I’m going to tell you a story about llamas. It will be like every other story you’ve ever heard about llamas: how they are covered in fine scales; how they eat their young if not raised properly; and how, at the end of their lives, they hurl themselves – lemming-like- over cliffs to drown in the surging sea. They are, at heart, sea creatures, birthed from the sea, married to it like the fishing people who make their livelihood there.
Every story you hear about llamas is the same. You see it in books: the poor doomed baby llama getting chomped up by its intemperate parent. On television: the massive tide of scaly llamas falling in a great, majestic herd into the sea below. In the movies: bad-ass llamas smoking cigars and painting their scales in jungle camouflage.
Because you’ve seen this story so many times, because you already know the nature and history of llamas, it sometimes shocks you, of course, to see a llama outside of these media spaces. The llamas you see don’t have scales. So you doubt what you see, and you joke with your friends about “those scaly llamas” and they laugh and say, “Yes, llamas sure are scaly!” and you forget your actual experience.
So you forget the llamas that don’t fit the narrative you saw in films, books, television – the ones you heard about in the stories.
What you remember is the llama you saw who had mange, which sort of looked scaly, after a while, and that one llama who was sort of aggressive toward a baby llama, like maybe it was going to eat it. So you forget the llamas that don’t fit the narrative you saw in films, books, television – the ones you heard about in the stories – and you remember the ones that exhibited the behavior the stories talk about. Suddenly, all the llamas you remember fit the narrative you see and hear every day from those around you. You make jokes about it with your friends. You feel like you’ve won something. You’re not crazy. You think just like everyone else.
And then there came a day when you started writing about your own llamas. Unsurprisingly, you didn’t choose to write about the soft, downy, non-cannibalistic ones you actually met, because you knew no one would find those “realistic.” You plucked out the llamas from the stories. You created cannibal llamas with a death wish, their scales matted in paint.
It’s easier to tell the same stories everyone else does. There’s no particular shame in it.
It’s just that it’s lazy, which is just about the worst possible thing a spec fic writer can be.
Oh, and it’s not true.
I’m passionately interested in truth: truth is something that happens whether or not we see it, or believe it, or write about. Truth just is.
As somebody with more than a passing knowledge of history (All the Thing That Came Before Me), I’m passionately interested in truth: truth is something that happens whether or not we see it, or believe it, or write about. Truth just is. We can call it something else, or pretend it didn’t happen, but its repercussions live with us, whether we choose to remember and acknowledge it or not.
When I sat down with one of my senior professors in Durban, South Africa to talk about my Master’s thesis, he asked me why I wanted to write about women resistance fighters.
“Because women made up twenty percent of the ANC’s militant wing!” I gushed. “Twenty percent! When I found that out I couldn’t believe it. And you know – women have never been part of fighting forces –”
He interrupted me. “Women have always fought,” he said.
“What?” I said.
“Women have always fought,” he said. “Shaka Zulu had an all-female force of fighters. Women have been part of every resistance movement. Women dressed as men and went to war, went to sea, and participated actively in combat for as long as there have been people.”
I had no idea what to say to this. I had been nurtured in the U.S. school system on a steady diet of the Great Men theory of history. History was full of Great Men. I had to take separate Women’s History courses just to learn about what women were doing while all the men were killing each other. It turned out many of them were governing countries and figuring out rather effective methods of birth control that had sweeping ramifications on the makeup of particular states, especially Greece and Rome.
Half the world is full of women, but it’s rare to hear a narrative that doesn’t speak of women as the people who have things done to them instead of the people who do things. More often, women are talked about as a man’s daughter. A man’s wife.
I just watched a reality TV show about Alaska bush pilots where all of the pilots get these little intros about their families and passions, but the single female pilot is given the one-line “Pilot X’s girlfriend.” It wasn’t until they broke up, in season 2, that she got her own intro. Turns out she’s been in Alaska four times longer than the other pilot and hunts, fishes, and climbs ice walls, in addition to being an ace pilot.
But the narrative was “cannibalistic llama,” and our eyes glazed over, and we stopped seeing her as anything else.
Language is a powerful thing, and it changes the way we view ourselves, and other people, in delightful and horrifying ways. Anyone with any knowledge of the military, or who pays attention to how the media talks about war, has likely caught on to this.
We don’t kill “people.” We kill “targets.” (Or japs or gooks or ragheads). We don’t kill “fifteen year old boys” but “enemy combatants” (yes, every boy 15 and over killed in drone strikes now is automatically listed as an enemy combatant. Not a boy. Not a child.).
And when we talk about “people” we don’t really mean “men and women.” We mean “people and female people.” We talk about “American Novelists” and “American Women Novelists.” We talk about “Teenage Coders” and “Lady Teenage Coders.”
And when we talk about war, we talk about soldiers and female soldiers.
