John C. Wright’s essay “Saving Science Fiction from Strong Female Characters” suggests an essentialistic view of gender that is demonstrably, scientifically, empirically inaccurate. Wright’s personal vision of the feminine ideal nevertheless has a legitimate place in culture and fiction.
I will attempt to explain why both are true.
Outliers Disprove the Theory of Gender Essentialism
To be clear, I do not know whether Wright views his position as one of gender essentialism. He may well view it as more of a theological imperative than a scientific one. Alternatively, the essay could be intended only as an exploration of ideals he acknowledges to be subjective.
His essay nevertheless serves as a interesting backdrop for a critique of gender essentialism, particularly in light of its role in the controversial 2015 Hugo awards season and the various discussions of gender-in-fiction popping up in my social media feeds of late.
I use “gender essentialism” to refer to the idea that there are properties (other than the criteria used to assign people to a gender in the first instance) that are true as to all members of that gender but not true as to any members of any other.
In contrast, non-essentialism refers to the idea that (beyond the criteria used to assign gender in the first instance) there are no properties that are true as to all members of one gender but not true as to any members of any other.
For the record, I harbor no insistence that there are only two genders or that people must belong to one or the other. I am simply using the two categories recognized by Wright—“men” and “women”—for purposes of this discussion.
At the outset, we face a problem. How do we assign people to one group or the other? Chromosomes? Gonads? Outward sex characteristics? Self-reported gender identification?
People will argue for different tests. But the point I am heading toward here is that it does not matter which is used, because there is no test of gender that renders essentialism a viable theory.
For purposes of discussion, I will use chromosomes as the test, not because I think that’s the most appropriate, but because I anticipate it’s the test with the most intuitive appeal to gender essentialists. Thus we will assign all XY people to the category “men” and all XX people to the category “women.”
Everyone else gets excluded.
Admittedly, there are not a lot of “everyone else’s.” Their exclusion is nevertheless significant.
If it is indisputably, empirically true that there are humans who are neither XY nor XX, and who therefore do not fit into either of the two constructs we call “genders,” then how can it be true that all humans possess a combination of essential traits dependent on their role in that construct? It clearly cannot be. However strong the patterns are, there are humans who do not fit.
I see no reason why these scientifically-empirically-confirmed-to-exist-human-beings should not be acknowledged in our culture or our fiction. But taste is subjective, and as I noted, Wright may simply be expressing a preference for characters he finds more comfortingly “normal.” Such is his prerogative. For other science fiction fans, the genre’s draw is precisely that it takes us beyond the boundaries of what is ordinary, out to the far edges of what is possible, to a place where we encounter characters and experiences that transcend our earthly expectations.
Regardless, even if we exclude those inconvenient souls whose chromosomes do not fit our tidy expectations, we shall see that it nevertheless remains all but impossible to identify any trait—even one—that is true of all men but not of any woman.
At this juncture, I posit that most essentialists have already begun to abandon the more extreme claims of their theory. Their anecdotal life experiences, without more, belie any essentialist view of the various traits highlighted in Wright’s essay.
There are women who are “direct in speech,” “confident in action,” “cunning in wit,” “unerring in deduction,” or “glib in speech.” There are men who excel at “buoying…spirits,” who possess “tenacity that does not yield even after repeated disappointments and defeats,” and who are “deep in understanding rather than adroit in deductive logic.” Notwithstanding Wright’s insistence that “a real heroine” does not “copulate out of wedlock,” nine out of ten women born in the 1940s did.
For every trait Wright listed as “masculine,” there are or have been women who possessed that trait to a greater degree than some men. For every trait identified as “feminine,” there are or have been men who possessed that trait to a greater degree than some women.
Even if we abandon the broad list of interesting and personality-defining attributes identified by Wright, and instead attempt to utilize a narrow list of less defining traits, we still will not find any that are essential to gender as we have defined it (using chromosomes).
I have no concept of what essentialists tell themselves about the inherent nature of a person with mosaicism who is 96% XY predominant but capable of giving birth. I do not know what people who view gender as a theological imperative think of their god’s plan for individuals who are phenotypically female, have heterosexual female gender identities, but who are XY chromosome.
What I do know is that while nature (or the Creator) works in patterns, it simultaneously permits endless permutations of outliers.
Essentialists will again point to the rarity of such individuals. But they fail to grasp the implications, however rare, of the fact they exist.
If data points must be excluded to make the theory work, the theory does not work.
If nature does not require people’s chromosomes to conform to our conceptions of gender, why would it require any other part of us to do so? If nature produces XY individuals who appear female on the outside and identify as female, while simultaneously producing XY individuals who appear female on the outside but identify as male, why would it require any greater consistency in other subsets of the population? If nature produces mosaics of cells and chimeras of chromosomes, why would it not produce mosaics and chimeras of traits?
