cursing I came up with after being trapped in a smoking subway car underground for an hour and subsequently having to drag my suitcase around in the slush and snow trying to catch a cab to make it to the airport in time.

Maybe I can be excused from one day of NaCreSoMo for having spent literally all of that day in transit. But instead I'm going to talk a little bit about inspiration today.

One of the questions that writers get asked the most (not that people ask me that many questions about writing) is something along the lines of, "How do you get your ideas?" Or, "Where do you find inspiration?" It's a tough question to answer, so today I'll take you through a string of creative thoughts I found myself pondering yesterday. Keep in mind that these are still rough thoughts that may never amount to anything--it's just what happened when I started pulling on this particular thread.

Secret machinations of the creative mind, here we come!

1. The initial spark. I saw the movie Jack the Giant Slayer on Thursday. Without getting into the particulars, I'll just say that I was disappointed. My friend and I dissected the plot on the drive home and immediately came up with several ways in which the story could have been improved, not least of which was the treatment of the princess, Isabelle. I don't think it's ruining much at all to note that Isabelle, for all her adventurous posturing at the beginning of the movie, failed to do anything other than stand around while Jack did all the heavy lifting. To say that we, fervent feminist story-crafters, were anything less than appalled would be selling it short.

It would be easy to say, "Make a stronger princess, you dummies!" And it would be a valid thing to say, and to contemplate, and to write. But what I found myself thinking about afterward, from a writer's perspective, was the relationship between Jack and Isabelle. It reminded me a lot of the fantasy trope of the noble girl and her long-suffering, pining-away peasant friend/servant--especially of the relationship between Buttercup and Westley in The Princess Bride. While exact details don't match, I think Jack and Isabelle's relationship plays out in much the same way--the unattainable princess, her loyal subject, sparks fly, etc. So I started thinking--what is it about this trope that makes it attractive? And--what would happen if the genders were swapped?

2. Playing it out. Gender swapping fascinates me. Fascinates. On a micro-level, I've found that there's no better way to expose the societal underpinnings of sex and gender than to literally swap out pronouns in books, movies, television, etc. (I also have this secret desire to one day write a gender-swapped version of Les Miserables.) So when I was considering the noble blood/loyal servant dynamic, I immediately wanted to know what would happen when I swapped the genders.

What do we think about when we think about the loyal servant boy eying a princess in the wings? A man who would wait a hundred years for his beloved to glance his way? He is in love but he would never dare step above his station. Think Westley here, or better yet, think Lancelot. And then think, whose fantasy is this? Is it a man's fantasy to think that loyalty to a woman far above his class might in time win her love? Is it a woman's fantasy to command the attention of her loyal servants?

While you think about those, now consider this: What happens when it's a prince or a duke and his long-suffering, silent, yearning servant girl. Here, think Eponine. (I wonder why I couldn't come up with more than one example for this dynamic?)

3. Further considerations. Swapping genders changes the dynamic. When a woman is in the subservient role I am afraid for her. Afraid that the person with the upper hand, the man, will abuse this relationship. I am afraid that this will only end in tragedy (as with Eponine). But I am not so afraid for a man. Does this have to do with the gender roles ingrained in my head? That because society paints women as initially more vulnerable than men, an unequal relationship like this only serves to make her more vulnerable? (And does that mean that a man in a subservient role reads as closer to equal to his superior than a woman in that same role?)

I think that given this situation, most people would expect a man to find a way to make it work. To prove his worth. In this dynamic, a man fighting for his love is read as romantic. A woman? Desperate.

4. Another viewpoint. If we shift sideways (just a step), let's consider what happens when Edward Cullen stares at Bella. He watches her sleep. He follows her around without her knowledge or permission. He is, quite literally, a stalker. But for a lot of people, his actions read as romantic.

Would those same actions be read the same way if Edward were a woman, and Bella a man? I would argue that no. People would read Edwardia as a stalker, period. They would want to know why Bellarus hasn't gotten a restraining order against this crazy b#$%*.

That's all I've got so far. I'm not sure where it's going. I don't have answers to all the questions I've posed. But that's where my head went yesterday...