Because this is the way we talk, when we talk about history and use the word “soldiers” it immediately erases any women doing the fighting. Which is it comes as no surprise that the folks excavating Viking graves didn’t bother to check whether the graves they dug up were male or female. They were graves with swords in them. Swords are for soldiers. Soldiers are men.
It was years before they thought to even check the actual bones of the skeletons, instead of just saying, “Sword means dude!” and realized their mistake.
Women fought too.
Let’s just put it this way: if you think there’s a thing – anything – women didn’t do in the past, you’re wrong.
In fact, women did all sorts of things we think they didn’t do. In the middle ages, they were doctors and sheriffs. In Greece they were… oh, sod it. Listen. Foz Meadows does a better job with all the linky-links, for those who desire “proof.” Let’s just put it this way: if you think there’s a thing – anything – women didn’t do in the past, you’re wrong. Women – now and then – even made a habit of peeing standing up. They wore dildos. So even things the funny-ha-ha folks immediately raise a hand to say, like: “It’s impossible women did X!” Well. They did it. Intersex women and trans women, too, have fought and died, often misgendered and forgotten, in the ranks of history. And let us remember, when we speak about women and men as if these are immutable, somehow “historical” categories, that there are those who have always lived and fought in the seams between things.
But none of those things fit our narrative. What we want to talk about are women in one capacity: their capacity as wife, mother, sister, daughter to a man. I see this in fiction all the time. I see it in books and TV. I hear it in the way people talk.
All those cannibal llamas.
It makes it really hard for me to write about llamas who aren’t cannibals.
James Tiptree Jr. has a very interesting story called, “The Women Men Don’t See.” I read it when I was twenty, and I admit I had a difficult time understanding what the fuss was all about. This was the story? But… this wasn’t the story! We’re stuck for the full narrative inside the head of a man who does very little, who’s traveling with a woman and her daughter. Like the man, of course, we as readers don’t “see” them. We don’t realize that they are, in fact, the heroes of the story until it’s over.
This was the man’s story, after all. That was his narrative. It’s his story we were a part of. They were just passing objects, some NPC’s in his limited landscape.
We didn’t see them.
When I was sixteen, I wrote an essay about why women should remain barred from combat in the U.S. military. I found it recently while going through some old papers. My argument for why women shouldn’t be in combat was because war was terrible, and families were important, and with all these men dying in war, why would we want women to die, too?
That was my entire argument.
“Women shouldn’t go to war because, like men do now, they would die there.”
I got an “A.”
I often tell people that I’m the biggest self-aware misogynist I know.
I was writing a scene last night between a woman general and the man she helped put on the throne. I started writing in some romantic tension, and realized how lazy that was. There are other kinds of tension.
I made a passing reference to sexual slavery, which I had to cut. I nearly had him use a gendered slur against her. I growled at the screen. He wanted to help save her child… no. Her brother? Ok. She was going to betray him. OK. He had some wives who died… ug. No. Close advisors? Friends? Maybe somebody just… left him?
Even writing about societies where there is very little sexual violence, or no sexual violence against women, I find myself writing in the same tired tropes and motivations. “Well, this is a bad guy, and I need something traumatic to happen to this heroine, so I’ll have him rape her.” That was an actual thing I did in the first draft of my first book, which features a violent society where women outnumber men 25-1. Because, of course, it’s What You Do.
I actually watched a TV show recently that was supposedly about this traumatic experience a young girl went through, but was, in fact, simply tossed in so that the two male characters in the show could fight over it, and argue about which of them was at fault because of what happened to her. It was the most flagrant erasure of a female character and her experiences that I’d seen in some time. She’s literally in the room with them while they fight about it, revealing all these character things about them while she sort of fades into the background.
We forget what the story’s about. We erase women in our stories who, in our own lives, are powerful, forthright, intelligent, terrifying people. Women stab and maim and kill and lead and manage and own and run. We know that. We experience it every day. We see it.
But this is our narrative: two men fighting loudly in a room, and a woman snuffling in a corner.
The trouble is, it’s often hard to sort out what we actually experienced from what we’re told we experienced, or what we should have experienced.
What is “realism”? What is “truth”? People tell me that the truth is what they’ve experienced. But the trouble is, it’s often hard to sort out what we actually experienced from what we’re told we experienced, or what we should have experienced. We’re social creatures, and fallible.
In disaster situations, the average person will ask for about four other opinions before forming their own, before taking action. You can train people to respond quickly in these types of situations through vigorous training (such as in the military), but for the most part, about 70% of human beings like to just go along with their everyday routine. We like our narrative. It takes overwhelming evidence and – more importantly – the words of many, many, many people around us, for us to take action.
You see this all the time in big cities. It’s why people can get into fistfights and assault others on busy sidewalks. It’s why people are killed in broad daylight, and homes are broken into even in areas with lots of foot traffic. Most people actually ignore things out of the ordinary. Or, worse, hope that someone else will take care of it.