There is no logical reason to deny this breadth of possibility.
Even so, if we nevertheless exclude all the additional outliers that do not fit within the theory, we still cannot plug its gaping holes.
Distribution Curves Confirm Overlap Greater Than Differences
If gender were essential, we would expect the distribution curves for dispositive traits to look like this:
In other words, the traits associated with concepts like “masculine” and “feminine” occur in both genders (albeit at varying rates and degrees). While the distribution curves are not identical, the areas of overlap are so wide that differences between the groups cannot be extrapolated to differences between individuals.
Patterns exist, but are not absolute, and the potential for outlying permutations is unlimited. We are all individuals in a category of one.
Don’t take my word for it. Ask science:
Gender differences in personality traits are often characterized in terms of which gender has higher scores on that trait, on average. For example, women are often found to be more agreeable than men (Feingold, 1994; Costa et al., 2001). This means that women, on average, are more nurturing, tender-minded, and altruistic more often and to a greater extent than men. However, such a finding does not preclude the fact that men may also experience nurturing, tender-minded, and altruistic states, and that some men may even score higher in these traits than some women. The goal of investigating gender differences in personality, therefore, is to elucidate the differences among general patterns of behavior in men and women on average, with the understanding that both men and women can experience states across the full range of most traits. Gender differences in terms of mean differences do not imply that men and women only experience states on opposing ends of the trait spectrum; on the contrary, significant differences can exist along with a high degree of overlap between the distributions of men and women (Hyde, 2005).
Gender essentialism—like racial essentialism—finds no support in science. Wright’s paradigm cannot be anything more than precisely what it wants so badly not to be: a construct built not on empiricism, but upon its architect’s subjective personal preferences about what is beautiful, good and beneficial.
Nonetheless, qua preferences, Wrights gender ideals are perfectly legitimate in culture and fiction.
The Inherent Subjectivity of Ideals
Let us stipulate that Wright’s construct seems poorly-suited to the science fiction market in that it discounts characters modeled on such women as: Boudica, Queen of the Iceni, who led an uprising against the Roman Empire; the Irish pirate Grace O’Malley; Amelia Earhart and any members of the WASP and Air Transport Auxiliary; or the lady spies of World War II—including Andree Borrel who was so fucking tough she couldn’t be cracked under interrogation, refused to die of lethal injection, and had to be cremated alive to make her stop. It excludes such women as Triệu Thị Trinh, who led a Vietnamese rebellion against Chinese forces, wearing bright yellow robes and carrying two swords as she rode atop her war elephant, and to whom history attributes such bon mots as:
I only want to ride the wind and walk the waves, slay the big whales of the Eastern sea, clean up frontiers, and save the people from drowning. Why should I imitate others, bow my head, stoop over and be a slave? Why resign myself to menial housework?
I’d like to ride storms, kill sharks in the open sea, drive out the aggressors, reconquer the country, undo the ties of serfdom, and never bend my back to be the concubine of whatever man.
Wright has placed himself in the unfortunate position of renouncing any intent to write such heroines into his fiction. But while this may be ill-advised for market reasons, his preference for a different type of heroine cannot be “wrong” in any objective sense.
The nature of subjective preferences is that they are unfalsifiable.
To be clear, I have no interest in participating in the culture Wright espouses. His construct is not my own, is not one toward which I would guide my daughter, and plays no role in the fiction I love best.
I nevertheless acknowledge that it is built upon archetypes that took shape in our collective consciousness precisely because they represented combinations of traits occurring naturally—and correlating with that construct we call “gender”—at a frequency rendering them significant. Denying that reality, insisting that in all people, over all time, and in all ways, gender has never been anything more than an ephemeral social construct, silences the pain of those for whom it turned out to be so much more.
I am not one of the women Wright idealizes. But among the wide range of women that exist, I have known and loved some who were. Wright is not merely fantasizing their existence. Nor can he possibly be wrong in admiring them. Where Wright errs is only in mistaking his subjective preferences for moral and literary imperative.
But here is the thing.
Some of his detractors make the same error. They have a different vision of the feminine ideal. But they are no less strident in insisting deviation therefrom constitutes a literary transgression bordering on ethical failure.
We are all free to read and write what we wish, to direct our resources and attention where we will. But the rigidity that goes beyond that, to the punishing of heresy, achieves nothing more than substitution of a new stereotype for an old one. The silencing of a new set of voices. A new list of required and forbidden traits.
A new brand of essentialism.
 Yes, I might be inventing a new word here.
 Using the same criteria for defining gender as the essential traits thereof merely results in a tautology.
 The distribution curve images used herein were retrieved from a post entitled “On gender essentialism in public schools, bell curves and CPD” at the blog Perry Street Palace or from the article “Science Confirms the Obvious: Men and Women Aren’t That Different” at Popular Science.