I remember being on the train in Chicago in a car with about a dozen other people. On the other side of the car, a man suddenly fell off his seat. Just… toppled over into the aisle. He started convulsing. There were three people between me and him. But nobody said anything. Nobody did anything.
I stood up, “Sir?” I said, and started toward him.
And that’s when everyone started to move. I called for someone at the back to push the operator alert button, to tell the train driver to call for an ambulance at the next stop. After I moved, there were suddenly three or four other people with me, coming to the man’s aid.
But somebody had to move first.
I stood in a crowded, standing-room only train on another day and watched a young woman standing near the door close her eyes and drop her papers and binder onto the floor. She was packed tight, surrounded by other people, and no one said anything.
Her body began to go limp. “Are you OK!?” I said loudly, leaning toward her, and then other people were looking, and she was sagging, and the buzz started, and somebody called up from the front of the car that he was a doctor, and someone gave up their seat, and people moved, moved, moved.
Somebody needs to be the person who says something is wrong. We can’t pretend we don’t see it. Because people have been murdered and assaulted on street corners where hundreds of people milled around, pretending everything was normal.
But pretending it was normal didn’t make it so.
Somebody has to point it out. Somebody has to get folks to move.
Somebody has to act.
I shot my first gun at my boyfriend’s house in high school: first a rifle, then a sawed-off shotgun. I have since gotten to be pretty decent with a Glock, still terrible with a rifle, and had the opportunity to shoot an AK-47, the gun of choice for revolutionary armies around the world, particularly in the 80’s.
I knocked over my first 200 lb. punching bag with my fist when I was 24.
The punch meant more. Anyone could shoot a gun. But now I knew how to hit things properly in the face. Hard.
The women in my family were hardworking matriarchs. But the stories I saw on TV and movies and even in many books said they were anomalies.
Growing up, I learned that women fulfilled certain types of roles and did certain types of things. It wasn’t that I didn’t have great role models. The women in my family were hardworking matriarchs. But the stories I saw on TV and movies and even in many books said they were anomalies. They were furry, non-cannibalistic llamas. So rare.
But the stories were all wrong.
I spent two years in South Africa and another decade once I returned to the states finding out about all the women who fought. Women fought in every revolutionary army, I found, and those armies were often composed of fighting forces that were 20-30% women. But when we say “revolutionary army” what do we think of? What image does it conjure? Does the force in your mind include three women and seven men? Six women and fourteen men?
Women not only made bombs and guns in WWII – they picked up guns and drove tanks and flew airplanes. The civil war, the revolutionary war – point me to a war and I can point to an instance where a women picked up a hat and a gun and went off to join it. And yes, Shaka Zulu employed female fighters as well. But when we say “Shaka Zulu’s fighters” what image do we conjure in our minds? Do we think of these women? Or are they the ones we don’t see? The ones who, if we included them in our stories, people would say weren’t “realistic”?
Of course, we do talk about women who ran with Shaka Zulu. When I Google “women who fought for Shaka Zulu” I learn all about his “harem of 1200 women.” And his mother, of course. And this line was very popular: “Women, cattle and slaves.” One breath.
It’s easy to think women never fought, never led, when we are never seen.
What does it matter, if we tell the same old stories? If we share the same old lies? If women fight, and women lead, and women hold up half the sky, what do stories matter to the truth? We won’t change the truth by writing people out of it.
Stories tell us who we are. What we’re capable of. When we go out looking for stories we are, I think, in many ways going in search of ourselves, trying to find understanding of our lives, and the people around us. Stories, and language tell us what’s important.
If women are “bitches” and “cunts” and “whores” and the people we’re killing are “gooks” and “japs” and “rag heads” then they aren’t really people, are they? It makes them easier to erase. Easier to kill. To disregard. To un-see.
But the moment we re-imagine the world as a buzzing hive of individuals with a variety of genders and complicated sexes and unique, passionate narratives that have yet to be told – it makes them harder to ignore. They are no longer, “women and cattle and slaves” but active players in their own stories.
Because when we choose to write stories, it’s not just an individual story we’re telling. It’s theirs. And yours. And ours. We all exist together. It all happens here. It’s muddy and complex and often tragic and terrifying. But ignoring half of it, and pretending there’s only one way a woman lives or has ever lived – in relation to the men that surround her – is not a single act of erasure, but a political erasure.
Populating a world with men, with male heroes, male people, and their “women cattle and slaves” is a political act. You are making a conscious choice to erase half the world.
As storytellers, there are more interesting choices we can make.
I can tell you all day that llamas have scales. I can draw you pictures. I can rewrite history. But I am a single storyteller, and my lies don’t become narrative unless you agree with me. Unless you write just like me. Unless you, too, buy my lazy narrative and perpetuate it.
You must be complicit in this erasure for it to happen. You, me, all of us.
Don’t let it happen.
Don’t be lazy.
The llamas will thank you.
Real human people will, too.